Sunday, April 29, 2012

Going to the Rodeo

If you wear a dress, you will get your man.

And if you plan on going to an outdoor show, the temperature will drop and it will rain.

I passed on my ticket to less of a weather wimp and regrouped.

Plan B was a non-brainer; Richmond Ballet and Richmond Symphony were doing an evening called "Wild Wild West."

Given my limited pocketbook, my seat was in the nosebleed section (also known as the Second Dress Center), notable mainly because the girl behind me had a nosebleed during the performance.

The first piece was "Pops Hoe-Down" and featured dancers from the School of Richmond Ballet and their Minds in Motion program.

It's a piece of music I've heard many times and always get a kick out of, with its racing fiddles and oddball assortment of sounds.

Pop goes the weasel.

When the symphony finished the rousing performance, conductor Steven Smith yelled, "Yee-ha!" making for a spirited way to begin an evening in the west.

That was followed by two pieces without dance, John Williams' rousing Overture to "The Cowboys" and the Copland-inspired "Prairie Morning."

With the Williams piece came the next surprise; we were treated to live video of the symphony members playing projected onto a screen on the stage.

We saw close-ups of musicians in cowboy hats, neckerchiefs and Western shirts, which was fun.

But the treat was seeing things like the bassoon, oboe and all kinds of unusual percussion played close up.

Someone must have figured that if we didn't have dance, we needed a visual.

Stunning was Philip Glass' "Runaway Horses" and the ballet's tour de force interpretation of it for five dancers.

Male and female wore brown costumes, the women tossed their hair like manes, and they all galloped around like colts in a field.

This was not your West End blue hair's ballet.

Introducing Rossini's Finale from "Overture to Guillaume Tell," Smith mentioned how much classical music has infiltrated popular culture.

The moment it began, heads began to nod as people recognized it as the Lone Ranger's theme.

In a similar vein, we heard "Wolf's Fiddle," described as "dueling fiddle sections," a rarely heard pleasure, and one that caused my seatmates to want to talk about the differences in violins and fiddles.

Ending the first half was Bernstein's "Suite from The Magnificent Seven," instantly recognizable to the audience.

With its swelling and soaring score, I wasn't surprised to see many of the musicians smiling broadly as they played.

During intermission I scored dessert downstairs and as I ate my chocolate cupcake, a guy approached me.

"Your husband should have told you that you have chocolate on your chin," he said, as if he was concerned about my dirty face.

Honestly, I don't think he was.

Back in my seat with a clean face, we began with Sunrise from "Grand Canyon Suite" before arriving at the evening's highlight.

Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo" set to Aaron Copland's music is one of my all-time favorite ballets, uniquely American, but I hadn't seen it performed in over a decade.

It's amazing how a Jewish guy who lived in Brooklyn managed to capture the essence of the American West so adeptly.

"Rodeo" is subtitled "The Courting at Burnt Ranch," so there was plenty of lovesickness, boys showing off and endless partner changing, all things wooing related.

It is, in simplest terms, a ballet about how to find the right man.

And Copland's score with traditional folk songs throughout is a distinct pleasure to hear performed live.

Likewise the rambunctious ballet, which oozes with boy/girl tension.

The Cowgirl does everything she can think of to try to get the attention of the Head Wrangler while more feminine girls effortlessly get their cowboys.

But does the big, obvious guy win her? Nope, it's the tap-dancing champion roper who eventually steals her heart, scooping her up at the hoe-down.

And kissing her. First tentatively and then good and hard.

No surprise there. She'd finally ditched her cowgirl duds for a bright red dress.

Truth is, with the right dress, a man won't even notice if you have chocolate on your chin.

Or, if he's the right one, he'll just wipe it off and go right on kissing you.

That's how they do it in the wild, wild west.

I know. I saw it at the ballet.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Famously Sick, Man

Martha Stewart and skulls: much funnier than you'd have guessed.

I only know that because I was front row center at Gallery 5 for Richmond Comedy Coalition's "Richmond Famous," a night where a well-known Richmonder puts himself at the mercy of our best local improv troupe.

Tonight's sacrificial lamb was artist and activist Noah Scalin, he of the "Skull-a-Day" project.

The way I figured it, anyone who devoted a year of his life to skulls was bound to have some good stories to share. And all it takes is one or two good ones for RCC to skewer them in ways both related and unrelated.

His story of going on the Martha Stewart show (never correct Martha if she mispronounces your name, he was told) to demonstrate his peanut butter and jelly skulls yielded hilarious takes on the queen of all things domestic.

When she wasn't knitting a sweater for the goat she planned to sacrifice that evening, she was stealing the souls from live children.

Noah told a story about being a balloon pilot in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and how tough it was to maneuver huge balloons with drunk people holding the attached strings. That resulted in a sketch about applicants auditioning for a kids' birthday party. Each was supposed to do an imitation and, one by one, they lined up and showed what they could do.

Matthew McConaughey, Seth Rogan, Jack Nicholson. They all got the part.

Next up, it's a dark-haired, bearded comedian's turn and he's asked who he imitates. "Noah Scalin," he says casually. He got the part.

Another sketch about dating had the guy being asked why on earth he was going out with a girl named Sarah (with an "h" so people took her seriously). The Lothario justified it in a heartbeat. "Hey, Sara's got a name."

Because, for some people, all it takes is a name.

The guest of honor told the story of being mistaken for one of the Beastie Boys, saying, "I've been bleaching my hair white since before Eminem."

Another story of Noah visiting a museum in Philly that offered him slices of diseased human brains in acrylic with which to make skulls led to a sketch about the Mutter Museum and its overly-zealous caretaker.

There was a dim-witted gay couple planning their wedding who concluded that instead of strewing flower petals, they'd scatter bike pedals. "Sick, man!" the one said to his beloved. Pause. Meaningful look.

"I'm so glad we waited," one groom says to the other apropos of nothing and entirely sincerely. We were rolling on the floor laughing at this incongruous pair.

The entire night was laugh out loud funny. Someone would kick the floor in frustration and a screaming cat sound was heard from someone else. A sketch about a doomed pilot named Snoopy and his co-pilot Garfield caused another comedian to start singing "Danger Zone" a la "Top Gun."

By the end of the evening, Noah's life had been properly exposed and shredded. Mission accomplished.

We couldn't stand to laugh anymore, so we switched gears to music and Balliceaux's evening of Brazilica, a quarterly evening of deep Latin and Afro sounds done by WRIR's Mikemetic Kemetic.

To my great delight, there was also a drummer/percussionist on stage who worked every song and added an extra intensity to what we were hearing. Which was dance music, full-on dance music.

I love the sound of hands on skins.

It was an evening of serious grooves and the crowd responded by first moving in place, then dancing and eventually full-on grinding. At one point a friend who works at Balliceaux walked up to me and  leaned over as if sharing a deep, dark secret.

"I love this music!" he grinned.

What's not to love? If global dance floor inspirations aren't your thing, you may want to check your pulse. Especially on a Friday. Mine had been racing madly since all the raunchy humor at G5 and now with those kinds of beats going, I was in no danger (zone) of flat lining.

Humor and music, practically my lifeblood.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Keeping My Distance

VCU represent.

There's something especially satisfying about seeing sculpture created by a graduate of VCU's MFA program at the VMFA.

But there it is in the 21st century gallery, Diana Al-Hadid's "Trace of a Fictional Third."

And, just for the record, I am that third.

Or you could be. Actually, whomever is looking at the piece is the third of the title because the two other figures which form the pyramid are fixed.

We, the viewer, are the variable.

The large-scale piece is arresting, combining both a sense of decay and a sense of the unfinished.

Neither figure has a head. What appears to be the remains of a pyramid, half crumbled away, leads down to what looks like lily pads.

Or perhaps that's just where my mind went given the nearby window and the outside view of the lily pad-laden reflecting pool.

After wandering around the piece for some time, I finally turned to the only other person around so I'd have someone to discuss it with.

"I can't shake the feeling it looks like melting ice cream," he admitted.

Vanilla with chocolate syrup. Yep, I could see that.

A guard entered the room and we included her in our analysis.

"Every time I work this gallery, I see something different in it," she said, moving around it.

At one point, we looked at each other at the same moment and she said what I was thinking. "I would really like to touch it."

We didn't, but the urge was strong. The recognizable elements -spires, human figures, leaves- called to us.

If I could have suggested anything to the artist, it would have been to include a small platform on which the "third" (okay, me) could have reclined to become part of the larger piece.

But absent that, I continued to move around the sculpture, taking in the endless angles and views it offered. There was no "right" way to look at Al-Hadid's work.

But just to be clear, I did not touch it.

This third knew her place.

A + B = C

It's a dilemma: where do you take a food-loving friend when he visits from out of town?

Our original plan to meet at 2:30 had been pushed forward to 5:30 and by then our options had changed a bit.

After meeting at my apartment (because how can you truly know someone until you've seen how she lives?) I showed him my Jackson Ward digs and we headed out.

Unsure where to begin given the limitations of Restaurant Week, my decision was made when he said he was craving a Negroni.

I threw caution to the winds and took him directly to Bobby at Bistro 27, knowing he'd supply something Negroni-like without being merely a Negroni.

Bobby delivered and my friend acknowledged that the beautifully orange and unique concoction would please even a non-Negroni lover.

Score one.

Just as the masses began arriving, we moved on to the Roosevelt so that I could show him how we do it Richmond style.

My favorite bar stools were empty and we slid into them like they'd been reserved for us while my companion began checking out the new-to-him space.

As I'd hoped, the all Virginia wine list pleased him as much as it does me, and he was amazed at the wine pricing.

He went with the Gabriele Rausse Rosso and I predictably began with Virginia Fizz.

If you can't celebrate seeing a D.C. friend with some bubbles, it's time to reevaluate that friendship.

No reevaluation was required.

He was enraptured with the menu, as pleased with its creativity as its pricing.

After last night's feast of two bellies, I bowed to his choices for tonight's meal.

He chose Lee's fried chicken slider, the chilled cucumber, avocado and buttermilk soup with jumbo lump crabmeat and lemon oil, and baked South Carolina polenta with slow cooked egg, grilled asparagus and stewed tomato.

According to him, and he's a pro, a vegetarian dish is the best measure of a kitchen's capabilities.

It took only one bite of the slider for him to start rhapsodizing about it; he thought the simple white roll was perfect, noting that a D.C. restaurant would have gone for a fancier roll (brioche, perhaps?) and killed the slider's beautiful simplicity.

Pshaw, I said, I've had that slider to start brunch just because it's there.

The soup's island of jumbo lump crabmeat gave some heft to the delicately flavored dish, while the egg imparted a richness that belied the vegetarian dish's simple ingredients.

I get such a kick out of taking first-timers to the Roosevelt and watching them fall in love with it all.

That's probably why I keep doing it.

Like those before him, he was charmed by the feel of the room, bowled over by the wine list and menu pricing, impressed with the music, loving the ambiance and friendly vibe and reveling in the lack of pretension.

Yea, yea, just another night out in River City.

Actually it wasn't because we hadn't gotten together for months, meaning we had lots to share, both ancient history (lockers and short skirts in high school) and more recent (young editors and hometown arts districts).

As sunlight gave way to evening, he noted the change in the room's feel and we started considering dessert options to go with my Gabriele Rausse Vin de Gris.

Like anyone who lives north of northern Virginia, he couldn't resist the siren song of the Coca Cola cake and I had to admit I'd never had it.

It took barely two bites for the Coke flavor to register but actually it was the frosting I liked best.

My friend demurely kept his bites to a few while I ravaged the cake in that way I tend to do when I like a sweet.

I attribute that trait to my mother, who always taught us that no matter how full you are, there's always that little corner of your stomach empty for dessert.

By the time I finished the Coca Cola cake, there wasn't a centimeter of my stomach left empty for anything.

Score two.

Given the need for the out-of-towner to hit the road soon, we made one last, brief stop at Secco, presuming we'd missed the restaurant week crowd.

We had, although the bar was still hopping.

I dug into the secret stash, getting a glass of Domaine de Bagnol Cassis Rose after tasting its bone-dry minerality and seeing it as the ideal way to end my evening.

My visitor chose Commanderie de Peyrassol Rose so as not to duplicate my choice while we snacked on fried chickpeas and Gorgonzola-stuffed fried olives.

Not because we needed to, but because they're bar food of the highest order.

Hell, we could even justify the chickpeas as protein and believe it.

Leaving just as the Byrd let out, Friend commented how much like a university town it felt with people everywhere on the sidewalks and music being played just down the street.

Oh, this old town? We've had it for centuries.

Score three.

It's really no dilemma at all. Take a visitor to the places I like and if they like me, they'll like my favorites.

And if not, they never have to invite me up for dinner again.

Bet I get invited back up.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Time Won't Let Me

"If you go to them, you have them for life." ~The Edge aka Josh

I'm not sure there's a heaven, but if there turns out to be one, I think it might have an all-belly menu.

Or maybe that's just what I'm hoping after tonight.

A quick stop at Bistro 27 for a glass of wine got me a taste of mixologist Bobby's latest creation, a Hardywood Mocha Porter frozen custard.

All I was expecting was some Gavi so the mousse-like mocha custard with hints of banana fully engaged my palate with its subtle flavors and creaminess.

And I don't even like beer.

I made sure to clear out well in advance of the first restaurant week reservations of the evening and headed due east to the non-participating Roosevelt.

It was all but empty upon our arrival.

Diving into the Gabrielle Rausse Vin de Gris, that lovely white Pinot Noir I could drink every warm day, it was a fine accompaniment for potato gnocchi, Virginia clams with roasted garlic and herb broth.

My dining companion was so sure the clam and gnocchi combo wouldn't work, so I insisted on ordering it just to prove him wrong.

I think he may have even been glad he was wrong.

We followed that with crab and avocado salad with fennel, grapefruit, radishes and chili aioli. The heat of the oil gave a welcome zing to the subtle crab and avocado.

Putting a bite of the salad into my mouth, I noticed something.

I've been to The Roosevelt enough times to be familiar with their usual music and tonight's was not it.

Asking the bartender where the music was coming from, he said, "Good or bad?"

Turns out it was his iPod and he feared for his taste. Not to worry, it was right up my alley.

Tuna belly with bacon jam was our next course and while it was my first tuna belly, I feel certain it was superior tuna belly.

Of course, anything served with bacon jam is going to be worth eating, but the combination proved once again how much I like pig and things that live in the water.

I saw a friend whose show I'd missed last week by mere minutes, which led to a discussion of playing music and fans.

He told me once that his band has a good-sized soccer mom contingent and tonight for the first time, he explained why.

His band had played shows in their subdivisions and the moms were hooked.

Now they came into the city to see them. Because apparently, once you take the music to the moms, they are yours forever.

After digesting that nugget, we went on to our second belly of the evening, lamb belly with tomatoes and capers.

Surely this is what heaven tastes like. Fatty, but not overly so and with a depth of flavor well complemented by the salty capers, we were in love.

With belly.

Dessert was apple blackberry pie with glasses of King Family Loreley to make a sweet course sweeter.

When we left, every seat was taken but no one's grins were bigger than the two of us after our two-belly meal.

Music followed at The Nile with a triple bill and a small but enthusiastic crowd.

Harrisonburg's Malatese had been billed as post-rock, a personal favorite, but turned out to be more post-punk.

So I got more driving energy but with unexpected vocals.

Tungs were local, even louder and more aggressive, more rock, less indie.

After full-on thrash, we got to the reason I was there, Chicago's Netherfriends.

I'd seen this guy play a house show a while back and been blown away by his hooky, poppy sound and mad dance skills.

Using a guitar, drum pad and Casio keyboard, Shawn (because Netherfriends is really Shawn, shh, don't tell) played a dancier set than I'd seen last time, but every bit as fun.

My favorite moments were when he came out from behind the keyboard to dance across the front of the room.

This is possible because he loops so the music can carry on while he does a mean James Brown.

He finished with "You Gotta Fight (for your right to party)" because, well, because he could and wanted to.

This is a guy who puts his hand out to emphasize a lyric (stop in the name of showmanship!), so clearly he enjoys his work.

And I enjoyed him.

Not quite as much as all that belly, but close. Very close.

I'd asked my partner in crime what part of me he'd want to eat after I'm dead (no, I don't know how I come up with these things) and he didn't hesitate.

His answer had been my belly, probably because he saw its potential for being well marbled.

Ever canny, he'd suggested that I stipulate in my will that belly rights went to him.

I may want to add a codicil that it must be served with bacon jam.

Just like in heaven.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More Than This

Even the most sociable of extroverts occasionally needs an introverted day.

I began mine with a drive past the windmill, past the sheep farm and out to the Northern Neck to see my parents.

They are both talkers so while I help out with things around the house, we chat about the strangest things.

My mother's wedding suit was a size seven and she weighed 104 pounds when she got married, I learn as I mend a draft snake for them.

While helping water the array of plants on the big screened porch, we compare the soft-shelled crab preparations we've all had lately.

I hear that they've gotten an e-mail from their local restaurant saying sugar toads are in.

As is typical for her, my mother expresses disgust at the thought of something so exotic while I wax poetic about the sugar toads I had three days ago.

Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.

After lunch I sit bundled on the dock with the river lapping all around me, finishing Rob Sheffield's ode to coming of age in the 80s, "Talking to Girls about Duran Duran."

May I just acknowledge that I hadn't thought about Madonna's "Dress You Up" since, well, probably the 80s?

I related to both the musical references, Roxy Music, A Flock of Seagulls, Psychedelic Furs, as well as the spirit of the book: "So we beat on, boats against the currents, borne ceaselessly back into Bryan Ferry."

Surely that set the tone for the rest of my night, if not my life.

Back home, I chose some solitary art time by going to the Visual Arts Center to see "Oscar Munoz: Imprints for a Fleeting Memorial" because it leaves tomorrow.

It's a compelling show with the Colombian artist exploring image and memory in various multi-media permutations.

And I was the sole occupant of the gallery.

"Narcissus" was a video self-portrait done by sifting charcoal onto the water of a bathroom sink.

The charcoal causes a shadow of the image to form and as the water slowly drains, the image and its shadow coincide, his mouth becoming misshapen, his jaw floating away, until it all goes down the drain.

So much for vanity.

In the back gallery was an installation called "Sedimentaciones," consisting of two tables with overhead video projections on them.

Table as canvas, so to speak.

On each were images of photos, blank paper and two developing trays with drains.

Out of nowhere, a hand appears and picks up an image and places it in the tray where it dissolves.

But wait, moments later another hand appears, chooses a blank image, placing it in the tray where an image appears.

Ad infinitum. And all the while, the sound of a drain is heard.

Mesmerizing was the video piece, "Roltrato," a word which can mean either "portrait" or "I try again."

In the video, Munoz uses a paint brush with water on it to "paint" his portrait with water on a concrete slab in the sun.

The moment he creates the image, it starts to disappear. Trying again endlessly to create a portrait.


It undoubtedly says something about what an art geek I am that I can walk out of a show the night before it leaves town feeling lucky to have made a last minute catch.

Book finished, art appreciated, there was nothing left for me to do but go eat.

But eating's tricky this week what with restaurant week going on; I don't want to add to the fracas.

That led me practically back home to Magpie where I found a civilized but small crowd probably seeking the same thing.

A glass of Conde Villar Tinto was an easy-drinking Portuguese wine I found justifiable given today's cooler temperatures.

The amuse bouche was a cucumber square in tomato coconut cream with lime foam.

Now I was amused.

I heard about upcoming nuptials from a groom-to-be, with the bachelor party involving guns, pig and a road trip.

Most brilliant of all, it's also scheduled days in advance of the big day.

As the bartender said, "Who ever thought the night before was a good idea?"

Needless to say, the bride was not in attendance, given the proximity of the ceremony.

I was happy to see a section of the menu devoted to low-priced small plates and began there with fried hearts of artichoke with roasted poblano pesto ("I could eat a vat of that pesto," the bartender told me and I agreed).

Nor could I resist the fish special, a sandwich of all things.

More precisely, an open-faced sandwich, a pan-fried softshell on a French batard with house cured bacon (pork belly), tomatoes, sunflower shoots and a poblano curry sauce.

The bacon was thick and plentiful, the crab crispy and the kitchen clearly working the poblanos.

Well, I might add.

Other than my brief chat with the groom, I'd spent the evening reading about Baltimore's quintessential cookie and keeping my sociability to myself.

For an extrovert, it's almost like beating against the current.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Are You A Culture Maker?

It was called a pre-birthday show even though the day is a month from today.

And just to be clear, it only became that once the subject of May come up and I said I liked to spend much of it in an extended birthday celebration.

And if anything was going to kick off a birthday celebration appropriately for me, it was with live music at my neighborhood record store.

Upstairs in the loft at Steady Sounds and ready to play was Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird.

We waited until we had critical mass - as many audience members as band members.

People continued to trickle in as JV&SB played what has become the most beautifully full-sounding Americana being played in these parts.

Josh's cello and clarinet plus Paul's horn add such aural richness to the guitar, accordion and voice talents of Jonathan and Antonia (deep blue dress and grooviest 60s belt ever)

Before they'd begun playing, they'd asked for requests and I'd jokingly said "happy songs" knowing full well there's no such thing with JV&SB.

If I'd been honest and not smart-mouthed, I'd have asked for "Match Made in Heaven" because of the heartfelt romantic lyrics and Antonia's vox saw.

There is no one I know of in this town who can bend her voice to that sound like she can.  It's truly a thing of beauty.

And they played it without me even asking.

At the end of their set, Jonathan said, "Happy Pre-Birthday" and a friend leaned over and whispered, "Happy birthday 2013."

Never leave for next year what you can do today.

Let me just reiterate: at no point was tonight about my birthday, which is a solid month away.

Following them was Ed Askew, considered an acid folk legend and former recluse who apparently had two brilliant albums and then disappeared.

But even while out of the public eye, he kept making music. He's finally been rediscovered and reissued and is back on tour, luckily for us.

He looked like an old hippie, he sounded exactly like a 60s-era folksinger (intonation, vocal stylings, subject matter) and he was a character.

You know a guy is real when he loosens his belt before a show. That's all I'm saying.

Making self-deprecating age jokes in between songs, he seemed to be genuinely getting into performing.

He had an array of mouth harps and played them skillfully; I sneaked glances of Jonathan watching him play.

It might have even been a grasshopper moment.

Most interesting of all for me was hearing songs from his early albums written in the late 60s and early 70s  with lots of eye references, lots of ship imagery, lots of joints.

So here were young man lyrics (often my favorite kind for their angst and impassioned qualities) coming out of an old man's face and body.

But his words.

It was a fascinating dichotomy.

After his set accompanied on banjo and keyboard by two bandmates, he took questions from the audience about the arc of his career.

I have to admire someone still so compelled to write and record as much music as he does.

But it was definitely like being transported to another time and place when music was very different (a time when all the girls had belts as cool as Antonia's).

For the second time in three days, I could have imagined snapping my fingers in applause.

And then for something completely different to close out our loft show, we heard Pull My Daisy, an electronic noise project duo with video.

With a piano score composed by the banjo player and him occasionally playing banjo live, tonight's experience was called "Midnight Suggestion" and was an improvised score to an improvised video.

The way I see it, if my pre-birthday kickoff involves one of my favorite local bands, an acid folk legend and electronica on a Monday night, it's looking to be a pretty groovy birthday season.

Practically a match made in heaven.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shall We Smote?

All the world's a lie and all the men and women merely liars.

Which I suppose included me and my theater-loving companion and definitely refered to Henley Street Theater's production of "The Liar."

Seated in the second row at the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage, we had a ringside view for a French farce from the 17th century.

You know the kind: breasts falling out of dresses, elaborate sexual innuendo and non-stop laughter (like the 70-something next to us who lasciviously laughed at every dirty innuendo).

"The story's so piquant!"

The Artistic Director thanked us for coming and did a quick pep talk after noting the rainy day audience.

"You're a small but potent crowd, I feel sure," Ricks said.

And all of us ready for some cosmic fiction.

The play had been both translated and adapted for modern audiences, making for a satisfying combination of rhyming wordplay and modern references.

"What charm is your memory cursed with?"

There was also a breakdown of the fourth wall with characters speaking directly to us.

When the liar of the title gives his first speech, his friend points to him, saying dryly, "The exposition."

As if we hadn't noticed.

"Is it not a man's job to flatter?"

Actually, I think that it is.

The play benefited from a strong cast who almost never tripped over the iambic pentameter that dominated the dialog.

Only when the liar is forced to admit his love for Lucrece does he resort to prose.

"One who loves asks no leave; they just adore."

I laughed out loud the interior rhymes, the double meanings and the brilliant uses of mis-pronunciation for the sake of maintaining a rhyme scheme.

"Did I say the girl was deep? She's an ocean!"

Like the Shakespeare it was no doubt partially inspired by (including a few direct rip-offs), there were twins, unknown siblings, mistaken identities and a tidy ending.

And, being a farce, groan-worthy lines.

"You may be a bi-valve, but you're my valve."

Does it get any more romantic than that?

Not on a pouring down rainy day, so after the pleasure of two hours of verse and love (and even a talkback with the actors), we were starving.

And, like last Sunday late afternoon, we ended up at Burger Bach after finding Cellar Door closed.

Unlike last Sunday at BB, we eschewed bivalves at the four-screen bar for (basic and lamb) burgers at a corner booth with a view of a silvery sky.

Okay, with a few oysters to start.

My favorite thing about their wine list is the South African choices so it was a bit of a buzz kill to hear that they were out of the Warwick Pinotage.

We left Stellenbosch behind and moved to the Western Cape, sharing the Boekenhoutskloof Wolf Trap 2011, an earthy Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier blend perfect for a damp, cool April evening.

When the bottle and burgers were gone we knew the absence of desserts would send us down the street to Secco.

Already enjoying the rainy evening there was a Blood Brother and his crew up front and over at the bar, the teacher out late on a school night.

She clarified why that sometimes happens despite her usual habit of early bedtimes.

"It's always because of a dude, Karen" she explained to me like she was talking to an idiot.

There we also found olive oil and rosemary gelato with sea salt (exquisite taste and texture) and hot, freshly fried zeppoles to accompany our digestifs.

Our last stop was Commercial Taphouse for Labragenda, a four piece doing progressive jazz to far too few people.

I recognized three of the four: the band's namesake Larry Branch, the guitar player from the RVA Big Band and the bassist from Marionette.

They did some originals, a terrific piece called "Fiction" by Glows in the Dark's Scott Burton and closed the first set with an extended "Tailgating."

For their second set, they played some Journey,  Milli Vanilli and a little Nickelback.


Haven't you heard? "Liars aren't born, they're fabricated."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Doing It Cowgirl Style

It's 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon. Do you know what you're doing tonight?

I didn't. Hence the beauty of getting an e-mail at 5:05 from a friend.

"What's going on? What are you doing tonight? Dinner? If you are free, let me know."

Freer than free. Planless. Absolutely nothing on the books whatsoever.

And this is the friend who once told the world that, "Oh, Karen knows the rules. She just chooses not to play the game."

Needless to say, I find that kind of insight irresistible.

By 6:15, we were the sole occupants of the bar at Acacia. By 6:45 there was a wait for tables and bar space.

Gavi di Gavi Ru appealed to me and satisfied my friend's passion for white wine only, but our tastes diverged once we got to the food menu.

He asked me what sugar toads were and once I explained puffer fish, stuck his tongue out in disgust.

I asked him if he ate mortadella and he grimaced, shaking his head.

So I ordered both while he chose the tempura local softshell with shaved Napa cabbage, carrots, red onion and curry vinaigrette.

He raved about his salad (and Chef Dale is a master with softshells, I agree) but I was more than happy with my two tenpura sugar toads with honey soy sauce.

Insert in mouth, scrape flesh off bones, savor and swallow. Yum.

The housemade mortadella was an enormous portion of what is a large Italian sausage anyway and combined with the pickles of fiddleheads, ramps and cabbage and grainy mustard on toasted bread could have been a meal in itself.

Not to mention its $3 price tag.

It was a beautiful night to be at Acacia because the front of the restaurant was wide open to the temperate evening air.

Once we finished the wine, we decided to do the progressive dinner thing and move on to Arcadia.

They, too, had their front door open and a lively crowd was in place when we were welcomed to the bar by a bartender who didn't have any customers at that moment.

Poor thing, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.

My friend had been at Arcadia just a few days ago and wanted the same wine he'd had then: Drouhin Pouilly Fuisse.

Light, with a long finish, it was a great choice as far as I was concerned.

Having just polished off sugartoads and mortadella, I wasn't especially hungry, but my friend insisted we soldier on with our eating.

Deferring to him, he chose a starter of petite crabcakes (full of jumbo lump crabmeat but a tad salty, I thought) followed by the obscene and decadent Braveheart beef 22-ounce bone-in cowboy cut for us to share.

Because no one, not a cowboy or even a cowgirl, needs 22 ounces of meat.

On the other hand, that Braveheart beef is disgustingly good, even if I felt my arteries clogging as I ate it.

After mortadella, no less.

I'm going to hell in a handbasket, as my Richmond grandmother used to say.

Midway through our meal the rain began suddenly, making for a lovely soundtrack and sending people scurrying in from the outside.

I felt the temperature of the air wafting in from outside drop almost at once.

The music was a great mix tonight, too; I heard everything from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" to Missy Higgins' "Steer."

But the search ends here
Where the night is totally clear
And your heart is fierce
So now you finally know that you control where you go
You can steer

When you eat as much as we did tonight, you have plenty of time to cover all kinds of personal topics.

Friend asked why I am at Balliceaux so often (music), told me about his new love (and the unexpected first night kiss) and gave me major points for hair and lipstick upkeep.

It's funny; you never know what people notice about you unless they tell you.

In the interest of ensuring that we had to be rolled out of Arcadia, he insisted that we get dessert and I picked a flourless dark chocolate torte with chocolate gelato.

The fudge-like torte was sensational, barely semi-sweet and texturally like velvet in my mouth, but the gelato was even more exquisite, positively sticky with its high butterfat.

Even so, no self-respecting cow girl would have eaten it after that hunk o' meat we'd just shared.

There isn't enough riding on the range I could do to offset the amount of food I downed tonight.

But then a real cowgirl would have had plans by 5:00.

And maybe steered a little bit better.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rousing the Gorgeous

If there's one way to pre-game for National Poetry Month, it's with chicken skin.

Follow me here: chicken skin is an indulgent, all-too-infrequent pleasure. Much the way poetry is.

So scoring them both in the same afternoon makes for a rare indulgence.

And while I was anticipating the poetry, the chicken skin was an unexpected delight.

At this morning's pancake breakfast, my favorite cellist had asked if I'd been to Don't Look Back yet (I think he wanted a recommendation).

I hadn't, but with plans to go to a reading in Carytown this afternoon, it immediately became part of my plan.

Does that make me easy to influence?

Nate's Frito pie is, in my considered opinion, a distinct guilty pleasure, so I wanted to see what he was cooking up since relocating from Jackson Ward to Carytown.

The transition was easier than I expected; behind the bar was a friendly face from Comfort, mere blocks from my house.

You can take the people out of J-Ward, but happily you can't take the J-Ward out of the people.

Just for the record, I did look at the menu, but once I saw the chalkboard specials, my decision was made.

I ordered  one chicken skin taco and one carne adovada taco, opting for the traditional preparation (cilantro, onion, and lime) on double-wrapped corn tortillas for both.

One bite of the chicken skin taco and I was telling a stranger that he had to order one, too.

It was his first time at DLB, so I figured I was helping. And he believed me and ordered one.

Following that crispy goodness, I dug into my long-marinated pork in a sweet adovada sauce and savored its completely different but equally as satisfying flavors.

When my protege's chicken skin taco arrived, he took a bite and gave me a slight bow of the head.

"God, you were right," he rhapsodized, closing his eyes briefly.

It's hard to be wrong about chicken skin.

A neighbor once invited me to lunch and cooked chicken skin in hopes of convincing me to date him (it didn't work but the skin was magnificent, crispy and salty).

With my belly full, I moseyed down to Plan 9 for Record Store Day.

The Garbers were setting up to play, I saw friends everywhere but made a beeline for the "Yard Sale LPs- $1-$2."

Flipping through the selection, they were all very much of an era and genre.

Maybe even the same yard sale.

Lou Rawls, Kool & the Gang, Teena Marie, Quincy Jones, Prince, The Time, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Weather Report, Santana.

Ah, yes, that period.

After food and music, it was time for poetry to soothe my savage beast. More accurately, I wanted to be read to.

As our hostess mentioned, Chop Suey's upstairs gallery provides a similar atmosphere to a living room tour, intimate and welcoming.

Every seat was taken and people stood in the doorway to hear Angela Vogel and Catherine MacDonald read from their award-winning first books.

Vogel's strength was her mastery of language; her ability at wordplay (puns, juxtapositions and innuendo) was mesmerizing.

It extended to the title of her book, "Fort Gorgeous."

"Wendy Grown" she described as using the voice of an adult Wendy Darling (from Peter Pan) to bitch about men.

Her humor came through in "Medicine Chest" about a guy who left his dogs with her family only to go off and rob a bank.

On the plus side, he did loan her family $1,000 of his loot.

As a wedding gift, she'd written "Poem for Your Wedding" with the line, "We pad into wedlock, unsure of the combination."

Afterwards, she observed, "Come to think of it, that's not a very good poem to give to people getting married."

In "The Claw" she begins, "Swinger, come hither. You'll shut my claptrap. You'll pound my sand" and ends with, "Love, I've got the teeth for it."

Teeth help a lot.

Truly poetry for the language nerd contingent, of which I proudly consider myself a card-carrying member.

And you know you're among other poetry geeks by the head-nodding that follows each poem.

The only thing that would have been better is if the crowd had snapped their fingers in appreciation of what we were hearing.

She was followed by Catherine MacDonald, whose "Rousing the Machinery" dealt with the poet's interior life.

She said she intended to read from her book and then do some new poems.

"Like most poets, I'm completely enamored of my new poems because no one's yet told me that they suck."

In "Unreliable Narrator," I found our common ground when she read, "I am someone who remembers what you forgot to say."

I am that person, too.

The poem after which her book is named began with a line from William Blake and a few Blake jokes that got the kind of laughs that only a poetry-loving audience could deliver.

Her imagery was evocative, as in "Lida at Work in the World," where she wrote, "Its mate in wild orbit nearby."

Several poems dealt with the imaginary travel that she does, like "Untidy Geographies" about her sister's years living in China.

"Russian Studies" was about her Russian History teacher, explaining, "At ten paces, you can't hear our words."

MacDonald finished with three new works referencing her middle class domestic life and the early non-fiction design writings of socialite/novelist Edith Wharton.

Sigh. Poets reading by an open window on a spring afternoon.

Linguistic acrobatics, Wharton and Blake on the same day as chicken skin.

Cue head nodding and finger snapping.

Good Morning, Irene

I am many kinds of nerd, but certainly one of my longest running is as a weather nerd.

For thirteen years, I kept a color chart of cloud formations taped inside my kitchen cabinet in case I needed a quick reference.

Cumulonimbus? Cirrus? Stratocumulus? I wanted to know my clouds.

So when I heard about a public screening and lecture called "Weather Mass Movement," I was determined to attend despite the 11 a.m. Saturday start time.

I have to admit that the allure of a pancake breakfast to accompany the weather didn't hurt, either.

So I was up by 10:25, and walking over to Sponge HQ at the Anderson Gallery by 10:40.

The smell of pancakes cooking lured me up the three flights of stairs where I found other sleepy looking people mainlining Lamplighter coffee.

As a non-coffee drinker, I need to be brought to life in other ways.

I was second in line for pancakes, slathering them with enough butter and real maple syrup to make my 10:25 wake-up call seem like a very good idea.

Sponge's mistress Hope wished us all a happy earth day, saying that it seemed like a good day to reflect on the weather (and accompanying drama) and introducing the SP Weather Station team of Nathalie and Heidi.

They talked about the evolution of their fascination with weather, installing weather stations on rooftops and collecting data.

Because you know, with weather it's all about observation and prediction and a lot of the observation in the weather world comes from non-experts.

Yes, I'm a non-expert.

The two made me grin when they talked about "cooperative observers" (which they are not) who help collect weather data for the experts.

Their purpose in coming to VCU had been to assist students in creating a time lapse video of the movements of Hurricane Irene last August.

Using wool tufts to simulate clouds on a map, the film showed the storm gathering force and eventually traveling up the east coast.

The arduous process required endless effort to shift the formations, photograph it and then do it all over again.

For six hours.

But the resulting stop motion film was beautiful and told the story of the storm that rained down hard on Richmond that day.

I remember well; part of my bedroom ceiling came crashing down that night because of Irene's wetness.

When the presentation ended, Hope was the first to stand up.

"I have a question," she said. "Are there going to be more pancakes?"

Riley, the student with pancake duties, immediately got up to turn on the burners under the pans.

With my head full of weather images and my belly full of buttery pancakes, I left Sponge to do my daily walk.

Almost immediately I heard, "Karen!" and looked up to see my favorite activist on the steps of a building across the street. "Haters gonna hate!" she called smiling, referring to the online trolls judging my latest review.

So true.

By the time I got over to Grace Street, one of my walking regulars spotted me and came charging out of the Village.

"A dress?" he shouted incredulously from across the street.

Yes, a dress. When one goes to a weather event with pancakes, one likes to wear a dress.

It makes it easier to feel the weather as you walk under the stratus clouds.

Just ask any cloud chart-posting weather nerd.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Daylight Licked Me Into Shape

I practically qualify for mayor of Balliceaux lately.

Let's just say that when I paid my five bucks to get in, the door guy said he didn't need to stamp my hand because he knows me (should I decide I wanted to come and go).

For the fourth time in eight days, I was back in the back room to hear live music, a testament to how much terrific talent is passing through there lately.

Playing first was Peace Beast, a band I hadn't seen since last August.

With two members from the Diamond Center and two from Roanoke, all I recalled was a female-fronted band, but that was enough to get me there.

Tonight's show reminded me what else I'd liked about them.

Kyle's guitar playing, Kelly's songwriting and the overall dreamy psychedelic mood of the music add up to my kind of music.

Kelly is an enigmatic frontwoman, though. It's hard to tell if she's enjoying herself despite the compelling lyrics coming out of her mouth.

Honestly, I hope she is, but for purely selfish reasons.

I was really excited to see The Garbers for the first time. Born out of the ashes of Hot Lava, I'd heard nothing but great things about singer Allison Apperson's latest pop project.

To tell you the truth, I already knew that if it was anything like Hot Lava, I was going to love it.

It was. I did.

Sunny and bouncy with lots of harmonies and the kind of keyboards that make it impossible to stand still, The Garbers grabbed the attention of even the pretty people and chatters in the room.

Earlier, drummer Giustino had said hello and we'd discussed his choice of a (red) polyester shirt on a night where he'd be working up a sweat.

Any drumming is work, but his is especially frenetic and energetic(attributable perhaps to 20 years in Bio Ritmo?) .

Now onstage, he also admitted that his corduroy flares were interfering with his abilities on kick drum.

Never one to be shy about making a fashion statement (I once saw his other project, Fuzzy Baby, perform as the Red Stripes in all red polyester), Giustin just rolled up his pant leg and drummed on.

The Garbers don't have a lot of music yet because they've only been playing together since December, but what we heard, infectious and poppy as it was, sounded like a great start for a future album.

In anticipation of the last act, my girlfriend and I took seats on the back of the front booth, enjoying unexpected seating with a view over the crowd.

Snowy Owls finished out the night with a vocal mic that had a mind of its own, coming and going at will.

No matter how many times I see these guys, I always find myself grinning ear to ear at the fuzzed-out sounds that scream "music from a cave," a genre near and dear to my heart.

There were lots of new faces in the crowd and more dancers than usual, so word must begetting out that they're a band to experience.

Pshaw, how long have I been saying that?

Leader Matt had told me when I'd first arrived to expect a new cover, but declined to share what it would be, saying it would be obvious.

From the first seconds as Brandon's drums led off into the guitars and inevitable, "Show me, show me, show me," the crowd went wild.

Dancing began in earnest as a roomful of people who were probably being conceived or born when the song came out went crazy (perhaps that explains the instinctual response).

And, the fact is, if you can't go crazy over a good song by The Cure, when can you?

From there they went back to original music, finishing with "Could" and hearing the crowd calling for an encore.

Why, it was just like heaven.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Following the First Lady

It was a field trip, but not like the ones of youth.

There was no permission slip to get signed. We didn't have to pack a lunch. And none of what we saw and learned today will show up on a quiz.

That said, we did have to be at the bus at 8 a.m., which is awfully early for people who go to bed late.

But the payoff was completely worth it; today's field trip was to three wineries in the Monticello wine region.

Accompanying us in a separate vehicle was the First Lady of Virginia.

It was better that way; we didn't have to be on our best behavior.

Our charming chauffeur, who referred to himself as Sir Richard (having been dubbed so by the Queen of England when she visited and he drove her around for Jamestown's 400th), was the best kind of designated driver.

Funny, careful and sober. He even told us what the Queen carries in her purse.

Arriving at King Family Winery to fog hanging over the mountaintops, I watched horses trotting around the polo field while the First Lady unveiled the new wine trail markers that will be put up around the state.

"Welcome to the Monticello American Viticulture Area," the large brown sign proclaimed.

Welcome indeed. Glad to be here.

Moving from the damp and cool outside air to the tasting room, I immediately sought the warmth of the enormous fireplace.

Once my bones had been warmed, I joined the rest of my group to taste through King Family's wines.

The most interesting part of what I learned from the French-born winemaker, Mattieu Finot, was that Petit Verdot is considered more masculine a grape and Merlot more feminine.

I found it not the least surprising that sex entered into winemaking.

Back on the bus, our next stop was Trump Winery, where none other than Patricia Kluge met our bus and shook our hands in greeting as we disembarked.

Hers is surely the richest (or at least formerly richest) hand I've ever shaken.

We were each handed a glass of Blanc de Blanc to refresh us after the brief trip from King Family.

She directed us to the nearby front garden where a long table for 26 had been set.

Taking her place in the center of the table across from the First Lady, Kluge stood and talked about the changes since Trump bought the winery at auction.

"Trump is big on patios," she laughed, explaining the concrete slab that the table rested on surrounded by grass. "So we now have patios everywhere."

It was actually a lovely little patio set among very tall trees and surrounded by the kind of velvety grass that mere mortals can rarely grow in their own yards.

She shared how she and Trump had met for barely three seconds when he announced, "I'll take it!"

In her opinion, she said, "We will eventually be known as a champagne house."

Soon plates of curried chicken salad were delivered to each of us and half glasses of Albemarle Sauvignon Blanc poured to accompany it..

That was followed by the classic-style Albemarle Rose, although I saw more than a couple of glasses of the gorgeous pink colored wine still sitting there at the end of the meal.

It seemed a shame to waste such a lovely Rose on a sunny day in the mountains, but then my glass held no pink.

By the time we'd tasted the Albemarle Simply Red, a medium-bodied Bordeaux-style blend, dessert was arriving.

Plates of mini-cupcakes benefited from glasses of Cru, the fortified wine that Kluge sees as their next star.

Because the cupcakes were small, some of us took that as a sign that we should taste as many as possible.

With choices of pistachio, yellow with dark chocolate icing, carrot with cream cheese icing, chocolate with coffee icing and red velvet, I opted for three of the five.

I might have even had two each of my two favorite flavors, figuring that there's no telling when next I'll be in the front garden of a winery having dessert and Cru.

Kluge offered one final toast to the First Lady, saying, "You are the first First Lady who really gives a damn about Virginia wine."

And on that note, we returned to the bus for the two-minute ride to Blenheim Winery, owned by a different kind of rich person, Dave Matthews.

There the winemaker, Kirsty Harmon, introduced herself, her Tasting Room manager  Andrew ("He's our Tweeting Manager. He was keeping tabs on you at Trump. We knew when you were having cupcakes") and her Vineyard Manager, Jonas.

Once the first wine was poured, we were told to "choose your own adventure."

That meant we could stay and taste and digest our lunch. We could follow Kirsty for a winery tour or tramp behind Jonas in the vineyards.

Friend and I opted for the German-accented Jonas and a chance to see the vines up close.

He showed us Petit Verdot rows and Chardonnay rows and his passion for planting, trimming, training and in general growing grapes was evident.

Smiling broadly, he admitted, "It's a great place to work. I'm amazed every day."

I would be, too, except that I could never stand to live so far outside the city. Still, there's no denying it's a great place to visit.

We headed back out of the fields to finish the tasting and, as is traditional on field trips, Friend made a few purchases with which to remember our trip.

Bottles of wine, a Blenheim t-shirt and chocolates (four of which we devoured the moment we got back on the bus) ensured that she'd have souvenirs of our adventure.

I couldn't afford such an expenditure, but I had plenty of satisfying memories bouncing around in my head.

Foggy mountains in the morning. A roaring fire on the back of my cold legs. A sunny luncheon in the grass. Endless rows of the tiniest grape clusters imaginable.

After napping on the bus on the way home, I could practically write a paper: "How I Spent My Field Trip."

What won't be included will be the picture my friend took of me sound asleep against the bus window.

No doubt drooling.

Some visuals would only detract from the memories of a very fine field trip.

Sticking It to the Man (and Squeamish Woman)

About damn time I got introduced to the world of blaxploitation films.

That would be the kind where a man can get out of any scrape using the skill of his member.

But being my first such venture, I got dinner first to ensure I'd be able to handle a gritty 70s film about black power.

Pescado's China Street was quiet when we arrived but started to build while we ate dinner.

Starting with vinho verde and pork ano arepas (braised pork over South American cornmeal cakes, pork jus, pickled onion, apricot chutney with a spicy basil jalapeno sauce), I was immediately immersed in pig and corn, two Southern things I love.

As we were eating that, a foursome joined us at the bar. He was a local and his guests were visiting from central Pennsylvania.

There was some discussion of a dilemma about football team allegiance before the visitors turned to the menu.

It was obviously a switch from PA because the woman only half-jokingly asked, "Could I have the enchiladas? It's not going to come  out with eyes, is it?"

And then bada bing, bada boom, our snapper Cancun, a whole one and a half pound fish, arrived upright as if it had been flash fried and swam onto the plate.

The look on the woman's face was priceless.

"How are you going to eat that?" one of the men asked.

Any way we could. Knocking it over, we began devouring the salty, crispy skinned fish while she looked away.

Fingers superseded forks for this endeavor, which no doubt repulsed her even more.

My companion noted that he hadn't fish so well prepared since he was last in Italy. High praise indeed.

After licking the salty fish juices from our fingers, we proceeded to the Grace Street Theater for a lesson in both cultural history and film history courtesy of the James River Film Fest.

I don't know about you, but there was no way I could pass up a chance to see "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" on the big screen.

An independent film from 1971 made by Melvin Van Peebles (with additional financing from Bill Cosby), it told the story of the black man's struggle to escape the authority of the white man.

Seen through the lens of the early 70s, of course.

Made during the black power movement days, it was required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party.

Film buffs could see that the film took many black influences and sifted them through the lessons of French New Wave (jump cuts, montages) for a story of a black Robin Hood.

I can even say I had two favorite credits: "Sweetback's Fashions by Mr. Y of L.A." and "Starring: The Black Community."

When's the last time you saw an entire community credited? And a good part of his wardrobe was his birthday suit, fine as it was.

It was 1971-hip with such anachronisms as spray deodorant and phrases like, "Can you take it, baby?" asked in a sing-song Barry White kind of voice.

Black pride and resentment permeated the script, like when someone said, "He died from an overdose of black misery."

Heavy. That's heavy, man.

The movie began with a scene of the young Sweetback losing his virginity (Van Peebles used his own kid Mario for that scene, which was questionable in and of itself) to a prostitute.

At one point Sweetback is asked to choose his method of confrontation and he chooses "f*cking."

Guess who wins?

After watching Sweetback beat white cops senseless, trudge the desert and eat a lizard and make love to plenty of women, I had an appreciation for Van Peebles message and sense of the absurd.

The film ended with "Watch out - a badaasss nigger is coming to collect some dues," so we were warned.

I feel certain there were film students in that theater who just got a cultural history lesson they could never have imagined.

Can you dig it, kids?

The Earth, Wind and Fire score provided the ideal 70s Greek chorus to the action of Sweetback's journey through white hell.

Finally indoctrinated into the world of blaxploitation, we took it down a notch by going across the street to Ipanema to hear the Blood Brothers spin records from the 60s and 70s.

Oddly enough, the same period as the black power movement.

Coincidence? It wasn't for me to say.

With Wineworks Viognier and two desserts (Mexican chocolate pie and almond cheesecake) we set up camp on the bench to hear some jumpin' tunes and watch the lively and changing crowd filter through the bar.

Until you hear how well these guys spin vintage records, you can't imagine the satisfaction of one great song followed by another perfect choice.

And talk about fine wardrobes - Jamie and Duane are the moddest things you could hope to see on a Wednesday night in Richmond.

Best line overheard, "A world without cheese, that's a world I don't want to live in."

I gave the guy a hallelujah behind that one.

Agreed, brother.

Hell, I'd have even raised my fist to that.

Now that Sweet Sweetback's shown me how it's done, I can take it.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bring Me a Tenor

There are apparent ways I'm part of the 1%.

No TV, no cell phone, no jewelry, no jeans. Obvious stuff.

But sometimes I find out I'm part of an entirely different 1% I couldn't have anticipated.

Theater types have such busy schedules that you have to dazzle them when you see them in order to get their attention.

So when my theater friend asked where we were going, I said Bistro 27, knowing she'd appreciate the a) happy hour prices, b) well-executed food and c) random stellar company.

A) was easily enough accomplished when she arrived and ordered a vodka martini for five bucks.

B) was a shoe-in with pan-fried soft-shelled crabs over grits in a sauce of capers, white wine, red peppers, anchovies and lemon juice.

C) took care of itself when the former opera/Broadway musical theater singer/actor I'd met at 27 a while back moseyed in and joined our conversation.

And then we were three.

Not being the martini sort, I began with a glass of Thibaud Jannison Virginia Fizz and eventually moved on to the Paarl Heights Pinotage, to which I am devoted.

It is, after all, my neighborhood pinotage.

Over conversations about big bands, driving over concrete barriers (no, that's not a metaphor) and my writing  life, we also inhaled a slice of chocolate fondant cake.

And because it's foolish to have one dessert when you can have two or even three, we also got a blood orange panna cotta and a mango panna cotta.

The handsome tenor who had joined us regaled us with his past roles, the ones he'd coveted but never played and details about an Elaine Stritch show he'd seen and loved recently.

"Do you know how many people I could say Elaine Stritch to and they'd have no idea who she is?" he asked, laughing.

Obviously we weren't two of them. So there was another 1% I could claim.

After a couple of hours of wine-fueled conversation, my friend left for her loving hearth and hubby and I for the National.

Waiting for my wristband, I was in line behind a girl in a Jimmy Page t-shirt, which struck me as funny because her age qualified her for a green (aka non-drinking) wristband.

It was cute; Jimmy Page probably has grandchildren her age.

But at least she was there early enough for the opener. I knew I'd wanted to arrive in time to catch Canada's Memoryhouse.

There were maybe a hundred of us there when the set began, but we were rewarded with the kind of dreampop that reminds us that, oh, yes, we've liked dream pop since the 80s.

Well, some of us anyway.

The band also qualified as chillwave, which was why they were on the bill in the first place, I'm guessing.

I took up my usual place in front of the sound booth, ready for some glo-fi.

All of a sudden, there was a pretty face in pigtails in front of me and a friend I hadn't seen in ages was throwing her arms around me.

Before long, another music-obsessed friend came over to join us. We were now the three Ks.

When Memoryhouse covered My Bloody Valentine, both girlfriends pointed out that we were no doubt part of a very small percentage in the room who even recognized it as MBV.

Yet another 1% in which I can claim membership.

When applause after songs became problematic, the guitarist said, "All of our songs have these fake endings where you think the song's over. Sorry about that."

While the band's sound mix wasn't quite what it could have been, on the songs where we could hear lead singer Denise's breathy vocals, they were lovely.

It's hard to overstate how much I like ethereal soundscapes of the type Memoryhouse does, even given their obvious youth at doing this.

They admitted it was only their second show opening up for Washed Out, with whom they share a label. "So we're co-workers," guitarist Evan said.

I'm a big fan of their co-workers, having put Washed Out's "Within and Without" on my best of 2011 list.

By the time Ernest Green and his band took the stage, the crowd had grown considerably larger.

Which meant that once Washed Out began their set, heavy on synthesizers, looping and a big old bass line, there were a lot of people moving.

Not dance party madness, but non-stop movement. I didn't see a single person not bopping in some way.

Between that and the absence of spotlights on the band (there were colored lights behind them leaving them all in shadow), it felt less like a show and more like a club.

It was fine by me.

Since I first got their "Life of Leisure" EP in 2010 through last year's breakthrough "Within and Without," I've enjoyed them sans visuals, so even colored lights were something new.

There was major crowd reaction when they did "Feel It All Around," which surprised me until my girlfriend explained that the song is used in "Portlandia."

So yet again, I could be counted in the 1% since I knew the song only as number four on "Life of Leisure."

Silly me.

Obviously a band with one album and two EPs can only play so long a set and before we knew it, Washed Out was saying goodnight.

They came back for two songs, closing with "Eyes Be Closed," a song I'd specifically mentioned in my Best of post because I thought "it sounds like the beginning of an evening with a lover."

Well, that and one other crucial thing.

How often he's part of the 1%.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Aiming for Stylish and Utilitarian

I've always said that I like my history with breasts; I can only hear about old white guys for so long before wanting to hear about an historic woman.

Today's came courtesy of the Library of Virginia's noon lecture, "Beth Barnard Nickels: A Very Surprising Virginia Architect."

I think the main reason she was labeled surprising was because she had girl parts.

Researcher Erin Myers read a lecture on Nickels' life, beginning with the early years at her family home, Sunnyside, in Prince George County.

And if you think because the home had a name that it was elaborate or large, you'd be mistaken.

The simple wooden structure with a separate building for the kitchen had remained as it had been built in the 19th century until Nickels renovated it after becoming an architect.

And even then she did it her way.

Nickels loved to cook, so when she enlarged the house and joined the two separate buildings, she naturally remodeled the kitchen.

Did she turn it into a showplace kitchen? She did not.

Never able to tolerate having another person in the kitchen when she cooked, she purposely designed a room that could only hold one.

That's thinking ahead and I admire that.

Originally a teacher like her mother and grandmother, she went on to follow in her handsome engineer father's footsteps and took classes in drafting and design.

When she began working for the prestigious firm of Marcellus Wright and Son in 1947, he new boss observed that she wore skirts and high heels to the job sites every day.

Nickels was smart, though, acknowledging that the contractors and sub-contractors treated her very well on site.

Never, I repeat never, underestimate the power a of a skirt and heels.

God knows I don't.

That said, she made some concessions to being a woman in a man's world, not wearing too much makeup and always speaking first to the wives of her coworkers at work functions.

You know how distracting we womenfolk in lipstick can be.

Myers' lecture touched on many of the buildings around town that Richmond's first female architect had a hand in.

One I recognized at once now houses Vogue Flowers downtown on Main Street; she also worked on several homes in Windsor Farms.

Her buildings were characterized as "stylish and utilitarian," a description I wouldn't mind hearing applied to myself.

But more than that, Nickels did things her way.

She never took the State Boards to become certified as an architect, not needing the validation (or the A.I.A. after her name).

"Yep, I don't live by the rules," Nickels was quoted by Myers as having said last year before her death in March. "Sorry 'bout that."

My hero!

A friend recently said of me, "Oh, Karen knows the rules. She just chooses not to play by them."

Beth Barnard Nickels and I: cut from the same cloth apparently.

Is it any wonder I like my history with girl parts?

Rhetorical Question

To-do list: eat, drink, music.

The bonuses: new restaurant, waterfront sipping, dessert to live musical accompaniment.

Not being "The Avenues" sort, it was my first trip to the Continental.

Of course given the weather, all the outside tables were taken, but the bar was empty and the door was open.

That's my kind of air conditioning. If you have to have a/c on (and I refuse), you'd better open the windows and doors.

But that's just me.


Liked the lighted globes, reminisced over the hand crank ice crushers (like my parents had on their bar way back when) and enjoyed friendly service.

Couldn't stand all the TV screens or the screaming children, but then that's just me.

And it was to be a short stopover anyway.

It was a quick glass of wine with a friend who recently moved away; still, I managed to taste the Mexican corn on the cob (lime butter and cumin, hold the cheese) and the kielbasa corn dogs.

What I tasted made me think the place will be a weighted counter-balance to Blue Goat.

Leaving there, I went to meet my dinner partner who was insisting we have a drink outside.

That's a dicey one for me because there aren't a lot of places that have them and on a 91-degree day in April, they're bound to be popular.

And, let's be honest, there are some I just don't need to go, regardless of its al fresco offerings.

Everyone has their deal breakers, whether you're talking restaurants or romance.

Companion had the brilliant idea to have a glass of wine at Current down on the canal.

Okay, it wasn't a river view, but it was tranquil, lovely and it was water.

The air temperature was so body-suited as to be imperceptible.

Could have been anything, but it felt like absolutely nothing.

Even our server agreed that it was something to be savored.

We sat there sipping until after the sun was down before walking over to City Dogs.

Dogs and milkshakes make for my kind of meal sometimes.

I was none too happy to hear that they were completely out of ice cream so no milkshakes would be forthcoming.

Somehow (and I'm trying not to judge here), they were surprised at being slammed by all the crowds who came down for RVA Street Art Festival.


We settled for root beer. Thirty seconds later we learned that they were out of that, too.

It would be so easy to go off on a tangential rant about one hand not knowing what the other is doing (rule #1, people is that art brings crowds), but I hate to state the obvious.

And it was dollar dog night.

You'd think two reasonably astute adults would have been tempted by the deal dogs but I went with the Tennessee slaw dog (yes, again) and my hot dog-disparaging friend went with bratwurst and sauerkraut.

After the loss of our shakes, we consoled ourselves with onion rings.

Which meant that dessert would have to be elsewhere.

Since we were in the mood for a seventeen-piece, we headed to Balliceaux to satisfy a sweet tooth and hear some swinging music.

It was almost scripted.

We waltzed in to the front bar, ordered Campari and tequila (no, no, not in the same glass) and a slice of chocolate almond cream pie.

The real treat? Eating it to the swinging sounds of the RVA Big Band, coming from the back.

After polishing off the variation on a childhood classic, we headed to the back room so that we could hear and see the band.

There really is a unique pleasure to hearing a big band.

It's not hard to see why it was the kind of music the country needed during the 30s and 40s.

So many instruments playing at once! All that brass!  The drummer keeping everyone anchored.

And every song swinging in some way.

It got some hips swinging, too, when a couple got up to dance in the center of the room.

I'm not the dancing sort, so I stayed put.

Mentally checking off everything on my to-do list.

How easy was that?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Who's the Greatest Star?

Highlight #1 - Ice cream and deflowering

Visit #4 to the James River Film Festival at the Visual Arts Center was frigid (too much a/c) and charming (foreign and subtitled).

The short, "Bregman/As Follows" was about a Jewish Latin American kid about to have his bar mitzvah.

He studies, he practices, he has the ceremony and party.

And then dad takes him to lose his virginity. When he picks him up, he asks how it was.

The boy turns up the car radio.

Dad asks the boy if he wants to go for ice cream. Fin.

A charming film about a 13-year old being thrown into the deep waters of manhood.

Next was "A Useful Life," a Uruguayan film about a guy who'd worked in an art house cinema for 25 years.

When it closes, he has to figure out what to do with himself.

Like many a confirmed bachelor, he has no idea.

It was shot in black and white and the lead is  played by a Uruguayan film critic, making for a particularly un-actorly performance.

I saw it as addressing the philosophical question, what do you do when everything you know goes away?

I seem to recall addressing that very issue just a few years ago myself, but not in nearly so stylish a black and white film.

Highlight #2- Half priced and washed out

Sunday supper came courtesy of Carytown's new gastropub, Burger Bach, and I went in eager to try a grass-fed, organic burger.

Instead we bellied up to a bar with four screens (a major negative and in hindsight it would have behooved us to sit at the community table and face Thompson Street) and went seafood.

Turns out every day from 4-6 is half off mussels, oysters and shrimp.

Each came with the option of four or five preparations, so we got mussels in a traditional sauce (garlic, shallots, parsley, lemon, white wine), oysters casino (bacon, peppers, onions, Parmesan) and shrimp in a French sauce (Dijon mustard, shallots, cream, garlic and tarragon).

The place had a borderline chain feel despite being a standalone, the wine list was all New World (although no U.S.) so there were several good South African choices and tons of Australian and New Zealand.

The music was spot on, doing enough interesting alternative to keep my ears pricked.

Anytime I hear Washed Out in a restaurant two night before I'll see them play out gets major points.

A stroll down Cary Street wound up at Amici where the front was completely open in the beautiful evening air.

Lots of people were catching a pre-show meal before Allison Krause but we just wanted dessert: panna cotta and chocolate mousse with a light breeze blowing in from the street.

Highlight #3: Song for a Ukrop

The Ghostlight Party at Richmond Triangle Players had been on my calendar for a month since I always seem to be out of town when they occur.

I knew from the organizer (a fabulous bartender and chatter) that it promised to be a rollicking good time and it was.

We arrived at 8:00 for naught; by the time it did begin, host Matt came out in a black bustier, panties, fishnets, black heels and lipstick.

"Sorry for the late start. Clearly we're on drag time," he said to much laughter.

And that's how the party began and I use party loosely because you pay your five bucks and you're at the party.

It's worth it for the parade of local theater talent who show up at one point or another during the four-plus hour soiree.

One of tonight's guests was actress Susan Sanford, whom I first saw in "The Merry Wives of Windsor Farms" so long ago that neither she nor I would want to admit it.

Although I still remember it as one of the cleverest adaptations of the Bard I've seen.

Back to my point, which was that despite having seen her in many shows, I had no idea she had such a great singing voice.

When called to the stage and heralded as "the best diva here," she was quick to toss an "Oh, shut up!" over her shoulder.

Everyone was a ham and it was great fun watching them tackle theater music whether they remembered every lyric or not ("Not the point," the host Matt insisted).

And it's a theater-savvy audience with people saying things to each other like, "You can't go wrong with a Richard Rodgers."

Matt switched to a leather jacket, cuffed up girl's jeans and hot pink platform pumps to sing a pouty happy birthday to Ted Ukrop.

Ted allowed that Matt's legs were the best he'd seen in a while.

Sarah Porter got up to do "A Single Tear" (and in Italian, too; it was impressive) since it's the 100th anniversary of the Titanic.

"Do we applaud that?" Matt ruminated out loud to the audience.

Good question. There was a smattering of applause.

We heard "Because the Night" and Joe Jackson's "Breaking us in Two," resulting in a funny moment when Andrew Hamm stopped playing piano and singing and said accusingly to Liz Blake-White, "Wait, you're not supposed to be singing the harmony there."

Her guilty face said it all.

One showstopper was Sanford doing "I'm the Greatest Star" from "Funny Girl" except that she substituted names Streisand wouldn't have known.

Instead of singing "Hey, Mr. Keeney, here I am!" she substituted "Hey, Mr. Kniffen, Hey, Mrs. Piersol, Hey, Mr. Maupin, Hey, Mr. Patton, here I am!" to make it RVA-funny.

And don't get me started about the two guys who shall remain nameless singing "Suddenly, Seymour" to each other  as they tried not to crack up.

One guy was asked to remove his shirt before he sang (actually there was also unzipping of his pants).

Once we admired his body, we heard his beautiful singing voice.

That's just how they roll at the Ghostlight party.

The whole evening was truly like a party; the bar was open, there was all kinds of food (little savory meat roll-ups) and sweets (eclairs and cupcakes) and later snacks (pizza arrived around 11:30).

If you didn't want to hear a song, you went to the lobby and gabbed away.

And Matt and Maggie kept the whole show rolling along, collecting names of people who wanted to perform when not dancing or singing backup (Maggie) and making witty and/or dirty commentary between songs (Matt).

Both played mic stand at one point or another.

But let's be real here. Maggie did her job in flats and Matt was working in five-inch heels and major eye makeup.

You gotta give a man credit where credit is due.

That said, we couldn't have asked for two better hosts for an evening of divas, male and female.

By the time we left, all I could think was "Baby, Hit Me One More Time."

Scott's Addition has the best piano bar in Richmond.

I'd be a fool to be out of town for the next one.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

An Ode to Film Devotion

If I ever get challenged on being a cinephile, I will hold up today as proof that I am willing to suffer for film.

It is, after all, James River Film Fest time and there's too much much good film out there to miss.

On a beautiful sunny, Saturday afternoon, I was closeted in the Byrd Theater for a 2011 Danish film about a disaster of a wedding and the end of the world.

Did I mention that it came in at two hours and sixteen minutes?

Fortunately, there was highly buttered popcorn.

"Melancholia" describes both the name of the rogue planet that collides with Earth, destroying all life, and the depression that the lead character, played by Kirsten Dunst, suffers.

Probably because "Melancholia" never played RVA, there was a good-sized crowd in the world's most uncomfortable theater seats and many of them were no doubt fans of director Lars von Trier.

JRFF organizer James Parrish introduced the film as the kind of movie they would show when they are able to establish a storefront repertory theater in Richmond, something they are actively seeking to do.

The movie was many things: beautifully shot (each scene was arranged like a painting), disturbing (an unhappier bride would be hard to find and her mother toasted her by saying, "I hate marriages, especially when they involve my closest family members"), dark (suicide, a horse being beaten) and bombastic (it began with a Wagner prelude).

By the time I walked out, I had half an hour before meeting a friend to see another JRFF offering.

I could use a little common sense when planning future Saturdays.

Luckily, first we did dinner at Garnett's, knowing we'd be able to get a nice glass of wine and be out in time for an 8:00 screening.

When you're sitting in a theater for close to six hours in one day, it's important o have priorities.

Two Cobb salads were followed by two slices of chocolate cake in that way that girlfriends like to eat when they're together.

Arriving at the Grace Street Theater for tonight's program "Richmond Takes Sundance," we were not surprised to see a big crowd gathering.

How often do we have two Richmond ties to one Sundance Festival?

We found good seats in the center and noticed that many people around us had brought their own candy since the theater doesn't have concessions.

As Friend noted, we shouldn't have craved candy in theory, but we'd have eaten it if we'd brought it.

Shameless, I know.

Showing first was a short, "Henley," shot in Cumberland, Virginia about a kid who lives at a motel and collects road kill.

The actor, Hale Lytle, was chosen from a host of SPARC kids, most of whom possessed the kind of "jazz hands" acting that they director was trying to avoid.

For the record, Lytle couldn't be at the screening tonight because he's in NYC shooting a feature film.

They grow up so fast.

Actually, he causes road kill, which was the disturbing part of former local Clay McLeod Chapman's script from a chapter in his novel.

But since I'd seen Chapman's work performed before, I knew to expect a twist and he'd delivered.

There was an endless delay due to technical difficulties before we got to the main event.

It was former Richmonder (and Ipanema chef) Rick Alverson's "The Comedy," which was anything but.

A disturbing look at our country's sense of entitlement and general numbness, it conveyed an uncomfortable sort of voyeurism of people impossible to like.

Most surprising was how much laughter there was at the screening because I found almost nothing laugh-worthy about its bleak picture of a desensitized world.

Particularly annoying was the loud laugher sitting right in front of me who laughed at every reference to sex, a seizure scene and every other inappropriate moment he could.

After the film, director Alverson said that some people had walked out of it at Sundance and other screenings had produced not a single laugh.

In my opinion, it shouldn't have. A movie about cruelty is nothing to laugh at.

One fascinating tidbit he shared was that the hour and a half movie had been made from an eighteen-page script with no dialog.

Ergo, all that talking by the unpleasant characters was improvised.

So all those male characters saying uncomfortable things to get a reaction and the women characters doing their best not to respond was spontaneous.

I have to admire being able to work that way.

Likewise, I have to admire a filmmaker who addresses a world with the kind of numb people who inhabit the 21st century.

I didn't say I cared about them, but they do make for a compelling film premise.

That said, my backside and I were more than happy to abandon theater seating for greener pastures.

Even a cinephile's butt needs a break after a while.

Sorry, Eraserhead, I just can't do it tonight.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Exercising Excellence

I walk every day but some walks, like today's, are extra ordinary.

Wisely slathering on sunscreen because it was already seventy degrees by noon, we set out for the riverfront and the RVA Street Art Festival.

It's not like I hadn't been there just yesterday, but how could I resist seeing what progress had been made in the past 24 hours?

The result: a great deal. There was art being created everywhere.

Murals that were barely started when I visited Friday were now complete or nearly so.

New ones had been started and artists on lifts worked to the scent of spray paint and Jonathan the Juggler's incessant patter.

Barely an hour into today's festival and I saw a bustling crowd, including musicians (represented were Fight the Big Bull, Amazing Ghost, Now Sleepyhead, Jason Scott Quintet), artists and everyday people like me.

Perusing the Bizarre Market, I saw a favorite DJ in one of her vintage groovy 60s dresses, an artist selling faux antlers and an address book with a cover made from a Partridge Family album.

How could I possibly have forgotten to bring money?

When we finished with art, we moved on to nature.

A side trip to a nearby riverside trail, the Pipeline Walkway, allowed me to show a newbie why it's my favorite river walk.

And no wonder. Nests in the trees, fishermen flycasting in the river, a flock of geese cooling their webbed feet in the water, trains rattling overhead and rushing water surrounding us with every step.

It begins with a vertical ladder climb down and continues as the perfect spring walk.

Heading back up the hill towards J-Ward, we made a pit stop for lunch at a beer joint, notable for the fact that neither of us drink beer.

Capital Ale House was dark and not especially full and provided just what we needed.

A crab salad BLT and a duck salad gave us a chance to discuss all that we'd seen on our promenade.

Women at a street fest in four-inch heels. People too lazy afraid to walk the Pipeline and instead sipping a beer on the Pipeline Overview. Bimbos and edginess. Ryan Adams' theory, "That ain't a woman, that's a girl."

It's a hell of a difference.

But then so is my usual Grace Street stroll from what constituted today's walk.

Same mileage, but so much more for the eyes and ears.

And for a change, the compliments from behind came from someone I knew.

That's definitely out of the ordinary.

Color the Evening Cassis

He shouted at me without even meeting me.

Going to meet my friend at Bistro Bobette, I spotted a girlfriend on the street, chatting with a man. I rolled down my window, called hello and she waved back.

Grinning widely at me, he called out. "I'm in love!" despite having no idea who I was.

Not a bad start to the evening.

Inside Bistro Bobette, it was mobbed. The bartender found me a stool and I awaited the arrival of my friend.

His backside barely hit the stool next to mine before he ordered foie gras, claiming we can't start a dinner without it.

The woman next to me told me in her charmingly accented English that I owed her for saving me a seat.

For my main course, I took advantage of a special, flightless bird.

It was grilled ostrich  over fava bean risotto in a tarragon and black peppercorn sauce. Medium rare, of course.

Friend entertained me with tales of the 80s and people he knew who overindulged in cocaine use. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, I heard some gruesome tales.

Without a good chocolate option for dessert, we defaulted to my friend's ultimate weakness, ice cream.

A black currant sorbet had such depth of flavor as to require tiny bites to fully appreciate its bracing fruit flavor.

When I got up to use the bathroom, I was reprimanded.

Not one, but two, men complained when they spied my bare legs.

"This is the first time I've ever seen you without stockings on," a wine buddy said, clearly astonished. "I'll let it slide this time."

It's April, for god's sake

The chef voted differently so I let his opinion weigh more.

Then it was on to Balliceaux for Brooklyn's Xenia Rubinos, described as CubanRican with a hint of M.I.A., a lot of Tuneyards and a bit of P.J. Harvey.

Using keyboards and a busy drummer to accompany her, she created beats and harmonies that built layer upon layer of sound.

The crowd wasn't giving her the attention she deserved, resulting in her taking to the floor in front of the stage to figuratively say, "Hey! Listen to me!"

A few dancing types helped things along by moving to the eclectic groove, furthering the rest of the audience's attention.

By the time the duo got to the last song, the room was fully engaged because they were killing it.

After clamoring for an encore, Xenia said, "The truth is, I don;t really have another one. But here's one I'm working on, but it's a baby, so be kind."

And while it didn't sound fully formed, it did promise to be another attention getter down the road.

Making my way out of the back room, a stranger grabbed my hand and began to dance with me.

Up front, the DJ was doing it Euro-trash-style ("Glamorous Life" and "Rebel, Rebel") and I ran into a Friday night assortment of friends representing fashion, theater, music, restaurants and photography.

It's always a good evening when you have time to talk to your favorite vibes player.

Not one, but two, theater types stopped me, one for a critique of a play I'd seen him in and the other to high five me for my next stop.

After a couple days of dizziness, I was just glad to remain upright in a room crammed with people dancing and socializing practically on top of each other.

But I did make it out the door without hearing that anyone was in love with me.

Not a bad end to the evening.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Do It for George

You could ask "What would George have wanted?" except that it's a safe bet that our first Prez wouldn't have wanted it at all.

I'm talking about the Washington monument, which is the focus of the new exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture.

"Someday in the Park with George: The National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds" collects historical drawings, pictures and information about how we ended up with the monument we know and love.

But the hook is that a competition was held last year to solicit ideas for doing something with the grounds around it.

Something besides a ring of flags and security barricades.

Something that's not barren and ugly.

The grounds have played host to any number of unlikely uses, including a beef depot (cows everywhere) and from 1910-20, a military base.

Am I the only one surprised by this?

During World War II, the federal government erected temporary office buildings all along the Mall, including the monument grounds.

I was amazed to learn that the last of these wasn't removed until 1970.

The array of design possibilities over the years were far-reaching but never completed.

My favorite had a circular colonnade with a triumphal arch leading into the monument. Very European looking, I thought.

Another was for the grounds to have been used by the 1892 Colombian Exposition, but Washington, D.C. didn't win the bid.

The plan would have erected temporary fair buildings and man-made lakes on the grounds, inevitably making for a very different place now, had it been done.

There were photographs of people ice skating on the mall in the early decades of the 20th century and Tidal basin bathers in 1922.

At one time, a proposal was made to construct two elevated roadways along either side of the mall to help alleviate Washington's notorious traffic problems.

Imagine a time when desecrating the mall for the sake of roads was even an option.

The second room of the exhibit showcases the six finalists in the National Ideas competition, which allowed anyone in the world over twelve years of age to submit ideas.

Two of the wining six were not even Americans, which shows how compelling the notion of having a say in the monument's outcome is to everyone.

One finalist suggested a Field of Stars with lights mounted in the ground; their brightness at night would be determined by how much foot traffic walked over them during the day.

It was meant to be a metaphor for all of us having a say in democracy.

The one called the People's Forum imagined stone steps and terraces surrounding the monument, making for a perfect performance space.

Another envisioned a glass-topped sky-lit museum surrounding the monument.

I was particularly fond of the two finalists' visions of tree-scaped grounds to offer shade to visitors, sorely lacking in the present grounds.

But until we actually decide to do something about the Washington monument grounds, even the best ideas are no more than a pipe dream.

At the time the monument opened, it had the highest passenger elevator and observation deck in the world.

Back then, people described the feeling of riding it as scary and like ascending to heaven. Seems like the view from the top should be a lot more heavenly than it is.

I think even the modest George would agree.