Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blame It on the Bossa Nova

I'm on a brunch jag.

For the third time in a week, I accepted a brunch invitation, this time choosing Aziza's on Main because in the five plus years they've been open, I'd never eaten anything but lunch and dinner there.

Exiting the car in front of 2113 Bistro directly across the street, I noticed their sign advertising a bossa nova brunch, but stayed true to Aziza's anyway.

Don't get me wrong, I love me some bossa nova, but once committed, you have to follow through. As luck would have it, they had a theme of their own going, playing a solid '80s soundtrack.

It began with Mister Mister's "Broken Wings," a song my date guessed as '90s, but which I was certain was '80s ('85, to be exact). His problem was that he couldn't remember what he was doing when the song was big and that's always key when you try to recall a song's year.

The brunch menu was pretty straightforward with few flourishes, but I happily settled on the Lebanese scramble with bits of London broil and onion while my fellow eater decided to take the measure of a brunch spot by ordering the sausage gravy biscuit.

Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" naturally brought up MTV and the ubiquitous video that even had toddlers singing, "chicks for free."

Not much better was Steve Perry's "Oh, Sherrie," another played to death video of the era, one that might as well have been a Journey song.

And we all know how I feel about Journey.

Our food arrived from two directions, his from the huge wood-burning oven in the back and mine from the kitchen, spurring me to ask our brightly-clad server what was up.

In an attempt to speed up brunch service, they have different stations, some front and some back and over easy eggs come from the oven in the back while my scrambled are handled up front.

Hey, you don't find out stuff unless you ask and I'm anything but shy about asking.

I liked my meat and onion studded eggs (could have used more butter on my toast, but when isn't that the case?) and my date's fried eggs were perfectly executed, runny yolks and all, so sopping ensued.

Difficult as it was for me to turn down dessert of Aziza's cream puff, I did, but only because I have dinner plans and a girl's got to stop eating at some point...if only so she can do it again later.

We detoured to Union Market afterwards, where I ran into a favorite sous chef and his honey picking up a few goodies in between moving in to a house on the Hill today.

They were all smiles about their move.

At the register, I was surprised to see the smiling and dimpled face of the hard-hitting drummer I'd just seen at Balliceaux the other night, who admitted he'd had to ice his arm after that show.

He'd also noticed that I'd dipped out before the last song and called me on it, forcing me to admit that after an evening that had spanned eight hours and multiple destinations, I'd finally gotten tuckered out.

Honestly, I needed to go home and get some sleep so I could get up and go to brunch the next morning. All this morning eating is exhausting.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Awash in Frogs

Mon dieu, it's been a French-themed weekend.

The lovely Pru had made reservations for us to attend the artist talk for the new exhibit at Chasen Gallery, notable because the prints being shown had some awfully recognizable signatures on them.

Manet. Chagall. Miro. Cassatt. Degas. Picasso. And while, sure, there were price tags of $44K and $69K, there were also some in the $2K-$5K range, which I have to assume is quite affordable.

But the evening's excitement came courtesy of artist Alexandre Renoir, great-grandson of Pierre Auguste Renoir, and his thickly textured paintings hung in half the gallery space.

Arriving in the pouring rain, we left our dripping umbrellas near the stern-faced security guard, turned around and were faced with a large Picasso drawing.

And about a zillion people. It was slow going through the room to admire the prints and paintings and we didn't get far before the handsome Alexandre took up his place in a paint-stained apron next to an easel with a painting loosely sketched out on it.

His intention was to work on the painting while we milled about, but first he said, he was going to get some wine.

That gave me time to move around, admiring the whimsical Chagalls, marveling at the Rembrandt sketch, coveting a Manet print and discussing with Pru the magnificent framing job on everything. Linen mats and elaborately unique frames showed off each work to perfection.

Alexandre's paintings were distinctively impressionistic yet contemporary, with recognizable imagery and thick applications of vibrantly colored paint carved into the canvas.

The most striking of all his work, in my opinion, was a series he'd done isolating figures from Renoir's masterpiece, "Luncheon of the Boating Party" in individual drawings that owed much to the original but were distinctively his own.

It was like seeing old friends in a new light.

When he was ready to begin his talk, no announcement was made. He just wandered over to the easel and began.

After putting on latex gloves like a proctologist would, he picked up a fat tube of paint and started talking about Winsor-Newton paints and how much he liked them.

Then it occurred to him that many in the room did not have any conception of the link between Impressionism and pre-mixed paints and he laid out the difficulty of trying to paint "en plein air" when you still had to go back to your studio to mix colors, a problem solved by ready colored tubes.

If this sounds dry or boring, I can assure you it wasn't.

Alexandre was not only handsome but humorous, knowledgeable and exceedingly comfortable in front of a crowd. In fact, he played to it, taking questions from lacquer-haired old ladies and cracking wise every chance he got.

One wanted to know his past and present - born in the south of France, grew up in northwest Canada and now living in southern California- while a man asked if he'd always used a palette knife instead of a brush for paint application (no).

Naturally someone asked what he thought of the film "Renoir," which Pru and I had seen at last year's French Film Fest and which Alexandre has yet to see.

One of his complaints about what he'd heard was how the film had compressed information about his father and two brothers, all of whom turned their artistic souls to the newest art form, cinema.

Well, if the book is always better than the movie, surely the real life is better than either.

When asked if he had any of his great grandfather's works or sketches, he explained that his father and uncles had liquidated the entire estate to finance their filmmaking.

"But I got all his furniture," Alexandre said. "And his easel." How satisfying must that be?

Someone asked about his great grandfather's days painting Limoges porcelain and how fast he was at it given his talent, resulting in a hilarious story.

He said when bicycles with gears came out, Renoir ran out to buy one, eager for speed, but shortly fell off and broke his right arm, the one he painted with.

"He immediately began painting with his left hand just as beautifully and delicately," Alexandre said.

Was he ambidextrous, a woman inquired. No, stubborn, his great grandson answered. "During that time he was known as Monet."

Major art lover laughter at that crack.

He talked about what great friends Monet and Renoir were, right down to using a similar curlicue brushstroke and even sometimes helping each other finish a commissioned work to meet a deadline.

The man was full of impressionist gossip and great stories.

After he announced that he was going to stop taking questions and mingle for a while, one more woman raised her feeble hand to ask if he and his great grandfather had ever talked about art.

Patiently, Alexandre explained that Renoir had died in 1919, a fact he'd already mentioned, and that he'd been born in 1974. "I hope I don't look that old," he joked to her.

Don't worry, dearie. It's easy to lose track of time when you're listening to a witty Frenchman talk about art history.

Or maybe that's just me.

Black Iron Bitches Brunch

Who can be bothered with her daily walk when she has girlfriends to meet for brunch?

The Monument Avenue 10K had caused us to scrap our plans to meet at 821 (hence last night's visit) and try Lunch instead, despite a 40-minute wait when we arrived.

Ho-hum, just another Saturday morning at Lunch.

With umbrellas overhead and plenty to start talking about, our trio would have waited longer than that.

As if turned out, it wasn't even ten minutes before we were offered three seats at the bar and all was right with the world.

The music was set to solid gold soul - Dusty Springfield, Stevie Wonder- and our only wish was that it was louder.

I was the only one who hadn't brought major news but the other two had plenty. One is about to get a big, juicy promotion where she'll get to run things efficiently instead of pushing paper and the other is seeing a new (and very handsome) man, the best kisser she's ever had.

Hold on to a good kisser, my dear, because it bodes well for other things.

There were plenty of post-10K runners in there but between the three of us, we don't have one athletic bone in our bodies, so while they may have been eating the runner's special of an egg white omelet, we were more into real food- Nutella French toast, Greek omelets, the Ike with a monster pile of potato chips.

They talked about how a few drinks (or even caffeine) before shopping loosens a girl's wallet, but since I hate shopping, I stayed out of that one. Our server complimented my friend's cute glasses, recognizing them as the exact same ones she has. On more philosophical matters, we tried to figure out why guy friends never go to brunch together.

After plowing through our food, we set about coordinating upcoming music events: the great busk, a new Turkish band, a loud feminist punk band. Not the kinds of shows you want to be left out of.

Since it seemed rude to linger at the bar when people were waiting outside to get in, we took our post-meal conversation out to the sidewalk for a while.

Being better at the girl thing than I am, one was off to go shoe shopping and the other to go thrifting while I was returning to the Byrd for another French film.

Lady Luck was with me because I found a prime parking space next to Coppola's and managed to slide into an aisle seat for "Demi Soeur" with a minute to spare.

Taking up residence next to me were two young guys, one of whom commented, "This looks good!" when the opening credits began and all we could see was a church spire.

Optimist or French film expert, it was hard to tell.

But he was right about the sweet comedy about a mentally challenged woman (and her pet turtle, Tootie), Nenette, trying to find her father after her mother dies and instead finding her half brother, a lonely, introverted man with an ordered life but no friends or contact with his own family.

Because it was French and things like this never happen in American movies, the woman gets lost in the woods and stumbles on a rave with a screaming band called the Black Iron Bitches thrashing onstage while people on Ecstasy dance hypnotically.

It's through meeting the Bitches that she ends getting a makeup job from Too Much, the lead singer (a black star on her eye and deep plum colored lipstick on an old woman look pretty interesting), along with a bag of Ecstasy when the cops arrive mid-show.

It's that drug which she uses as sweetener in her brother's coffee, having been told that's what it is, that causes him to see everything and everyone in a new light. It was most definitely a ringing endorsement for drug use to affect a better personality.

He ends up having a euphoric day, the best of his life, with his half sister at the seashore, releasing his pet hermit crabs to the ocean and visiting and trying to make amends with his ex-wife and son from whom he's been estranged.

It wasn't a deep movie and it's not likely to be as memorable as any of the other films I've seen this time around at the FFF.

But I like to think that watching a sweet parable about what matters in life kind of counts as doing something  girly after brunch.

It also gives me an idea for what my brunch buddies and I can call ourselves from here on out.

Like Going Steady

Life is a party, let's live it together ~ from Fellini's "8 1/2"


On my way to the Byrd theater to see an Italian movie about Fellini as part of the VCU French Film Festival, I ran into a foodie friend and our brief conversation set the tone for the evening.

Agreeing that it would be tough for either of us to date a vegetarian or a non-drinker, he observed, "If I had to, I'd date a vegetarian over a non-drinker. No one wants to have sober sex all the time."

Now there's something I hadn't considered.

I was greeted outside the theater by a French friend who'd saved me a seat for "Carte Blanche de Jacques Perrin," a film tribute and portrait of Fellini, and who'd also brought dark chocolate crisps to snack on.

If you're curious about why an Italian film was showing at a French film fest, put your mind at ease. A French director had selected it because of its French cinematographer.

I learned the basic Fellini premise: "For women, love is everything and then sex. Men are just the opposite." Sobriety during either was not mentioned.

We returned to form with "Cousin Jules," a sumptuous 1972 French documentary that followed an elderly blacksmith and his wife in Burgundy for five years in a beautifully meditative film that the film's cinematographer warned us was definitely not an action movie.

Scenes were languid, unfolding as naturally as life in the French countryside must have been back in the '60s and '70s.

Interesting as it was to watch the blacksmith light fires, pump bellows, heat metal and shape things, I was far more fascinated with watching the wife's domestic life.

Peeling potatoes with one finger reduced to a stump, drawing water from the well, grinding coffee, she was always simply dressed in a dress and apron with black, woolen stockings. You'd have thought the film was from 1868 rather than 1968.

We learn she dies only when we see him over a graveyard wall shoveling. He carries on, carefully making their bed every day, preparing meals alone and filling a bottle from a barrel of wine to accompany his meals.

It was striking how much the world has changed in 46 years.

Their lives had been recorded in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound so we heard every nuance of birds flying overhead, roosters crowing at sunrise, the scraping of the man's straight razor against his coarse stubble and the shelling of dried corn.

Afterwards, my friend remarked that the sounds of the film had been particularly evocative for him, recalling those of being at his French grandparents' house as a child.

Breathtaking and riveting as my friend and I found the documentary, not everyone else did, including the older trio behind us who chattered away throughout. I finally said something to them but they kept on. Others did the same until finally they buttoned it for the last half an hour.

I bid au revoir to my friend after the Q & A, my backside deadened from the punishing Byrd theater seats (plenty of people were smart enough to bring cushions, but, no, not me).

When I stopped at Cafe 821 to eat, I walked in to hear my name called by server (and bass player) Gabe, who insisted I take a table since all the bar stools were occupied.

Hardly surprising given that this weekend is both Slaughterama, meaning the bike kids are here, and United Blood, meaning the hardcore crew has arrived, but when I want my favorite black bean nachos, there's just no going anywhere else.

Luckily, my server was also a familiar face who wanted to know where I'd been and where I was going (film to music so I could stand for a while, I told her) and understood completely when I left all chips without cheese sitting on the plate.

Walking outside into the still balmy air, I was glad I had a show to go to and happily surprised when lots of friends were there.

Before I even made it to the back room, a girl came up to me and asked if I was the Karen who wrote "ICGOAO." Well, sure, but how the hell had she known that?

"I see you around a lot and I just figured it out," she claimed. before introducing herself as one of the female arm wrestlers who had read my post on that fabulous night of estrogen power.

Further back I found plenty of people I already knew. There was the pretty DJ doing a special French pop music show on WRIR Sunday that I'll want to hear, the overworked and inventive dulcitar player, the platinum blond organizer and the Romanian folk musician, whom I had to move when he began blocking my view.

The draw for me was VA Beach's Suburban Living, a dream pop quartet with glorious guitar lines and enough reverb to qualify as my beloved "music from a cave."

It was hard to decide if they sounded more like the Cure or a melding of Real Estate and Wild Nothing, which is to say, two other Cure-derived bands.

Completely to my taste, in other words, as a shoegazing musician friend noted with a grin. His, too, so he should know.

Next up was Positive No,, who will be playing Suburban Living's hometown tomorrow night on the exact same bill.

"Two nights in a row," lead singer Tracey said. "It's like we're going steady!"

She's the high energy burst in front of the hard-hitting (and dimpled) Willis on drums and between Andre and Kenny keeping it loud and fuzzed out as everyone began to react to the music.

Even though Balliceaux had those beautiful windows open, it quickly got warm in there with everyone crushed in and half-dancing.

Exactly how you expect it to be at a party when you're living it together.

Friday, March 28, 2014

There's Only Today

Vive la France.

The French film festival began with two free screenings and we all know I am all about the free.

I arrived at the Byrd theater behind a woman who not only wanted to hear the names of the upcoming films, but the film run times as well. Mon cherie, that's what the program is for.

After scoring some buttered popcorn from a favorite Gallery 5 server, I found a seat at the end of an unoccupied row.

First up was "Cineast(e)s," a documentary about female filmmakers and their unique challenges.

Twenty French women filmmakers discuss whether or not you can spot a woman-made film, half saying you can and half saying you can't.

My favorite was the one who observed that if you looked at a film, you could see that it was either a woman director or a man in love. In the case of "Annie Hall," she said, it seemed like a woman, but was really a man in love.

Talking abut the challenges of a woman directing a predominantly male crew, several said you abandon heels and lipstick to take control.

Several disagreed, saying you put on make up and a dress and boss them like a woman, whether they like it or not.

Needless to say, no consensus was reached and filmmakers, some who began shooting in the '50s and '60s and some in the aughts, all held definitive opinions about writing and directing French film.

Approaching the bathroom after the film ended, I first saw a line and then heard a woman behind me say, "And so it begins."

The bathroom lines at the French Film Festival are always the worst part of the weekend, but the break between films was lightened when an unexpected French friend showed up with a box of dark chocolate covered marshmallows and took the seat beside me.

He joined me for "Il est Minuit, Paris s'eveille," a documentary about Paris' Left Bank music scene between 1945 and 1968, a cluster of clubs who began around midnight every night.

Unfortunately, director Yves Jeuland, who spoke before and after the showing, was presenting the 52 minute subtitled version rather than the 90 minute French version.

It wasn't the dumbed down version I wanted to see.

I fell in love with the opening credits done in a vintage '50s jazz style, with ovals of color against a black background, with the occasional drumstick tapping out a rhythm.

The film was chock full of old footage, gathered over a period of ten plus years, and showing the cellar and cabaret scene on the Left Bank.

With a post-war attitude of "live it up," the artists who performed at these 200+ cafes - Juliette Greco (looking like a young Cher with long, dark hair and bangs), Jacques Briel, Charles Aznavour, the Freres Jacques group - epitomized a post war attitude, singing songs with direct meanings and, even more shocking, average looking (or even odd looking) men singing them.

Shops that closed at 5:00 became cabarets at 9 p.m with as many people as possible flooding in to hear these new style singers.

I'd have loved these places, which didn't get going until midnight and featured music, poetry, theater and dance. Oh, yes, and mimes like Marcel Marceau.

My friend and I were amazed at how much vintage footage was contained in the film (including Orson Welles-shot footage of Paris streetscapes) along with current interviews of many of the former cabaret stars.

They were all so romantic about that period in Parisian history.

What was distinctive about that era was how it opened the door for non-traditional singers to come thorough. Good looks, height and a classical voice no longer were required to be a hit with the masses.

Absolutely no one thought Aznavour would succeed because he didn't fit the mold. The surprise was that the molds were being thrown away by this time.

How else to explain the oddly-eared Serge Gainsbourg and his instant hit, "The Ticket Puncher," with its allusion to suicide based on job frustration? Or the oblique "Be Pretty and Shut Up," a song which made a woman's role perfectly clear?

What was funny was the reactionary development of the Right Bank scene where all the tourists and bourgeoisie flocked to "experience" the cabaret scene in a safe and controlled environment. In other words, a commercial take on the swinging cellars.

No, thanks.

Eventually the film moved on from the '50s scene to the '60s, where singers got even deeper and more oblique.

We haven't finished talking about love
We haven't finished smoking cigarettes.

The how can we possibly call it a night?

When the lights came up, the Frenchman turned to me beaming and noted that the film had been far too short.

I agreed. It had flown by in the blink of an eye, making me wish for the French 90 minute version. Of course I was going to love a documentary about French music so did it have to be over so soon?

He bragged about recognizing nearly every singer in the movie, not to mention 95% of all the songs performed.

But then, he grew up over there.

Meaning he didn't need to wait for the translation of the director's comments during the question and answer period like most of us did.

Blinking against the light, it was tough to accept that the fun was over.

Wait, we hadn't finished hearing about love. We hadn't finished hearing about music. Time to go drink wine and discuss the things that matter.

Day one of the French Film Festival. And so it begins...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Untinged by Regret

Look. State of the plate
deems Dutch a damn fine dinner
Town coming. Go now.

When Style's annual State of the Plate issue comes out, you can be certain I'll do one thing: go to the restaurant of the year immediately, knowing full well it'll be months before I venture near it again.

And, yes, that was a haiku.

An old friend had a free night and since it had been a good, long while since we'd met up, suggested dinner. I knew exactly where we needed to go.

Dutch & Co. had only three tables filled upon our arrival, but we chose the bar anyway. On the way to our stools, two of the servers raved about my tights. I, in turn, raved about a cute Halcyon-sourced sweater and another's curly hair, looking for all the world straight.

I immediately awarded brownie points for the chalkboard listing of Blenheim's Table White, a Virginia blend of Viognier and Chardonnay, meaning I ordered a glass tout suite.

While it's only been a few weeks since I was there, it had been over a year for my friend, so he spent some quality time with the menu.

The one thing we knew for sure was that we both intended to begin with Anderson's Neck oysters off the $5 menu. Three river swallows and we were off to a fine start.

With the late afternoon sun slanting through the windows and R & B music playing, we began eating our way through the menu.

He wanted the pig face terrine and, decadent as it was, I'd just had it on my last visit, so I decided on a bowl of earthly delights: Rogue river smokey blue cheese, pork and fig roll-ups, arugula, pumpkin puree and roasted pumpkin seeds.

I could only hope to achieve a marriage as perfectly suited as pig and fig.

When my next course arrived, our lovely server with the saucy red lipstick announced, "And here's your flounder," but I informed her that as far as I was concerned, she was delivering my pork belly.

"I hear you talking, sister!" she testified. The combination of crispy fish, curlicues of pork belly, gnocchi, salt-baked celery root, kale and a pear and black sesame puree tickled every fancy I had.

My friend looked at me after licking clean his plate of lamb two ways and observed, "They're killing it on every level."

Um, yes, that would explain the restaurant of the year business and all.

With a now completely full restaurant behind us, we savored a dessert of dark chocolate ginger cake with aerated milk chocolate, espresso ice cream, cardamom marshmallow, candied pistachios and orange curd sauce laid out prettily to look like fried eggs.

It was as much a treat for the eyes as the tongue and we left not a trace, shameless in our delight in it all.

We managed to be out of there by the high, holy hour of 8:00, leaving behind every seat occupied except the two we'd just vacated.

So long, Dutch & Co. See you once the hoopla dies down.

She craves wordsmithing
and finds hand to hand haiku.
Funny, poetic.

Tonight I was trying something new, something called a hand to hand haiku tournament at Balliceaux.

A large man improbably named Raven Mack, and apparently a master of haiku, was hosting an evening of dueling haikus.

Arriving, I saw a woman I know who works at VCU libraries, the same one who'd recently helped me find a poem from 1986 in their special collections.

She was one of tonight's contestants, having written 25 haikus in anticipation of the competition.

Another woman came up to me, this one recognizing me from Monday's Secretly Y'All event, and introduced herself.

She had lots to share - that Gloria Steinem wants her funeral to be a fundraiser, about a website that features documentaries about important women (Alice Walker, Wonder Woman)- before we discussed the ins and outs of biking in Richmond.

We all took seats when Raven, aka Dr. Lounge, told us to. "This is about 17 syllables and I'd like to get started with 17," he said as he began to count down and remove pieces of clothing.

You see, kids, sometimes you come for the high brow and get the low.

He told us, "My heart is as big as the Blue Ridge mountains but my mouth is bigger and that's why I do hand to hand haiku."

We knew there had to be a reason.

The first match was between Selena and Paul. Each read one of their haikus and the three judges voted a winner for each round. Selena won with haikus about dancing and orgasms untinged by regret.

Next came a match between Selena and Angie, the challenger, who read this:

A snowy Sunday
calls for lounging in bed
with someone you love

This haiku caused our host, Dr. Lounge, to pull up his shirt and expose a tattoo saying, "Lounge."

See, you go for 17 syllable poetry and sometimes you get strange men's bellies.

After a monologue by the very witty Raven ranging on topics from a 90-year old catfish named Jelly Biscuit to how he had a gamecock heart and was ready to crush his haiku competitor, Lamb of God bassist John Campbell, the match got underway.

Whoever got the first 13 of 25 rounds in his favor won. Campbell, who had a white beard, also had plenty of haiku ammunition, most of it very funny and well-delivered.

I got my eyes trained 
on the color of your beard.
You see no fear here.

What was funny was that their haikus were more of a battle of insults, many beard-based (two kinds, according to Raven: true beards and trim beards), as they tried to out-do each other with unkind words.

When Raven appeared to be winning and Campbell left the stage, he called out, "Some people aren't game cock enough."

He sure wasn't talking to me.

I was really sorry when the evening was over, wishing there were more haiku writers in the audience to keep it going all night.

Raven said hand to hand haiku was a lot like a potluck, all the better for having as many people as possible in attendance to get the most out of it, making me regret that I hadn't written a haiku or two myself to prolong the poetic pleasure.

Night over too soon.
Haikus bring satisfaction
but not like good sex.

It'll be another month until the next hand to hand haiku evening and I'm already looking forward to it.

Fortunately, I got home to a message inviting me for a drink, so I sashayed over to Saison to meet a poet for wine and a blather a few blocks from home.

Beer geeks nearby talked incessantly about cellaring beer while one guy hid behind the door curtain, jumping out just as his friend came through the door and scaring him to death while amusing everyone else.

After a bit, the good, old boys of the Roosevelt crew came in, front and back of the house, and joined the revelry.

Eat and drink, haikus,
wine and good conversation,
What more could I want?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Sacred and the Profane

With the French Film Festival looming on the horizon, of course the weekly VCU Cinematheque series would show one, too.

We wouldn't want to dilute the cultural blood this week with a stray Russian or Japanese film.

Knowing nothing about the film, this heathen showed up to see Bruno Dumont's "Hors Satan," which means outside Satan, although several times Satan was inside one girl or another.

Sorry to give that away.

During an introduction by Rob, the film professor, he said that Dumont makes films about religion even though he's not a religious man.

Sometimes I go to religious films even though I'm not a religious woman, so we're even.

I wasn't familiar with the director but apparently he's one of those you either love or hate and it didn't take long to see how his long takes and close ups of impassive faces along with very limited dialog and no music whatsoever (none? zut alors!) would be challenging for some people.

Expecting that it would be the youngest members of the audience - the film students - who would get bored first, I was proven wrong when a late arriving group of four adults (including a gallerist I know) got up and left within ten minutes and the duo who sat down in front of me (including a Frenchman I know) soon did the same.

Both had missed the opening scene where a disembodied hand knocks on a door and a sandwich is passed through the door anonymously or they'd never have made it any further than that.

Had they stuck around, they might have been engrossed by the story of a nameless man who comes to a small, seaside village in France and proceeds to behave partly like a savior and partly like a devil.

Sometimes he's protecting a teenager from her abusive stepfather and sometimes he's murdering a man and in this movie, it's all the same.

The ocean scenes of France are beautiful and rugged, the village where the story takes place quaint and overgrown, so it's the people who populate the film who stand out.

And in a Dumont film, that seems to mean a demonically possessed girl, an amorous park ranger, a lusty backpacker and a scary dog owner. You know, your usual French village occupants.

There was a moment of cultural confusion for some of the students when the actress playing the young backpacker stripped down revealing a far from perfect young body (so un-Hollywood-like!) and with (gasp!) unshaven arm pits. The group near me had some trouble processing both.

Personally, I was taken in with how ambiguous the plot was. That and all the wide angle landscape shots, how the director used only direct sound shot on location (many times the wind was sweeping over the mic as characters walked) to give you a sense of place.

Although to those requiring non-stop action and dialog, apparently not a place they wanted to find themselves.

Tant pis. Sometimes you just have to have faith in a talented director and see what you get, even if it ends up confounding you.

Isn't that one of the things the French excel at?

Are the Scars Out Tonight?

Scars have the strange power to remind us our past is real.

So wrote Carmac McCarthy about the theme of tonight's Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story at Balliceaux: scars.

Conspicuously absent was one of Richmond's finest, an undoubtedly scarred person himself, GWAR musician Dave Brockie, who has twice been part of the evening's storytelling lineup.

His untimely death yesterday was the subject on everyone's mind and as we paid our cover fee to get in, the doorman wrote "RIPD" on the back of each person's hand instead of the usual symbol.

Rest in peace, Dave Brockie.

While I'd been at both the Secretly Y'All events where he told a tale, my favorite memory was a night he shared with no other storytellers, a night that was part travelogue, part military history and pure Dave Brockie, "To the Volga and Back," here.

Somehow he'd gotten wind of my post the next day and tweeted it to his adoring fans all over the world. No kidding, my blog had over 1,000 hits on that post and they came from as far away as Russia, England and the Philippines.

Such was the power of Dave Brockie. I have no doubt he could have come up with all kinds of stories tonight to suit the theme of scars.

Tonight's evening of tale telling began with Donna's "Fear and Trust" about a serial killer in the neighborhood in which she'd lived as a teenager, back before such things were commonplace.

As the neighborhood and her friends got progressively more terrified, a good friend of hers was arrested for the crimes.

And while she visited him in prison (the old Spring Street penitentiary), eventually she realized that he was a very bad man. "I hope he never gets parole," she concluded.

Margaret's story, "Tragic Places, Sacred Spaces" was much worse because so many bad things happened to her to scar her.

At age 12, one man exposed himself to her, another time when she was hitchhiking (it was the '70s, after all), a carload of guys tried to take her off into the woods. A businessman who picked her up tried to do the same.

She cited her ability to tell a lie as if it were the truth as having saved her life.

"The Five Stages of Grief aka Being a Nurse" was told by Jay Michael, an ICU nurse who compared the stages of grief to the experience of adjusting to nursing.

"I had a sadist in my family who told me I should be a nurse," he quipped before explaining "the unique things male nurses do."

He finished with a story of caring for his dying grandfather whom, when he said, "Grandpa, I love you," heard back from Grandpa, "I'm not surprised.

Will, who does the "12 Fluid Ounces" show on WRIR told the story of going to the grocery store to get stuff for a Superbowl party.

The only qualifications he and his new wife had for entertaining on the high holy day of football were, "She could make chili and I could drink beer."

After finally procuring ground turkey, a six pack and ice, he tore through the parking lot "in Superman mode" flying on his grocery cart, which upended, pinning his hands under it and dragging them long enough on the street to scrape away the skin down to the bone.

There was a collective groan from the audience as he described his bloody digits.

The story of a 15-year old learning to drive on his parents' country property was told by Mark and titled, "A Whale Tail."

Seems that once he'd learned to peel out and mastered the "fish tail" in his parents' 1992 Ford Escort station wagon, he set out to one-up himself.

Putting on his "Street Racer" persona, he proceeded to "put on something heavy like Dave Matthews" and peel wheel up a dirt hill, terrifying himself and barely getting an acknowledgement from his young cousin in the passenger seat.

WRIR showed up again in the form of Shannon's "Are You Alright" story about his quest to get to the Ghost of Pop show at Gallery 5 in 2008.

His bike lights were missing (possibly stolen by roommates) but he set out anyway, running into a car's bumper causing his tire to explode and Shannon to go sailing into the car and up against the windshield.

Miraculously, despite the throwing and rolling and both he and his bike hitting the glass, he escaped relatively unscathed.

But it did provide that moment when he realized, "that could have been it," only further emphasized when his father died late last year. "Mortality is not this infinite thing," Shannon concluded.

Ian's story was called "Stimulant" and he had the most curious delivery. Speaking in a deep voiced monotone and never really looking at the audience, his tale was told in a decidedly literary way that was hysterical.

It was on his first sandbar at Virginia beach that he realized there was a jellyfish down his bathing suit and began screaming. When his Dad realized what it was, he began clutching at the jellyfish, trying to pull it out and away.

He said it must have looked like a lot of emphasis on a child's crotch in the ocean.

From there he told us about a trip to Busch Gardens with his aunt when he was an acne-ridden 15-year old. "I have a latent white trash gene and my aunt was only six years older than me."

It took a while for the laughter to die down on that one.

The story involved riding a tram with a "douchebag of a guy" across from them trying to hit on his aunt until Ian indicated she was his.

He didn't go so far as to put his arm around her to prove it because "that would have been creepy."

After an overly long intermission where half the crowd left, we started the second half of tonight's loaded theme.

Wendy's was the first name drawn out of the hat and she wanted to make sure we knew that, "As soon as you push your face out of a vagina, you're scarred. Or as soon as you're cut out, you're scarred."

She proudly told us about all her scars obtained as an accident-prone kid with a bald, cancerous grandmother who had no time or patience for sissies.

Her conclusion? "America would be better off if we all stopped bitching about everything." The room erupted in cheers. Even all the bitchers cheered. "Brag about your scars."

I think that's a good point. I have a close friend who had heart surgery and the long scar across her chest is a point of pride. My mother always claimed that stretch marks and C-section scars were badges of honor.

Joseph was called to tell a story called "Lessons in Loss and Recovery" and I recognized him, having just met him in the bathroom line at intermission.

There, he'd suggested that there ought to be a contest at these events to see who peed the fastest. I assured him I'd win and on exiting the bathroom moments after entering, he'd deferentially acknowledged as much.

Now here he was telling us about a road trip home at 3 a.m. with his boyfriend, trying to avoid deer running across the road.

When he saw one off to the side, he'd swerved, over-corrected and ended up spinning out, sending them into the guard rail and the couple's dog flying into the front seat.

When the two men exited the car, the dog took off, evidently terrified at his owner's driving skills.

They searched in the darkness for the pooch and finally gave up. Back home, they contacted a missing dog Facebook page (which he plugged for others who might need it) with no results.
By two weeks after the crash, they were coming to terms with never finding their dog again.

"We were showering together one morning," Joseph went on, "Cause that's what you do when you have a lover..." and the room began applauding and cheering that sentiment, "And we got a call from a lady saying she had our dog."

Happily, Lassie came home.

When Chris' name got called, he came up to tell "Good Pain," asking the crowd if anyone kayaked or went white water rafting. More than a few hands went up.

"Seen any black people doing that?" the black Chris asked. Not so much.

He told the story of a (white) friend who suggested they do the Gali festival together, which he described as "class V rapids, a real shit show. It doesn't hit me right away that I'm the only black person there."

Describing the "festival" as "20 seconds in the water and the first drop is 12 feet," he explained that the main goal is to stay in the raft.

"Now we're not drinking or taking drugs, this is all adrenaline and crazy white man stuff," he said to much laughter. His friend decides to flip the raft, causing the girlfriends to go flying into the water followed by the menfolk.

When it happens a second time, not everyone flies out, but he's one of the ones who does, emerging with a broken off tooth and two broken fingers from trying to hold on to the raft's t-strip.

Justifiably, he blamed it all on crazy white men.

Dustin told the last story about his job as a mental health counselor and some of the scarred kids he's worked with. Badly scarred kids who punch cinder block walls until they splinter the bones in their hand. Truly sad stuff,

Wendy was right. We're all scarred in one way or another and sometimes you can see people's scars and sometimes they're hidden.

But it was the missing storyteller who provided the most touching and significant reminder tonight.

Mortality is not this infinite thing. RIPD.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Field Notes

I listened to a man talk about foraging for food old school before attempting some new school foraging of my own.

Max Watman was doing a reading from his new book, "Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food" at the Library of Virginia, usually a place I walk to.

But because I had lunch plans afterward, I drove only to find the garage marked full. That's expected when the General Assembly is in session, but it's not.

Turns out the governor convened a press conference this morning at the library, meaning all the indoor parking was gone. I managed to find a spot on the street behind a license plate marked "Senator."

I bet he doesn't have to worry about having enough change for the parking meter.

Inside, I found a seat just as the talk was beginning and Watman was noting that it was Publication day, an all but meaningless fact given how few people read physical publications anymore.

Happily, I do not count myself in that group.

He began by reading a  section from the book about fishing in the Shenandoah where he grew up, talking about how he loved doing it but wasn't very good at it.

Mentioning how fishing involves being moved from a meditative state to a blood-fueled adrenaline thrill, he read a reference to a cannon used by Union soldiers at Gettysburg.

"I probably should have edited that out," he joked to titters from the audience before finishing the story of ultimately catching a catfish with "a crazy Dali mustache."

Stressing that a big part of the book was about trying things, failing at them and continuing to fail, but failing better with each attempt, he admitted that midway through his pursuit of real food, it began to wear on him.

He's one of those people who can recall in detail entire meals eaten years ago and proceeded to catalogue a few. I know a guy similar to that in that he can tell you what wine he drank at any given meal.

Talking about what it means to forage when you travel, he mentioned people who seek out the familiar when they're away, reminding me of the long lines of Americans I saw outside a TGIF in London, a depressing sight.

But his emphasis was on what great joy there was in seeing everything in a different light when you're away, how learning to forage is a lot like traveling where you have to learn to be aware of what's around you.

His best story on that subject was about discovering tins of caviar for $27 at a Russian deli, buying them and "flipping" them to restaurants for $70, still half the retail price. "Everyone was happy," including Watman who proceeded to get positively hedonistic about putting caviar on practically everything.

Sometimes being in pursuit of real food is a lot more pleasurable than you might think.

Nothing strokes the passion of the palate like the ocean, he told us, supporting my mother's long-time theory that children eat best at the beach because of the salt air.

One vacation, he took a lobster pot full of ocean water and cooked it down to the salt. Now he could sprinkle bits of the ocean on everything.

Seeking more ocean food for his guests, he used seawater for risotto, foraged for sea snails and seaweed and voila! Dinner.

"There's an outdoor shower at your beach house designed for getting rid of all the things I was going to feed my guests," he laughed.

I go to the beach every summer so I'm already looking forward to trying ocean risotto in a few months. And don't even get me started on the pleasures of an outdoor shower.

It was an interesting talk about a journey I'm unlikely to make (hunt and butcher? probably not) but am happy to hear about from one braver than me.

And while he'd taught his son to forage for dandelions, my lunch companion wanted red meat, tough to forage for in the Slip, so we somehow ended up in the '80s time warp of La Grotta.

Honestly, I don't think that dining room has changed one iota since I first walked down the stairs into it decades ago.

Over sauteed fillet of sole with diced tomatoes, pine nuts and basil in a chardonnay sauce, Friend and I caught up on each other's goings on in an empty dining room.

I was only slightly pea green with envy over his upcoming trips to Charleston and Savannah for R & R, but I let it pass because he was full of good gossip.

Given the enormous portions of food on my plate- two fillets, a cheese-covered square of polenta, crispy green beans and an eggplant roll-up- I was really too full for desert but he insisted so coconut cake and chocolate mousse cake soon arrived at our table.

When the two dessert plates were cleared, very little remained.

Sometimes nothing strokes the palate like a book reading followed by lunch in a dim basement with a friend who wants to kvetch.

More Flavorful in Every Way

I am nothing if not able to plan a day of activities.

So when a date instructs me to "pick a place," I am already envisioning a day and evening of amusements.

We begin with brunch at Stella's, a place I hadn't been in a full two years.

Walking in, I spotted two open seats at the bar and claimed them as if they were my own. "You got here at just the right moment," the woman nearby noted of the recently vacated seats.

This is a good thing since I would not wait around for a table here. Note to self: plan to arrive at Stella's brunch sometime after 1:00 to avoid the crushing mass of humanity,

While Prosecco on tap was ordered, it was soon discovered that the tap was shot and a lengthy replacement effort began, ultimately resulting in us drinking an alternate sparkler instead.

For food, I chose a smoked salmon fritatta with capers, red onion, scallions and Manouri cheese over grilled pita with tzatiki, a dish so distinctive and appealing that a nearby couple asked what it was.

They were Charlottesville residents who'd been to the car show here and were stopping by for a bite before hitting the road. We were locals looking for a bite to eat before heading west to the movies.

Before changing gears, we savored honey tokens - puffs of fried dough bathed in honey sugar syrup and covered in fresh cinnamon - while trying our best to ignore the TV blasting basketball, a replacement for the missing TV screen in the back that used to show vintage Greek movies.

Ah, the good old days.

If you want to ensure I never return to your restaurant, show modern day TV. I promise I won't darken your door again.

But since there was no avoiding the glare of the screen, we ate and left, heading to the vintage Westhampton theater to see Wes Anderson's latest eye candy, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a singularly beautiful movie about a snapshot in time that no longer exists, Europe pre-WW I.

Sure there's unpleasantness - a cat being tossed out a window to its untimely death, rich, old ladies dying and bad guys chasing good guys - but mostly I enjoyed glorious European scenery, a whodunnit of the highest order and ski chase sequences worthy of a James Bond movie.

It was a film that made me laugh out loud over and over again. I almost choked on my buttered popcorn.

When explaining why he preferred older women, our hero, M. Gustave was eloquent. "They're the cheaper cuts and far more flavorful."

Don't talk to me about younger women until you've cleared things with M. Gustave. He knows what of he speaks when it comes to my people.

The movie was pure Wes Anderson, full of visually stunning set design, deadpan delivery and the most unlikely situations imaginable. There was sex with 84-year olds, a stolen painting caper and a severed head.

The one thing my date and I could agree upon was that we definitely needed to see this movie a second time to catch the dialog we'd missed.

Aural and visual stimulation was followed by the same at Secco, where we ran into a friend and the woman to whom he is devoted, followed by an atypical Spanish Cava and a cheese plate.

It wasn't hard to use those around us to discuss gardening in winter, second (or 19th)  chances at romance and the appeal of cellaring Roses before devouring them.

We heard a woman behind us say, "I smoke Virginia Slims and they're $6 a box. Most cigarettes are only $4," afraid to turn around and look at her.

I said farewell to a Secco server leaving to join the academic world and reveled when the sun finally made its way into the sky, lightening things up for the first time today.

When we left there, it was to got to Gallery 5 for the Silent Music Revival and a showing of vintage "Mutt & Jeff" shorts set to a soundtrack improvised by Dumb Waiter, a band who impresses me more each time I see them.

If you've seen them before, you know to expect a melange of jazz, metal, experimental and fusion and that's exactly what they delivered while we watched Mutt and Jeff have wife trouble, be sliced into hot dogs and, time after time, run so fast that they ran out of their clothes.

In the politically incorrect "Dog Gone," dogs are rounded up and then taken to a sausage plant where they are turned into links. Ouch. It was top notch humor, circa 1911-1926.

Dumb Waiter's improvisations were spot on, heightening the story and meshing with the crescendos of Mutt and Jeff's activities.

After the shorts ended, I spoke with guitarist Nick and drummer Nathaniel of Dumb Waiter, praising their performances, and chatted with other friends who had made the show.

When I finally left, it was to head to Garnett's with my date for a late night meal. In fact, it was for Garnett's stellar date night special of a bottle of wine with two entrees.

My choice was a grilled Gouda with caramelized onions, tomato and bacon and it was just the thing to allow discussion of the band's effect-laden saxophone and distinctive tapping, two points of interest for one of the two friends I'd invited to experience the band.

Honestly, Nick's guitar and Nathaniel's drumming should be enough, but the onslaught of all four was downright impressive. Mutt and Jeff never sounded so good.

We finished up with my childhood favorite cake - chocolate cake with white icing and chocolate dribbles (in this case, chocolate ganache)- a rarely seen cake that evoked memories of my youth and birthdays.

When I set our to plan a full day's activities, I never could have expected such a throwback ending to it all. I was just trying to prove that the cheaper cuts deliver the most flavor, even when enjoyed over an entire day.

Sometimes it's just a a matter of arriving at exactly the right moment and moving forward with it.

Pure luck, in other words.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Riding the Rails

It had been too long since I'd ridden the train.

True, I'd ridden plenty of trains in Italy last year - trains to Florence, Sorrento and Rome - but I hadn't ridden good, old Amtrack since 2000.

A shame for one who enjoys train trips as much as I do.

You see, I despise I-95 north, that soul-sucking stretch of road that gets me to my hometown and beyond. Since I'm one of those people who rarely exceeds the speed limit, I have no place on such a road.

But on the train, I excel. I can delve into the Washington Post and get deeper into my book. I can waste all kinds of time staring out the window and observing the landscape. And I can chat with strangers, always a forte of mine.

Minutes before the train was due to arrive at the station, an announcement was made that it was running behind.

For those of us waiting outside on the platform in the morning sunshine, the news was irrelevant. If you're headed out of town at 11:04 on a Friday morning, it's probably not for business so it's probably not a big deal to be delayed 25 minutes.

Sitting closest to me was a man with thick, dark hair and mustache and after the announcement, he turned and said in a beautifully accented voice, "More time for us to get some sun."

That's the way I was looking at it. He turned out to be South African and on his way home to NYC, so we spent the remaining 24 minutes chatting.

Once the train began pulling in, I looked across the platform and spotted John, one of my Jackson Ward neighbors, up ahead. What are the chances?

It was my first time riding business class although I soon discovered that all the leg room and New York Times in the world can't compare to the quiet car, which will henceforth be my car of choice. Having to listen to the inane phone conversations of a mindless woman behind me soon wore thin.

Beyond that, my interest was divided. One part of me relished the hours to get lost in reading while the other part couldn't resist the changing scenery outside my window.

The initial boredom of suburbia meant I soon got lost in the Post but then I looked up to see fields and farms and we weren't even to Ashland yet.

Going through the center of the universe, I got a bird's eye view of the Caboose wine shop and Ashland Coffee and Tea from a different perspective than any of my visits to them.

I pulled out my book and was back in the 1950s with Elvis before glancing up to see a golden field all but covered in wild turkeys.

Continuing to lumber north toward Fredericksburg, I marveled at how many bodies of water we passed - marshes, ponds, streams, rivers, rarely more than a minute or two without a water view.

Pulling into Fredericksburg, I had a bird's eye view up Caroline Street catching sight of four church spires punctuating the bright blue sky.

It was easier to return to my book once our route got past the Marine base at Quantico and Occoquan marina because the train wound within sight of the dreaded 95 and who really wants to look at that?

Before I knew it, I was at the quaint station being picked up by a friend who had invited me up to help her get organized in her new place.

For her, organization is a challenge she can't master despite a razor sharp mind and a wildly successful six figure career and for me, bringing order from chaos is as natural and effortless as breathing.

So after breathing all over her new apartment in Annapolis, we got cleaned up and on our way to dinner.

She was hoping to introduce me to one of her favorite new restaurants, but I stopped her cold by saying I wanted to go to the riverside dive that served crabs. Off we went to Cantlers.

I don't even want to think about what that place must be like during tourist season because on a cool, Friday night at 9:00, it was 95% full, albeit with locals and regulars.

Our bartender was delightful, a savvy server with a great smile and, like us, a tequila drinker. My friend is a recent convert to tequila and wanted a primer on blanco, reposado and anejo, an easy topic for me expound upon.

"Whoa, this girl knows her stuff," the bartender said. You drink only one spirit for 21 years, you learn a little.

When the guy next to me also ordered Herradura, I commented that our side of the bar was the tequila side.

"This is where the cool kids sit," she said, bringing us a tray of extra large crabs and a basket of hushpuppies.

I have to admit, before my friend first brought me to this place, I'd never eaten hard shell crabs out of season. Yet here we were, eating extra large Louisiana crabs in March and it felt right as rain.

The tequila kept flowing, our hands kept getting messier and all of a sudden, we were out of crabs.

My friend, a regular at this place, had an inspiration. "Do you have any supers?" she inquired about the largest of crustaceans, a size I'd never even heard of.

Sure enough, they weren't listed on the board, but there they came, hot out of the pot and so enormous, so completely beyond any crabs I had ever laid eyes on despite being a crab eater since age five, that I understood when my friend handed me her phone and asked that I take a picture of them.

The claws were just slightly smaller than a lobster's and almost as meaty. They were easily the best and biggest crabs I'd ever eaten, with or without tequila.

By this time, the dining room had cleared out and it was just us and the regulars at the bar, a comfy vibe of people enjoying happy hour that lasted as long as the March madness game did.

The gang to my left was considering organizing a game of Flintstones "Jeopardy."

"Ann Margrock!" the guy next to me called out as a possible answer. Perry Masonry, I said to him. He smiled widely and nodded silently in approval, not a word being necessary to show his pleasure in my memory.

That's nothing. Leonard Bernstone, I could have said.

We left them to their game planning and returned to the town center and her apartment building, going up to the rooftop terraces with an Anna Nalick soundtrack playing to admire the twinkling views of Annapolis' state capital and the Bay bridge beyond it.

Sing if you understand
and breathe, just breathe

It's wonderful how effortlessly the train gets me to some place so different than my place.

You don't even have to be a cool kid to ride it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Supremely Satisfying

You think you know where you can go for middle eastern trance music and it turns out you're wrong.

When a friend suggested we meet up for dinner tonight, I threw out three ideas of where to go. Of the trio, he chose Acacia, his long-time favorite and as solid as they come in Richmond.

Walking to meet him, I passed two women chatting on the sidewalk and one stopped mid-sentence, looked at me and pointed, saying, "They're magnificent!"

You'd think she'd never seen floral, fuchsia tights before. My friend tried to convince her that it was the legs, not the tights that mattered, but as a woman, she knew better. I thanked her and moved on.

He's an early eater, meaning we arrived at Acacia before all the people who now wait until the sun goes down to think about dining. Best of all, to a propped open door letting the rare March warmth inside.

So while the tables were slow to fill up, the bar wasn't and we soon had company on both sides, including a girl so young looking that the bartender carded her.

When he looked at her license, he handed it back saying, "Happy birthday!" You could start your legal drinking in far worse places than Acacia, honey.

Friend wanted to do the prix fixe menu, meaning I had to as well and as we considered the menu, I found myself getting lost in the music.

But, what ho! Since when am I hearing recognizable songs at Acacia? Um, that would be never. It's always fabulous middle eastern trance music, the kind of thing you'd hear in a club in NYC or overseas, all beats per minute.

Instead, I'm hearing Local Natives, Snow Patrol, Michael Kiwanuka. Hell, I'm hearing the Supremes! What the hell?

Seems the staff got fed up with the non-stop trance and now one of them makes mixes periodically so that BPM are not always the order of the night.

Although apparently trance still gets pulled out on Friday and Saturday nights when the room is full and energy in the room high.

So now I know.

Meanwhile, I'd decided to start my meal with pork country pate with pickled vegetables and toast, an earthy way to dive into the kitchen's skill set.

My friend took a more of a Virginia slant, choosing peanut soup with Surryano ham, creme fraiche and chives, a spoon-coating delight he shared with me.

This is where we got stubborn and dug in our heels, both of us ordering sauteed flounder on a bed of Surry sausage and leek potato puree, next to garlic-braised broccolini and the greenest basil butter.

Like any seafood that emerges from Acacia's kitchen, the flounder was sauteed to perfection and my friend mumbled something about wanting a vat of those potatoes. I tried explaining that it was the sausage's siren song that he was responding to, but he didn't care.

We took a break between courses to talk about the delivery of Edwards Ham barbecue he'd recently received, why he's willing to spend $6 on a loaf of really good rye bread and the cost of a plane ticket to Paris these days.

Unlike me, he keeps tabs on such things. I only wish I had a reason (or adequate purse) to do the same.

Eventually we got around to dessert and amazingly, lightening did not strike us when neither of us ordered chocolate.

Instead, we both gave in to the lure of puff pastry covered in figs and Great Hill blue cheese with pecan crumbles and balsamic caramel.

Admittedly, I can be as happy eating a cheese plate for dessert as a sweet, but this brilliantly conceived dessert delivered both.

Fig and blue cheese have always been a marriage made in gustatory heaven but the bonus of pecans and balsamic caramel sent everything soaring into soul mate territory.

It had been a superb meal start to finish, further reinforcing my friend's conviction that nobody does it better than Acacia.

By the time we left, the sun was way down and diners waiting for that cue had long since begun filling up the room.

He was on his way home and I was on my way to see an exhibit by Barcelona artist Joan Tarrago at Big Secret, a Jackson Ward business that uses the latest laser technology to make art and just about anything else.

Illustrator Tarrago is doing a one-week residency at Big Secret and tonight they were hosting a pop-up shop and exhibition, not to mention a soiree with Saison doing appropriate cocktails in the courtyard next door.

I've seen many a band in that courtyard over the years.

His east coast tour goes through NYC, Miami and, you got it, RVA. And not just anywhere in our fair city, but right in my neighborhood. How could I not go check it out?

The illustrated laser cut artwork was very cool and just in the time I was looking at the show, two pieces sold, meaning affordable, too.

Looking at the three-dimensional works, you could see details like the individual hairs of an animal's fur.

The art was firmly at the intersection of inspiration and technology and the crowd mingling around seemed to be - no surprise - mostly digital natives.

One trio was discussing where to go eat afterwards, a conversation I got pulled into when I tried to make my way past them to see a piece hanging high on the wall.

Two girls and a guy and he wanted a burger, so I recommended Postbellum's, particularly terrific for the mushrooms cooked in duck fat that adorn it.

"We're so going there," the guy decided, his eyes lighting up.

And, like a thief in the night, J-Ward girl took her leave of the group, secure in having steered strangers to a meal they will certainly enjoy.

Good thing they hadn't been looking for trance music. I wouldn't have had any idea where to send them on a Thursday night.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cage Match

Some of us live in urban bohemia and some of us grew up in suburban bohemia.

The latter would be Slash Coleman, who came to the Library of Virginia tonight for a reading (actually a retelling) from his new book, "The Bohemian Love Diaries."

Three years ago, I spent Valentine's night with Slash and a bunch of other singles at Crossroads Art, listening to him and a few guests share stories about how the course of true love never does run smooth, a fact of which I was well aware at that time.

Tonight's reading drew a lively crowd, several of whom told me they were intrigued by the book's title.

After chatting with a woman about industrial farming and (no kidding) circumcision during the wine and cheese reception, Slash took center stage in a full beard and ripped jeans to bring us up to date on his life.

And while usually his stories have a humorous side, this one involved him getting a collapsed lung that eventually required surgery to re-inflate and causing him to cancel the rest of his book tour speaking engagements,

Well, except for this one because, here's the thing: Slash grew up in Chester, a word he humorously pronounced all evening long the way the locals do.

Showing us the book cover, we saw a picture of Slash when he was about eight, back when his artist father used to load up the family for monthly trips to Alaska to find an artists' colony.

Except they rarely got any farther than Fredericksburg.

Tonight's talk was about being raised by an eccentric family and his failed love relationships as a result of coming out of all that eccentricity.

He showed us an Italian version of the book with the title changed to "Love with a High Fever," a title he didn't think was any better than his.

I don't know about that.

Sharing the story of his parents' meeting at the tea room at Miller & Rhoads, we heard that Dad, a sculptor, had been a sign painter for M & R and Mom was French and a student at RPI. Along the way, he threw in that Grandpa danced at the Moulin Rouge and Grandma was a watercolor painter.

On his parents' first date, he showed up in a stolen car with a case of Manischewitz wine and a plan to win her heart. Instead he drank it all and passed out and she walked home alone to her dorm.

Disastrous as it sounds, he invited her to Passover for their second date, but they ended up eloping before the second date.

Slash recalled an early interest in sports that was of no consequence to his artistic parents. The closest to sporty they got was when his Dad organized a softball game between the Freaks, a bunch of sculptors, and the Pigs, a team of Richmond police officers.

Begging his mother to let him play baseball, she responded that he would be paralyzed and said no, but he eventually found an old glove in his Dad's studio and signed up for the team himself.

Sharing tales of gymnastics, wrestling and being brought home to his mother after sports injuries, he waxed poetic about Coach Walt, a man who wore Brut by Faberge and had a white person Afro.

It's a pretty vivid visual.

He recalled fondly the period when his father sold roadkill sculptures to support the family. It gets pretty odd here because while the head was from one animal and the legs from another, the body was always made of bread.

Yup, you read right.

So one of his pieces might have the head of a turtle, the legs of a lizard and a pumpernickel body. And when pieces didn't sell after a while, they  were retired to the backyard as ornamentation, at least until the bread rotted or was eaten.

I'd say that's pretty bohemian.

In any case, the book is being shopped around as a TV series and who knows, a series could show up on TV about a boy from Chester who came from a family of six Leo women and eight artists.

During the Q & A, Slash said he prefers to read non-fiction because, "I'm interested in how people put their truths together."

Exactly the way I feel about non-fiction and no doubt part of the reason that people read my blog every day.

Or maybe they're eager to read about my love with a high fever exploits, who knows?

Truth telling aside, next on my plate was the annual musicircus at UR, the one hour beautiful cacophony of musicians playing whatever they choose.

Don't ask me, composer John Cage thought it up and I just participate every year.

The musicircus got a late start because the eighth blackbird show ran over, so it was almost 9 when the sirens went off and everyone began playing.

Wandering down hallways, up and down staircases, into practice and classrooms, the milling crowd had myriad options for what kind of music with which to begin.

Since so many people were gathered on the first floor, my fellow Cage lover and I sprinted upstairs in an attempt to beat the masses.

Brian Jones, an organizer of the annual event, had assembled a percussion ensemble that included jazz drummer extraordinaire Scott Clark on tambourine.

Perched on an upholstered chair with two girls on couches for an audience was harmonica player Andrew Ali, whom I've seen play with Allison Self and lately, Josh Small. Tonight he was flying solo, singing and blowing his best blues.

Improv troupe the Johnsons (from Richmond Comedy Coalition) had wedged themselves into a hallway and were hilariously making up stuff with every word that came out of their mouths.

For sheer effect, it was tough to beat Kill Vonnegut, a punk quintet playing under black lights to a rapt audience.

For something completely different, the Family Band looked impossibly young and clean cut, with not a whisker of facial hair in the bunch, belting out Fountains of Wayne's "Stacey's Mom." I think they were all about 8 when it came out.

Tucked into a small room was Monk's Playground, where I recognized Larri Branch on piano, Brian Cruse on upright bass and the female sax player from RVA Big Band. As to which Monk song they were playing, I couldn't tell you.

I spotted David Roberts, whom I recognized from Classical Incarnations, playing piano alone in a room but couldn't hear him over the din, so I stepped in.

Turning, he invited me to look at his score, where I saw the title "Vexations" and the composer, Eric Satie, and an instruction at the top to play the theme 840 times.

David said that Cage had once done it and it had taken him 18 hours. Since the musicircus only lasts one hour, that wasn't happening tonight, but I was curious if repeating the same page of music was vexing him yet.

"A little, yes," he admitted with a smile, but I gave him the award for most Cage-appropriate music choice.

Coming down a stairwell, we happened on a sitar and a moment later the young woman who played it arrived, sitting on the floor to play. It was easily the handsomest instrument of the evening.

And purchased online, of course.

Tucked into a classroom with staffs drawn on the white board were guitarists Scott Burton and Matt White with another musician between them turning knobs and adjusting the effects of their playing to an ambient guitar wall of sound.

Alistair Calhoun took home the prize for smallest guitar, using reverb effects and finger picking to entice me to linger and listen.

DJ Carlito spun world music heavy on the middle east and even getting people to start dancing in the hallway. Pianist David Eslek was playing Lennon's "Imagine."

Downstairs we found the Josh Bearman group, a lot of whom seemed to be the Hot Seats, playing their spot-on old time and bluegrass music.

The gamelan orchestra had a Balinese shadow puppet play on film playing over their instruments, an ideal accompaniment to the lyrical music.

Near the door, Dave Watkins grabbed people's attention coming and going with his electric dulcitar and endless looping to create the sound of a quartet or even quintet.

Because he's Dave, he kept playing long after other musicians had stopped (or even left), treating the lingerers to a sonic finale that blew minds. But then, he's Dave Watkins, so he always delivers the grandiose.

Every year I say it because every year it's true.

Richmond is incredibly fortunate that we have a musicircus put on every year, with dozens of musicians both new to their craft and long-standing, playing their hearts out for free for one hour.

I saw so many people I know taking it all in. There were musicians playing and musicians as guests. Students experiencing it for the first time. Even a few little children in headphones.

Heads full and ears happy, the musicircus beats even Barnum & Bailey for sheer delight in the experience. Plus, no animals are harmed in the making of the musicircus.

That's how I'm putting today's truth together, ladies and germs. Make of it what you will.

Should you have any questions, you can find me in New Bohemia...or thereabouts. Possibly with a high fever.

Shout, Shout, Let It All Out

Only a fool would go to bed at 1:45 knowing she had to be up at an uncharacteristically early 7:30 a.m.

Hello, my name is Karen and I'm a fool.

The only good part of being up with the chickens was that I had all morning to work before being picked up by my lunch date.

Lucy's was the destination because she'd never been and I was certain she'd like it. Between the charming interior filled with thoughtful details, all of which my friend noted, and the extensive salad menu, she did, enough so to tweet about it.

They had the Talking Heads station on, meaning we walked in to Talk Talk's "It's Your Life," and segued into Tears for Fears, Madness and a host of other '80s gems.

As my date exclaimed, "This is high school for me!"

She had a pulled chicken and mixed bean salad while I finally got to try the Monrovia Farms cheeseburger salad, although I tried to remain the tiniest bit virtuous by eschewing the bacon and avocado our server offered.

Good lord, woman, isn't it sufficient to have a juicy burger in the middle of mesclun, grape tomatoes, celery, onions, carrots and cucumbers?

We chatted with a guy at the bar whom my friend recognized from years ago and dished mightily on life and love before taking our leave of J-Ward and heading south for a stroll overlooking the canal in the mist.

The funny part was, despite my lack of sleep, when she brought me back home we spent over an hour sitting in the car continuing the conversation. Kind of like when you're in high school and your date brings you home but you don't want the evening to be over so you just keep talking.

Not to get too mushy, but the right company can make you forget how tired you are.

As the Cars had sung to us earlier, "I guess you're just what I needed. I needed someone to feed."


Honey, You Can Get Lost in the Music

Everything about the evening sang.

Part of it was the superb meal I had at Aziza's, alone at the bar for tapas Tuesday with two servers to talk to until the dining room began to fill up. One looked at the other, observing, "Well, I guess we got our wish."

Clearly that wish had been to for things to get bustling.

Starting with Chincoteague oysters on the half shell with cider vinegar mignonette, I moved on to a salad as colorful as a box of crayons: deep green arugula, bright red pomegranate, deep purple roasted beets and the delicately pastel orange of smoked salmon, all lightly dressed in a citrus vinaigrette.

The music was poking along with James Taylor and 10,000 Maniacs, when all of a sudden it rocketed into the here and now with Boy and Bear's wistful, California rock-wannabe "Southern Sun," not a complaint since I own the album.

But it was surprising to hear after the dated stuff that had preceded it so I asked what the station was.

"Coffeehouse," she replied. "You're the second person who just asked."

I'd been taking my time ordering courses and all of a sudden I realized the time and that I had plans shortly, so I kept up my maritime theme with panzanella fruit de mer, a succulent plate of scallops, shrimp, octopus, marinated bread, tomato, cucumber, lemon, olives and feta.

All I can say is, I have tasted no more beautifully cooked octopus in this town than Chef Philip Denny's and for all those people who think they don't like octopus, you need to taste how this man cooks it.

And if you want to taste it at Aziza's, you better get moving, since he told me tonight that he's leaving in two weeks, moving on to the Hotel John Marshall's pool hall restaurant coming in early May.

When I talked to him, he sounded as excited as a kid about finally getting the chance to open a restaurant, a first for him in his career. Since the HJM is even closer to my house, I think it's a fabulous move for both of us.

I hate to leave Aziza's without a cream puff, but Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart was playing a show at Black Iris Gallery and I didn't want to miss a minute of it.

With just enough time to greet a few familiar faces, I found a place along the wall only a couple of people back to watch a man in a somber-looking black hat, coat and pants play mournful songs interspersed by funny, running commentary.

There had been some mention of perhaps closing the bar while he played, but Jonathan was having none of that.

"Everyone knows bar service is not closed when I play," he joked. "Now let me take my phone out and turn it off or my Mom will text me all night long."

He began with the pragmatic "No One to Let You Down" ("When you got no one, there's no one one to let you down") and got sadder from there.

"All these songs are so f*cking heavy," he joked."I wish I knew some Jimmy Buffet songs." No, no, no, the crowd shouted. "I guarantee if I do one, you'll all be singing it in your head. I used to sit in my room and play congas to Buffet, but I also grew up in Florida. There's no taste in Florida."

After doing the sadly longing "Shake," he said, "Let's just 'cheers' and drink for a second. This is what's nice about playing alone. You can do whatever you want." Taking his beer in hand, he leaned back in his chair.

After a short break where I discussed with a stranger whose wife went outside to smoke how unpleasant it is to kiss smokers, chatted with a graphic designer about how it only takes two beers to get her trashed and said hello to The Hat, Jonathan was back and the lights were dimmed ("Could be dimmer," Russell said and they were).

Harry and I agreed we looked fantastic in the low light.

Saying he only knew one cover song, Jonathan began playing Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," and giving everyone in the room goosebumps in the process. He'd been right, the room needed to be barely lit for that one.

Explaining that the Head and the Heart had been touring for three years and never once played his home state of Florida, it's now on the upcoming tour schedule, so he's planning to add another cover to the set list.

After going out to bars with a Florida cousin, "I wanna learn CCR's 'Cotton Fields' after I saw my cousin do his hick dance to that song in a bar."

It boggles the mind to imagine a whole venue full of Floridians doing a hick dance to that song.

After a drink break with a one minute warning, Jonathan did the title song from the new album, "Let's Be Still," a personal favorite.

You can get lost in the music for hours
Honey, you can get lost in a room
We can play music for hours and hours
But the sun will still be coming up soon

Unsure about the time, he crowd sourced how many more songs he should play and the answers ranged from one to many, so he concluded that that was a bad idea and did one called "Virginia."

Saying, "Okay Justin," he launched into the familiar "Down in the Valley" with its distinctive plea, "Lord, have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways."

"I'm gonna play one more because I'm starting to get drunk. That's very un-rock and roll, but I don't understand how people get shit faced and perform." He paused, clearly pondering the subject.

"Now you can get drunk and write songs all day. That works." I'm sure most poets would agree with him on that.

He concluded with a song about Texas ("Texas is better than you think") and sunsets, observing, "I'm too much of a romantic."

Jonathan, there's no such thing when it comes to men. Romanticize on.

Fact is, it had been romantic just to be in Black Iris' tiny bar with fifty or so people hearing this man's beautiful and emotive voice sing for a hushed crowd.

And speaking of romance, from there I went to Balliceaux to meet a date to see Imarhan Timbuktu, a trio from Mali who promised sinuous guitar lines, hand drumming and mesmerizing rhythms.

Walking in, I found the scientist, a surprise since I haven't seen him out in months, the sax player, lots of guitarists, several WRIR DJs and a crowd of unfamiliar faces drawn out on a cold, Tuesday for world music.

My date soon arrived, a bottle of Vino Verdhe was obtained and we took seats right up front for the spectacle.

Dressed in traditional Mali garb including head dresses but with the lead singer carrying a Fender Stratocaster, they had a different look than most bands you see in the back room.

In French, the singer explained that they were from the desert and that it was very cold here (the rhythm guitarist translated). He had to be freezing, he had on sandals. He also said they were very happy to be here.

The music was fascinating and the fact that it was being sung in a language we didn't understand mattered not at all.

Despite the language and garb, the singer made all the international guitar faces as he wailed on his instrument.

They had a fourth member whose job seemed to be to get the crowd clapping and induce them to dance, two jobs he handled ably.

The female drummer/traditional singer sat on the stage and was difficult to see once the trance-like music got the crowd up and dancing.

Before long it was a full on dance party, even if a lot of people had trouble finding the beat when clapping.

The singer looked to be having as good a time as the dancers, frequently asking, "Are you happy?"

From where I sat, hearing those guitar lines and watching backsides wriggle in front of me, I know I was.

It was a long way from where the evening had begun and all three parts had been especially terrific tonight.

The world's just spinning a little too fast
If things don't slow down soon, we might not last
So just for a moment, let's be still

But just for a moment.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Law in Clover Time

Wine drinking at midnight on the pier, yes. Being gifted with oysters for walking out on the shell bar, sure. Spending entire summer afternoons eating crabs on the big porch, yup.

But waking up to several inches of snow on the ground with fat flakes still coming down? At my parents' house on the northern neck, never. Ever.

As in, not once in all the years I've been visiting them have I awakened to the sight of the gardens, the marsh, the pier - everything in sight except the Rappahannock river - blanketed.

Standing in the breakfast room looking out at it, my attention was caught by a portly groundhog making tracks across the yard toward the garage, no doubt looking for someplace dry.

Every bit as surprising was the small boat out there on the water as the snow continued to come down hard.

Grabbing a pair of binoculars (my father keeps a pair on all three floors of the house for ease of scoping out whatever), I zoomed in, trying to determine what the two men clad in Gorton's fisherman-like waders, one in orange, the other in classic yellow, were doing out there in all this.

Near as I could tell, these two watermen were tonging for oysters in the snow.

Me, I had loaves of soda bread and a coconut cake to make so after breakfast, I got busy on all that.

My mother put her favorite radio station on and before long, I heard the lyric, "There ought to be a moonlight saving time," totally unfamiliar to me but such a lovely, evocative turn of phrase.

There ought to be a law in clover time
to keep that moon out overtime

There absolutely ought to be.

To my mother's amazement, once I finished all my baking, I piled on layers and started out for a walk, turning in a different direction than yesterday.

I headed down the creek toward what used to be the old crab processing plant but which has since been turned into high end waterfront condos, passing pier after pier covered in a layer of snow, like a series of white diving boards perched over the water.

As I approached the condos, I spotted a low-slung brown dog crouched on the lawn of one, his owner tethered to him with a retractable leash and standing on the front porch out of the snow.

Close up, I saw he was a basset hound with ears drooping into the snow and looking as soft as brown velvet.

Asking if I could pet her dog, she reluctantly came down off the porch so sad-eyed Dax the hound could greet me. 

I told her my beagle had loved the snow and she said Dax was just as fond of it. She, however, did not seem to be.

Taking off a glove so I could feel those ears, I made a fast friend of Dax while his owner smoked and told me she and her boyfriend had come down from Fredericksburg to visit his parents but once they heard F-burg had gotten 11 inches of snow, decided to extend their visit.

After I said goodbye, I wandered back down past the tiny post office and the waterfront museum, to the very end of the other side of the point before having my fill of walking in the pouring snow.

After my final good daughter deed shoveling the walk, I cleaned off the car and started back toward civilization, passing a sign in Warsaw that cheerily read, "Happy Spring!"

What is this Spring you speak of?

Back in Jackson Ward, I was very surprised to see that the power had gone off in my absence, a rarity in this neighborhood. I've lived here almost eight years and lost power maybe twice.

After getting settled back in, I walked over to Saison who'd decided that Mother Nature had decreed that they run fried chicken night again tonight.

My menu was housed in a 1972 Time Life book called "The Missing Link" and I'm just nerdy enough to open it up and do some reading about Australopithecus and Neanderthal, my first on the subject since an anthropology class my sophomore year of college.

I could have done without the close up photograph of hyenas tearing apart a giraffe killed by a lioness, but I also learned (or, more likely, re-learned) some interesting tidbits.

My Mexican Coke had just arrived when the guy I'd met there two weeks ago unexpectedly sat down next to me to provide conversation and company.

He was tickled to learn about the extension of yard bird night, promptly ordering exactly what I had: a quarter bird with tonight's sides, scallion cole slaw and potato salad.

We got off on a tangent about trains because he's going to NYC this week and considering taking Amtrack. The bartender jumped on that, sharing her love of train travel and urging him to give it a try.

Coincidentally, I'm taking the train north Friday and very much looking forward to not dealing with traffic, instead spending the time reading and looking out the window instead of having my soul sucked by I-95. We were three train lovers feeding off of each other.

Two of us were soon sucking our fingers clean of crispy bits of chicken skin and discussing the importance of rationing our sides to come out evenly with our last bite of chicken, kind of the way it's essential that sandwich and chips come out even for ultimate satisfaction.

In another coincidence, he was carrying handbills for a show in the neighborhood I was planning to go to Thursday. "Guess I'll see you again this week," he said smilingly when I got up to go.

I always enjoy getting back to my stomping grounds.

That said, I don't know that I've ever seen a real groundhog. Those water men were straight out of a Gorton's commercial. There was no moon and Spring is most definitely not here. But there was this...

You'd better hurry up, hurry up, hurry up,
get busy today
You'd better croon a tune
to the man up in the moon
and here is what I say
There ought to be a moonlight saving time

I'd like to think that the moon, fleeting or no, the one I missed seeing at the river will pay me back in overtime now that I'm home.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Good Girl

It wasn't my plan, but it turns out I'll be with my Irish mother for St. Patrick's Day.

It was almost time for my annual trek to the northern neck to help her makes gallons of potato soup and loaves upon loaves of soda bread for her women's club luncheon.

Because that's what good daughters do.

We'd originally scheduled the prepare-a-thon for Monday and Tuesday, at least until the weather forecast got potentially dire and she asked that we make it Sunday and Monday instead.

The clincher? Today is her birthday and you don't tell your Mom no, you won't help her on her birthday.My well laid plans for today went out the window.

So instead of wine, men and song for my Sunday, I woke up, drove east and spent all afternoon peeling potatoes, chopping celery and onions and making enough cheesy soup for 68 bridge-playing women.

Somewhere along about 3:00, I needed to escape kitchen duty for a while and headed out for a walk. The wind was sweeping in off the river, a plus because of the deliciously briny smell it brought, but definitely making the air feel colder.

Once I got away from the riverfront, though, it was perfectly pleasant and a satisfying change from the stuffy warmth of the kitchen.

I made a stop at Norwood Baptist church to see when it had been built (1887) and to snoop around its little graveyard. A couple WW I veterans, several Lifelong Norwood residents, a baby named Suzette who lived less than a year. The oldest burial was 1896.

Although my parents have lived down here for twenty plus years and I've passed that church every single time coming and going, it was my first time stopping.

Walking back down the road, I saw buzzards circling overhead, heard a woodpecker tapping away and smiled at the first person of my walk, a guy coming out of his house to get into his car.

"How you doing, beautiful?" he called from across the street. Pretty good, thanks.

Back at the house, the air inside felt incredibly hot and close after the brisk chill of the great outdoors I'd just come from. Break over, it was time to make my first loaf of soda bread before hanging up my apron for the day.

Rain began soon after. Mom told me that last night's moon had been so bright reflecting off the river that it illuminated everything within sight, not likely tonight given the drippy sky.

The birthday girl wanted Chinese food for dinner, a function, I told her, of her (a former city girl) having lived in the country for too long. Granted, the Chinese place is 37 miles away, no doubt a factor, but who wants takeout for their birthday dinner?

My mother, that's who.

Earlier today, I'd made her a coconut cake, her favorite, so we at least had that to look forward to after dinner. And I had the Sunday Washington Post to read afterwards, especially enjoyable because the entire travel section was devoted to Europe - food touring through France, Lisbon, Catalonia, wine making in Switzerland.

And tomorrow, I have more loaves of soda bread and a cake to bake for the ladies who lunch.

It promises to be quite the St. Patrick's Day. I intend to wear green.

Gold Plated Sex

I was willing to go to Midlothian for Dr. Seuss.

Think about that. Me, a woman who detests the southside, drove fifteen miles to Bella Arte Gallery for the sake of seeing paintings, prints and part of the hat collection of the one and only Dr. Seuss.

The six miles on Robious Road felt like twenty, tedious and endless.

Walking in to the gallery, two women looked at me, my tights and made a disparaging remark, followed by condescending laughter behind their raised hands.

Spare me, ladies, I'm here for the art.

Theodroe Geisel had a thing for hats and part of his hat collection was on display tonight. That meant (obvi) the Cat in the Hat red and white stovepipe, a New South Wales fireman's brigade helmet, a red, feathered cap like the one Batholomew wore in "Batholomew Cubbins and the 500 Hats" and an elaborate feathered hat from Africa.

Many in the crowd, in fact, were wearing fanciful hats, but I'd come bare headed to this outpost of civilization.

Who knew Dr. Seuss worked for Standard Oil as a commercial artist, designing the Flit ads for the spray that killed flies and mosquitoes?

"Quick, Henry, the Flit!" the ads read, showing a distinctive Dr. Seuss female character and a harried looking mosquito trying to escape.

My favorite part was the tag line bubble, "Now improved with DDT!" Well, that's a little scary, Henry.

Without a doubt, my favorite painting in the whole show was "Abduction of the Sabine Woman," a classic retelling of the founding of Rome, although anything but classic in Dr. Seuss' hands.

The painting from 1930 showed a Dr. Seuss-like figure making off with a huge, bare-breasted, pink-nippled, ample-bottomed woman on his shoulder.

Hovering in one corner was Horton (although he didn't appear to be hearing a "who") and several characters who would show up years later in Dr. Seuss' seminal works. Except this is years before he writes his first children's book.

I milled around the crowd, trying to escape men in sock-less loafers and blazers who kept trying to chat me up until the speaker began.

It was Dr. Bill Dreyer, the curator of the Seuss collection for the past 14 years and - wait for it- a 1979 graduate of Midlothian High.

Now we understood how this obscure Midlothian gallery had scored the only regional showing of this exhibit of Dr. Seuss' art.

Dreyer spoke about spending time with Dr. Seuss' widow, Audrey, and how she'd offered to show him the good doctor's hat collection, a collection he'd begun when he was very young and continued through the seven years of his military service and right up until he died.

Like the "midnight paintings" he'd worked on night after night, the hats were hidden in a secret room behind a shelf in the library, James Bond style.

Apparently, when Seuss' dinner parties lagged, he'd pulled out the hats, put them on heads and instruct his guest to carry on as the characters the hats suggested.

That's a party I'd like to go to. Give me a hat and let me become someone else.

Stressing the impact Seuss had had on literacy ("The 'Cat in the Hat' shot a dart in the ass of 'Dick and Jane' books"), Dreyer went on to talk about Seuss' "midnight paintings," influenced by surrealism and done after the arduous business of writing children's books was done for the day.

I was thrilled that he stopped to dwell on the "Sabine" painting, saying that the beginnings of Dr. Seuss' characters could be seen in the surrounding animals. Well, duh. But because it was  such an early work, the palette was also dramatically different than what we know of Seuss' work.

He pointed out "Green Cat with Lights,"  a painting signed by Strooga von M., but really done by Seuss and hung in a place in his home where he could ask visitors' opinions without them knowing it was his. Because, while he didn't want his art to be judged, he wanted to know what others thought.

Perhaps most importantly, the green cat lurking in the background was an obvious precursor to the Grinch.

Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, painted only 140 paintings over a long career, but his ear for poetry was honed early. I loved hearing his very first poem.

Mrs. van Bleck
of the Newport van Blecks
is so god damned rich
she has gold plated sex

Whereas Miggles and Mitzi
and Bitzie and Sue
have the commonplace thing
and it just has to do

After Dreyer's talk, I sauntered around the gallery to see the rest of the work, including "Venetian Cat singing Oh, Solo Meow," a keyhole glimpse into the technicolor world of Venice circa 1967. If nothing else, the exuberant colors screamed the swinging  '60s.

And while the Midlothian crowd did not suit me (nor I them), not one, not two, but three men commented on my floral burgundy tights and two also mentioned my lovely legs. A couple also wanted to discuss the art.

By the time I left, I'd not only savored the work of a multi-talented man with an ear for poetry and an eye for whimsical characters, but been reminded that my place is far from Robious Road.

Quick, Henry, get me back to the city!