Friday, February 28, 2014

The Big Night

It was a night for wine, women and song.

Secco was hosting a night in Venice wine party and since I've yet to visit the actual Venice, a proxy evening seemed like just the ticket.

I walked in and staked my territory at the bar, awaiting the arrival of my evening's companion, Roxy.

She soon arrived and we stationed ourselves at the corner of the bar with a view of everything while the music was set to the Italian cafe station on Pandora. As one woman noted, it sounded like the soundtrack to "The Big Night."

Our starting libation was a Venetian spritz of Adami Prosecco "Garbel" with Cappelletti, a slightly bitter wine equivalent of Aperol, making for a refreshing way to begin the evening, even more so when enjoyed with an aged and salty cheese.

There were no gondolas, but we were off to a fine start.

The overwhelmingly estrogen-based population of the bar was soon jarred by the arrival of a strapping, young man who had wandered into the Venetian fray.

When the evening's plan was revealed, he gamely agreed to buy into it, despite this being a first date and an"almost blind" one at that.

I advised him that a first date where there were four courses and five wines would separate the girls from the women and he took my advice and paid for two in advance.

Now I had a front row seat to a first date.

Roxy and I chatted about her favorite Riesling and Champagne (both available on the chalkboard) and about how much she misses her people in San Jose. So much so she will soon move back.

Where she reminded me, she will pay $850 more for an apartment that is 300 square feet smaller than her  beautiful Miller & Rhoads condo.

I have a sentimental attachment to San Jose since my best friend from college was born and raised in San Jose, making Roxy and I practically blood sisters.

Once everyone was ensconced at tables and bar, we were served Dal Maso 2012 Gambellara Ca'Fischele, a fine and acidic wine that neared perfection when eaten with tuna tartare set into hard-boiled eggs with capers and aioli.

Just as we were swooning over this blissful match, marinated squid salad with kale, garlic and chick peas arrived, again demonstrating how perfectly the acidic wine worked with the seafood and salt.

Roxy and I raised a glass to the chef's brilliance. "I'd marry him," Roxy observed. It's tough to beat a man who can cook.

Next came crispy Fontina chips filled with seared cauliflower, parsley and lemon paired with Corte Majoli 2012 Valpolicella, a medium bodied red that showed even better with the obscenely rich next course.

Chicken liver mousse sat atop grilled polenta, accompanied by chicken fat-stewed onions and bits of fried chicken skin, an altogether decadent dish that positively sang with the wine.

As our server noted, it came with a side of Lipitor.

Roxy and I alternately made orgasmic sounds about the dish and flapped our gums about how obscene it was.

Meanwhile, the first dater next to me was telling the girl, "This has a really unusual taste. I've never had liver before. I usually go paleo during the week."

Son, there's nothing paleo about chicken liver or chicken fat. Just so you know.

And, P.S.  Corny lines like, "I just want to know more about your family life" make it tough to keep my liver down.

While waiting for the next course, I took a side trip to the loo, but was stopped by Chef Mike, who was offering up samples to all who passed by.

"This'll be the best bite of the night," he assured me. The piece of Dixie doughnut with a schmear of chicken liver may have been the closest thing to heaven my mouth has tasted.

I returned to a plate of beef and potato meatballs with orange peel and fennel seed in a fennel tomato sauce and matched with Zanta 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon "Due Santi," a complex, full-bodied wine that was a worthy counterpoint to the meatballs.

Truth be told, Roxy and I were lagging by this point.

Oh, not conversationally. First marriages, dimples, body confidence, we'd covered quite a bit. But our stomachs were not bottomless.

Finally the last course arrived, a chocolate roll with roasted nuts and topped with vanilla citrus whipped cream, paired with one of the last four bottles in the state of Dal Maso's 2007 late harvest sweet wine.

For no good reason, this led to a conversation about Deleon Tequila, which Roxy had recently enjoyed with her boyfriend in San Jose and which provided me with a recommendation for something new to try, assuming the VA ABC deems it acceptable to carry.

I'll certainly find out.

Back to the dessert, I have no compunction about admitting my love for chocolate, nuts and cream and while Roxy found the Dal Maso overly sweet, I found it a lovely complement to the chocolate.

I'm not saying it topped the Dixie doughnut with chicken liver mousse, but it was damn good.

After saying farewell to Roxy, I left to pick up a girlfriend for a Virginia wine crawl. Because, you know, one wine event an evening is not enough.

Approaching Pasture, we were greeted by fire performers, breathing and showing off with fire, something I've seen at Gallery 5 enough times to stop worrying if they're going to singe the hair right off their faces or not.

Inside, it was just as circus-like, with acrobats on the floor supporting other acrobats in mid-air.

My friend looked at me, grabbed my hand and led me away from the performers.

Near the back, we found a table serving Breaux Vineyards "Marquis de Lafayette," a shining example of Cabernet Franc, a grape she and I love.

Glasses in hand, we escaped to a table away from the hordes and sat down to catch up on girl stuff, oblivious to the networking going on around us.

We let the interested parties come to us, with only a brief foray out to collect some Gabriele Rausse Nebbiolo, a wine I like so much I once worked an entire day at the Virginia Wine Expo just to score bottles of this luscious grape.

Our idyllic girl time was interrupted when Jason Tessauro mounted the table next top us and began reciting his ode to Virginia wine, with highlights like, "To be or Tannat" and "I deem any man a liar who don't dig Matthew Meyer" (Williamsburg Winery's winemaker), "Keep your loyalties looser" and the fitting closer, "Has Virginia wine arrived? You bet your ass!"

Fortunately, he then dismounted from the table. the ideal moment to escape the madness and make our way to destination #2, Rappahannock.

There we found an old friend from the former Six Burner, Tracey, and Blenheim Winery's winemaker, who was gracious enough to pour us a taste of "Painted White," a delectable blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier being served with scallop ceviche.

The evening's music came courtesy of my neighborhood DJ, Marty of Steady Sounds, and I have to say it was a mix of music I'd never heard him play.

Prince. Michael Jackson, Donna Summer. Diana Ross. Madonna. Needless to say, the crowd was dancing drunkenly in no time.

 I was eager to sample Chatham Vineyards steel fermented Chardonnay and wasn't disappointed to taste the salinity and minerality of the eastern-most of Virginia's wineries.

Resolved: there's a winery I intend to visit come spring.

Next thing we knew, people in tight, red polyester jumpsuits with even their faces covered had joined the crowd and were dancing everywhere. If it hadn't been for the accentuation of their junk, it would have been pretty funny.

At the Boxwood Winery table, we tried  a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, poured by a taster who was dancing in place to Prince's "Kiss."

Truth be told, I was holding a glass and dancing in place to the same song.

The crowd had gotten so thick (and so loopy) around DJ Marty that we did a full circle around the back of the bar in an attempt to reach the one remaining winery up front.

On the way, a woman stopped me and said point blank, "You have such a pretty face." While I would have liked to have kissed her in gratitude, I settled for thanking her profusely but she went on. "Even your hair is perfect for your face."

It's difficult to properly thank someone for saying something so complimentary and so random, so I just hugged her and went on my way.

We finally made it to the Thibaut Jannison table for a flute of Blanc de Chardonnay, at which point I made a bee line for the freshly shucked oysters and helped myself to a ridiculous number of Olde Salts.

Only when my girlfriend suggested I try some Rapphannocks did I diverge from my single-minded, salty plan.

We found respite far in the back of the room, away from the hordes dancing to "Wanna Be Starting Something" and "Let the Music Play."

From there, we had a bird's eye view of drunken people stumbling around, eyes glazed and footing unsure.

One woman came up and said, "I know you don't like me. But you're a baller when it comes to music."

Like the woman who'd liked my face, there's not a lot I could say to that. Fortunately, by that time, it didn't matter.

Friend and I were ready to move on. To the strains of "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," we made or way through the crowd and to the car.

There, we spent the better part of an hour doing the girl talk thing that all the festivities had interrupted. It was divine.

Over the course of six hours, did I manage to get enough wine, women and song?

You bet your ass I did. My loyalties remain loose with wine and tight with everything else.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guerrilla Gypsy Music

It was the grand finale of my four-week foray into tactical urbanism.

For the last of the meetings dedicated to "The Ephemeral Plan: Brook Road," the hardworking cadre of neighbors, local workers and city officials was treated to food from Max's on Broad.

Country pate, olive tapenade and salumi with grilled bread, roast beef sliders, cheese, flat bread and fruit were laid out in abundance before tonight's conclusion-drawing began.

Eating with half my favorite J-Ward couple, the other half being home and under the weather, I heard about their recent trip to snow country featuring cross country skiing and moonshine, although not at the same time. At least I'm pretty sure.

After three weeks of brainstorming, sketching, site trips and endless discussion, all the groups' suggestions had been synthesized into one simple plan for small scale, temporary interventions to reshape and improve the triangle at Brook and Broad Streets.

Many, but not all, of my group's bright ideas made it onto the final design: closing Brook Road at Broad with large planters, using the closed-off street for public tables and chairs, adding a colorful triangular crosswalk to make it safer and easier to cross Adams and Brook and painting a bright circle to delineate an area for public speaking.

But it was in the discussion that ensued that some of the design was refined to a point closer to what it needs to be, at least in my opinion as a nearly eight-year resident of Jackson Ward.

The people who made it to the fourth session are, like me, committed to being part of the movement that changes the look and function of that gateway to our neighborhood, so much so that at the end one woman raised her hand and asked point blank, "Okay, what do we need to do now to start making some of this happen?"

Answer: bypass some of the legal rigmarole and go guerrilla on the changes. Paint the circle and see what happens. Do the crosswalks in colorful chalk or tempera paint before a first Friday art walk and then count the people who use it.

Short story? Go Gandhi and be the change you want to see in the world 'hood.

In doing so, we'll be instruments of my favorite new term, tactical urbanism, changing how an area is perceived or currently works.

If any area could use a change in both, it's our little triangle. Now we just have ti figure out how we can paint a three-way intersection without being run over in the process.

But that's a problem for another week, so after bidding farewell to all the new neighbors I've met over the past month, I took my hired mouth to meet a friend and have some grub.

It wasn't difficult to talk him into joining me, either, because he's had some major goings-on in his life lately and desperately needed a distraction.

I can be the queen of diversions or so I've been told.

Once I finished the work portion of the night, I talked him into making tracks for Balliceaux because if I was sure of anything, it was that a) he never makes time to go out for music and b) he'd never heard Romanian gypsy music live.

We took care of two birds with one stone by finding seats moments before the Richmanian Ramblers began their set.

I don't care how much you have on your mind or how many things are weighing on your shoulders, it's practically impossible to refrain from tapping your feet or fingers once the tavern music of Romania starts playing.

Every song's a drinking song, every song has a call to the crowd to toast or dance or somehow participate in the shared revelry, whether it's a song about not paying the ferryman, how wine tastes or dancing with too many partners.

It doesn't hurt that the band's sound is rich, combining clarinet, upright bass, accordions, violin, drum, tambourine and guitar for rollicking melodies that finally got a couple up and dancing around the room by the last song.

I probably should have grabbed my friend, clapped a hand on his shoulder and started dancing him around the room to make him forget all about the present craziness in his life. Or more likely, make him laugh hysterically at my attempted gypsy dance moves.

See: Stevie Nicks.

What's a little personal embarrassment when ensuring a friend has a fun night when he needs it most?

Having It and Liking It

I was overdue for Pru.

The combination of my girlfriend's busy love life and her 9 to 5 job had prevented us from meeting up for weeks but I knew I could lure her out with a good French film with a Hemingway inspired name, "En Avoir ou Pas," (also known as "to have or have not") and part of the VCU Cinematheque series at the Grace Street Theater.

Even better, it was a French film directed by a woman (her first film, at that), shot by a woman (who'd worked with Goddard, no less) and about a woman who loses her job, abandons her boyfriend and moves to a bigger city to find a new life.

Kind of like the old Mary Tyler Moore show, except without throwing her hat in the air and showing all her teeth every time she smiled.

Only a French woman would go buy a cute, flower-flecked dress and champagne in order to tell her boyfriend she'd been laid off and was leaving him.

And yet, I kind of understood her thinking.

Moving from Boulogne sur Mer and an assembly line job in a fish packing factory, the unlikely-named Alice moves to Lyons where she takes up residence at the aptly-named Ideal Hotel while she looks for work.

It's there she meets a recently dumped soccer-playing construction worker with limpid eyes and long hair who is suffering from depression about the state of his life.

So of course we know that they will end up attracted to each other, but because it's a French film, it happens slowly, realistically and more with glances and emotions passing across faces than contrived, meeting cute scenarios.

Because the film unfolds slowly in a most European way, it's almost the end of the film before there's any real acknowledgement of growing feelings between the two lonely people.

Like anyone with baggage from their past, these two manage to reach one simple conclusion, "That's what matters, living in the present."

Please allow the voice of experience to assure you that living in the present is a whole lot more pleasurable when you have, rather than have not, at least what matters to you.

Then Pru was off to bed and I delivered the car at home so I could walk over to Saison for tonight's battle of the record stores.

Jackson Ward's pride and joy, Steady Sounds, was competing with Oregon Hill's finest, Vinyl Conflict, in a spin off, with people voting for their favorite with dollar bill earmarked for FeedMore.

There was only one stool available when I arrived, but it had my name on it, or at least I pretended it did after checking with the guy next to it to make sure it was unoccupied.

Almost right away, I was spotted by a favorite scooter maven, her main squeeze and another regular show-goer, so I made my way to their table for hugs and hellos.

Back in my stool, the women to my right were finishing up with a chocolate tart with mole crust and cilantro ice cream, leading to a discussion of desserts.

Women just naturally want to talk about sweets.

I'd considered ordering the tart until I'd seen its size and realized it was better suited to sharing.

"You can get it and eat half and take the other half home, " one woman suggested before rethinking it. "Who am I kidding? If I took that home, I'd eat the rest of it by morning."

Exactly. Which is why I don't need to order it.

Next she wanted to know about what was going on and I first explained how Tuesdays were vinyl nights at Saison but clarified that tonight was a special occasion.

Yes, there was still vinyl, but for a good cause, yadda, yadda. She thanked me for bringing her up to speed.

Leaving me to the guy on the other side, they soon departed sans leftover dessert. Wise move.

My first question to this guy was if he lived in the neighborhood. Negative, but he worked here.

When I asked for more specifics, being the curious sort, he said he was a builder, a fabricator, who had a shop in the alley behind Comfort.

I knew exactly where he meant, having walked that alley many times.

Turns out his degree is in architecture, but that bored him while building things with his hands gave him great pleasure.

That led to much conversation about following your bliss, not letting stuff "own" you and the singular satisfaction of creating out of whole cloth.

A discussion of the difference in acknowledging your own talent versus being cocky landed us squarely on the same page.

I'd lucked into a like-minded soul and even when we danced near the topic of religion, discovered almost identical takes on that mess. We talked about the Ward and how it needed more than just Nick's and Lift for low price options.

He wanted to know what I was currently working on and I asked the same of him.

He sheepishly admitted that he had an order for 45 small maple boxes he needed to complete by Sunday.

They were destined for the South X Southwest music festival as part of a promotion by, get this, Drop Box. I found it hilarious that the file hosting service that lets you keep all your stuff in a cloud wanted physical objects as promotional pieces.

When I pointed this out, he laughed out loud, saying that hadn't occurred to him but he saw the irony.

I don't go looking for it, but when it's dropped in my lap, it's hard to miss.

A couple of friends had come in while he and I were talking lifestyle choices and they came over to chat about his new trainer (who allows him one "free" day - Saturday- and that's when multiple Sugar Shack doughnuts and tofu fried in butter are consumed) and his partner's long-ago training regime.

I recall it well because he used to postpone plans with me so he could meet his trainer, at least up until the point he got the body he wanted, had pictures taken and went back to normal life without the trainer.

They too had come to hear tonight's spin-off, although one of them had to ask how to tell which DJ was playing at any given moment (I explained) before changing the topic to Beyonce.

For the record, no Beyonce or anything approaching Beyonce was played tonight. It was an evening of punk, thrash, garage rock and the like.

My new fabricating friend and I voted with our dollar bills, me for Steady Sounds and him voting equally for both, but admitting to me that his preference was for electronica.

As one who has been rolling in the shallow and deep of electronica for some time now, it was refreshing to hear someone express how much they'd like to see a more vibrant electronic scene in Richmond.

We can only hope, but for now, I'm just happy there's a neighborhood place where I can end up on a Tuesday night and hear DJs spinning vinyl to a boisterous crowd while chatting with somebody new and interesting.

The fabricator and I call that living in the present and agree that it's what matters.

Sometimes it takes a French heroine in a new dress to remind you of it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Going Down Smooth

You've got to get busy inviting by noon if you want me to join you.

So when a favorite sax players messaged at 12:16 suggesting, "Hey, I just had an idea for people interested. Go up early for wine tasting, dinner and then show. It's Charlottesville appreciation day!" he'd missed me by about fourteen minutes.

I'd been invited to go to Charlottesville to see Lake Street Dive, a band I've twice seen at Balliceaux for five bucks and one which is just now hitting the big time (see: recent Colbert Report appearance), back in December by someone who had caught a couple of their songs at a festival a few years back and been itching to see them again ever since.

Fast forward to the day of the show and Facebook is lighting up with Richmond friends who are also planning to go to the show.

But since I was picked up at noon, I didn't see the sax player's suggestion for making an all-day event of it until I got back.

As it happened, his bright idea pretty much mirrored what we'd planned for occupying ourselves pre-show. As in, great minds think alike.

We began at Barboursville winery for lunch at Palladio where I was tickled to see the restaurant windows open to the blue skies and warm air outside.

Fittingly, the meal began with Barboursville's Brut Cuvee 1814 as we noshed on herb focaccia and waded through the wordy menu to choose which three courses we each wanted.

Given the beautiful day, I imagined myself at a seaside cafe come summertime, opting for crispy shrimp, lobster, oysters, calamari, rockfish and lemon slices (yes, also crispy) with a rich saffron chive aioli worthy of the delicately battered frittura di mare and made all the better with a pairing of Vintage Rose 2012.

Ah, seafood and pink wine, is there a faster way to reduce me to a grinning fool?

My devotion to swine would not be ignored, necessitating my first course be housemade spicy Italian sausage, white bean and escarole soup even though it wasn't really a soup day, but the fancy pork and beans was stellar with the Chardonnay Reserve 2012.

Since our reservation had been for 1:30, by this point in our meal, other tables were beginning to empty so we asked our server to hold off on the next course so we could take a short stroll and finish our Chardonnay along the way.

His only admonishment was not to leave the property, hardly likely since we had more food and drink on the way.

But you can only admire sweeping vistas and rolling hills for so long once your glass is drained, so we strolled back to our table for our final course.

Returning to my warm weather theme, my last course was seared Rock Mountain trout filet with apple chestnut hash, parsnip puree and sage brown butter sauce complemented by the Viognier Reserve 2012 and enjoyed down to the last bite.

In theory, a cheese plate would have been a divine finish, but neither of us had room enough at that point, so we demurred when our server asked. He then suggested we go next door to the tasting room for the complimentary tasting that comes with lunch at Palladio, a fine idea, we concluded.

Except that it wasn't because the tasting room was crowded with winery hoppers out on a gorgeous day, and since we had just tasted through four of the wines anyway, instead we got a bottle of the Viognier Reserve 2012 and headed up the hill to the Barboursville ruins.

Nothing like a little archeology with your afternoon grape, I always (wanted to) say.

Since I'd last been to the ruins, scaffolding had gone up as if they were shoring up the old chimneys deigned by T.J. One thing I was sure of, it would have been a magnificent view from up there.

But our place was on the ground. Piles of snow lingered in shadowy spots, but we took a blanket and found a sunny meadow with a view of a white clapboard church in the distance, a red outbuilding and a ring of trees surrounding us while we enjoyed the juicy wine that further reinforced my summer theme with aromas of peach.

And just like that, the afternoon was gone and it was on to Charlotteville.

After a nosh at Bijou (I'm not ashamed to say I kept it to a bleu cheese salad with candied walnuts and blueberry vinaigrette followed by a copious chocolate mousse) we made our way down the mall to the Jefferson Theater and a rapidly gathering sold out crowd.

This is when I go into standard operating procedure for shows: procure Espolon and take up residence in front of the sound booth where it not only sounds the best but I can be assured of not being knocked from behind, a peril of being short.

From that vantage point, I spotted the sax player surrounded by friends, the restaurant owner who never stops talking at shows and the guy I run into at lectures and shows all the time.

So Richmond was representing nicely.

Opening was the Congress, a quartet who clearly worshiped at the altar of jam bands, blending blues and southern rock, covering "People Get Ready," which pleased me and Van the Man's "Into the Mystic," to the great delight of the crowd, especially the Boomers present.

During the break, the crowd grew hugely and when the canned music went to "What's New, Pussycat?" Lake Street Dive finally took the stage.

Singer and front woman Rachel looked fabulous in a fitted-waist '50s style dress with a full skirt with which she could swing and sashay to great effect.

From the Balliceaux shows, I'd recalled her jazz vocal stylings, but in the nearly two years since I'd seen them, she's clearly come into her own, adding an even more dynamic presence to her already impressive voice.

And the band! I remembered the female upright bass player (from Iowa City, Iowa, no less), the guitarist/trumpet player who'd gotten his new glasses just before I'd last seen him and the talented singing drummer.

Actually, all three sang backing vocals, making for some impressive harmonies on almost every song.

Introducing "Another song about Bobby," Rachel explained, "Some people you can't stop writing about." Tells you everything you need to know about Bobby, doesn't it?

Or is it just me who finds romance in writing?

She sang "Seventeen" about wishing she'd met a certain someone when she was younger, about being wasted in her parents' basement, the new "Use Me Up" and "Bad Self Portraits," the title song off the album that just came out this month.

The Congress were called back onstage to join them to cover McCartney's "Let Me Roll It," which they'd done Congress-less last time I'd seen them, but it sounded fresh with the additional voices and it's a song I love anyway.

I was thrilled they did "You Go Down Smooth," a song they'd done when I last heard them, long before this album came out and one that had been memorable even as they apologized for its newness then.

When they left the stage, we all knew they were coming back and I felt pretty sure it would be to cover "Rich Girl," which they did, to the ecstasies of the crowd.

Then the canned music kicked back to "What's New, Pussycat?" and we spilled out onto the downtown mall in the cold night air, everyone raving about the show.

The sax player was dead on. Hell of a Charlottesville appreciation day, even if I didn't join the group field trip.

Sometimes you want to fill up your dance card and sometimes you don't.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne, Figs and Spock

Of course I had to find out.

So with a new chef and a new play, my evening was off to a fine start right in the neighborhood.

I met the charming man who'd invited me to dinner at Bistro 27 so we could check out the new guy slinging food at my neighborhood joint.

Chef Cory trained under Kevin at Pomegranate and I'd heard he was a big fan of organ meats, which made him sound like my kind of chef.

We started with bubbles at the bar before moving to a table amongst what was undoubtedly a room full of playgoers.

With two productions currently at the November Theater, everyone was in place by 6 to ensure being finished by 7:45.

My date told me about a recent trip to D.C. and I told him about my excursion to the Blue Ridge and we agreed that our meal goal was choosing dishes Cory had put on the menu.

So we started with his housemade sausage plate of pork and duck foie gras sausage and red wine and Parmesan sausage with mustard two ways and red pepper jelly. Outstanding, both of them.

If a man can make sausage, it's a good indicator he's my kind of man chef.

We moved on to seeing what he could do with entrees. For my friend, that meant salmon topped with scallops and a red pepper and caviar compound butter over cauliflower and anchovy puree he raved about.

For me, it was perfectly pan-seared scallops with a to die for champagne and fig demi-glace.

There were so many people in the room that hearing the music was a challenge, but every now and then something good - the XX or a samba - would come through loud and clear and we'd nod our heads in approval.

I had no intention of getting dessert but the housemade tiramisu turned out to be a weak spot for my date, so I obliged.

By the time we finished and scuttled across the street to the theater, it was almost curtain time for the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Clybourne Park" produced by Cadence Theater Company.

It's another play that's part of the Acts of Faith Festival and like Henley/Shakes' "Death and the Maiden," which I'd already seen, its inclusion was intended to be thought-provoking.

A play that takes up where "A Raisin in the Sun" left off, it tells the story of a neighborhood with race issues, which, of course, is every neighborhood in this country.

The first act was set in Chicago in 1959 when the first black family has bought a home in an all-white neighborhood ("After a reference to colored people, "Don't we say Negro now?") and the second in the same house but 50 years later ("My current commute is slowly eroding my soul") when a white couple has bought in what is now an all-black neighborhood.

Racial jokes come out but so do slurs against women, gays and even the privileged position of white men.

Everyone is uncomfortable dancing around the topic of race yet everyone manages to say something inappropriate. It's a lot like real life.

Watching the talented cast spar verbally was yet another reminder that the race card is one that still gets played far too often, even in 2014. Will we never be able to move beyond this delicate subject?

Choosing this award-winning play for the Acts of Faith festival was yet another reminder of Cadence's strength as an upstart theater company.

An uneasy topic in a well-written play, superbly acted and touching on the kind of sensitive issue that, like a scab, needs to be picked at again and again until we finally see it healed.

We can't fix what we don't acknowledge and a play like this reminds us we need to talk about the very things that make us the most uncomfortable.

After a satisfying night of theater, I said farewell to my date and went to a neighbor's Olympic party.

Despite it being in Jackson Ward, I was quite certain I wouldn't know anyone except the hosts, yet I walked in to prove that there are never more than two degrees of separation in Richmond.

Here was a favorite bartender decked out in Olympic colored balloons. There was a FOH manager looking like a silver medal. Oh, and there was a bartender of several decades with his homemade egg rolls. And the goat-loving cheese whiz who left us for Charlottesville had returned for this party. Hail, hail, the gang's all here.

I admired all the local art on my neighbors' walls, including the massive wall of albums coming down the staircase.

Everything from "Grand Funk Live" to David Bowie's "Changes" to REM's "Murmur" to Madonna's eponymous first album. Best of all, the records were still in there to be removed and played.

Only in Jackson Ward can you see "Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space" hanging on a 19th century wall.

Or swing from a new chef to challenging theater to celebratory Olympian vodka shots without ever straying more than five blocks from home.

Color me devoted to my 'hood.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Lesson in the Weapon of Love

I'd be the first to admit that my MLK knowledge was not all it should be.

That made it an easy choice to spend a Friday evening correcting that. And since in many ways it was a history lesson, I might as well write a (virtual) paper about it.

The VMFA was screening "King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis" with the Virginia Union University concert choir performing a tribute to King first.

In line to get a ticket, I recognized the striking black woman next to me from the Marian Anderson conversation at the museum Wednesday so I introduced myself.

We got to talking and next thing I knew, we were at the theater and she sat down next to me to discuss how we'd both lived in D.C., how tough it had been at first to adjust to conservative life here and how difficult it is to fit in everything there is to do in Richmond.

She was lamenting that tonight's film was three hours long, saying she'd hoped to get up to the atrium for wine and tangoing.

Or as she so succinctly put it, "I don't need to relive the '60s, I just want to see the interviews with famous people."

No doubt she knew her MLK story far better than I do.

In red and gold robes, the VUU choir set the mood with a series of spirituals magnificently sung to the rafters. Then it was lesson time.

Host Trent warned us about the film's length, saying he hoped most of us would still be there when it ended. Sure enough, three hours was more attention span than 60% of the audience apparently had. A sad commentary on our time.

Using nothing but black and white archival (often newsreel) footage, the documentary had no narration and was chronological, starting with 1955 and King's early regional activism with the Montgomery bus boycott, contrasting carpools of black commuters and empty buses.

Next came Birmingham with its boycott of segregated businesses, but also unsettling footage of attack dogs and fire hoses used on the peaceable demonstrators.

I never want to see a dog bite down on a man's arm again. Ever.

Even worse was the footage of bombings with bodies being carried out and King speaking at a funeral for one of the victims.

Reminding people that no commandment was harder than to love your enemy, he looked incredibly sad and weary. And his fight had just begun.

Interspersed with the story were celebrities of the day, meaning 1970 when this film had been made, like Harry Belafonte, Joanne Woodward, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and, inexplicably Linc from "Mod Squad" (actor Clarence Williams III) doing recitations.

The scenes shot during the March on Washington were extraordinary, showing simple moments like hordes of people getting off buses marked "Monument Express" and heart-stopping grand ones like Mahalia Jackson singing to thousands.

The aerial shots showed a sea of white and light-colored shirts suitable for a hot, August day, with a fair number of men in suits and hats and almost everyone sitting politely in their chairs.

Notable in all the panning was that there was not a single t-shirt and no one except the press had a camera, hugely significant given that this was the greatest demonstration of freedom in the country's history.

Another thing that struck me was the young, white park ranger stationed at the podium right next to King during his "I have a dream" speech and alternately staring at King intently and scanning the crowd as if he'd have been able to do anything should trouble have erupted. Come on, he was one guy in a Dudley DoRight hat.

After King finished with "Free at last," the crowd in the theater fittingly broke out in spontaneous applause.

Then it was intermission and my new found friend decided it was time to tipple and tango and said a fond farewell to me. I couldn't have left at that point for anything.

It's not like I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but I was seeing footage I'd never seen before, granted probably because much of it was deeply disturbing, but I was curious to see what other atrocities and intimate moments might show up.

Clearly, there was a camera on King an extraordinary amount of time.

The second half began with a roomful of people singing "For He's  a Jolly Good Fellow," an unlikely lead-up to King walking through a door to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Next came Selma, Alabama in 1965 and a push for voting rights for all.

"What would happen if Jesus Christ, a black man, came to Selma and wanted to register to vote?" one of the peaceful protesters asked of the police beating them off the steps of the courthouse.

It's excruciating to watch clubs hit heads and backs of people behaving peacefully.

King countered by organizing a march to the courthouse steps with an impossibly young looking Andrew Young warning demonstrators to be sure to march on the side of the road, where they were met with cops in gas masks throwing out tear gas and beating people.

The second Selma march had lots of clergy and three Unitarian ministers were badly beaten, with one dying a few days later.

In his slow Texas drawl, we saw LBJ calling out the National Guard to Selma, which King characterized as the federal government showing its support for their cause.

Seeing 8,000 marchers walking across a bridge was awe-inspiring until you saw locals along the way waving Confederate flags and jeering at the marchers.

In one touching scene, an older nun is asked why she's there and she explains that the reasons she's marching is that the ideals of King have been her long-held beliefs.

They arrive at night and a show is put on to entertain the masses with, among others, Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary singing and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mike Nicols and Elaine May doing comedy (including hysterical George Wallace insulting).

The next morning, King speaks at the Capital and reminds the crowd that many had said that they'd "get their over their dead bodies." Lucky for those idiots they were wrong.

Seeing LBJ sign the voting rights act in 1966 reminded me how painfully recent that was  while teaching me that he immediately handed the pen he'd signed with to King.

Then came scenes of endless lines of black people waiting patiently to register to vote, including one wizened looking old man who had to have waited at least seven decades for the privilege.

I wasn't prepared for how bad things got in Chicago in '66 when blacks opened up a fire hydrant to cool off followed by police closing them and people getting violent about it.

It was in Chicago we first saw a young Jesse Jackson and a scene of Mahalia Jackson (with a hairdo that looked like a hideous hat on her head) singing "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho" along with the crowd.

Afterward, King called her a once in a millennium singer and said, "Anyone with a question about if we have momentum in making change, you need to be in this church tonight."

But that hopeful scene was followed by a demonstration with the angry whites of Chicago sporting "white power" signs and swastikas, throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks and screaming obscenities at the protesters as they walked quietly along.

Even King was shocked. "Mississippi, Alabama, I've never seen as hostile a crowd as Chicago. Ever."

So much for north/south stereotypes.

We saw King begin to speak out against the Vietnam war followed by horrific footage of injured soldiers in the field, the kind of shots that would never have made it on TV in the '60s.

Fortunately, that was soon followed by a scene of King's birthday, with staffers giving him joke gifts like a tin cup that said, "We are cooperating with LBJ's war on poverty. Please drop coins and bills in cup."

Talk about haunting, a scene in a small plane of King talking about the possibility of death being an ever-increasing one for him was prescient and tragic.

By the time the film got to Memphis and the sanitation workers' strike, even I knew we were close to the end.

So did King who at that point questions what could happen to him from "some sick white brother."

His death is revealed when a group waiting for a performance to begin is told that King has been shot and died. The gasp/shriek from the assembled people is heart-wrenching to hear.

So is seeing his coffin put on a plane to go home.

It seems like there are hundreds of guests at the funeral - Jackie Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, RFK and Ethel (especially poignant since his time was so near, too), Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sidney Poitier, Nixon - but none so grief-stricken looking as Coretta King.

She requested that one of his speeches be played at the funeral, the one where he says he doesn't want to be remembered for his Nobel Prize or any of his awards, just his love and service of humanity and that he left a committed life behind.

The film ends with his coffin being put on a horse-drawn caisson and hundreds of people follow it or stand to the side to watch it pass as it's pulled to the cemetery.

It reminded me that in one of the very first speeches shown in the film, King said that for this movement, "We must use the weapon of love."

Hell of a history lesson and long overdue.

As a side note, apparently "Mod Squad" mattered mightily in 1970. Who knew?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Venus, Earth and Moon are Alright Tonight

You might not know it by this blog, but I can be entertaining.

As in, I can invite guests to my apartment, serve food, play music and spark conversation to ensure everyone has a fine time.

Like many hostesses, I will put out too much food and drink, but my greatest satisfaction will come from their delight in the new bands I introduce them to with the music I put on.

When one of my guests cocks her head, smiles beatifically and says, "Is this my new anthem? I think it may be," I know my get-together is a success.

I don't do it often, but I can do it.

But as soon as the last guest is out the door, I will follow suit and head over to Ghostprint Gallery to see Tatsuya Nakatani, a Japanese percussionist who blew my mind when I saw him last May at the Nile.

Arriving at the gallery, I was not in the least surprised to find an overwhelmingly male audience and not a soul I knew.

I like that part sometimes. It's like going to a show out of town and feeling completely anonymous.

The invitation had said that doors would open at 8:30 with music at 9 sharp and, sure enough, at 8:54, Nakatani announced, "We will start in six minutes."

If you go to many shows in Richmond, you know how rare this kind of precision is.

Promptly at 9, the crowd dropped to the floor to sit and I was lucky enough to be sitting right up front.

Nakatani welcomed us, saying, "Thank you for coming tonight. Usually in a university town, we are waiting for people to show up. This is nice that you show up on time."

All of a sudden, the sound of dogs running across a wooden floor emanated from the apartment over top of the gallery and everyone looked at the ceiling.

"Did you bring dogs?" someone yelled and the musician shook his head no, smiling tolerantly. It was a sign from above that the show was on.

He said tonight was the first stop on their tour and that on the first stop, he's always a little nervous. Joined by local saxophonist Jimmy Ghaphery, they began their set with Ghaphery playing some sort of wooden flute which soon was put down for the sax (which was later put down for the clarinet).

And yet, a guy sitting over against the side wall leaned back, took off his shoes and started working the crossword puzzle in his hand. Perhaps he just wasn't as in to the music as the rest of us.

Their improvised piece had them alternately working together, as when Nakatani placed a small cymbal on his drum and blew into it to achieve a similar pitch as what Ghaphery was blowing on his sax, and working off each other, parrying and thrusting with sound.

Using broken cymbals and metal bowls, Nakatani scraped the surface of tom and snare drums, sometimes rocking a cymbal with his fingers, sometimes using homemade bows on the edge of the drum, sometimes holding up a cymbal and blowing in it toward us.

Even when he was tossing away the things he'd placed on his drum - bowls, cymbals - he'd toss them rhythmically onto the floor, still using them as percussion.

Meanwhile, Ghaphery was creating the most exquisite tension with his sax, alternately blowing long, shrill tones and other times almost making it stutter for a moody counterpoint to the pony-tailed Nakatani.

At one point, he blew into the end of the sax instead of the mouthpiece.

When their improvisation ended, both were hot and sweaty and awfully satisfied looking, much like the audience.

During intermission, a guy walked up to me, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Asking if I was an artist (nope), he wanted to know how I'd heard about tonight. I said I'd seen Nakatani's show last year, which must have been impressive because then he wanted me to introduce myself.

"Hopefully I'll see you around again soon," he said suavely. Anything's possible, friend.

I finally found one person I knew and we chatted about what an impressive set we'd just seen, eager for Nakatani's solo second set.

He began by saying that that had been a beautiful collaboration but, "That usually works the first time, but not the second."

Then he raved about the clean floors ("You can lay down on them"), the beautiful paintings on the wall (a group show called "Wintry Mix") and how much he loved performing in the space because it was bigger than he was used to in Richmond, allowing room for four gongs, three large and one small.

That's how the second set began, with him using a bow on one of the gongs, then on two of them, eliciting different sounds from each one.

Sometimes he bowed two different sides of the same gong, creating sonic washes that filled the room.

And just so you know, the bows were all labeled with names - Venus, earth, moon.

We watched as he scraped one small cymbal across the drum, then as he "shredded" using a bow on the side of one of his drums.

There was so much sound coming out of one man as all four limbs were busy doing something to make music and I noticed a handful of people who gave up watching to close their eyes and let it all wash over them.

Most people, though, sat there enraptured, clearly trying to digest all that he was doing.

The shoe-less puzzle fan, however, tried to stick his camera on the drum, causing Nakatani to shake his head violently so he'd remove it.

Later the guy held his camera up inches from where Nakatani was drumming and this time, he held up his hand as if to say get away. One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, but jeez, what an idiot.

And Nakatani played on.

Whether he was using drumsticks inside metal bowls on top of drums, leaning a loose cymbal against a drum and hitting it to cause reverberations on both, or alternately bowing and hitting one or more gongs, it always sounded like there were multiple people making music instead of just one.

When his improvisation ended, the crowd sat stunned for a few seconds, long enough for laughter from the upstairs apartment to filter down. Everyone looked up again. The show was over.

The performance had taken a toll on the percussionist's hand, though, and he called out, "Anyone have Neosporin?" holding up a bloody knuckle.

No doubt all in a day's work for someone so wildly entertaining.

I can't hold a candle to that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Three Way Solution

The weather shifts, the plan develops.

Last week, trudging over to Gallery 5 for session two of "The Ephemeral Plan: Brook Road," I was bundled up to my eyeballs, wearing boots and carrying an umbrella against the swirling snowflakes.

Tonight I had on leggings, a lightweight jacket and as I walked up the street, smelled the meaty, delicious aroma of a neighbor grilling in the 69-degree evening air.

What a difference a week makes.

This was the third installment of working to refine our plans for remaking the triangle at Brook and Adams Street in Jackson Ward.

My usual partners in crime were absent due to a work dinner, but with one woman from last week's group and her friend, we formed a new group and were assigned a facilitator, a woman who worked at City Hall.

With four women comprising the group, we had no choice but to call ourselves the Girl Power group.

Usually food is provided but tonight's supplier, Porkchops and Grits, had had a kitchen mishap so had been unable to fuel us. Ergo, there was some major stomach growling during tonight's session.

The trade-off was that one of the directors at Virginia Repertory Company a block away joined us, and offered everyone in the room two tickets to see the current production of "Tartuffe." Major score since I'd wanted to see it anyway.

The fates give and the fates take away.

Back to the matter at hand, after a short discussion period we took a field trip to the triangle to figure out which parts of our plan were most important and which were pie in the sky.

It was time to get realistic because next week is the last week to come up with a final design.

It wasn't our first foray on site but this time we oriented ourselves north, facing the Emrick Flats, home to the missing two members of our team.

Only then did we realize the symmetry of it all. We were standing on a triangular island, facing a triangular building and needing to connect the blocks with crosswalks.

Sketching out the requisite walkways formed a third triangle and that's when we all collectively smacked our foreheads.

What we needed was a street mural, a triangular, colorful way to delineate the walkways, serve as a gateway to Jackson Ward and give a visual alert to cars that this was a pedestrian-heavy area.

It must have been a terrific idea because when we shared it with the other two groups, they said so, marveling at the simplicity and brilliance of it.

One woman suggested it be a collaborative effort, with different people and groups painting separate sections within a greater whole. Art 180! Gallery 5! Virginia Repertory! Maggie Walker! Black History Museum!

A focal point for the new interactive plaza we'd envisioned at the triangle, a place with public tables and chairs, a circular bench under the huge, old oak tree, terraced steps around the perimeter for seating and a small performance space.

It was like the warm weather had brought about not only the luxury of wearing fewer clothes but the best of our creativity.

Estrogen, forging new possibilities all over Jackson Ward. Hungry women get it done.

My Lord, What a Morning

Ladies and germs, but mostly my friend Stephen, I offer proof that I can put myself together quickly when I need to.

Stephen has never let me forget the time he called from a new bar wanting me to join him and I said it would be an hour and a half because I had to get ready.

This morning I woke up forty minutes before I wanted to be at the VMFA for the latest in their Conversations series.

For the record, I dropped into my seat at 10:58, full dressed and fed. The handsome black man next to me helped remove my jacket as we talked about the size of the crowd that had come out for a musical morning.

What I hadn't wanted to miss was a program about singer Marian Anderson with a conversation between the museum's American art curator Sylvia Yount and singer/educator Lisa Edwards-Burrs.

With a standing room only crowd, the conversation began with a 1939 film clip of Anderson singing "My Country Tis of Thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday before 75,000 people.

We were reminded that the significance was that the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her sing at D.A.R. Constitution Hall because she was black.

Her contralto voice soared until I'm certain it wasn't just me who had chills listening to her.

After a photo-montage clip set to her singing "My Lord, What a Morning," the audience was pretty much in a puddle.

Today's program had been in the works since VMFA had acquired Beauford Delaney's sublime and sunny portrait of Anderson a little over a year ago.

February was her birthday month so it finally came together to talk about the woman described as the "voice of the American soul" and the one who'd sparked the beginning of the nascent Civil Rights movement.

On display was one of the gowns Anderson wore on her farewell tour in 1965, borrowed from our own Black History Museum right down the street from me in Jackson Ward.

Yount and Burrs talked about Anderson's place as a singer and cultural icon before the large group moved downstairs to see the tactile painting, it's thick yellow paint a true celebration of the art of painting.

Gathered in the American gallery, Burrs stood next to the portrait of Anderson and sang without accompaniment.

She said she'd planned to sing "My Lord, What a Morning," but since we'd just heard it done perfectly, she wasn't going to.

I could understand what she meant.

She prefaced doing her favorite Anderson song, "Crucifixion," by saying that she wasn't a contralto, so we had to allow for that.

No allowances were necessary for the moving interpretation she delivered.

Then she did her soprano Anderson imitation with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and the room seemed stunned when she finished.

Watching Burrs sing while looking at the larger-than-life painting was transcendent and I know I forgot about everyone else in the room as I listened and looked.

Saying that she didn't know if Anderson had done this song, she began "This Little Light of Mine" for her final piece.

She explained that because she was singing a capella, she'd chosen spirituals, but she wanted to make sure we knew that Anderson sang a lot of classical music during her career.

And while I'd have happily listened to anything Burrs sang next to that painting, there was something fitting about hearing spirituals while looking at a woman who faced many struggles in this country because of her race.

Our time was up and the gallery was about to be overrun by 60 school children, but the crowd clamored for one more and Burrs did "Deep River," finishing to applause that echoed through the high-ceilinged gallery.

No hard feelings, Stephen, but some things are worth getting out of the house for at warp speed.

Paying homage to Marian Anderson with music and art is one of them.

People of This Generation

The cool people just keep dropping by Jackson Ward.

Tonight's was Bill Ayers, educator, agitator, activist and generally fascinating guy and author of his second book, "Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident."

When I got to Black Iris Gallery, the place was already buzzing with people checking out the new exhibit, "Public Eye: A Civil Rights Case Study," looking at mug shots and film footage from '60s and '70s-era protests.

The man about town was the first to greet me - with a compliment no less - followed by the couple I've been seeing around town a lot lately ("What amazing event will we see you at next?"), who introduced me to the UR professor, saying that the gamelan orchestra was his ("Let me know if you want to borrow it").

Interesting people abounded.

While we were chatting about Sun Studios (because of the Elvis bio I'm reading), the evening's speaker Bill joined our little group to chat, telling us about his recently replaced knee, how he was the oldest one in the room and about his plans to go to Charlottesville tomorrow to see Monticello.

Then we all took seats, mine in a second row seat to listen to a man who helped shape history by putting his beliefs on the line and protesting what he felt was wrong or unjust.

The evening was part reading, part talk, part answering questions and all fascination.

He began by talking about the importance of independent spaces like Black Iris, places where people can meet and share ideas. To illustrate that, he told us his first book, "Fugitive days: A Memoir" had been reviewed by the New York Times on September 11, 2001.

When the world as we knew it ended that day, his planned book tour began to fall apart as many universities canceled his appearance for fear of protests and issues about his dissident past.

"Not a single independent book store canceled on me," he said. And that's why we need them.

We listened as he read the prologue from his new book about the 2008 controversy when during the Presidential debates, his name had been brought up as someone with whom Obama was in contact.

In an odd twist, he'd had a bunch of graduate students at his house that night and when someone turned on the debate, it was the students' first inkling of his past with SDS and the Weather Underground.

It wasn't all serious business, though, and he joked that for a change, no one had organized a picket of tonight's event. "Maybe someone should go outside and protest," he suggested.

In the middle of the talk, a phone went off, funny mainly because it was his.

I found it particularly profound when he began talking about the notion of different generations. Quoting his SDS card, he said that, "We are people of this generation. Get over the generation idea. Get over the idea that there was one perfect moment."

He spoke to the young people in the room, telling them that their impression of the '60s as the best time - the best music, the best scene, the best sex - was mistaken.

We heard about his first arrest for a sit-in at a local draft board that got him ten days in the clink. "You see the world differently after you've been arrested," he said. Likewise going door to door as a community organizer against the Vietnam war affected him deeply.

During the Q & A, he would not only answer people's questions but share other thoughts and issues that had occurred to him as he was listening to the questions.

He was especially compelling on the subject of child rearing, a topic that took up much of his book, and surveillance, the fact that technological society has outstripped ethical society.

Once he'd given a class an assignment to bring in or photograph things that were watching them. When two women tried to film the security cameras at a mall, security men told them to stop because "watching us watch you" wasn't allowed.


When asked about his age (70) and bad knee (upcoming surgery on the other one) keeping him from his life's work speaking out against what he felt was wrong, he dismissed the thought. "I'll be on the barricades in my walker."

Listening to his passion and his past, there was no reason not to believe him.

Entreating the people in the room to follow their beliefs to make a difference, he concluded, "You're living in history. History is not over."

Right on. Witness how it was being made in Jackson Ward tonight as the many listened to a man who's still fighting the good fight.

Hopefulness is a politics, he told us. I like the sound of that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Unhitched Romance

If you're looking for romance, snow-covered mountain scenery makes a fine backdrop.

But when you're looking for the secret to romantic longevity, you have to go to someone who knows.

The plan was to head to the ranch, the Marriott Ranch that is, a place that offered an historic inn and horseback riding on 4200 acres bought up for the past six decades by the founder of the Marriott chain.

Along the way up scenic Route 522, there were exquisite vistas of pristine snow-covered fields broken up only by the red of rooves and barns, the browns of trees and endless fences.

It smelled a lot like serious money.

After lunch in Culpeper at a place notable for its languid piano player and synchronized water glass filling and plate delivery, we set out for researching purposes.

Given the foot-plus of snow on the ground, we anticipated empty wineries for an afternoon of low-key tasting, but our first stop at Chester Gap was like walking into a party, the tasting room full of escapees from D.C. and beyond.

After trying everything, we got a bottle of the 2012 Viognier, its aromas of honeysuckle and peach a reminder that warmer days will come, and took it to the deck to enjoy a glass and escape the mob scene.

But my cute tights could only stand the frigid air for one glass before we made our winding way to Linden Vineyards to taste through the efforts of the man whose Virginia wines made even skeptics sit up and notice.

As a language geek, I immediately fell for his word choices on the tasting list - "stern and bone dry," "a pithy finish," and my favorite, "dances around on your tongue."

All true, by the way.

The cherry on top of the afternoon's wine hopping turned out to be Desert Rose Ranch and Winery, a place that not only raises grapes but also Arabian horses.

The knowledgeable woman who tasted us through their wines shared story after story about the owners, Bob and Linda, including that they'd been married for 50 years.

They got points for their wines names, everything from "Sparky Rose" (my dear departed beagle was named Sparky) to "Hitch Hollow" oaked chardonnay, named after a community that used to be on the land they own.

But my favorite name hands down was "Unhitched," another Chardonnay but with less oak and dedicated to the owners' long marriage because apparently that word had been thrown around a time or ten and yet still they stayed together.

With some Sparky Rose in hand, we found a table and in short order, were introduced to Bob, whom we invited to join us.

Okay, not just join, I admit I wanted to ask him about such a long and successful partnership as the one he clearly had with his wife Linda.

He insisted that part of their success was all his years working for the C.I.A., meaning long periods away from each other.

But when I pressed him for the secret to their success as a couple, he drilled it down to one reason.

"She can stand me," he self-deprecatingly insisted.

Insufficient data. So what is it about her that kept you interested for half  a century? "She's smart and she's funny," he said sincerely.

Personally speaking, I'd say those would be my top two requirements, too.

When we met Linda a bit later, I made sure to tell her what he'd said and her reaction was very sweet, as if she could still be touched by him telling strangers how lucky he was.

Now, that's romantic.

After dinner at the Flint Hill Public House, a place inexplicably decorated like a 1985 townhouse with a mirrored wall and white pleather chairs but serving fried pickles, we returned to the ranch to check out the 1814 Marshall manor house and because we were the only guests (and despite staying in one of the guest cottages), we had full access to the house and spent part of the evening exploring it.

It was a nice consolation for not being able to ride horses given the amount of snow on the ground.

I plunked on the keys of the grand piano, warmed myself on radiators as wide as my arm span, looked at family pictures of all the Marriott children and grandchildren hanging on the walls and nosily peeked in all three of the upstairs bedrooms.

In the morning, we returned to the house where a chef had shown up in advance to serve us, the one and onlies, breakfast in the sunny yellow room overlooking fields of snow.

We hit the road after filling up on blueberry scones, fruit, and eggs with pig two ways, hoping to visit the Patsy Cline museum in Winchester.

Alas, it was not to be (closed for the season) but walking through downtown, I was bowled over by the unlikeliest of sights, the 1907 Beaux Arts Handley Library looking more like a Russian cathedral with its enormous stained glass done than a library.

Inside was just as spectacular and unlikely with original chandeliers, a metal spiral staircase to the children's room, huge fireplaces with wooden mantles, a catwalk just below the dome overlooking the circulation area and, in the basement, a theater and a photographic history of the building from the original shots of workers digging out for the foundation to using hoists in the pre-crane era to put the dome in place.

It was like no library I'd ever seen, much less imagined.

The best part of the story was that it had been paid for by a Pennsylvania judge who'd fallen in love with the people of Winchester and wanted them to have a library after his death.

And did I mention that the design of the building was meant to look like a book with its pages open? It was the easiest way to spend an hour and a half I ever stumbled on to.

The afternoon brought more wine-tasting, although at a huge facility rather than individual wineries, and with scads of people doing the same.

I ran into a favorite wine geek and his lovely wife, eager to share that I'd just seen one of his favorite bands, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks a few nights before. There was also a knowledgeable wine purveyor I'd expected to see and there she was.

Of course I would be on the other side of the state and run into people I knew.

Tanya and Henry from Belmont Butchery were there cooking meat for the masses, as were untold other grill masters and we sampled through wild boar sausage, duck, goose, venison and more types of oysters than you could shake an oyster rake at.

There were so many wines to taste that you had to have a plan and mine went something like this: start bubbly and move on to a few choice whites and conclude with every Rose offered.

Done, game over.

Dinner was at Union Jack's, a pub in an old Union Bank building and overseen by the most efficient and personable barkeep imaginable. No glass ever saw its bottom unfilled, his patter was spot on and no one wanted for anything at his bar. It was truly impressive.

Not impressive like staying together with a smart and funny woman for half a century, but then few things are.

A smart man like Bob undoubtedly knew the romance of a well-spent weekend away. The good ones always do.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reasonably Content

You might opt to stay close to home, which really is not your style. Whether you are deep into a book or something else, you will feel quite content.

Let's just say I knew I had things to get done today and since I'll be away the next two days, I did stay close to home all day.

My one concession was a trip to Doner Kebab for a hale and hearty chicken shawarma before going to Movieland to catch an early movie.

Spike Jonze's "Her" had attracted a mostly middle-aged audience, curious I thought, because in some ways it's a rom-com, albeit a  delusional one, about the disconnected lives of the millennials.

The story of a guy who works for the serenely pastel, creating sensitive letters for other people to send to their loved ones shows him as broken-hearted after a failed marriage and living a listless, disconnected life where each day ends with video games and phone sex.

When he finally does go on a date, he lets slip that he knows she took a mixology course. "Did you look me up?" she asks eagerly and when he admits he did, she says, "That's so romantic."

I know it makes me a dinosaur, but I find absolutely nothing romantic about Googling someone before going out with them.

That life changes when he buys an operating system with such refined artificial intelligence that she can interpret his moods by his voice.

She reads his loneliness and gives him back excitement about life so it isn't long before they're in love with each other.

This is marginally dismaying because she's a voice in a computer which means when they have sex, there's no actual touching involved because she doesn't have a body.

Again, call me old school, but I really do require a body for everything from kissing to spooning with all the stops in between.

Not so this guy and the charm of the film is that Jonez makes you believe it as a love story every step of the way.

When one of his co-workers suggests a double date, he admits that his girlfriend is an operating system.

"Okay, maybe we can go to Catalina," the guys says nonplussed. And they do, three people and a disembodied voice have a picnic and carry on witty and philosophical conversation on a hillside.

And somehow it rings true.

The scary part is that it all makes perfect sense. She's got access to his hard drive and e-mails and the more he shares about himself, the more it helps "her" develop and fine tune the intelligence that's been programmed into her.

Kind of like the way the more you tell a new date about yourself in the early stages, the closer you begin to feel as he gets a sense of who you are and responds to the compatibilities.

In the movie, the two talk to each other more often than any real life couple I know as they share everything they're thinking and feeling.

Part of the charm of the intelligently observant movie was that there was no way to anticipate where the quirky story was going, leading to a string of surprises.

But Jonez even gives us a reason for that: Falling in love is the only form of socially accepted insanity.

Holy fun fact, Batman, I didn't need a movie to tell me that.

But at least it got this Gemini out of the house today.

Love Will Never Do

Know what I did for Valentine's Day last year? Fainted.

Know what I did this year? Took a friend and my hired mouth out to eat and then went to the same Black Valentine's Day show during which I'd fainted smack dab in the middle of last year's.

Instead of waking up on the cold restaurant kitchen floor, a man told me, "I love you so much." and kissed me.

Granted, it was DJ Charlie of WRIR'S "The Creepy Side of Love" show and his lovely girlfriend was standing right next to him, but on Valentine's Day you take your "I love yous" where you can get them.

When my friend and I arrived at Gallery 5, a surprising number of people were sporting something red (me included) and Charlie was playing his usual outstanding mix of music.

Tonight that included a remix of Janet Jackson's "Someone to Call My Lover" that caught my ear, no doubt partly because the organizer of the Black Valentine Day show had posted a link right before the show to Janet's "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video, which I'd watched for the first time probably since 1991.

So right there was more Janet Jackson than I'd listened to in decades although there was no denying both were appropriate VD songs.

The friend I'd brought has recently moved to Jackson Ward and it was his first trip to G5, so I introduced him to everyone I could - my photographer friend who came with a guy in the scrap business who had great stories, the neighborhood rock god, the fuzz guitarist -  while admiring the holiday decor of red hearts along the top of the stage and black balloons dangling from the ceiling.

Clayton England got up to play first, saying,"Thanks for coming. We appreciate you being single, drunk and here."

The Black Valentine's Day show is all about songs of love gone wrong and Clayton had a few of his own before doing a Mariah Cary song he'd first heard blasting at a Puerto Rican girlfriend's apartment in fourth grade.

He then had someone hand him one of the balloons, untied the knot and began inhaling the helium to reach the desired register to sing Mariah's song.

With no Mariah knowledge, I can't tell you what song it was but I do know he said, "That's about as cheesy as it's going to get" afterwards.

"Play a love song!" someone in the crowd called out.

"Yea, right," he said dismissively before singing more woeful songs.

During the break we noticed the half a dozen guys who had red boutonnieres on because they were being auctioned off later.

As WRIR's Lindsay, our hostess for the evening, had put it online earlier, "Live bachelor auction so buy a man and treat yourself."

That would be a treat, all right.

It was hilarious when the scrap guy asked the photographer what he was doing for Valentine's Day and when he said he was getting a couples' massage with his girlfriend, replied, "You're not allowed to be here."

Okay, technically anyone can come to the Black VD show, but it does tend to be the unloved.

The Cales were up next and they referred to themselves as the Pixies with a male and female singer before doing a Jesus and Mary Chain song.

Their sound was noisy, sometimes like punk, sometimes like grunge and the crowd was digging it.

They did the Shangralas' "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)" after telling the crowd to look up the Shangralas if they didn't know them.

They concluded heir set by yelling, "F*ck love!" and getting cheers for it. Both the friend I'd brought and the photographer turned to tell me how much they'd enjoyed the band, a unanimous opinion despite at least twenty years separating their ages.

I think one heard punk influences and the other heard grunge.

Then it was time to sell off male flesh and Lindsay took the stage to do it, with Charlie providing exactly the right music for each part of the proceedings.

Just as she began to explain how the auction would work, her boyfriend Tim got onstage behind her and turned on a smoke machine, causing her to say, "That was annoying and unnecessary."

Saying that cash, checks and credit cards would be taken in payment for men, she yelled, "The sky's the limit...or your credit card limit."

Then as the bachelor mounted the stage, Charlie would play a sultry song and Lindsay would read the answers to the questions he'd given.

Bachelor #1 said the first thing he noticed about a girl was her inner beauty and he was the icebreaker to get people comfortable enough to start bidding.

WRIR DJ Shannon was #2 and the first thing he claimed to notice was if a girl was naturally interesting. He sold for a robust $50 to a long-haired gentleman in front (that would be musician Joon).

The third hunk of man meat up for grabs was Clayton, who'd opened the show musically.

His favorite animal was Animal from "The Muppets" and his fave color was Springsteen's jean jacket blue.

He also went for half a C-note, and prompted a guitarist friend to turn around and observe to me, "The same girl kept putting her hand up, bidding against herself."

It was true and not real bright, but given that WRIR was the beneficiary, did it really matter if she didn't have the hang of an auction?

Next came my friend Matt, a graphic designer and musician, who when asked what he wanted on his tombstone, had replied, "helvetica." Now that's funny.

It was no surprise to me to hear that his favorite band was Yo la Tengo since we've discussed that many times but I had no clue he could recite every word to "Star Wars."

The long-haired gentleman in the front purchased him for $65.

As the final prices continued to escalate, Lindsay saw fit to remind the crowd, "I did not promise sexual favors with these guys."

Ah, but one can always hope.

Bachelor #5's favorite song was Outkast's "So Fresh So Clean" and said the first thing he notices on a girl is her eyeballs.

Where he got widespread attention was with his favorite drink, vanilla Coke, prompting Lindsay to ask if he drank. He didn't.

"He's sober!" she  squealed. His hidden talent was punctuality and he went for $90 "to the pixie girl in the front."

The last guy was introduced as giving the best hugs, a good thing given that his worst pickup line was, "This may be a little forward but you make me feel tingly in my downstairs."

He got points for his favorite song - Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" - but sealed the deal with his sense of humor when asked what he wanted on his tombstone.

Born March whatever, Died in your arms tonight. Must have been something you said.

Could he have been any more clever while being sold to the highest bidder?

After that thrill, there was nothing to do but exchange money for man flesh and finish out the evening with Lightfields.

Before their second song, Prabir walks onstage and the singer looks at us and asks, "You know this cat?" We did. "We totally didn't write this song."

Sure didn't. It was Weezer's "No One Else" and Prabir did a good job with it, but it was totally strange to see him singing without a guitar in front of him.

I want a girl who laughs for no one else
When I'm away, she puts her makeup on the shelf
When I'm away, she never leaves the house
I want a girl who laughs for no one else

He left and the Lightfields' singer explained that in addition to cover songs, they were playing original songs of love gone bad "because all our songs are about love gone bad."

They had another guest singer, a female this time and she took them through the Smiths' "How Soon is Now?" not an easy song, although certainly appropriate.

For the big finale, after all the men had been sold off like cattle, our hostess Lindsay joined Lightfields for the ultimate Black Valentine's Day show song, demanding that crowd sing along.

Ferociously belting out "You Oughta Know" like she knew how it felt to be dumped, the band was right there with her righteous indignation.

Well I'm here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It's not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me
You, you, you oughta know

The men looked a little glazed, but the women seemed to be singing right along. Must have been something she sang.

I was just glad to have seen the whole show from a cognizant, upright position.

Seems like I'm back on the Valentine's day success track.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Modern Vintage

Put on your boots, get out the skis and come to Balliceaux tonight. Free Miss Tess and the Talkbacks show!

When a drummer tells you what to do, you do it.

I'd been hoping against hope that tonight's show wouldn't be canceled due to weather and here was Fate answering my prayer.

I immediately messaged a few people I thought would care, put on my green and pink flowered boots and got over there.

The staff had obviously been anticipating a slow evening. When I ordered my Cazadores, I noticed the bartender's game "Cards of Humanity," brought as a hedge against boredom.

Meanwhile the chef was busy in the kitchen making snow ice cream for himself.

The crowd waiting to get in wasn't large, but it was choice and I was pleased to see my favorite VMFA employee there in her boots, too.

She introduced me to her music-loving friend who not only recognized my name but follows my restaurant reviews, commenting favorably about my style, voice and the nuances of my reviewing.

Now that was an unexpected bonus.

Like me, she had seen Miss Tess before and I told her how I'd been fearing a cancellation based on Chris Bopst's dire updates about the snow and expecting no one to show (stuff like, "I just hope somebody shows up").

"Well, that's not very GWAR of him," she sniffed, a witty and accurate summation.

My companion showed up, drinks were procured and while we were busy chatting, the poet arrived despite my not having messaged her (school's closed, so she's off tomorrow) along with the theater critic I knew of but had never met.

Once in the back room, I saw the sax player I'd messaged arrive and heard about his day - beer, brown liquor, electric blanket, nap - including how he'd awakened to find my message and high-tailed it over, but admonishing me, "They better be good!".

It's satisfying to know you don't have to be a drummer to make people do what you say.

Before long the former Floyd Avenue neighbor I'd messaged showed up as well. It was still a small crowd, but it was a mighty one.

Thomas Byron Eaton opened the show with a hat low on his forehead, a scaled-down guitar he'd just bought and songs off his new record, for sale for the first time in the south tonight.

His set was short but since he's also one of the Talkbacks, he couldn't exactly wear himself out before their two sets.

This was my third time seeing Miss Tess and only my date's first but it didn't take long before he commented on the musicianship and how tight the band - two guitars, upright bass, drums - were.

For me, it's the three-part harmonies, the note-bending Miss Tess does and the eclectic and well-written songs.

He talked about how impressive the rhythm section was, not flashy or grandstanding but solid.

I'll tell you what's impressive, Miss Tess "playing" the trumpet using her voice. When she first began doing it, I looked around to see if people were noticing and smiled at my date, saying, "Right?"

You can look all day, people, but you'll find no horn, only Miss Tess' vox trumpet.

"This one's for the ladies," Tess said before singing, "One for the money, two for the show, three to walk right out that door, Gonna leave that man," the kind of classic honky tonk song women been singing for decades.

It was about three or four songs in when they played a Latin-influenced number and a couple began dancing over by the bar.

Dancers are usually de rigueur at Miss Tess' shows, but apparently tonight they'd all been snow wimps. Their loss, given how dancable the music was.

The band sang songs of Brooklyn ("People Come Here for Gold"), New Orleans ("Adeline") and of course, love.

They dug deep and got laughs, too, with Ted Hawkins' "Sorry You're Sick," about a hungover mate, with the lyric, "What do you want from the liquor store? Something sour or something sweet?"

During the break, I checked in with the sax player to get his take. He liked them a lot. You hate to take a man away from his blanket and not have him enjoying himself.

The neighbor said he'd known about it and forgotten, so my message was timely. Turns out he's on his way to Cat's Cradle near Chapel Hill to see them tomorrow night with Lake Street Dive.

After doing "Everybody's Darling, Nobody's Sweetheart" and getting several people up and dancing, Miss Tess held up her necklace saying that a fan had made several "everybody's darling" lockets and there was one left for sale on the merch table.

Considering she'd already asked if anyone in the room was on an early Valentine's date (nobody admitted to it), it was like she was trying to be an emissary for Cupid.

Keeping to the theme, they did a stellar version of "The Love I Have for You," a classic slow dance song, for those who like to stump and drag.

When their set ended, Bopst put music on, inexplicably starting with an old Lowenbrau commercial. Now that was kind of GWAR of him.

But also irrelevant. Miss Tess and the Talkbacks had set the tone and I don't know what could have been better than wiling away a snowy Valentine's eve with a Brooklyn swing band.

On my way out, my boots and I thanked the drummer for saving me from a second evening at home.

One a season is plenty.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

That's Life

My downstairs neighbor was aghast at my audacity.

Out on his porch for a smoke when I came out, he asked if I'd seen the snowman they'd spent an hour last night building.

It would have been hard to miss. It was laying in three parts all along my walkway when I left for my morning constitutional.

After admiring his building skills, I suggested he reassemble it before the second wave of ice and snow in hopes the drop in temperature and ice coating would make it whole again.

Not to mention get it out of my sidewalk.

When I proceeded to clean off my car, he got worried. "You're not going to drive in this, are you?"

The hell I'm not. I'd been looking forward to seeing "It Happened One Night" at the Library of Virginia for weeks and that had already been canceled. No telling if any walkable restaurants were going to stay open tonight.

You're damn right I was going to escape during daylight and before the skies opened up again.

I thought two plus hours with the artistic and well-to-do set in sunny Rome sounded like a grand way to spend this afternoon.

Arriving at the Criterion, the ticket seller informed me I was the third patron of the day. And there are four theaters.

So apparently I was the only person in Richmond seeking an existential Italian afternoon, which also meant that for the first time in my life, I was completely alone in the theater.

I'd chosen "The Great Beauty"- a bittersweet Italian comedy about a man who wrote one perfect book and spent the rest of his life doing nothing more than enjoying literary and society life, going out every night and working occasionally as a magazine writer until he hits his 65th birthday - because I wanted something as far away from a snowy day in Richmond as I could get.

Mission accomplished.

The main character Jep explains that he was destined for sensibility so he was destined to be a writer, albeit one who can afford an apartment with an enormous rooftop patio, complete with hammock, that overlooks the - wait for it - Coliseum.

The whole film is like that, though, with the eternal beauty of Rome as much a character as all his artsy and wealthy friends.

Sometimes it's the city, like a scene where a friend with a case of keys takes him through palaces filled with art at night, or in the country where he attends a wedding where people dance under the shade of huge, old trees.

The kind of people who have elaborate parties with techno music throbbing, go-go dancers and drag queens, people of all ages dancing and casually intellectual conversations.

The kind of party where you'll have a sultry female DJ with a Mac and a string quartet playing along with her.

It's the coincidence of Jep turning 65 and learning that the love of his life, a girl he fell in love with at 18 and then lost, has died.

Bad as that is, it gets worse when her husband of 35 years visits to inform him that he read her diaries and discovered that she'd been in love with him all these years.

There's information that'll change the way you look at life, especially at 65, spurring Jep to observe, "I can't waste any more time doing things I don't want to do."

As a man who's gone through adulthood taking advantage of any woman who offered herself up, he no longer wants to. "At my age, beauty isn't enough," he says after having a pretty young thing pointed out to him.

Even though the extent of his writing is celebrity profiles, he still has the observation instincts of a writer, talking long walks day and night to see what he can see to distract him from his very full life's emptiness.

The film was full of Italian oddities - a recipe-spouting cardinal, a midget editor with blue hair, a toothless, 104-year old saint-to-be, a man wearing only underwear who directs his sexual impulses to masterfully bouncing a soccer ball between every part of his body- and natural beauty.

I found it sad, funny and beautiful, but mostly rueful and contemplative, perhaps an inevitable condition when your each 65.

People, even the saint-to-be, keep asking Jep why he never wrote a second book and he finally concludes, "I was looking for the great beauty but never found it."

Personally, I was looking for an afternoon where the world could have stopped outside and I wouldn't have known it and that's exactly what I got.

When I got home, it was to endless Facebook posts about the house-shaking and fear-inducing "thunder-sleet" that had apparently happened while I was lost in Rome and a sexy, satiric reverie about life.

Somehow I think I got the better end of the stick.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Last Train to Snowsville

Did I go out in winter storm Pax? Well, of course I did.

It was once again time for the Ephemeral Plan: Brook Road, week two of our neighborhood get-together to brainstorm how to turn the triangle at Brook and Adams into the local hot spot.

Naturally I was one of the first arrivals, fine by me since this evening's food had just arrived. Tonight Comfort had supplied slices of country ham, a mound of pimento cheese the size of my head, Ritz crackers and housemade pickles.

My favorite Jackson Ward couple soon showed up, dusting snow off their shoulders, and joining me in some pre-spitballing fare.

Talking about country hams, my friend shared a story about a Virginian who sent her California in-laws a Smithfield country ham, only to eventually hear back from them that they'd thrown it away after one taste because it was so salty, not to mention how moldy it looked on the outside.

Well, duh, that's the point. Leave it to left coasters not to grasp the concept of east coast pig.

None of us had any problem downing our salty ham and sinfully rich pimento cheese-slathered Ritz especially when complemented by the tartness of the pickle slices eaten between bites.

Then it was down to business but because half of last week's turnout were being snow wimps this week, we had only two groups instead of five.

Tonight's plan was to fine tune last week's bright ideas to get closer to what will be the final plan for the triangle.

Fortunately, we didn't have anyone in our group foolhardy enough to suggest taking down the century-old oak tree as a few people had done last week.

We worked through all the issues, spending a lot of time on lighting and greenery, two key components to making the area feel safer and more inviting.

I got creative, suggesting a video projection wall with changing kinetic imagery courtesy of VCU students and a vertical bike rack designed by the winner of a contest among sculpture students to go on Adams Street.

Yea, that's me, full of big ideas.

Much as I love and support the idea of public fruit trees, even I had to admit that they're messy and attract birds who poop all over the place and  that isn't going to help us attract anyone to the neighborhood.

Never mind, I'll work on someone else to get public fruit trees planted in some of our many vacant lots.

Tonight we also got into the details of the planters we want to see closing off Brook Road and scattered among the public tables taking up the public piazza in what was formerly the street.

One woman even suggested a rain barrel so we could have a green water source for watering all those planters.

As we envisioned the triangle becoming a food cart stop, an Etsy pop-up marketplace or a free wi-fi destination, it became pretty obvious that a major snowstorm is no deterrent for the kind of people who want a say in shaping their 'hood.

By the time we'd turned in our sketches and plan details, we were all feeling mighty pleased with ourselves and our snowy evening's work.

My friends headed home but since I already knew the Heavy Midgets album release show at Balliceaux tonight had been canceled, I thought I'd at least make one last stop at Comfort for a drink and dessert.

Except they turned out to be among the snow wimps. Closed due to snow.

Oh, well, I suppose I can always stay home for the evening and read more of Peter Guralnick's "Last Train to Memphis." Gotta admit, I'm curious to see how things turn out for this Elvis kid.

How about that, an evening at home reading.

I might be able to pull this off for one night, but these snow wimps better get their acts together before tomorrow night.

That's all I have to say.

Plus You

I was born into the most remarkable and eccentric family I could possibly have hoped for.

I didn't say that, actress Maureen O'Hara did, but it may as well have been me. And while I love the remarkable eccentrics I share blood with, no one makes me crazier.

Can I get an amen?

When we were young, my mother used to chide all six of us for saying thoughtless things to each other, the kind of remarks that we'd never think of saying to a friend.

That said, my Mom is also the one who recently told me all she wants before she dies is for me to have a "normal life," and I'm not sure she thought that one through before making it sound like I'm a failure in her eyes.

But I digress. When a family member has upset me, hurling a veiled (or obvious) insult my way or making a condescending remark, I fall back on the best antidote for the family blues.

A girlfriend, a long-time one, with the same sex family relations, just fewer of them.

Rendezvousing at Postbellum, we walked into some sort of group meet-up mingling through the drafty bar area, sending us over to the shop and a bar table away from the bar, a place I'd never sat despite this being my fourth visit.

She was gracious enough to face the bar, leaving me with a view of racks of growlers and her smiling face. Since it was happy hour, we went with discounted cask wine, a velvety Milbrandt "Traditions" Cabernet Sauvignon.

Of course I bored her with my family drama, but fortunately, she countered with her own family stories of military precision timing of dinners for control freak guests, pastry wrappers relegated to the outside trash can to save face with critical guests ("I'm not that big a snob!" Well, yes, actually, you are) and why sometimes a four letter word plus "you" is the appropriate response to a condescending remark, even when it comes from family.

We thought rosemary smoked peanuts would take us through the trauma but eventually a cone of truffle honey Parmesan fries and the resulting finger licking were required.

One thing this girlfriend and I have long had in common is the circuitous and illogical paths we took to get to where we are today, places with which both of us are quite satisfied.

Seems not all our family members agree with our decisions along the way and aren't shy about telling us. My mother would not approve.

Happily, we're at an age where we know we can't please everyone so it's more important to please ourselves.

Sometimes that means going home to spend the evening with your funny husband, like my girlfriend did tonight.

Other times, it means sharing a bacon cheeseburger with a level-headed musician like I did, one who reminds you that talking is the best therapy for unkind words and hurt feelings.

He's right, of course. Even a non-normal person from the most remarkable and eccentric family knows that deep down.

Besides, when all else fails, there's always the four letter word fallback.