Monday, December 29, 2014

Constant Comment

Vacation time and time to visit the shark bite capital of the U.S.

Those first stop was Virginia Beach, where an oceanfront room afforded a view of Christmas lights adorning the length of the beach with cars motoring slowly so as to take in  the spectacle. W strolled the bike path until an officious little man gave us a choice of the road or beach. The beach it was.

Friday was all about the ferries, first Knott's Island to Currituck, then Hatteras to Ocracoke (eating leftover fried chicken in the passenger lounge and eliciting envious stares) and a foray to British Cemetery Road to ogle three cemeteries (at one I found a grave site for a woman where her age was listed out in years, months and days: I am exactly her age minus one day than the day she died)and finally, Ocracoke to Cedar Island, watching the sun set beyond the curve of the water's edge.

Saturday was a marathon drive down I-95 along with cars from 27 states, Quebec and Ontario. South Carolina felt endless with its limited two lanes of traffic, but eventually we were across the Georgia-Florida line with boiled peanuts (Cajun and original flavors) behind us.

Arriving in New Smyrna Beach, we lucked into SoNapa, a wine bar with blond wood, left coast wines and a lively crowd. At last, it was time to raise a glass to vacation.

Sunday was a practically perfect beach day. First, a long walk on the beach to get the lay of the land (mostly high rises, a smattering of individual beach cottages), reading ("Bastard Out of Carolina") on the deck overlooking the wide beach and happy hour on the balcony with Mazzolino Brut Rose and a view of palm trees and surf.

Then it was on to Flagler Beach, a quaint and historic beach town with bikers, kids skateboarding down the center of the street and a guy dressed as Santa riding a red cruiser bike inspiring pedestrians to yell greetings.

Best of all, meals were eaten outdoors, I was wearing a sundress and there's a week of vacation left.

While having breakfast the first morning, I was offered Constant Comment tea, something I hadn't had before. Could a tea really loosen my tongue any further? Maybe vacation is not the time to share.

Only a week at the ocean will tell.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Then One Foggy Christmas Eve

'Twas the night before Christmas and I'm full as a tick and mindful of how wonderful my life is.

It could be because of the lovely, lemony Trouillard Brut Champagne that kicked off the afternoon, loosening tongues and setting the tone for merry this and happy that (coincidentally also the words on the red bev naps under the bubbly).

Besides the usual Christmas albums - Mathis, Conniff, Sinatra - I tried to slip in something different, namely "Contemporary Gospel Christmas volume 9" and it went over like a lead balloon. The only guests who could stand it were around in the '80s listening to the Quiet Storm. So, yes, I liked it, but it was stopped mid-disc.

Lesson here: you just can't mess with some people's holiday audio.

Supper was served early, meaning not long after sunset, and was pulled together with contributions from various sources. The real cooking talent supplied the killer pickle-brined fried chicken while I made mashed potatoes and drop biscuits, about the easiest of all southern breads.

Say what you will about their simplicity (I did learn to make them my first year of Home Ec.), but the butter melts just as drippingly well inside them as in cut biscuits.

The star of the salad was the shiitake mushrooms supplied by my bulb savior Todd, who had generously also given me his favorite recipe for them ( a bath of soy sauce and olive oil followed by 20 minutes in the oven), promising that they'd come out tasting like bacon. Not quite, but plenty delicious, especially next to the butter and brown sugar-baked pecans that also peppered the spring mix of greens.

Like the potatoes and salad, the dinner wine was organic. Rosy pink Lumos Chiquita Pinot Noir Rose drank as beautifully as it looked, hinting at strawberries and something citrusy and proving my theory that Rose is a year round drink. Some would say that it didn't hurt that it was close to 70 degrees today.

Dessert was a turkey platter of Christmas cookies and everyone had a different favorite from the array of peanut butter with dark chocolate, iced sugar cookies, pressed butter cookies and, for the first time, chocolate butter cookies, a radical departure for the traditionalists in the group.

I knew better than to waste the precious little bit of room left in my belly on mere cookies since the next stop was the Byrd theater for the annual viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life," which always involves buttered popcorn and Milk Duds.

The line for tickets was already around Cary Street and winding down Sheppard Street in the fog when we arrived, but it soon moved quickly and compared to past years of standing outside in freezing cold weather, it was actually quite pleasant.

Inside, the three concession lines were already doubling over on themselves, but I staked my territory in the farthest one, striking up a conversation with the woman in front of me.

Like me, she's made seeing this film on Christmas Eve at the Byrd part of her holiday tradition and once she found out I was at the 20-year mark, began reminiscing about the days when lines were short and seats readily available.

"Now I'm sorry I told so many people about it," she lamented half-jokingly. But where's the Christmas spirit in that?

All at once two women approached her and shrieks ensued. The duo had come from Alaska and were surprising her in line with their visit. Last year, she'd gone to Alaska to see them and they'd decided to reciprocate without telling her. It was all very sweet.

They agreed to hold my place in line while I made a run for the bathroom, squeezing through the other concession lines to get there. I inched my way behind a guy in line and he acted like I'd goosed him. "Woo-hoo! Come again, please!" he called after me. Christmas lechery, how nice.

My rationale for going to the Byrd for the same movie every year is that it's still able to work its magic every time. I mean, I know George Bailey is going to get his life back and everything will be fine, but watching those scenes where he sees what a hole would have existed if he'd never been born still moves me.

So while I wouldn't leave a hole nearly as big as George Bailey's, I do know my presence would be missed by a few...but an important few.

Just last week, a friend wrote me, "I so miss your upbeat smiling and twinkling eyes."

I won't be going down in history or anything like that, but if there's one thing I've learned from this movie it's that no one is a failure who has friends. I wouldn't have wanted to live any other life than mine.

Although I've never been naked in a hydrangea bush, it's been a very interesting situation every step of the way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Walking the Eve

It's Christmas eve in the city.

Stepping outside in my neighborhood, I find it a ghost town because so many of my neighbors are students who have fled to the bosom of family for the duration. Sure that there will be activity on Broad Street, I decide to walk it down to the Boulevard.

Looking to see what's open provides a fascinating snapshot of Richmond consumerism. The treasure trove that is the Richmond Book Shop is open, highly unusual for them before 2:00. I've already shopped there twice for presents this season, so today I just wave.

As I cross Lombardy, a man calls to me, "Has your husband told you today that you have the sexiest walk around? I've been watching you since the corner! Merry Christmas!"

My first Christmas compliment.

Enigma Tattoo is open for your last minute tattooing and piercing needs. So is Ahmed's Barber Shop, although the middle eastern man (presumably Ahmed) staring out the front window looks bored to tears with not a single customer looking for a haircut.

Lee's Chicken is understandably doing a booming business, while Arby's not so much. The drive-thru line at McDonald's is around the building.

There's a steady stream of customers going in and out of Pleasant's Hardware, no doubt because they carry almost anything, as Richmonders have known for generations.

I'm surprised to see that the Science Museum is open with people coming and going, although it makes perfect sense. What a wonderful way to amuse little ones on a day that stretches interminably for them?

Along the way, I come up behind two homeless men ambling along, the one telling the other, "CVS is a long way off, friend." I happen to know it's less than a mile at that point, but I pass them rather than saying anything. When I pass them on my way back east, they still haven't made it to CVS yet.

The street vendor at CVS looks bored, his wares covered in plastic because of the rain. I feel bad for him if he's trying to make some last minute Christmas money, so I smile and say, "Happy holidays!"

"Merry Christmas, baby!" he says with a mile-wide grin.

Back at you, Richmond.

Went Woman

Stay away long enough and you're bound to be surprised.

A week in the planning stages, my rendezvous with Pru (I love the sound of that) finally touched down tonight at Magpie, where I arrived first and snagged the last of the sex. Meaning that when Pru made her debut in a fabulous new coat with a faux-fur collar looking like Daisy out of "The Great Gatsby," she wasn't able to enjoy a glass of M. Lawrence "Sex" Brut Rose with me.

Who'd have thought there'd be a run on Sex just before the anniversary of the virgin birth?

It was a good thing we'd arrived when we did because the tiny restaurant was soon filled to capacity with us snugly wedged behind a trio at a bar table by the window. After beginning with a seasonal toast, I paired my pink drink with a green plate of arugula, apple slices, goat cheese and bacon crumbles in a blood orange vinaigrette while Pru, as expected, was constitutionally unable to resist a good-sized bowl of crispy Brussels Sprouts.

Our first order of business was trying to recall when we'd last laid eyes on each other and, unbelievably, it had been the first day of November for the Bootleg Shakespeare performance. For sooth, those seven weeks had flown by.

But we are nothing if not pros at this friendship thing and soon resumed familiar rhythms.

Despite the fact that I'm not the book club type, one of our first topics was "Gone Girl," a book I'd read (despite my usual avoidance of popular contemporary fiction) and immediately insisted she read so we could dissect it.

I'd tried delving into it with a millennial and found myself at loggerheads with her about certain themes. Not so with Pru who, like me, was unable to accept the notion of sustaining a relationship with a sociopath simply because they "got" each other. We'd both closed the book depressed about the future of the species.

From there, we moved on to the subject of her male coworkers and their constant search for bargains; several of them had found a great deal on gun oil and snatched lots of it up. And by snatched, she meant that one guy had bought 30 bottles of it. That's a lot of well-oiled guns.

The funny part was that when her friend showed her a bottle of the stuff, she looked at the back label only to see that it wasn't really gun oil, it was sexual lubricant. That's a lot of well-oiled, um, weapons.

Being the theater lovers that we are, we'd both seen "Mame" and compared notes on what a stellar production it had been. I was hardly surprised when she told me she'd followed the play with a viewing of the movie in order to enjoy all the pithy dialog that didn't make it into the musical.

What I was surprised about was that she'd had male company for her "Mame" viewings since she's been on the wagon dating-wise for some time now. Apparently, having a smart, funny man she's known since college squire her around is something that began during our protracted separation.

And because this is the 21st century, she was even able to pull out her phone and show me pictures of a handsome guy with a great face. I told her I'd talk to him at a party based solely on the fact that he looked interesting. That seemed to please her, not that she needs my approval.

She dazzled me with her plans for a trip to Europe come April, a journey by train from Paris to Venice, then London and back to Paris. It's intended as a celebration of an important birthday, so she's pulling out all the stops. April in Paris, what better way to forget a meaningless number?

When it was gift time, she got crafty and I got smart-assed. She'd made me a jar of tuberose organic sugar scrub, knowing how much I love the scent of tuberose, which reminds me of my mother's front garden when I was young. To me, no rose smelled as intoxicating as tuberose.

I was even given instructions on where to scrub for best results: elbows, she said, knees and bottom. Seems it's all well and good to be smart and a good conversationalist, but sometimes a woman has to fall back on her soft parts. I wasn't surprised at this advice; this is the same friend who lectured me a while back about not wearing enough mascara.

Meanwhile, I'd bought her a cozy pair of sky blue pajamas with white polka tease her. There have been countless times when I've asked her to do something fun at night, only to be told she's already in her PJs so she can't possibly think of leaving her bed and Kindle. Tonight, her reaction was, "This is wonderful! My other pajamas are in the laundry. I'll wear these tonight."

At least I'd gotten her out beforehand.

She delighted in telling me about a recent night when she'd woken up so overheated she'd considered taking her pajamas off and sleeping naked. "I heard a story on NPR about how sleeping naked is good for you." In what ways, I wondered? She couldn't recall and hadn't done it but wanted me to know. It must be true if it's on NPR.

When she ordered coffee, I shocked her by sharing that I'd begun drinking hot tea, a first for me after a lifetime of eschewing hot beverages beyond hot chocolate. "Who are you?" she laughed, leaning in and scrutinizing me.

She said the exact same thing later in our conversation when I told her about a couple of the popular movies like "Gone Girl" and "Top Five" I'd seen in her absence. "Apparently if I leave you alone, you go mainstream!" she wailed.

Not true.

Apparently if I leave her alone, she becomes a flaming redhead, a most becoming color on her. When I inquired if she'd had a lot of compliments on it, she beamed. "Men seem to love it!" I don't know many men who don't appreciate a redhead. She observed that I was looking rather reddish myself.

Indeed. I don't have a big birthday coming up and I'm not thinking of taking up with a friend of 30 years, but it never hurts to get noticed. Or appreciated.

And just for the record, I do wear more mascara these days. Thanks, Pru. But not pajamas.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strange Bedfellows

On this winter solstice as 2014 winds down, I can think of no more important goal than to stay true to myself and the things I enjoy.

On this solitary Sunday, that was a walk across the Lee bridge and back. Planting the purloined tulip and hyacinth bulbs recently returned to me under sunny, blue skies. Taking my time reading the Washington Post with the last of the shortest day's afternoon sunlight beaming through the windows.

Then, shortly before sunset, I made my way to Hardywood to see Bard Unbound's performance of Shakespeare's drinking scenes, Part Deux.

Nothing smells less like Christmas than a hoppy brewery. On the other hand, I can tell you that three days before Christmas made for the most civilized crowd I've ever encountered at the brewery.

Maybe it was because they were out of Gingerbread Stout.

It was no surprise that holiday attire was everywhere, from bad Christmas sweaters to reindeer antler headbands. But top prize went to the woman who'd braided her hair to hold individual antlers and then knotted the braids into a bun, from which Rudolph's red nose and bright eyes peered out.

I found a perch near the front and waited for them to ring the bell announcing the start of the fun.

A scene from "Twelfth Night" began with one actor in a Christmas sweater "passed out" across a barrel of beer and was followed by a female Elvis impersonator singing "Blue Christmas" while an elf hula-danced beside the stage. Actors wore robes, nightcaps and red union suits and Father Christmas put in an appearance.

It was that kind of holiday entertainment.

The drunkenness of "Twelfth Night" continued until, deep in the crowd, we heard, "Do you make an alehouse of my lady's house?" Why, yes, we do.

The crowd was instructed to drink whenever words related to drinking - wine, mead, sack, drink - were mentioned by the actors. "Okay, let's practice, 1,2,3, drink!" Elvis instructed and then made us repeat it. "That's better. There will be a test at the end of the night."

Everyone but me would have passed with flying colors.

In between scenes, we all sang Christmas carols. For "Little Drummer Boy," we were told to beat on something and most people chose tables and floor but one guy used his head. During "Feliz Navidad," the actor singing got down on bended knee next to me, singing, "From the bottom of my heart" while shaking maracas at me.

With manic energy, much leaping on and off the stage and multiple costume changes, we saw scenes from Henry IV ("So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack?") and A Comedy of Errors ("Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?") and Much Ado About Nothing ("Bid those that are drunk, get them to bed"), an especially enjoyable scene which began with a marching band playing the Pink Panther theme on kazoos.

The Tempest gave us, "He shall drink of my bottle," but my favorite came from The Merchant of Venice: "I will do anything, ere I be married to a sponge." Because who really wants to marry a sponge?

The evening ended with a classic and a threat. "We're now going to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and there are a lot of verses, so do not sing the wrong one. If you do, we will take your beer away." Lyric sheets ensured that no one risked losing their life blood.

I, on the other hand, had nothing to lose.

The thing about the Sunday night before Christmas is that not much is happening, meaning my default plan was a movie. Tonight it was "Birdman" at the Criterion and it was obvious from the crowded parking lot that plenty of the people left in town had the same bright idea.

Although it was three months ago when I first saw the previews to "Birdman," it's only been in recent weeks that I made up my mind to see it. Don't get me wrong, I've been a Michael Keaton fan since "Night Shift" in 1982. But unlike the rest of the movie-going world, I never saw either of his "Batman" movies.

Probably the last thing I'd seen him in was Kenneth Branagh's 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing," where he played Dogberry and - here's where coincidence rears its unlikely head- I'd just witnessed a scene with Dogberry in it at Hardywood.

What, ho, my Dogberry worlds were colliding.

The film was fantastical, imaginative and impressively shot in what looked like all one take. Part black comedy ("Why don't I have any self respect?" "You're an actress, honey"), part farce, part action movie, it was an impressive piece of film and now I can see not only why critics have been raving, but why it's been on so many end of year "best of" lists.

With a script so well written that it's sure to be quoted for years to come ("That was bad, like Oprah/Hallmark/R. Kelly bad"), the story of a middle aged man who's worried that his best work is behind him and that his world has moved on without him was touching in a very real way. What if your best times are over and you just have to accept that?

Keaton's acting was impressive as the man struggling to redefine himself after having been a major star 20 years earlier, but my favorite moments were the same as the ones that made me fall hard for him 30+ years ago. "Hey, what's up?" he says with a subtle nod of the head and that iconic Michael Keaton casual delivery at the most unlikely moment.

When the movie ended, everyone just sat there, still absorbing what we'd just seen. It was big, it was glorious and it was a potent reminder that life is about staying true to yourself and what matters to you. Taking a page from Macbeth, I want to be carousing till the second cock.

I will do anything, ere I end up with dull discourses and barren wit. I shall never begin if I hold my peace.

Sugar Shopping Overload

Today I was a cliche. With three days until Christmas Eve, I had no choice.

What that means is that after a bracing walk this morning down to Great Shiplock Park, through an almost entirely deserted downtown, I hunkered down to do Christmas baking.

Five hours of it.

Fortunately for me, I was joined by a favorite couple who assisted me with the mixing, baking, icing and decorating of cookies, set to vintage Christmas music spanning 1959 ("Christmas with Conniff") to 2002 ("Maybe This Christmas"). The festive meter was set to 11.

Biggest surprise? The firefighter in the group was a master cookie decorator. His Christmas tree cookies had snow-laden branches, his snowmen had scarves and belts. It was truly artistic work.

Mine, not so much.

Fourteen dozen cookies later, I couldn't wait to escape the oven and leave the house. Unfortunately for me on a Saturday night, duty called so I wasn't leaving to have fun. It was all about the consumerism.

In case you didn't know, I lack several key feminine qualities and one of them is a love of shopping...except for food and books.

Nevertheless, and putting on my cheeriest holiday face, I headed to Carytown to gather ye presents while ye may. I had no choice.

My first stop was Old World Christmas to choose an ornament amongst a crowd of focused-looking shoppers. Things began to look up when I arrived at the counter because behind it was a favorite actor playing a sales clerk.

After paying and his reference to my blog (you never know who reads you), I said goodbye and he asked incredulously, "Did you walk over from Jackson Ward?" Apparently my walking reputation precedes me.

I stopped in Ten Thousand Villages and bought myself a new wallet, not an intended purchase but one long overdue if you saw the state of my current one. You'd think they'd last longer considering how rarely they hold any actual money.

Mongrel was a zoo, but where else can you find such great cards and wrapping paper? As I browsed and tried to stay out of the madding crowd's way, suddenly the sound of glass shattering stopped everyone cold. After a moment's silence, the hustle and bustle returned as everyone went back to the business of spending.

Coming out of Mongrel, I heard my name called and turned to see two wine rep friends also exiting the madhouse. We chatted about the folly of last minute shopping, agreeing that experiences and time were the best gifts (I'd also add to that list words because I like nothing better than for someone to write to me for a present).

"It's better now because we're going to Don't Look Back," she said, practically beaming. Yes, I agreed enthusiastically, tequila and chicken skin tacos do make everything better.

After a stop at Plan 9, I had finished as much shopping as I was going to do tonight. Back on the sidewalk, I ran into another friend, this one a server and wine goddess with an ear for Italian and a beautiful baby in her arms. I hadn't seen her since before she'd had the wee one, so we exchanged holiday pleasantries before going our separate ways.

My consumer duties finally over, I considered stopping for a cup of Can Can's indulgent hot chocolate but a glance through the window at the boring-looking crowd at the bar told me that I didn't really want to deal with that. Even for a bowl of chocolate

Clearly I'm not cut out to be Suzy Homemaker or Sherry Shopper. Happily, after my hard work today, that's all behind me. Now it's time to enjoy Christmas time in the city.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Golden Years

I'm happy, hope you're happy, too...

Tonight's holiday celebration began with the birthday boy-to-be's new compilation, "Best of Bowie," playing at top volume while the Bowie lovers danced around his living room. "Ashes to Ashes" was a fitting kick-off to the upcoming weeks of little work and all play.

After a poll, it was decided that dinner would follow at Amuse, a block and a half from the Bowie dance party, although I'd be the first to admit that it wasn't easy to walk away from "Under Pressure" or "Suffragette City."

After a mighty cold stroll over (or maybe that was the fuchsia tights?), we entered through the sculpture garden into the atrium where tangoing was in full force. Seeing the dancers reminded my friend of a guy he'd recently met who went to Brazil 17 times, always in search of the ideal tango partner he couldn't find in this country.

Even if I don't know him, it's hard not to admire a man who takes his dancing that seriously.

Upstairs at Amuse, the bar was full, so we settled for a table in the busy room, but only long enough to decide on a wine and then, like we wished it so, the bar emptied and we took our rightful place there. Barboursville Brut Cuvee 1814 was ordered and a favorite bartender delivered it post haste, along with homemade cheese straws.

The southern Christmas gods were smiling.

I'm not sure the evening could have gotten off to a better start than Bowie and Barboursville, but those straws made a solid case for themselves.

Over a discussion of the sublime Hasui print show we'd all seen, we devoured an amuse bouche of scallop ceviche, the deviled eggs du jour (classic preparation with pickled green bean and oh-so creamy) and curry fried oysters, the perennial favorite Amuse can't take off the menu for fear of a revolt.

I heard a little about the fabulous party I'd missed Sunday while I was at my parents' house being a good daughter. Someone told a story about a man laying down in the street, trying to be a human speed bump. There was a prolonged debate about what constitutes proper disco attire, deferring to those who actually lived it.

As always, I got the lecture about how I need a cell phone. About how I'm going to be given one and discover how great it is. Tonight it was even suggested I need a government cell phone, whatever that is. I need no cell phone.

For my main course, I chose housemade Scrapple with a soft-cooked egg, grilled Billy bread and pickled onions, a dish I didn't have to share because everyone else had preconceived notions of Scrapple. When I tried to explain that what was on my plate bore little resemblance to the Scrapple they knew, they remained uninterested. Fools.

Everyone, that is, except the bartender, food runner and a nearby server, all of whom raved about it when my plate came out. The chunks of pig under the runny egg were soul-satisfying but became food of the gods with the addition of the pickled onions. Some people will never know what they missed.

Another bottle of Barboursville kept the party going even as art cheerleader Pam Reynolds stopped by the bar and spoke to one in our group about his superior chopstick skills. Although the room had begun to clear out, there were still half a dozen tables as firmly entrenched as we were, despite the fact that the museum had closed.

Someone mentioned the abundance of days off over the next couple weeks and next thing we knew, people were comparing plans for Florida vacations. Then New Year's Eve plans. The good news is that with the VMFA open 365 days a year, any day any of us are free, there's an open place to enjoy some bubbles. More plans were concocted.

Chocoholic that I am, I still couldn't have imagined a more appropriate or decadent dessert than Amuse's housemade eggnog. Using Courvoisier, gold rum and Jack Daniels ("because it's not too sweet!" the bartender insisted) with a base of the stellar Homestead Creamery nog, the magic potion had rested a few days to blend the flavors and tonight presented itself as both the smell and taste of Christmas.

"We would drink this to trim the tree, then on Christmas Eve morning and Christmas morning and..." reminisced the curly-haired one. Clearly she'd had a fine upbringing. A debate ensued about whether it's possible to make a single glass of eggnog or whether batch preparation and fermenting time were required.

My camp prevailed on this one. Nog needs time.

Which, by that point, we were running out of. The security guards in the museum were counting the minutes until we left, so we accommodated them.

When the bartender inquired about my later plans as we were saying goodnight, I surprised everyone by saying I was going home.

No, really. I've got no plans to dance anymore tonight, even if you put on more Bowie. Okay, "Let's Dance" and that's it. "Modern Love," no fair!

Let the Christmas holiday merrymaking continue...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Aglow and Affectionate

Once in a blue moon, that's how often I have two reasons to go to southside in one evening.

The first was my annual Christmas celebration with Moira, who lives on that side of the river but works on this side, so we always meet in the city. Not so tonight when our destination was Southbound.

Let the record show, I've been a fan of Chef Lee Gregory's cooking for a very long time. Waaaay before the Roosevelt. I was a regular back at Six Burner when he was the unsung hero there. During his stint in Charlottesville, I drove an hour to eat his food.

So of course I was going to cross the river to see what had been wrought in this enormous new place.

I got there just as they opened and was the sole occupant of the three-sided bar. Moira showed up before long craving a Christmas cocktail, but instead we toasted another year of friendship with glasses of a Macabeo blend Cava (from a  list that included only two Virginia wines) and followed with recent tales from our lives. She was bowled over with the Christmas spirit of my flower savior, here. Hell of a guy.

As we tucked into a charcuterie and cheese plate of Mortadella, salami, chicken liver mousse, cheddar and brie (mortadella and onion jam were decided highlights), we watched in amazement as a steady stream of humanity began to fill up the place.

Given the early hour,many in the crowd were older but there were families, too. A mother and elementary-age son sat side by side at the bar. Moira ran into the man who built her new porch and I was surprised to run into the woman I lived next door to for 13 years on Floyd Avenue.

By 6:15 every seat was taken. We were told that 200 people were served last night. Great balls of fire.

The bartender got major points when I gave Moira her gift, a copy of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," because she clutched her hands together in rhapsody at the sight of the book, Didion being a personal favorite she said. Who knew millennials read?

We moved on to the one-two punch of Thai chili wings followed by sticky and crunchy pickled chili smoked drumsticks, at which point Moira had a French 75, satisfying the cocktail craving she'd arrived with. I had a few sips of the heavenly gin and champagne cocktail before returning to bubbles.

That'll get a girl in trouble.

Around us, people were milling about awaiting a table or bar stool to empty, but since we'd been there first and it was our annual fete, we continued our conversation oblivious to them.

"I've had just enough alcohol to go home aglow and affectionate and make a few demands," she announced, giving me the best laugh of the night. We finally gave up our valuable bar real estate only because we had somewhere to be.

With no demands to make, my next stop was the Artisans Cafe at Stony Point Fashion Center, a place I avoid like the plague (truthfully, I avoid all malls).

Tonight was the monthly installment of the Noir Cinema series and NYC filmmaker Stefani Saintonge was showing her short film, "Seventh Grade." Two of her films were being premiered tonight in other cities, so it was a coup that she'd chosen the Richmond premiere to attend.

The brief film chronicled a middle-schooler named Patrice who still happily played with her Barbie and Ken dolls, albeit making the noises for them as they made out, while her best friend had moved on to real boys. Before long, the boy has told everyone in school what service she provided for him in the bathroom and everyone's making fun of her.

Patrice comes to her friend's aid by doing something that becomes the new hot topic and leaving her dolls and childhood behind.

Saintonge took the floor to discuss the film and take questions, saying she'd been trying to convey the culture that permeates the hell that is middle school.

One of the most interesting questions was directed at a member of the audience, a ninth grade boy. He was asked if the film was an accurate portrayal and if now kids used phones and social media to perpetuate the rumor mill at that age. "Yes, definitely," he said.

Reports of the early death of childhood circa 2015 are apparently not exaggerated. This must be a truly awful time to have to navigate the waters of budding adolescence.

The film has already garnered Saintonge a 2014 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Discovery Award and a trip to L.A. to meet film luminaries, no doubt in part because everyone can relate to the horrors of seventh grade.

What I remember about my own experience that year is how mortified I was when a brainy kid named Anthony told me I had food stuck in my braces as we were walking into the school building one morning.

Then, I'd wanted to die of embarrassment. Now, I understand what a favor he was doing me.

Maybe if it had been those killer drumsticks stuck in my braces, I wouldn't have cared anyway.

The Case of the Purloined Bulbs

Yes, Karen, there is a Santa Claus. And he's a drummer.

When I got home last night, it was to a Facebook message from a stranger.

Hi Karen - I'm Todd and I live in Oregon Hill. A friend of mine found a box ripped open and discarded by a trash can in a Jackson Ward alley that was filled with hyacinth and tulip bulbs. Assuming it was discarded, he gave it to me, knowing I'm a gardener. I saw your name on the box and looked it up on Facebook. I just wanted to make sure that they weren't stolen and discarded. If these are yours, I want to make sure to get them back to you. If not, I'll be happy to plant them. I will wait to hear from you before I do. Please let me know and best wishes! Todd

Last week I'd ordered dozens of pink, purple and white hyacinth and tulip bulbs to plant in my tiny front yard to ensure color come Spring. Every day since, I'd been expecting the package, but also allowing for the fact that it's the busiest package delivery time of the year.

Honestly, if Todd hadn't e-mailed me, I wouldn't yet be concerned that they hadn't arrived. Now I was just grateful for the kindness of a stranger and the power of Facebook.

We went back and forth joking about how disappointed the thief must have been when he tore into my package and found nothing but bulbs. After a while messaging, we finally decided to get together today to do the exchange of the purloined bulbs (his phrase and a terrific one). Seems he's on break from work and suggested I meet him at his garden. Once he told me where it was, I knew exactly because I'd seen it so many times.

Across from the Byrd House market is a large lot which I'd always presumed was a community garden plot. Nope, it's Todd's and there he grows eight kinds of garlic, asparagus, onions, hickory nuts (which, he told me, are fabulous for filtering city air) and cherries. And that's just part of it.

"Do you like shiitake mushrooms?" he asked, leading me to what looked like a woodpile. Attached to the oak logs were plump, beautiful shiitakes sprouting and he promptly began cutting them off to go in a brown paper bag for me to take home. All the while, we're talking. He told me his Dad grew up a block away and I told him mine was born a block behind Carytown. We marveled over how much less space people used to require in their houses.

Curious about what he was on break from, I asked. Wouldn't you just know that my bulb savior was not just on the music staff at VCU and UR but a musician in bands I knew of? Once we got to talking about music, we discovered all kinds of minimal degrees of separation. In addition to bulbs, I have some new bands to check out, too.

Before I left, I did two things. I asked for his favorite shiitake preparation and he supplied it, along with the endorsement that it made them taste like bacon. And I hugged him, thanking him for being the kind of person who doesn't just accept someone else's package, but takes the time to play sleuth and good Samaritan.

As far as I'm concerned, Santa lives in Oregon Hill and now we're friends on Facebook.

I got my gift from him, but he won't get his till Spring. I think he'll appreciate a bouquet of tulips.

Hugging a Tree

You know what's hard? Putting up a Christmas tree by yourself.

And I'm not talking about some 9 foot monster of a tree, I'm talking about a Charlie Brown kind of a tree, the kind that needs a little love to reach its full potential. The kind that needs Linus to wrap his blanket around the base to help it stay upright. The kind that starts to lean when you look at it.

It's not just difficult dragging it up a flight of stairs and through an extremely narrow hallway by yourself, it's also challenging to get it in the stand and determine if it's straight or not when you can't be under the tree and in front of it simultaneously.

Once all that was accomplished, I began stringing lights on it when it began to lean precariously and I lost an hour of my life reworking everything so it could stay upright and support lights and decorations, too.

After another hour in, my hands were brown with sap, the tree was wearing its holiday finery and I was itching to get out of the house. Where better to go than to meet the friend who'd been so kind as to send me to see "Mame" today?

We met at Amour because I also wanted to eat and they have terrific small plate options, the better to pair with an exquisite Blanc de Noir with which we toasted "Mame."

First up I had two oysters swimming under a mignonette of canola oil, sherry vinaigrette and shallots, each a perfectly balanced bite of the bay.

Cauliflower soup was a revelation made even more impressive when I heard that the cauliflower had still been in the ground at noon today. The rich soup was adorned with Parmesan-crusted cauliflower and sauteed cauliflower greens, a decadent bowl I couldn't finish despite how fresh-tasting it was.

Next came tuna and cantaloupe ceviche, the unexpected sweetness of the melon a delightful addition. I followed that with duck confit with gnocchi and Granny Smith apple sauce, a dish of contrasting textures- pillowy, crunchy - and mouthfeel - rich, tart - that was also being enjoyed by a couple of regulars at the bar.

Turns out the  woman was only taking in the gnocchi, though.

She said she eats nothing with feet, so duck was out but she also admitted to loving Soprasetta ("It doesn't have feet") and other cured meats. Her man said it wasn't an issue of ethics but rather the texture of meat she found offensive.

How anyone couldn't love that duck confit is beyond me, but the really strange part is that she loves blood pudding. "So she'll eat congealed blood," her man observed with a grimace.

That led to a discussion of other edibles such as Scrapple (he was raised in Philly so it was a staple) and his father's favorite: white bread with Karo syrup and butter. It makes my teeth hurt to think about it, but he said his Dad ate it for lunch as a kid and never outgrew his taste for it.

But the main reason for my visit had not been to discuss food or this couple's upcoming winter vacation in Key West, but to compare notes on "Mame," which my friend is already planning to see a second time this weekend.

And a third time on closing night.

As it turned out, the couple had also seen it, so our four-way conversation became a love-fest about the musical, how it captured even non-musical lovers, what a top-notch cast it has, how exceptional the choreography was and what a feel-good experience watching it had been.

"It grabbed from the opening scene and made me happy all the way through," my friend said. The non-feet eater told us that "Cabaret" was her favorite musical but allowed as how it was a downer. Not so for "Mame," which radiates sunshine, lollipops and rainbows start to finish (even through stock market crashes, job firings and death of a beloved/rich husband).

Given the caliber of the production, it's the kind of show every theater-loving patron in the city should see. Hell, even people who think they don't like theater or musicals are likely to get their socks knocked off by all the talent onstage.

Instead of dessert, we all shared a cup of Les Confitures a l'Ancienne hot chocolate (my latest obsession), a decadent French extravagance that capped off our meal nicely after so much savory.

But the Scrapple lover had other ideas for happy endings, so we ended up trying a 2007 J. Fritsch Gewurtztraminer, a swoon-worthy sweet and ripe late harvest wine that tasted of lychee and finished with honey. Perfectly lovely, in other words.

By then we'd all moved on from "Mame" to the pleasures of traveling France's 1,000 miles of canals, something the couple is planning to spend two summers doing.

But that's a few years off so for now, they're going to pack up the little teal Christmas tree she won at a fundraiser and drive to Florida for the holidays.

You know what's easy? A teal pre-decorated Christmas tree. You know what's way more fun?

Wrangling a Charlie Brown tree into yuletide submission. Decking the halls with a trail of fallen pine needles. Celebrating with sparkling conversation.

It made me happy all the way through.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Applesauce and Rolos

I love it when people give me experiences for gifts.

A theater-loving friend who'd seen "Mame" at Virginia Rep gave me two tickets, saying he was eager for me to see it so we could discuss it. I promptly chose to join the blue-hair set at a Wednesday matinee and invited a friend to join me.

Since the theater is only a few blocks from my house, I suggested he meet me here and we'd walk over. "Can we leave a little earlier so I don't have to walk so fast? he e-mailed me.

While that sounds like a typically middle-aged man thing to ask - I've learned that they're rarely as enthusiastic walkers as I am- I let it slide because I knew he'd been sick the past few days. So when I joined him on the sunny front porch, I made sure to set my body to old-man-stroll rather than my usual after-burner speed.

As it turned out, we could have crawled over because the play was delayed due to some casting changes. One of the leads was out with  complications of a root canal, so there'd been some shifting of parts. We might see a script in hand (we did).

Waiting for things to get rolling, my friend took the time to chide me for calling him a middle-aged man who ignores his doctor's advice in my last blog post about him. He clarified that he was only ignoring the medical advice for a day, not forever. That old chestnut.

When he asked me what the play was about, I drew on my memory of having seen the movie just last November and summarized it for him. Bohemian inherits nephew and proceeds to school him on how to live life to the max. And since this was a musical version, add in song and dance.

Luckily, he'd brought plenty of cough drops to silence his lung hacking, although most of the raucous song and dance numbers would have easily drowned him out. We were both particularly knocked out by the energy and swagger of "That's How Young I Feel," but maybe there's a reason for that.

How old do you think I am?
Somewhere between 40 and death?


Even a non-fashionable sort such as me had to be impressed with the scads of costume changes throughout. An old timer might say it was the equivalent of watching a Cher show.

Emily Skinner was terrific as Mame but Audra Honaker stole a lot of scenes with her portrayal of the timid nanny Miss Gooch and the siren she becomes under Mame's tutelage.

The scene where Mame visits her beau's plantation in the South provided one of the best lines. When told that the war between the states is over, Mother Burnside replies, "Don't give me any of that Appomattox applesauce!"

Discussing how much we were enjoying the show at intermission, my friend said, "It pays to be Karen's beard." While he didn't mean beard in terms of sexual orientation, he was referring to providing company so I didn't have to go alone, not that I have a problem with that.

But what was really generous was that he told me that he used to feel awkward doing things by himself until he met me five years ago and saw how often I was my own date. After he began venturing out solo, a friend of his followed suit, crediting him for being a great example. He wanted me to have the credit.

Such a nice middle-aged guy.

Not only did he buy us Rolos to share at intermission, but he only asked me to slow down once on the walk home. And now I can't wait to thank the gift-giver with a satisfying conversation about what I just saw.

Life is a banquet but it's unlikely I'll ever starve with friends giving me - and sharing - such enjoyable experiences.

No gift wrapping required.

I Wish You Christmas

There's something about Christmas music live. Maybe it's the sleigh bells.

With a final goal of the Mosque Landmark Altria Theater, I had just enough time to make it to Dash for dinner before the show. The challenge getting there was dodging all the eager VCU fans trying to make it to the game when all I wanted was food.

The Ram nation was on a mission.

My guess is that the eager young man at the Dash counter was fairly new because when I ordered a green salad with a scoop of chicken salad on top, he looked at me like I was brilliant. "I never thought of that!" he said in an admiring tone.

Here's the thing, though. It says right on the big menu "add a scoop of chicken salad," so the brilliance wasn't even my own and I told him so. "Yea, but I never thought of it."

I sat facing away from the two TV screens, enjoying an excellent salad (fried croutons, yum) when all of a sudden, my nose hair began to burn. It smelled like ammonia. Sure enough, I turned around to see a staffer diligently spraying the booths and wiping them down.

Good employee, bad timing.

Don't get me wrong, I really hate to be that person, but if there's one thing that's an appetite-killer, it's the smell of cleaning fluids mid-meal. When I politely mentioned it to her, she was perfectly gracious and stopped at once, clearly unaware of how bad a combination chemicals and food are.

It's strange, I once mentioned the same thing to a server, about how offensive I found it when someone sprayed the table next to me while I was eating, wondering why they couldn't spray the rag somewhere else and just wipe the table. She said it had never occurred to her.

I like to think I'm offering a public service message.

After dinner, I walked over to the theater which was mobbed with arrivals like me. Inside, an usher asked if I had a ticket, which I didn't (it was free, but I hadn't made a reservation, having decided only an hour earlier to go).

Pulling one out of his back pocket, he kindly said, "I have one for you." See, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Another usher instructed us to head all the way upstairs to the balcony because all the lower levels were full. Walking up four flights of steps behind a raucous group of high school students, I listened as they huffed and puffed, complained and bitched about the exercise.

Three of them peeled off at the first tier level, saying they were going to the bathroom to rest up for the remainder of the climb. This is the youth of America?

Once in the balcony, I scored a seat in the front row center on the aisle with a bird's eye view of the stage and the Richmond Pops. Behind me, a woman raved about the additional leg room in the seats since the renovation.

The first thing I realized about the Richmond Pops Band is that everybody blows, as in all the instruments are blown with the exception of the harp (which had a red Santa hat on top of it), the upright bass and the drums and percussion.

Host Tim Timberlake welcomed the crowd, mentioning the recent renovation. "We hope you take full note of your tax dollars at work...and our corporate sponsors." That would be Dominion and signs saying "Dominion Stage" flanked it.

After a medley of holiday music by the band, an Air Force master sergeant - also known as a singing sergeant - came out to impress us with his big, deep voice doing songs such as the one he picked, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and other poppy Christmas standards.

Full disclosure: I happen to like the "Christmas Waltz."

But whenever I hear the music to "O Christmas Tree," all I hear is "O, Maryland, My Maryland," a function of where I grew up.

Tim came back out to read us a hysterical "politically correct" holiday greeting which talked around every possible holiday greeting without ever really saying anything. It got a lot of laughs.

I was in no way prepared for the next act, the Royalettes Baton Corps who came out to a chorus of "awws" from the audience, but apparently they're a regular part of this performance every year. Who knew kids still wanted to twirl batons in the digital age?

Then out came the Richmond Choral Society, an all-volunteer singing group that's been around since 1946, doing "I Wish You Christmas," a song I'd never heard of.

Although I had heard of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians (although I don't know why), I'd never heard their arrangement of the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" as performed tonight. Sounded to me like Fred took some liberties with the poem, adding in words and even tacking on a verse about the night after Christmas. Blasphemy!

The singing sergeant came back out for a singalong, then Santa showed up with the twirlers and it was intermission. Tim's instructions were, "Go admire the renovated bathrooms!"

I opted out, staying in my seat and listening to the people around me chatter. Most were employees of Dominion who were expected to attend and cut out before the lights went down again.

It was during "Sleigh Ride" that I got a lesson in musical instruments when a guy played the whip, which looked like two pieces of wood which he would clap together. Now I know.

The people who cut out during intermission were saved from hearing the cheesy Whitney Houston song, "One Moment in Time," which sounded overwrought and out of place in a Christmas with the Pops program. I say that, but it got a huge ovation, so once again, I was in the minority.

After the conductor told us a joke about a goat and a railroad tie, the evening wound down, moving from secular ("Sing Noel" with congas and chorus) to all the traditional Christmas carols.

You know, like when good king Wenceslas came upon a midnight joy to the world where they were decking the halls while hearing angels on high at the first noel of a silent night when all ye faithful came.

Heathen that I am, the songs still sound beautiful when heard through live voices and instruments.

Maybe it isn't only the sleigh bells.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Heard It in a Love Song

If I'm going to drive an hour plus in the driving rain, it helps to have a talkative architect of the right age at the other end.

My purpose in visiting him at his modernist Northern Neck office - glass front, soaring ceiling, table with sculptural metal pieces that began in the floor, went through the glass and ended at the ceiling - was to interview him for a story I'm working on.

After offering me espresso or tea (I chose peppermint tea, made in an electric tea kettle his Scottish wife chose), we sat down in front of the enormous window with the sound of rain falling on the metal roof. The sophisticated vibe was anything but small town, despite being in a hamlet of 400 people.

As we dispensed with the purpose of my visit, me asking and him answering, it didn't take long for the Irish Catholic (me) and the German Catholic (him) to realize we had loads in common. Partly, it was our similar ages, but partly it was everything else.

When he heard I had six sisters, he shared that his mother was one of 19 kids and his Dad one of 12. "Meaning I had close to 200 first cousins so I had to leave town just to find someone I could marry legally. And that's just first cousins!"

Talking about how he'd ended up in such a small pond, he admitted wanting to escape the unrelenting cold weather and boring people of the Midwest. When I asked about his current house, he pulled out a national magazine and showed me an 8-page spread on the bay-front house he designed.

When I asked about a huge watercolor painting of NYC's Chrysler building on a nearby wall, he explained that he'd traded his table saw for the painting after his wife worried about him losing fingers to the saw (which dimmed all the lights in the house when he used it) and being unable to have sufficient digits to continue as an architect.

There's a woman looking out for her man.

Hell, we spent 20 minutes just on nutrition, exercise and sleep. Rarely (or should I say never?) do I meet a man who cares, much less addresses in his own life, such issues. Based on how good he looked, he was obviously doing something everything right.

Probably our longest topic was the tectonic shift in the world that we've seen in our lifetimes.

Not the obvious stuff like cell phones and computers, but the fact that we began life in a world that no longer exists and got to live through the sea changes that resulted in this brave, new world we now inhabit. How it was easier for us as young people to adjust to the new world order than it had been for our parents who still embraced the old ways.

What a gift it had been to have to navigate college - choosing, applying and paying for it ourselves without parental assistance - on our own and come out of the experience with so much more than an academic education. He said his father gave him a book of stamps and told him to write. That's it. No advice, no help, just stamps.

P.S. He never wrote.

We gabbed about ourselves, sharing our similar and dissimilar memories (he had conservative parents while I was fortunate enough to be raised by two screaming liberals) for the rest of the rainy afternoon until finally I got ready to take my leave, my peppermint tea long gone.

He walked me to the door and thanked me for driving out on such a nasty day but mostly for all the conversation. As I scooped up my umbrella, I turned for one last talking point, my favorite.

His first concert was Marshall Tucker. "No one even remembers who that was anymore," he laughed. Looking at this extremely urbane and stylish man dressed in a European-cut suit with the kind of fashion-forward shoes and glasses unheard of on the Northern Neck, I never would have guessed.

Driving home, the rain had stopped but the swamps were shrouded with the ghosts of fog making its way across the landscape. Passing a junkyard, the sign out front read, "Go tell it on the mountain."

I had a far better time telling it in an architect's office, but that's probably just me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It Is To Laugh

All it took was reading Chris Rock's opinion about cell phones in comedy clubs to get my interest.

Rock is not anyone I've paid much attention to, but that article raised some provocative points. In it, he'd worried that fans shooting video of comedians working out new material in clubs and then posting to YouTube were going to be the death knell for stand-up comedy.

The point, he said, of comedians trying out new stuff in public was to see what worked and what fell flat. What was groan-worthy. What was too offensive. The absolutely essential step of self-editing.

But with the ubiquity of phones as cameras, stuff is being published online that comedians never intended anyone beyond the first audience to hear. Instead of a hundred people being offended, now millions can and the fallout can be tremendous.

Significantly, he saw it as having the potential to be the death of stand-up comedy and naturally I agreed.

Honestly, I don't think cell phones should be allowed in any sort of performance spaces and I really mean any at all. But that's a rant for another day.

Tonight it was enough to make me look differently at Rock and decide to see "Top Five," the new film he wrote, directed and starred in (can you say "Prince"?), despite knowing little about it except that it was about a comedian and critics seem to be liking it.

I took a seat in my favorite row - the front elevated one- near a guy wrist-deep in popcorn and Milk Duds. Had he offered to share, I'd have gladly taken him up on it. After previews for every upcoming movie with a black actor in it (talk about racial profiling), we finally got to what I came to see.

What surprised me the most was that it was essentially a film about conversation. From start to finish, the comedian is being interviewed by by a New York Times reporter who questions him on everything- why he's not funny anymore, why he's marrying a reality star, how bad things got before he finally got sober - and, per their mutual sobriety, demands "rigorous honesty" in return.

The film got a little too raunchy for me (some sexual things I just don't need to hear or see) and occasionally sexist ("You can go all "k.d. lang" on me"), but Rock was funny, articulate and such a keen observer of culture, that I overlooked the overload.

All kinds of real life comedians people the film, including Adam Sandler, Whoppi Goldberg (warning him never to cheat on his wife because she'll know) and Jerry Seinfeld, looking noticeably older than the last time I saw him.

In a scene in a club for Rock's bachelor party, Jerry accuses a female dancer of taking his wallet. Referring to her negligible bikini costume, she asks where she could possibly be hiding it. "Do I have to say it?" Jerry says in that affronted tone we heard so much in the '90s.

And the film's title? That comes from his favorite question, which he puts to almost everybody. What are your top five hip hop artists? As someone who asks practically everyone I meet what their first concert was, I can appreciate having a stock question with which to get to know and understand a person.

Between reading his insightful comments about the future of stand-up and now seeing "Top Five," I'd say I have a much better grasp on what Chris Rock is about.

And given my cell phone-less existence, he's got nothing to worry about with me.

Okay, Miguel, Drake, Weeknd, The Roots, Outkast. Judge away.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Swayziest Christmas of Them All

Sometimes you make sacrifices for the right people.

Among those I made this weekend were sawing off the sappy base of my parents' Christmas tree until my arm went numb. Twenty eight trips up and down three flights of stairs to dig out obscure holiday decorations from the storage floor, where dust mites are outnumbered only by the minutiae of a half century of marriage.

My parents had asked me to come down yesterday and help them get ready for Christmas, yet by early evening, they were suggesting I spend the night in order to provide more assistance today.

Putting aside plans to watch the boat parade of lights, catch "Holiday Inn" at Movieland, see musicologist Christopher King deejay gospel at Steady Sounds and attend a friend's Christmas party, I stayed.

If I can't be a good daughter at the holidays, then when?

After my final effort of the weekend - making a pound cake - I made a beeline for the great outdoors, determined to enjoy a riverside walk in the 60-degree late afternoon sunshine, returning to the house lomg enough to remove the cake from the oven and kiss my parents goodbye.

Much as I love them, I was more than ready for some outside contact beyond the man who'd greeted Dad and me at the dump this morning.

I needed Movie Club.

Tonight's installment was looking to be just the holiday boost I craved: "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." You better believe I was cleaned up, dressed for the city and walking over to Strange Matter within an hour of getting home from the country.

My parents would never understand.

I walked into the venue I've been to so many times to find a row of recliners lined up in front of a screen set on the stage. Behind them were small tables and chairs for a cafe-like cinebistro setting. I was right where I needed to be..

Ordering a bowl of vegan chili with Twin Oaks "chorizo", the only answer the bartender needed from me was whether I wanted real cheese or vegan cheese. Excuse me, but if it's vegan it technically isn't cheese (just like those vile individually wrapped American cheese food product slices, which are made with vegetable oil and no actual dairy. Blech!), although some would say I'm arguing semantics here.

Drink in hand, I found myself a table and chair directly behind the recliners and waited for the movie to begin. When my chili was delivered, I found it jalapeno-spicy and chock full of beans. Considering the massive cheeseburgers Mom had made for dinner last night, I could forego meat tonight.

While "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" had been made in 1964, the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version had been made in 1991, meaning we were going to get cultural references from two entirely different periods. I was in heaven.

Host Andrew warned us that the original movie has consistently been listed as one of the 100 worst of all time and it didn't take long to see why.

For starters, they obviously didn't have budget for so much as a copy editor since the credits read "custume designer" not "costume." Yeesh. There was also a credit for "Martian furniture."  Somebody's mother must have been very proud.

And, given that it was 1964, Santa still smoked  a pipe. I guess he hadn't seen the surgeon general's warning yet. And speaking of, his elves all liked like miniature C. Everett Koops (for those who remmeber who he was).

I was glad we were seeing the MST version because all the best lines came from the exiled spaceman and his robots. "You know, elf tastes just like chicken." When a Martian asks what Christmas is, the MST robot says, "A Christian holiday ruined by commercialism." Bingo.

On the other hand, it didn't take long for me to begin wondering how many people in the room were getting the 1991 references.

Walking into the Martian spaceship control room, a cliched '60s idea of a high tech center with reel to reel tape machines lining the walls, the MST robot says, "But first a tour of Paisley Park." I laughed out loud at the Prince reference, but no one else did.

Ditto allusions to the book "Alive," the movie "Ice Station Zebra" and actor Larry Storch. References to Jimmy Durante and McGyver. Or when the robot sang in a whiny voice, "Old man, take a look at your elf, I'm a lot like you are."

I'm just saying that I seriously doubt many people in the room knew that the "whipped cream and other delights" reference was the name of an iconic Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album. Or what "The Long Goodbye" was.

Some humor is timeless, though, such as, "And now for your enjoyment, some suggestive scenes of jets refueling."

There was no forgetting that the original film was from the '60s and had a finite budget because of things like an actor in a polar bear costume, the headpiece clearly separate from the body or a robot that looked like a tin foil box with a coffee can on top.

When Santa said, "Falderal and fiddle dee dee," the robots chided him, saying, "Language, Santa, language!" Hysterical.

For those who don't know, the premise of the movie is that the Martian children are quiet, remote and very unhappy because they are fed information but never allowed to be children with freedom. Once the Martians kidnap two earth children who tell them where to find Santa, they nab him too. Then they're all taken to Mars, where the fat man makes everybody laugh because he's such a jolly fellow.

"It's the little signs of drug abuse," one of the MST robots observes about the corny laughter.

Patrick Swayze and the movie "Roadhouse" were a recurring theme throughout the commentary, probably because the movie was barely two years old at that point. Lines from it were repeatedly quoted and worked into the Martian story to hilarious results. You know, "my way or the highway" and "You're gonna be my regular Saturday night thing, baby" kind of stuff.

In Santa's Martian workshop, he had a machine instead of elves to help him make toys. When a load of baseball bats came out, the robot quipped, "Okay, those are marked for the L.A.P.D." Some black humor still resonates.

Eventually, the earth children get homesick, and the mother Martian explains to others that the kids miss their friends and family. "And Nintendo and sugar," an MST robot cracks.

By the time the movie ended with a singalong, I was pretty clear on why it had been so firmly entrenched in the worst of lists for 50 years. Which is not to say it hadn't been great fun, a real time capsule of two completely different eras. One of the robots even sang a violent Christmas carol about "Road House" to close out the MST part of the movie.

What's also notable is that Movie Club doesn't make a habit of showing perfectly awful movies. This had been a holiday selection (yet, in part chosen for its awfulness) while next month's will be something far superior, namely "Raising Arizona." I'll be there.

The funny part was that after the last of the trivia questions and prizes handed out after Santa conquered the Martians, host Andrew announced that, "Inspired by tonight, we're planning to show "Road House" in the future."

I. Can. Not. Wait.

We're talking about a film with the line, "That gal's got entirely too many brains to have an ass like that." It'll be a night of '80s splendor, I feel sure of it.

Should Mom and Dad ask me to stay over that night, I'm afraid their needs will have to be sacrificed on the altar of Patrick Swayze.

Oh, yea, Movie Club's gonna be my monthly Sunday night thing, baby.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Chritmas Time in the City

It's come to this: I had to join a group to find people to walk with me.

No, that's not a whiff of desperation you smell. I merely saw that there was a holiday light walking tour and realistically acknowledged that no one I know or love would be willing to do such a thing with me. When I told one of those people about it, the response said it all. "I bet you'll love it."

Yes and no.

The group met in front of New York Deli and I was one of several first-timers. The last thing I'd expected was anyone I knew and yet there was a woman I'd met at a restaurant last year, apparently a semi-regular in the group.

Interestingly enough, there were plenty of people who'd come because, like me, they enjoyed walking but couldn't find friends to do it with. So at least I wasn't odd man out.

We began by walking up Boulevard admiring lights and decorations before turning on to Stuart Avenue. By then it was already apparent that the group's members were going to move at wildly different speeds. I should have had a clue when the group leader told us that the 10K walk would take approximately 3 1/2 hours.

Seriously? I could walk to the Lilly Pad Cafe in Varina in less time than that.

Here's the thing: it's cold outside, a few degrees above freezing at best. And while I'd dressed appropriately for the weather, when it's cold like this, my walking speed picks up for the first few miles so I can warm up. A couple of women joined me at the front of the pack but the rest of the group lagged a block or two behind.

What this meant was that periodically, we'd turn around and shout to the group leader asking about the route he wanted to take. Since the goal was seeing decorated houses, our path was completely subject to change depending on which streets appeared to have lots of bling.

Someone observed that the popular decorating style seems to be that of strings of lights spilling off a porch or roof. "Hell, I could do that," one woman sniffed. It's not rocket science, that's for sure.

As we outdistanced the pack, one in our trio told me that men her age aren't active enough and can't keep up with her. But she doesn't want to date younger men because they don't have any money. Conundrum.

After Stuart, we went east on Hanover for a bit before switching to Grove and eventually Franklin to get us to the Jefferson, our first stop. No surprise, the hotel was packed to the rafters with a huge Christmas party in the Rotunda, a smaller party in the Flemish room and scads of families dragging squalling kids dressed in their Sunday best around the lobby for photo ops.

Santa must do a lot of self-medicating this time of year.

Our group leader gave us 15 minutes and told us to meet back by the desk. My two walking companions and I made a quick pit stop and then stood there waiting for the others to join us. One of the women pointed to Lemaire and said, "I got engaged there 40 years ago and had my reception there," pointing to a ballroom.

Her Daddy was in steel fabrication, no doubt the source of the checkbook that funded such extravagance.

Once the group reassembled, our speedy trio was ready to get walking again but first we had to pose for a group picture in front of the holiday-bedecked alligators outside. Twice.

From there, we headed down Franklin, turning on 8th Street to get to Cary and the splendor that is the Grand Illumination at the James Center. I knew we were getting close when traffic all but stopped alongside us.

Under the bright lights of all those illuminated reindeer, our leader told us we had 25 minutes to explore before reporting back for the return trip to Carytown. Only problem was, we were finally warmed up and none of the three of us wanted to spend 25 minutes getting cold again for the walk back.

That and the less experienced walker in our trio was starting to feel the effects of shin splints and was afraid if she stopped, she'd never get started again. We looked at each other and made the decision to start back.

"But we walked all this way to see this," our group leader said, gesturing toward the decorations. Truth be told, we'd come all this way to enjoy a night time walk and admire lights along the way. We'd done that.

Another guy in the main group overheard us saying goodbye and elected to join us on our return trip, so then we were four.

But to show our appreciation for organizing the tour, we took a few minutes to walk around the lit figures before heading back up the hill and westward ho, running smack dab into VCU graduation ceremony crowds spilling out of the Mosque Landmark Altria Theater.

Further along, we saw holiday parties through windows, in shops and closed restaurants, in stretch limos driving by.

Even our little splinter group eventually splintered, with the shin splint victim and the last minute addition electing to adopt a more leisurely pace coming back while my lively companion and I kept up a conversation as fast-paced as our steps.

She told me she's in training to bike across Iowa and shared details of biking across Barbados. We discovered a mutual love of quinoa, fried chicken and daily walking.

Before we knew it, we were back in Carytown in what seemed like no time at all. "How'd we do that so fast?" she asked, half joking. "I'm going on the group hike tomorrow at Dutch Gap. Are you coming?'

Nope, I have other plans tomorrow. Besides, I'm not entirely sold on all aspects of the group walk thing yet.

Earlier, a very tall, bearded man with long hair had said that he'd ended up on this walk solely because he'd seen it in Style Weekly, loved to walk and doesn't have anyone to walk with.

We might be walking soul mates since that about sums up why I was there. The question is, could he keep up?

So few can. Tonight that total came down to exactly one woman. And I'm not switching teams even for a fast walker.

But I'm willing to do tryouts for anyone who's interested in giving it a shot. Perhaps I'm more of the small group type.

Orange and Stout

Tonight's cultural walk took me across the railroad tracks to Hardywood.

That's right, I walked 1.7 miles in the dark and cold to a brewery despite the fact that I don't drink beer. The reason? I did not want to miss Samson Trinh and the Upper East Side Big Band performing music from their Christmas project.

Arriving at the brewery, the door was magically opened for me by a friend who greeted me with, "Good evening, young lady." I rewarded him with a hug from my cold hands. All I could smell was the overwhelming scent of hops, not a favorite of mine.

He'd just arrived, too, so we both caught the end of the big band's first set, namely the Beatles' "Oh Darling" followed by Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," both sung by Laura Ann Singh (looking wonderful in a black dress with a red and green scarf) of Miramar, with backing vocals by Adrian Duke on keyboard.

During the break I chatted with a former neighbor who introduced me to the big band's sax player, saw a favorite actor kissing air and ran into yesterday's birthday boy, whom I immediately asked for a ride home. All around me, people clutched cups of gingerbread stout as if it were their lifeblood.

After repeated entreaties from the stage for the sax player to join them, the big band began a sultry take on Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" which soon morphed into a swingin' rendition.

Who wouldn't feel in the spirit listening to this?

The next song was penned by bandleader Samson and according to singer Laura Ann, was so catchy, "You might try to go to sleep and won't be able to after you hear it" After teaching the crowd the chorus so we could sing along, she instructed, "Don't be a turd! Sing it" and the crowd obeyed.

Except for the turd part, she'd been spot on; the song was poppy and infectiously catchy. An ear worm even.

Introducing "Christmas, Don't Be Late," a song I know because of the Chipmunks' version, Samson shared that they'd played it this morning on the radio with DJ Bill Bevins who'd called the song by the wrong name. Still, their version beat the Chipmunks' by a mile.

Asking, "Who's never heard of the Upper East Side Big Band?" a few people raised their hands, including the trumpet player, unbeknownst to Samson. I'd seen them before, so my hand stayed down.

He said that their Christmas project album had been eight years in the making and that they hadn't played the next song in eight years. It was irrelevant because the classic Charlie Brown tune "Christmas Time is Here" sounded fabulous live.

Their version of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" was swinging in a way that the Carpenters' cover never did. I don't think Karen carpenter was the swingin' type. Well done, guys.

"When I brought in the charts for "Merry Christmas, Baby," our next song, everyone was scared of playing it," Samson said by way of introduction. Looking back at his band, he amended that. "Never mind, we're going to go on. I didn't put the music in their binders."


Instead, they played a Beatles medley from Abbey Road, including "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," closing out the night with the band whose altar Samson worships at. It was a fitting close to a terrific set of music.

Smelly hops aside, what could be a better way to get into the holiday spirit than listening to local musicians play songs from their brand-new Christmas album? I'd even say that the music was well worth the walk.

Walking out, I spotted Jackson Ward neighbors, gingerbread stout in hand, and paused to wish them happy holidays before catching my ride home. 1.7 feels a lot longer and colder after the show.

Then it was on to the Blue Goat, a place I hadn't been since they abandoned nose to tail for a mainstream West end menu. The preppy crowd looked right at home while overhead, the sound system blasted the Galactica Pandora station, meaning plenty of funky soul, including forays into Edgar Winter. And, you know, it worked.

A suggestion from the staff led us to something different, namely Biggio Hamina Cellars Cougar's Mark Pinot Grigio, a substantial orange wine. Since Blue Goat has more than its share of cougars, someone mentioned the frequency of leopard print garments on any given weekend night. Easy to imagine, but not something I need to witness.

For dinner, I chose shrimp panzanella, a salad of bibb lettuce, bacon, shrimp, grape tomatoes, cornbread croutons and bacon vinaigrette, a satisfying melange of flavors but with an insufficient amount of lettuce. Come on, give me a full serving of greens if you're going to call it a salad.

The place was bustling - a group of suits at the chef's table, the bar almost entirely full, a couple sharing their bottle of wine with the manager - but the well-placed sound system ensured that the music was always front and center. For that, they get points. For the bland crowd, not so much.

We lingered so long blathering - what happened to journalistic integrity, should you confit or smoke chicken before frying, what happens to old bathing suits - that some last minute stragglers saw us and came in. Without telling them not to be a turd, the bartender warned them that they could have one round only. The guy in the white pants didn't look happy about that.

From where I sat, they looked like the types who had never heard of the Upper East Side Big Band. No surprise there.

They did look like they'd appreciate a good cougar, though.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Doesn't Matter Where You Been as Long as It Was Deep

Accidentally, I had the evening that I needed.

Still without a vehicle, it seemed prudent to find neighborhood activity rather than having to walk too far in the December cold. The Oscar-nominated documentary "Promises" at the main library filled the bill nicely.

Presented by Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine, I was apparently easy to spot as neither a Jew nor an Arab. The women at the welcome table wasted no time in inquiring how I'd heard about the event (Style Weekly's calendar), delighted to have lured out an Irish Catholic.

Or maybe just someone who'd never been to their film series before.

I have to say, I go to plenty of documentaries and few have a spread like this one - rolls filled with pimento cheese and chicken salad, fruit salad, punch and six kinds of dessert. Food aside, I spotted only two people I knew (a poet and an artist), but was pleased to see wide-ranging age diversity in the makeup of the crowd.

The film was introduced by the professor of Middle Eastern studies at Randolph Macon, who said he shows it to his classes as a way to help them understand the deeply ingrained conflict.

The filmmaker had followed seven children  - Israeli and Palestinian - for five years to make the documentary back during a time when it had been possible to travel back and forth easily (for Israelis anyway) to the West Bank. Updates to the story had been done a few years later.

What was fascinating was how entrenched ideas about the so-called enemy were in children, most of whom came across far more savvy about politics in their country than a typical 10-year old American kid would be. No doubt it was a function of war being the norm their entire lives.

The children represented a spectrum of secular, somewhat religious, right wing and ultra-orthodox, but just about every single one knew firsthand someone who had been killed, in some cases a friend. Scenes of children at the grave site of another child felt unbearably sad, much like a scene of a Palestinian boy and his grandmother visiting the site of the home from which they'd been ousted and relocated.

Listening to children spout learned hatred led to the filmmaker setting up a meeting between Israeli twin boys and a group of Palestinian kids. They were chosen because they were the only ones willing to fraternize with the "enemy."

The scenes where the children finally meet each other were the most hopeful in the entire film. From a spontaneous burping contest to a pillow fight to soccer playing, once with the "enemy," they became just kids and forgot about politics. At last they saw the hated Israelis or Palestinians as actual people and not bogeymen.

But the most startling part of all was when the  filmmaker went back a few years later to see what was up with the seven. With age came adherence to the principles of hate they'd been taught.

All except one Palestinian boy who'd moved to Massachusetts to live with relatives. Not only had his English improved hugely, but his vitriol had faded. He made the point that if so many different kinds of people can coexist in the U.S., why couldn't his little country get along?

After the film was a discussion led by the professor and he requested that people not get on their political/religious soapboxes (although one woman did try to defend Israel's mandatory military service) but consider the issues raised in the film. It was fascinating to see how differently people had interpreted it.

The issue that had the most people in agreement was about how unequally the U.S. provides aid to Israel and Palestine and how our overt support of the former is a major problem. Granted, it was an audience of people already interested in the subject, but it was definitely one of the more thoughtful and intellectual post-film discussions I've attended.

By the time we finished, the security guards couldn't get rid of us fast enough.

It had been extremely satisfying for me because I'd learned so much about the conflict (maps and diagrams throughout the film were invaluable in absorbing the different stages of land grabbing, camps and occupation) but also because it had been a very well made film and I got to see it on a big screen.

Leaving the library, I was more than ready for some food. I considered Rappahannock, but couldn't stand the thought of going even three blocks out of my way, so I stopped at Saison Market.

There, I found the owner behind the register ("Hello, young lady!"), James Brown singing "Sex Machine" on the stereo and a good looking root vegetable winter salad on the menu. Just as I was signing my check, I noticed Abuelita hot chocolate on the chalkboard and ordered that, too.

Coincidentally, I'd just read about Abuelita on the Pioneer Woman's blog and finding it at a Latino market is on my to-do list. Here was my chance to try it. But rather than wait and have it for dessert, I sipped the cup of chocolate before my salad even arrived, licking the last bits of chocolate from inside the cup with my finger.

Chocolate, it's what's for appetizer.

Then came salad. Butternut squash, beets, watermelon radish, frisee, Maytag blue cheese, spaghetti squash fritters and apple vinaigrette sat atop squash puree for a plate that was as much eye candy as surprisingly filling.

The brain trust from Richmond Comedy Coalition came in and I saw one of their best comedians, whom I'd also seen at last night's birthday party. Trying to get the jump on humor, I told him I was following him.

"That's what you think, but I'm really following you," he said with raised eyebrows and a grin.

As I ate, I read an article from the department of inspiration in a summer issue of New Yorker magazine called "A Room of One's Own" about a woman who won a three week residency for a writer with a book contract at a swanky East Village hotel (including free breakfast and coffee). She went to work on her book of poetry.

The down side was she was awakened far too early every day by nearby construction and had to live on a writer's (read: tight) budget of $20 a day for food, not an easy thing to do in NYC. But she also wrote poetry, taking her greatest inspiration from late night walks in the city.

See? It's not that I'm car-less, it's that my night walks are for soaking up inspiration. And cold toes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holiday Antidote

Happy birthday and Merry Christmas all in the same night.

It was celebration time for a friend and former co-worker so he'd invited his dearly beloved to Pasture to fete him. I was just glad he'd picked Pasture and not someplace further afield since my vehicle is out of commission.

Walking by Rappahannock, I saw it was mobbed with suits (private party) and Pasture wasn't much less crowded with the birthday celebration coinciding with a Modern Richmond happy hour. I've been wanting to go to one of their events for a while and haven't yet, but I did get to meet the organizer tonight, where I was introduced as "Karen, a woman about town."

That's one way of putting it.

I'd brought my friend the gift of cookies, a nod to the first year we were friends when I left six dozen cookies on his desk at work and he about burst with pleasure at the unexpected gift. We've been friends long enough now that he knows to expect a doctored card (I fill in the speech bubbles to suit our history) and cookies.

After catching up with a theater-loving friend who'd missed seeing "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," I spent time chatting with a favorite music writer about the lack of local girl bands, upcoming shows we need to see and the importance of learning how to discourse rather than argue.

When you want to make a point, it's best to stay calm, we agreed.

To fuel our banter, I ordered pinto bean dip with garden salsa and hot oil for scooping with tortilla chips. I love me some beans.

When I couldn't finish the chips, I handed the little brown bag of remainders to the birthday boy who happily munched away after already having far too many birthday drinks bought for him. I foresee a hangover for him tomorrow, a shame since he has work training tomorrow.

Midway through my conversation with the music writer, I spotted a former restaurateur I hadn't seen in ages and took some time to catch up with her. Facebook had let me know that she'd met the love of her life, but I wanted to hear the story.

It was a doozy, beginning with a last minute invitation to a friend wedding in the islands, a persistently romantic man she met in the wedding party ("He said he knew the moment he laid eyes on me"), fireworks exploding over them on a darkened beach and now she's moving north to live with him happily ever after.

I couldn't have been happier for her happiness. She said she'd about given up at her age (34, pshaw!) of finding Mr. Right and getting the whole fairy tale romance when boom! It landed in her lap when she least expected it.

Heaven knows, I'm enthralled with a romantic love story.

After a couple of hours at the party, it was time to bundle up and walk over to the Speakeasy for a staged reading of Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. The house was rapidly filling up when I asked a couple if I could join their table, followed by a noted dancer and a culture big shot and his wife.

The table's original occupants were there because their daughter was ushering and they had loads of questions about theater in Richmond since they'd only recently started getting out to see plays and readings with her. In short order, they wanted the scoop on Firehouse Theater and why everyone in the room seemed to know each other. Our advice was not to miss the Acts of Faith preview.

Then it was time for a seriously hilarious holiday mashup.

The story, a takeoff on A Christmas Carol was so politically incorrect, so irreverent and so funny that I felt it more than balanced the retro and wholesome Christmas vibes I'd gotten seeing "White Christmas" Sunday. Or walking through any store right now.

The performance had plenty of wicked asides as well as commentary about the play itself (the young Jacob Marley asking, "Why don't I have any lines?" after a long discourse by other characters). The play posits that Ebenezer Scrooge's habit of saying "bah humbug" would be considered Tourette's syndrome these days.

The Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future, written for a black woman and played to perfection by Katrinah Carol Lewis, got laughs when Scrooge tells her, "I don't think there even were any Negro people in 1843."

Mrs. Bob Cratchit turned out to be a miserable woman who hated her life and was always leaving to get drunk and jump off of London Bridge. She belittled her children mercilessly, ignored their requests for food and barely tolerated her cheerfully sanctimonious husband, who tells his children, "Okay, on the count of three, everybody weep." And they do while the Mrs. rolls her eyes.

In a play full of references to other times, she bemoaned the absence of feminism. "I wish it were 1977 so I'd be admired for my unpleasantness," she wailed. No feminist stereotype there.

Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling put in appearances trying to involve Scrooge in a scam to sell "energy shares" and the ghost of Christmas past came dressed as a UPS delivery man. A scene from Scrooge's childhood ends up being a scene from "Oliver" with the plaintive, "May I have more, sir?" getting a big laugh.

The ghost of Christmas present scene had a Dutch couple exchanging gifts - a watch chain and hair comb - a tableau straight out of "The Gift of the Magi."

But eventually Clarence, the angel from It's A Wonderful Life, came along to help out the ghost and solve both Scrooge's attitude problem (after he supplies happy Meals for the Cratchit's Christmas dinner) as well as Mrs. Cratchit's misery.

But not before Mia Farrow takes 18 of the unwanted Cratchit children off their hands.

Todd Schall-Vess did a superb job as George Bailey, mimicking not only the timbre of Jimmy Stewart's voice but the exact cadence of the lines. No surprise there since the Byrd shows it every Christmas and Todd introduces it.

The twist that joins Scrooge and Mrs. Bob Cratchit in co-joined nastiness lands them in, when else, 1977, where they become Harry and Leona Helmsley. "Do something mean and let me watch," Scrooge tells her.

By the end of the play, the ghost is searching for a moral to the story, offering several possibilities and finally settling on this: If you're happy, you can be poor and if you're mean, you better get money.

Walking home in the cold night air, it hit me. Happiness must be the reason I can be so poor.

On the flip side, a mean person wouldn't have had to walk. Even so, I'll take it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Play Ball

Albert Einstein said it best. "I have no talent. I am just passionately curious"

On a recent drive to the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, I'd noticed a small building with a red Coca-Cola sign that read "The Dugout Restaurant" near a softball field complex.

Like Albert, I am curious about practically everything. Why not see what it held in store? A restaurant, really? Sports types? A dive bar?

The answer was "C," one of those places where the main room is for smokers with a side room for those who value their lungs. Except that the door to that room was propped perpetually open.

A good dive bar always values its smokers over the pink-lunged crowd.

An intense-looking card game was going on back there while a pool table nearby sat empty. Out in the main room, plastic ashtrays lined the bar, paneling covered the walls and six screens ensured that something boring was on at all times. Overhead, two smoke eater machines whirred in tandem with ceiling fans.

Nice effort, but I think we all know that if you go to a dive bar, you're going to reek of cigarette smoke.

Judging by the bottles on the bar, it was a beer-drinking crowd but that didn't stop me from inquiring if they had any tequila. The bartender put down her cigarette long enough to look but had to have the Patron pointed out to her. At least they had something above rotgut.

The crowd treated each other like family with insults and offers to buy beers; a couple of guys even called goodnight to strangers when they left to go home. An old guy with a walker shuffled up and down the length of the bar, getting his butt grabbed by the woman he came with as he did so.

I'd call the menu team-friendly, testing it out with a pork barbecue sandwich (taking the big smoker out front as a good sign) with slaw and an order of wings. Requesting the hand-cut fries listed on the menu, the bartender said, "They're not hand-cut but they're good."

They don't worry much about descriptors at the Dugout.

In usual dive bar fashion, there was an abundance of screens (six to be specific), e-bowling and a jukebox. But here's the strange part: not once at any point during the night did anyone play any music. I'm sorry, but the best dive bars have a soundtrack, even if it's nothing more than the likes of Journey, country music and bad Top 40.

People kept leaving to go out to the parking lot, for what I can't imagine since you could smoke and drink in the bar. I overheard one guy saying they were going to the "trunk," which might have been code for any number of activities.

I had a guess - it was called the dugout, after all.

The absence of music meant that someone decided to turn on the volume for Monday Night Football, a regrettable choice in my opinion but I was probably in the minority. Sports lovers were overruled, however, when "The Voice" came on, a show I'd mercifully never had to sit through until tonight.

Let's see,a Justin Timberlake wannabe, an adorable nerd aping Bono note for note and a guy who looked like a Hasidic Jew (minus the curls) singing Taylor Swift. I didn't need to witness any of that.

On the other hand, it was at least music. I can only drink tequila for so long without tunage. Apparently I'd ended up in the one dive bar where music matters not.

I know there's no crying in baseball, but could it be there's no music in softball?

My curiosity carries me so many places that they can't all strike a home run. At least now I know.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Playing Old Maid

Sometimes once isn't enough.

Today began and ended in a theater with yard bird in between, because what better day for it than Sunday supper?

It was cold and windy when I walked to Movieland for my annual viewing of "White Christmas," arriving early enough to score a prime seat before the masses showed up. Plenty of people seemed to be newbies to the Movies and Mimosas concept (no previews, folks), showing up as much as 10 minutes into it and bumbling around in the dark looking for seats.

Many of them chose to sing along despite the fact that the crowd had come to hear the film, not them. Next to me was a much older woman who giggled at much of the movie's corny humor as if she were hearing it for the first time in a while. It was adorable.

In one of those overlap moments between film and real life, I spotted an army blanket on a cot in the medical tent scene, reminding me that just a few days ago, I'd ridden with my Dad in his ancient truck atop his folded up army blanket on the passenger side. It's probably the same army blanket we used to make a tent out of in the back yard as kids.

Then there were the charming 1954 period details: fishnets with seams, a match striker on a table, men's sock garters. A more stylish time in every way. I recall as a kid that the scene where the general rolls his own cigarette seemed so old-fashioned but of course now plenty of people do it.

I could say everything old is new again except I feel quite certain we'll never return to a time where people dress for dinner, spend so much time traveling on trains or use "gay" to mean cheerful and lively. Too bad, really.

It was while reading the Sunday paper in the living room and trying to catch the last of the day's sun through my south-facing windows that I decided on tonight's plan: dinner and a movie (again). Kind of like a date with myself.

My dinner destination was a no-brainer because Sunday is fried chicken night at Sasion, a short walk from home. I have to admit I was surprised when I walked in to find things very low-key with only four people at the bar.

On the speakers was Bob Marley, appropriate because the Wailers were playing at the John Marshall ballroom tonight. Sure, there's only one original Wailer remaining at this point, but eventually he'll be gone and then there'll be none, yet I bet someone will still tour under that name. And isn't one original better than none?

Soccer was on the TV, the bartender already knew my order, asking only light or dark (duh, dark) and letting me know that tonight's sides were cole slaw (peppery) and a biscuit with honey butter. Sign me up.

The bartender was refilling my water glass when I commented on how peaceful it was tonight. "For now," she laughed. "I never know with Sundays whether it'll be busy at 5 or 8:30." No doubt the holidays further skew any prognosticating.

I didn't quite qualify for the clean plate club, mainly because although I'm a biscuit hound, these weren't really my kind of biscuits. They were more of the refrigerator, flaky style while I prefer a more traditional dense and floury biscuit like the kind my Richmond grandmother made.

But I'm also a firm believer in the no biscuit left behind movement and given that the guy to my right had finished his in about three bites, I leaned over and asked if he'd want my remainder.

His eyes lit up asking if I was sure. "Seriously? I was  just going to order another biscuit," he said. Only problem was his friend looked envious, so I explained to friend that the offer had been extended to the closest person and he was entitled to half. Both were thrilled with any additional biscuit forthcoming.

After collecting the car, I returned to the Criterion to see "The Homesman," Tommy Lee Jones' latest directorial and acting endeavor. As usual, he's playing an ornery old SOB, in this case one who elects to help spinster-to-be Hillary Swank cart three mentally ill women from the Nebraska territory back to the relative civilization of Iowa.

Shot to make the territory and plains look like the most monochromatic and least welcoming place on earth, the film follows the quintet's journey from west to east through Indian territory, snowstorms and days without food.

I'll admit I haven't seen enough westerns to have a qualified opinion about them (both versions of "True Grit" and "No Country for Old Men" and not much else), but this one was atypical, I feel sure. Swank played a most unusual woman for the time (1850s): unmarried, a landowner who farms and not too proud to propose to (and be turned down by) multiple men in hopes of finding a partner and companionship.

Boy, if living on the frontier was tough, try being a spinster.

Hearing multiple men tell her she was too bossy and too plain ("plain as a pail" one phrased it) to marry was heart-wrenching. Remind me never to propose to a man for fear of how he might respond.

And maybe all westerns have a lot of plot twists and sudden mood changes, but I doubt it. This one was full of surprises and unsettling scenes coming out of nowhere. Yet there were moments of humor to leaven things. Add in Oscar-worthy performances by Jones and Swank and it turned out to be a most enjoyable night of cinema even without popcorn.

Walking out of the theater beside the couple who'd been sitting near me, the woman said, "Makes you glad you're not a spinster, doesn't it?"

Oh, contraire, my dear. I am an unmarried woman past the usual age for marrying who is considered unlikely to marry. Some would even say I'm bossy.

On the plus side, that's what gives me license to offer my honey-buttered biscuits to strangers.

I'm just glad he didn't turn me down.