Monday, November 30, 2015

All Aboard the Quiet Car

I think it's safe to say that for the first time in my life, I woke up at 4:20 a.m. Now going to bed at ungodly hours like 4:20 a.m., that I've got some experience with.

Unlike so many people I know, I don't have sleep issues. No problems going to sleep, no waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back to sleep, no settling for too little sleep. A typical night's sleep for me is around nine hours, give or take.

I'm lucky, I know.

So why I awoke at 4:20 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep baffles me. My guess is there's something churning in my head that caused me to create some early morning time for reflection. So I had a few conversations in my head. I took inventory of what might possibly be on my mind of such importance that it would awaken me before sunrise.

And then at 7, I finally got up, not even sure how much daylight to expect when I looked outside. Between the rain and the dawn's early light, it wasn't a particularly appealing time to be up and out.

The trade-off was eventually boarding the train to Washington because of how much I enjoy having hours with nothing more to do than read and look at scenery, while people motor by on I-95, their sad little souls being sucked with every mile driven.

Unexpectedly, today's surprise was that since it had been summer when I last rode the rails, I got a completely different perspective today.

Leafless trees gave me views I hadn't yet had from the train. Houses, bodies of water and even back roads revealed themselves for the first time. My favorite Potomac-side crab shack looked positively forlorn off-season.

And, yes of course I napped on the train, mainly during an hour delay because all the northbound trains had to switch tracks manually rather than automatically, just like in the old days.

Which was precisely when the movie "Laura" was set, which was about all I knew about the film besides that it was a well-regarded film noir before I saw it for the first time tonight.

I'll tell you what, 1944 looked like the dark ages in some respects.

Murder suspects are allowed to tag along with the detective investigating the case. Sometimes detectives remove bullets from the presumed murder weapon and then return the gun to its secret hiding place. Detectives drink booze from the crime scene bar.

Flawed police policy aside, I was amazed to see a scene where a writer is up to his bellybutton in the bathtub, typing away on a board stretched across the tub. Amazed because I'd just seen the exact same scenario in the brand-new film "Trumbo" last week.

Apparently, there was a time when it was perfectly normal for men to type in the tub. Who knew?

One thing that hasn't changed much? Dames still don't always do what you tell them to.

And even a catch like a man who types love letters in the bathtub can't do a thing about it. But he can try.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Lash the Librarian

I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.

That's just another brilliant thing Joan Didion said with which I'm in complete agreement.

Over lunch with a friend today, he pointed out how much I've "softened" since we first met in June 2009, how much more relaxed I've become. Talking abut life recently with a wise septuagenarian, she characterized my evolution as a result of opening myself up to life since mine fell apart.

So, yes, it's been some time since I bid farewell to the woman who allowed herself to be governed by rules and restrictions, the woman who used to walk the exact same route every day for years, never scrambling out onto a rock or scaling the ladder to the pipeline walkway.

What hasn't changed is my baseless optimism.

I say "optimistic" because I can still go to the Criterion this gray Sunday morning to see "Holiday Inn" and watch Fred Astaire dancing with various nimble-footed partners and think to myself that if I put my mind to it, I could learn ballroom dancing.

I say "baseless" because after dancing in cute shoes for three straight hours last Saturday night to Mr. Fine Wine, I had a fine blister on my pinky toe for days.

Nor am I being grandiose when I say I will read all the books I want to in this lifetime.

Three different people have recently given me books they thought I'd love reading. I used to limit my reading time to after I'd finished doing everything else I "should" be doing, until I realized reading is exactly that. Preferably on a beach, but I can make do on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate for now.

Then when I go back to see my second movie of the day, "Brooklyn," an exquisitely-shot coming-of-age story about an Irish girl who moves to America, I discover I need to read Colm Toibin's novel of the same name and probably a lot more Nick Hornby given his deft handling of the screenplay.

The film also reminds me of some key life goals: I need to get away from where I live more often. Write letters more often. Entertain more often. Say yes to some of the more unexpected offers I get.

One of the most wonderful things anyone ever wrote to me in an e-mail was, "It was great seeing you! You always seem to add laughter to a room." If, as the boardinghouse owner in "Brooklyn" said, giddiness is the eighth deadly sin, I want to be guilty of it.

I want to see the humor in everything I possibly can.
Walking past Sugar Shack Donuts under this afternoon's sodden skies, I notice that of the nine cars in the parking lot, three of them are cop cars. Surely there's a joke in that.

And with my O'Donnell Irish roots, I wouldn't even be wrong in making it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Endless Package of Possible

Christmas 2016 begins, as all good Christmases do, in a bar. Because when life isn't working out the way you'd hoped it would, where better to go?

I met my date at Bistro 27, where we were mostly surrounded by theatergoers who, like us, were trying to finish eating by 7:30 to make a curtain. But while most of them were headed across the street to see a strip show - "Gypsy" - we had our sights set on "Christmas on the Rocks."

As we all know, occasionally alcohol trumps sex.

Food trumped both to start and I arrived to find my date occupied with a Cosmo, which he willingly schlepped to a table so we could share an artichoke and pancetta appetizer in the big, comfy chairs.

When it came time to order, I surprised the hell out of him by choosing an entree - the rockfish filet with lump crabmeat - instead of another appetizer, ably demonstrating that he doesn't know me as well as he thought he did, despite years of eating together. I know because he said so.

A girl's got to keep a few surprises up her sleeve, if for no other reason than to prove that she can.

Moist and flavorful as the rockfish was, the stars of the plate were the lumps of crabmeat as big as my thumb and the toothsome glazed carrot slices, which were the first thing I ate before I even touched anything else. They were that good.

Because we had time and don't always when we're going to a play, we both got dessert instead of sharing one. When our server inquired how our chocolate tortes were, my date raised an eyebrow and stated the obvious. "It's chocolate."

By the time we got to Richmond Triangle Players, the lobby was full of people already in line at the bar to score drinks before curtain time. Such is the beauty of RTP. It makes sense - if you need alcohol to make it through actual Christmas, of course you need alcohol to make it through a play about Christmas.

David Allan Ballas had crafted a most excellent set, depicting Mac's Bar fitted out with the attention to detail that indicated he'd been in a few, from the framed dollar bill on the wall to the bar's name painted on the window to the jukebox and oddball things (oars, antlers with a Santa cap) adorning the interior.

The premise was simple. It's Christmas Eve and a succession of loners walk into the bar and overshare with the bartender, played by David Millman as a second generation bartender.

The hook was that each was the grown-up version of someone from an old Christmas movie or TV show. I'm not even sure your standard issue millennial would have recognized all the characters, given that the most recent source was 30+ years old. Horrors, one even had black and white roots.

First came Ralphie with a patch over the eye that had been shot out, not by himself but by a student. You see, Ralphie was now a certified firearm instructor teaching classes for the NRA. He was also a plushie, with all the attendant problems of needing furry clothing and stuffed animals to get off.

Little Susan Walker from "Miracle on 34th Street" had grown up to be a realtor and no-nonsense career woman similar to her mother and, like her, was still convinced that Kris Kringle could work miracles and deliver real estate.

Far funnier was Hermie, the elf who wanted to be a dentist, from "Rudolph." Walking in wearing yellow pants, an orange fanny pack and sporting fabulous blond bangs swooping out under his cap, he asked the bartender if he knew where he'd come from.

"Provincetown?" the barkeep guessed.

Using the exact cadence and voice of the original actor, David Clark nailed Hermie, as he went on to explain about "the oral hygiene that dare not speak its name." I was rolling on the floor he was so funny.

Kimberly Jones Clark had a ball playing naughty Cindy Lou Who with pink bows in her platinum blond hair, pink shoes, belt and choker, her story told in the distinctive rhyming pattern of Dr. Seuss.

How was I to know he was vulgar and crass?
He gave me some water and patted my ass!

Who'd have expected her to wind up marrying the Grinch, but as she put it, "You think black men are hung? Try going jade!"

Coming in for a pint, Tiny Tim, all grown up and wearing a patched coat, was now cured of his afflictions by a generous Scrooge (whom he called the "Warren Buffet of his time") after his "psychotic break." Only after doing a shot with the bartender toasting Scrooge did he begrudgingly say, "God bless us, everyone," without sounding like he really meant it

Russian-accented Clara from "The Nutcracker" arrived wearing her nightgown and demanding vodka and to be carded to prove how young she looked. Sure, she'd fallen for the nutcracker ("No one fills out white ballet tights better"), even married him, only to find him in bed with her brother Fritz.

Again with the innuendo. "Once you go crackin', you can't go backin'." It's absolutely true: If RTP didn't do it, who would?

Sad sack Charlie Brown was the last to wander in, desolate after having had to put down Snoopy IV on Christmas Eve. When the bartender offers him some peanuts, he says he's allergic. "I'd rather not spend Christmas Eve with an Epi-pen in n my neck."

Turns out he's in a loveless marriage with Lucy, but brings us up to date on the rest of his gang ("Peppermint Patty and Marcy, now that's gay!") before the little red-headed girl all grown up wanders in lamenting never having met the round-headed boy she'd fallen for years ago. "I think he was the love of my life."

When she says she wants to dance, he backs off until the bartender pushes him toward her, saying, "Go kick the football."

So maybe life does occasionally work out. Give me some water and pat my ass and I'll let you know.

We Thought They'd Never End

Apparently Black Friday puts people in mind of me, resulting in two hard-to-pass-up offers tossed my way today.

One was going to the Altria to see "Ragtime" and the other was going to the Coliseum to see Cirque de Soleil's "Toruk." Naturally, I went to the Camel to see Avers and Rikki Shay.

But only after meeting my most artistic friend at the extremely crowded VMFA to see the recently opened McGlothlin Collection, followed by an Eternal Spring champagne cocktail at Amuse, because what could be lovelier than blood orange liqueur and pomegranate over bubbles?

The collection is awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the phrase, a collection of gorgeous American art spanning 1830
Modernity oozes off the canvas throughout, but especially stirringly in “Yachting the Mediterranean,” a large 1896 piece by Julius Leblanc Stewart (whom I'd never even heard of) showing Americans – wasp-waisted Victorian women and dandified men - aboard a yacht churning through water that seems about to spill out on the viewer.

From Winslow Homer (oh, those watercolors!) to George Bellows (Bud's favorite painter) to Childe Hassam ("Westminster Bridge" was absolutely breathtaking), we walked from painting to painting exclaiming over the McGlothlin's choices. We couldn't even imagine what it must have been like for them to actually live with these works in their home.

"A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier)" by John Singer Sargent, echoing a Monet painting of a similar subject (the object of the painter's desire), was so splendidly executed that you had to wonder how neither of us had ever laid eyes on so much as a print of it before.

We left there bursting with excitement over what we'd just experienced. Just goes to show what happens when filthy rich people (with either great taste or excellent guidance) are generous enough to collect and donate art to the masses. The McGlothlins are my new art heroes.

Next came music and noshing at the Camel.

When my massive plate of black bean nachos arrived, the charming guy next to me insisted on offering me his bar stool, saying, "You can't attack that while you're standing!" I could have if I'd had no choice.

Once enjoying my new sitting status, we got to talking and of course I asked them the usual, about their first concerts. Now, we're talking about a couple of what looked like mid-20-somethings and their first shows were Hootie and the Blowfish in 2002 (I merely looked at him with pity) and Black Crowes in 1997 (so obviously he was older than he looked).

Hootie guy must have seen the pity in my eyes because he tried to compensate by sharing that his second show had been Aerosmith. When I mentioned that I'd seen them in 1979, his face fell. "Wow, you saw them before the drugs, before Joe Perry and Steven Tyler started..." and punched his fists together.

Son, there was no such time.

They were excited about seeing bands in as intimate a space as the Camel, so I couldn't resist mentioning a few I'd seen there, just to tease them. J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Young the Giant and Frank Turner impressed them hugely while they'd never even heard of Future Islands.

He and his buddy were up from Williamsburg ("Where nothing ever happens after 10"), both getting their masters degrees in business at William & Mary. Why on earth, I asked?

"Dollaz, dollaz, dollaz," one said. "A degree in English gets you minimum wage." Ditto a degree in art history, but at least you get to keep your soul.

Moving to the other room for music, it took forever for Rikki Shay - the new incarnation of what was the Black Girls or perhaps just a name change to address their white guys reality- to soundcheck, get their drink (or whatever) on and finally take the stage for their first show.

The name may be new, but the sound was the same eminently danceable hybrid of rock and funk it always was, with the occasional introduction saying, "Y'all might have heard this one before."

A really big crowd had formed for them but were rewarded with a particularly short set. "This is our last song. We wrote it today. For you!"  A guy near the front began hollering in excitement and the singer called out, "What's your name?" When he answered "Jessie," the singer said, "We wrote this for you, Jessie!" and the big lug went nuts.

In other words, it's still a Black Girls crowd.

Siting near me was a middle-aged couple who appeared to be on a date. They were so nearby that I couldn't help but notice their interactions as they moved through the evening.

Things seemed to be going well and he kept buying them more high alcohol Hardywood beers and by the third one, she was starting to warm up to him, snuggling against him and smiling often.

Then he must have said something drastically wrong, because it was like cold water had been thrown on her. She moved away, she wouldn't meet his eyes, the smile was gone. No telling what had happened, but it didn't stop him from continuing to buy them beers.

They were on their fifth each during Rikki Shay's set, standing on the banquette and attempting to dance when his beer just slid out of his hand like it was greased. It fell under their table, shattering and splashing beer all over my feet, but they never noticed.

Fortunately for him, though, it made her laugh, she offered him a sip of hers and everything was fine again. Fine enough that he began rubbing any body part of hers he could reach.

So fine that he went and got them their sixth beers. I'm not here to judge how much they drank, but when she returned from the bathroom, she leaned a bit too hard on the table to help her mount the banquette and return to her Prince Charming.

All of a sudden, their beers and several people's cocktails went sliding toward the banquette as the table slanted alarmingly and all of us around the table reacted, grabbing for the sliding beverages.

Not the lovebirds. They started cracking up like it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. I see real potential in this relationship.

Finally Avers took the stage. "We're going to play a whole bunch of new shit if that's okay. We're Avers by the way."

The crowd may have been a bit smaller for them than Rikki Shay, but I feel pretty sure everyone in the room knew who they were looking at. Seems to me when Rolling Stone critic David Fricke told the band they were the best thing he'd heard all week at SXSW, people started paying attention to them.

No doubt he was responding to their dense sound. One of the highlights of the break before their set - besides Romeo and Juliet next to me - was watching each of the musicians lug their massive pedal boards to the stage. We're talking some fantastic effects and reverb in the service of a pastiche of psychedelic, shoegaze, rock and pop.

In fact, one of the bonuses of ordering tickets for tonight's show in advance instead of buying at the door means that we get their new EP delivered to our inbox tomorrow. Seems they've been working on a new album and the EP is the songs that didn't have the same feel as the others. "But we still really liked 'em!"

For this listener, one of my favorite things about them is that they have multiple vocalists and they trade bass, guitar and keyboards like kids used to trade baseball cards. The tambourine always seems to be up for grabs.

With the possibility of four guitars for any given song, it's a constant guitar fest with meaty interludes where everyone gets to show off, the way they also do with the many false stops and precision restarts that characterize their songs.

Listening to songs such as "Love" and "Evil" tonight reminded me again how these guys (and girl) never disappoint sound-wise. Now, if you don't have a taste for an overly-dramatic front man flipping his hair, that's another story.

But not one I'll tell tonight. I left the daters groping, the audience applauding and hollering and bugged out after Avers' set, well satisfied with a stellar night of music.

Someday, I'll be be able to wow another graduate student who offers me his bar stool by sharing that I saw Avers in a tiny bar where the band barely all fit onstage.

Those were the days, my friend.

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Dinner with Strangers

I credit a yellow Siegel's Ham apron and the Curtis Mayfield radio station with carrying me through Thanksgiving with soul and style.

For the 3rd annual Orphans' Thanksgiving, I volunteered as a server, lugging platters loaded with turkey and gravy, mashed and sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and top-on carrots, cranberries and stuffing and so ridiculously heavy it felt like I was carrying a small child atop the platter.

There were the usual odd demands ("I can't eat lettuce, so can I have a spinach salad instead?"), adorable couples (two bottles of Avinyo Pettilant and a celebration of it being no family, just them) and a lecherous man trying to get his drink on as quickly as possible ("I'll have a Leffe Blonde beer and a glass of Cotes du Rhone right away") while throwing sexual innuendo my way (caught it, returned it and moved on).

I had a ball watching as a trio of girlfriends moved through their wining and dining right into a food coma, occasionally joining in their discussions of womanhood circa 2015 and subsequent laughter about almost everything.

Best of all, few people hurried through their turkey day feast. There was lingering, there was non-stop conversation and there was plenty of spirited imbibing. Unlike at Grandma's, no one had to watch their intake lest they say something that might set off a relative's ire, so it felt more like an extended dinner party.

By 7:00, the last few people were finally moving on to whatever it is people do on Thanksgiving night. Me, I finally had my gravy-laden feast accompanied by several wines and a piece of non-traditional chocolate pate pie slathered in fresh whipped cream.

Another Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror of life. Of course I'm thankful for my interesting little life. Do I desire more? Hell, yes.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Woman of Heart and Mind

You know how it is with traditions.

You start doing something in 2010 when you're still trying to figure life out and next thing you know it's 2015 and it's still going strong. Thanksgiving Eve festivities, that is.

That first year involved dinner out at the long-shuttered Bonvenu, followed by music at Cary Street Cafe. We've since refined the process.

By mid-day, Jackson Ward was emptying out quickly. By the time I left to meet friends for the evening, it was starting to look like a ghost town. Slightly better in the Museum District (more older people likely hosting turkey day, I suppose), the trip in between was absent its usual traffic.

Walking in to Holmes' humble abode, I found him and Beloved deep in discussion of their Thanksgiving plans, which weren't sitting well with her. After wrapping up that business by saying they'd make the best of it, he turned to me and with mock seriousness proclaimed, "And tonight, we're going to do our best to have fun with Karen!"

Good luck with that, friends. That was the signal to pour glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau and toast to another year's harvest and friendship.

With Holmes at the helm and some killer blue-eyed soul courtesy of Paul Carrick playing, we glided through downtown, noting the scads of reindeer in place but not yet lighted (Grand Illumination being next week), to Castanea's welcoming light.

There, it was a family affair, with Chef Philip in the back and his wife out front. Since she's actually a nurse, she made an attentive and thoughtful server.

Best of all, I discovered that she's the source of their outstanding world music soundtrack, a stellar melding of Spanish and North African music that plays like the background of the coolest party you've never been invited to.

A bottle of the house Cava got us started while Holmes described going to the hot and sweaty July 1970 Atlanta Rock Festival in an attempt to make up for having missed Woodstock. There, he said, he saw Mott the Hoople and Procul Harum, but skipped Hendrix because he wasn't playing until 3 a.m. "I didn't stay up because I was trippin'."

Said Karen and Beloved never.

He recalled relaxing on the ground when a guy came by and informed him, "I hate to bum you out, man, but I think you're lying in poison ivy." From what he recalls, he wasn't.

We began with bacon-wrapped dates over a mango cardamom sauce, then went to what the chef calls adult fish sticks - brandade balls coated and fried up crispy - and fat albondigas swimming in a tomato sauce with pine nuts and the kick of paprika, before moving on to pizza.

Debating our topping options, Holmes opined, "It's not pizza if there's not pepperoni," and that's exactly what we got, the crust as fabulous as the thick slices of pepperoni.

And since nothing is better while eating than gross stories, Holmes regaled us with his days as an orderly at MCV circa 1971 to '73, making $1.90 an hour. "All the drugs, toilet paper and soap I wanted!" he says with gusto. Also, it turns out, all the patient meals he cared to eat, which was probably a lot given that he was 19.

If it sounds nervy of him to help himself, consider that he was the "prep" guy, meaning he had to shave people and give them enemas pre-surgery. "Yea, I had to wipe asses."

Pass the pizza, please.

The only way to top a story like that was with gelato, so we did and for my fifth visit to Castanea, I broke bad and didn't get double chocolate with coconut, choosing instead mint chocolate chip that tasted of fresh mint in the most unexpectedly refreshing way.

By the time we departed the Bottom, things were looking even deader than when we'd arrived, so the only logical thing to do was head back to Holmes' Hideaway and crank some vinyl.

Appropriately enough, he began by playing some live Buffalo Springfield, mainly because he'd seen them on November 19, 1967. Reading the liner notes, I learned that he'd seen them on the Buffalo Springfield annual Thanksgiving Tour, of all the unlikely coincidences.

The notes also divulged that on that tour, they'd been doing afternoon and evening shows and, sure enough, Holmes had seen them at the Richmond Arena one afternoon and BS had played DAR Constitution Hall that same night.

What band does that anymore?

I had no idea that Homes used to be a college DJ at UR, signing on saying, "Hi, I'm Holmes and this is the Feed Your Head show," before playing whatever the hell he wanted to, stuff such as John Cale's orchestral masterstroke, "Paris 1919," a baroque pop wonder that Holmes owns in multiple formats.

When Beloved and I requested some Joni Mitchell, he obliged with the sublime "Court and Spark" before introducing us both to the earlier "For the Roses" from 1972. She recalled "Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," but I didn't, although it didn't take long to see the beauty and sarcasm of the song.

Inside the album folder was a gorgeous picture of Joni naked from the back, standing on an outcropping of rocks in the ocean, sun glinting off the water, a picture I only wish someone would take of me.

We listened to so much music as we sipped the perfectly lovely Graham Beck Brut Rose, with Holmes only occasionally giving one or the other of us crap about our lack of knowledge or questionable taste. He justified it by saying, "I'm just an unmarried male curmudgeon in his '60s."

Things amped up when he pulled out a bottle of 120 proof Scotch and suggested we taste it. One sip in, Beloved recoils and says, "I think I hear Richard Harris when I smell this."  I stick to wetting my lips with it.

When he put on a 45 of Barbra Streisand's Barry Gibb-produced hit, "Woman in Love," he announced that it was a big drag song and began doing a pseudo-striptease for our amusement.

When he put on the soundtrack to "Shaft," he immediately asked our permission to turn it up and bathe us in Isaac Hayes' immersive soul sounds. Beloved and I wanted to hear the whole thing, but he was dissatisfied listening to what he called "incidental soundtrack music" and moved on to the Pretenders.

We were several hours into Thanksgiving before calling it quits. The two of them had to get up at a reasonable enough hour to make corn pudding, so we put a period on our Thanksgiving Even tradition with another evening of terrific company and entertainment under our collective belt.

My head had been fed, as had been my belly. Happy Thanksgiving Eve to us and many more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hollywood History 101

Where most would see "Breaking Bad," I saw "From Under My Hat."

The plan was dinner and a play with a friend, at least right up until the e-mail came saying tonight's performance was cancelled. I dithered about what to do, only deciding on a movie 35 minutes before showtime.

Good thing the theater's in the neighborhood.

"Trumbo" was showing, and that's a film I knew I wanted to see since I first saw a preview for it. Tonight, there weren't any previews - not necessarily a bad thing in this era when all the very best moments are divulged in the trailer - to sit through. I sat down, a guy sat right next to me (odd since there were so many empty seats elsewhere) and the movie began. Zoom.

I admit that although I knew vaguely about Dalton Trumbo (Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted), it was only from reading books about others or about the era, so I really didn't know a lot. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" seems to me a phrase we've all heard at some point, but beyond that, I was clueless.

Of course, I didn't know the actor who played Trumbo - Bryan Cranston - from Adam, unlike the couple behind me who immediately began by identifying hims as the "Breaking Bad" guy, which meant nothing to me.

Regardless of his prior work, he did a masterful job in this role, cigarette holder constantly in his teeth, glass of Scotch in hand, and always typing, whether in the bathtub or at his desk, ashes falling where they may, conveying the drive and ambition of a man who loved to write.

But what fascinated me was the character of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with real vitriol and pseudo-patriotism by Helen Mirren. She came across as an awful person, eager to exact punishment on every member of the Hollywood 10, while using her clout with studio heads and directors to ensure nobody worked if she didn't want them to.

You see, a few years ago I'd been given an autographed copy of "Under My Hat," Hopper's 1952 autobiography of her acting (who knew?) and writing career and reading it, I'd been charmed by a woman I'd previously only known from an episode of "I Love Lucy."

But after seeing "Trumbo," I realize now how much personal ugliness and reprehensible behavior she left out of her book. The Congressional witch hunts that ruined the careers of so many talented people in the film industry were aided and abetted by this nut case, who used her multiple platforms - columns, radio and TV  - to spew venom and lies.

That one woman wearing crazy hats (literally and metaphorically) had so much power in the industry is almost inconceivable in the crowd-sourced world of today.

For the most part, period details were terrific, although occasionally, dialog skewed modern. "Her timing was always amazing," doesn't sound like anything that was said in 1948, when the word "amazing" wasn't the go-to adjective. Thankfully, no one used "awesome" or I'd have thrown popcorn at the screen.

Watching Trumbo literally cut and tape sections of his screenplays together served as reminder of how much more technically difficult the rewriting process used to be on a typewriter.

You know how I love a good history lesson.

I was surprised at how much the film's themes continue to resonate given that we're still trying to figure out where to draw the line between intrusion into people's personal lives and protection from the bad guys, and not wearing nearly as stylish clothing in the attempt.

That Trumbo went to jail for almost a year and then had to write using other people's names (earning two Oscars along the way) to earn a living reminded of what a shameful period in our country's history this was.

Back when I'd been reading "Under My Hat," I'd mentioned it to a few people and most of them had no idea who Hedda Hopper was. Now I realize what a good thing that is.

The shame is that more don't know who the brilliant Dalton Trumbo was. It would be wonderful to think this movie might change that.

Hot Sex and Banana Hammocks

So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
Oh, but these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to...

Man, when I heard Brandi Carlisle sing that song at Groovin' in the Garden back in May 2009, I was still reeling from having been through the wringer that year. A lifetime later, I heard it on the radio tonight after spending a day hearing stories.

Tanisha Ford had some terrific ones, gleaned while researching her new book, "Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of Soul," and shared them at a lecture at the VCU Depot.

Saying she was introduced to the soul generation by her Mom, she began by showing us a picture of her mother in her dorm room in 1972. Everything about the photo screamed '70s soul, from her Mom's gorgeous Afro to the poster of Angela Davis to the beaded curtain to the African print bedspread and pillows.

From there, she cleverly tied together the way black women dressed and the development of the modern Civil Rights movement, using everything from Blue Note jazz album covers to photographs of people such as South African singer Miriam Makeba (the very one I'd seen at the VMFA in the South African photography exhibit "Darkroom" at the VMFA in 2013) and covers of "Drum" and "Ebony" magazines to illustrate her point.

A 1973 article in "Drum," a South African tabloid, warned young women that they'd be fined or even jailed if they were caught in a mini-skirt.

Sorry, but having come of age when I did, I've always felt that mini-skirts were my birthright.

Perhaps most fascinating was how African Americans had first looked to Africa for inspiration, but once the notion of "soul" became a global concept in the '60s and '70s, the rest of the world looked to the U.S. for what was deemed to be modern and soulful.

Being part of that first generation who were offered women's studies classes in college all but guaranteed that I'd have a life-long interest in women's cultural history, so I was totally into Dr. Ford's history lecture with fashion on top.

Less women-centric, but still fine entertainment for this audience member, was tonight's installment of Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story, with the theme "through the wringer." Because who among us hasn't been at some time or another?

Waiting to get into the back room at Balliceaux, I chatted with a woman who'd come in from the east end while maintaining my place at the front of the line. Sitting down in a folding chair, I heard my name called by an artist I'd met at Crossroads a few months ago and when I looked to see who was down next to me, it was the vintage queen I'd seen at Mr. Fine Wine the other night.

"Oh, you again?" she joked, as the handsome chef with her handed her a bourbon cocktail.

So, the show. A blind man, a formerly homeless woman and a Senate intern walk into a bar and they're limited to true stories lasting no more than 5-7 minutes. Holy cow, that bar was Balliceaux!

I'm not sure if it was the theme or if the stars were just in alignment, but tonight's stories were stronger than they've been in some time, with some real heart breakers and major life affirmations thrown in for good measure.

Elaine explained how she'd lived in 30 different places, including her Honda Accord over the course of a year during which she continued to assure herself that she wasn't homeless (homeless people have bad teeth, smell funky and have drug habits, or so she thought). She became an expert in doing laundry in any sink she could find.

Henry was a Senate intern during the government shutdown a few years ago, taking complaints and threats from voters back home, experiencing a shooting just outside the senator's office and being rewarded with a pizza party for his effort. He's till trying to dig out of the hole that experience left in him.

Bill shared the tragic story of an abused woman friend who got a restraining order against her abusive husband, who then showed up anyway and beat her to death with a gun in front of her kids and sister, leaving behind "blood mud." His point was that her death sent out a ripple that affected so many others.

Richard called his move to Portland after his divorce a "hail Mary pass," but was grateful to land in the home of his friend Cheryl and her husband Ed, whom he described as the nicest heroin addict he'd ever met. After taking a room with another Cheryl, he was kicked out for putting a non-dishwasher dish in the dishwasher (horrors!), but found a good home with a nice Asian man, but only after pretending to be someone else.

Elizabeth grew up in a strict family, got engaged after three dates, then got married and went to prom. Unfortunately, her young husband robbed a house - "That's a felony" - just as she found out she was pregnant. "He came in shackles to see the birth." She raised her son without him and was very happy with how life had worked out.

Kristin was a career-oriented VP in finance by age 30 and then another skier ran into her at Wintergreen and she wound up with a brain injury where she couldn't remember names, places or much of anything about her life for months. Now back at work part-time, she's regained her sense of humor. "This brain injury thing, it's all in my head." Ba dum bum.

Anya's story was about her brother in Poland who'd been cross country skiing at night when a truck overtook him. Luckily, it was high enough that he could lean back and go under it, although he arrived home bloody and disoriented. At the village hospital circa 1995, the only bed was in the psychiatric ward, where the very old man in the bed next to him decided to stab himself with a fork to the wrist, causing spurting all over her brother. Anya was good enough to bring the fork for proof.

By the time intermission rolled around, I think it's safe to say that we were all gobsmacked with the stories we'd heard. What could possibly top any of those through-the-wringer moments?

Taylor could. He walked onstage, cane in hand, joking that, "The good thing about speaking in front of a crowd is I have no idea how many of you there are."

Seems he'd been coming home from helping his girlfriend assemble a Barbie car on Christmas eve when he feel asleep and hit a house. One TV newscaster pronounced him dead on the air (he wasn't). He woke up from the coma exactly two years almost to the minute that his Mom had died, but everything was dark.

He was told he was blind, "you won't be able to move the left side of your body and it's doubtful you'll ever walk again." Taylor responds by getting out of bed, walking over to the doctor, shaking his hand with his own left hand and thanking the man for saving his life.

He's still blind, but he says he's better at everything else now. Damn.

Donna found Tree Farm Guy on Craig's List, happily dated him for years ("We had hot sex!) but he didn't want her to move in and they broke up. Sniffing around on Craig's List, she creates a profile for herself ( and answers Tree Farm Guy's ad looking for men. She's still hopeful about finding a nice guy, but TFG wasn't it.

J. Michael's story was about forsaking good friends for the shallow allure of a social fraternity, only to learn that his friend had died in the interim and he never got to re-connect with him. His advice was to keep good people in your life (TFG was not good people, not to mix stories or anything).

Mark called his saga frivolous after the preceding blockbusters and he was right. It began with a trip to the Chilean desert, a difficult bike ride after a pedal fell off and an ass-numbing four-day jeep ride during which the driver was eating cocoa leaves non-stop and ended with a Frenchman improbably named Jeff coming out in a thermal shirt, a fleece vest and what Mark called a "banana hammock" before disappearing.

Brandi was wrong, these were stories that did mean something, whether you had someone to tell them to or not. And, despite being asked several times, I'm not going to be sharing my "through the wringer" story, either.

But let me assure you, it's how I got to where I am.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Letting 'Em Down Easy

Today is National Start Your Own Country Day, which I neither did nor celebrated, but it's also the last day of Virginia Cider week, and that one I addressed.

Blue Bee Cider and Camden's Dogtown Market - which could arguably be considered a modest attempt at starting the chef's own little universe, if not country -  were doing a pairing dinner to celebrate the seasonal apple harvest.

Seeing as how I was solo (and keeping my pours short to accommodate an early morning), I took my place at the end of the bar, next to a favorite beer geek and close to the cider queen, Courtney, to sip easy-drinking Winesap on Tap, poured out of growlers from the cidery next door.

Now there's a short distribution route.

That's when the music hit me. Bluegrass had been chosen as cider-appropriate and it was sounding more like a hoedown and less like eating music than anything I could think of short of death metal. I offered my opinion that although I enjoy bluegrass, the music was ill-suited for a five-course meal and was told that nothing suited cider better than banjo-picking.

"Don't we have too many teeth to listen to this kind of music?" the beer geek asked rhetorically. Yes. Yes, we do.

Winesap apple-roasted chicken salad "kotopoulopita" was introduced by the chef as, "kinda Greek-like, but not at all really," but the raves I heard were about how fabulous they were with phyllo dough encasing the savory chicken mixture.

One woman was so taken with the dish that she asked if it might show up on the regular menu sometime. Not a chance, she was told - turns out the chef hates dealing with phyllo. It was tasty while it lasted.

Beer Geek told me about his recent trips to Key West, Burlington, Vermont, Indiana and Appomattox, sharing photographs - yes, kids, actual hard copy pictures, not digital files  - of his progress around the country.

Sharp cheddar and walnut fondue with housemade potato chips was described by the chef as, "Snack food, yea!" while I would call it flat out obscene and a lovely pairing with Charred Ordinary (and a language lesson for those who didn't understand that ordinary was the word for tavern in Colonial times). Tiny jam jars held the rich, nut-studded fondue, which had some people using their finger to get every last drop out of the jar.

A particularly fast, twangy piece came on and Beer Geek observed, "I feel like I'm robbing a bank!" about the silent movie-sounding soundtrack. So I wasn't the only one objecting to the frenetic pace of bluegrass while eating.

In simplistic terms, the next course was hops and hot dogs. I mean, technically, it was Hopsap Shandy (a hops-infused cider) with killer housemade bratwurst, pickled mustard seeds and housemade pretzel sticks. The satisfying explosion of the seeds when bitten provided the same pleasure as popping bubble wrap, but in my mouth, so not nearly as annoying to those around me.

A woman made the comment that Chef Andy had "spoiled her" for other restaurants because he makes so much of his food in house, pointing to this course as a perfect example of that. She'd recently been in Washington and been appalled at what she had to pay for lesser quality.

Another woman pointed out that she only moved to Richmond eight months ago and already feels like she spends all her time eating out because it's the city-wide pastime. And her point was...?

Aragon, which Blue Bee's Courtney described as the ideal bridge between those who've only tasted "six-pack ciders" and the next level of liquid apple drinking, was paired with braised pork shoulder over spaetzel with "Smokey Jus."

I'm sorry, but when I see "Smokey Jus" on the menu, it looks like a name to me and I assume he's a far-flung cousin of Smokey Robinson or a regular at Smoeky Joe's Cafe, while the beer geek thought it sounded like a cowboy's name. Let's rustle up some grub, Smokey Jus.

Semantics aside, the dish was a bowl of winter comfort, long-cooked and deeply flavorful.

Coming around to offer more cider, my server raised an eyebrow when I declined. "You're letting me down, Karen," she announced. "Complaining about the music, not drinking much. Who are you?"

One of the couples at the dinner had the distinction of being there to celebrate both their birthdays today. They live on Floyd Avenue, my home for 13 years, and I went over to chat with them about the old 'hood. You see, today I'd driven down Floyd only to see that a roundabout is being installed at Dooley Avenue.

Floyd, I hardly know ye!

They inform me that another will go at Belmont and the speed limit will drop to 20 mph, all part of the Floyd Avenue bike route. This is all terrific news, but none of it helped me when I moved in back in '93."

Of course we discuss InLight, which was practically in their backyard this year.

"I loved how diverse it was, " the birthday girl said. "And everyone was smiling!" Further proof that my thesis - that InLight is the visual equivalent of the Folk Fest with wide appeal and a solid 8-year history - is a sound one, if I do say so myself.

Cupcakes tricked out with lighted birthday candles were delivered to the happy couple and the room gave them a round of applause, presumably for making it this far in life. Or maybe just to temporarily drown out the music.

Back in my seat, another rapid-fire bluegrass song plucked at my last nerve, with BG noting, "Okay, this song was used in "Bonnie and Clyde." So we were back to music to rob banks by, lord help us. A server hilariously began clogging behind the bar.

Firecracker, a dessert cider, was made with ginger-infused eau de vie and was our final pour. Courtney said she wanted a dominant ginger taste and got it, noting that she's had ginger-infused ciders that barely whispered their gingerness.

"It's an expensive ingredient," she said assertively. "I wanted my cider to taste like it." Mission accomplished. Paired with goat cheese mousse with sweet pickled Black Twig apples and graham cracker crumbles, the Firecracker was everything you expect a feisty ginger to be.

The kind of cider that says in its own liquid way, if you don't like me, move on, buster. Go start your own country, or maybe your own restaurant where you can make all the rules.

And for heaven's sake, turn off that damn bluegrass while people are eating.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Worth My Barking Dogs

No one gives me a Saturday night quite like Mr. Fine Wine.

For that matter, no one serves a pre-dance party dinner quite like the one my couple date and I ate through at Metzger, but only after I had to defend my thesis (potatoes don't belong in anything called nachos) and break from their wine choice (I don't start an evening of dancing with Meinklang Pinot Noir, I begin it with Casas del Mar Cava).

We had the last reservation of the night and even as we ate, every time a table around us was vacated, it was cleared and moved outside, the better to create a dance floor from the tiny restaurant. This wasn't my first Fine Wine rodeo, so I knew the drill.

Considering how much we ate, I'd say we did a fine job of doing it in the relatively brief span we were allotted. Borscht salad got its kick from sauerkraut vinaigrette; my fried sweetbreads currywurst-style tasted so enticing that even sweetbreads-averse Beau had to admit they were fabulous; a rich stout-braised pork pie would be an ideal dish on a cold, wintry night; scallops and mushrooms over a chestnut puree was pure perfection; and the evening's special was an enormous plate of steak and potatoes that fed all three of us amply.

By this point, there were only a few tables left standing around us, but that didn't prevent us from ordering chocolate and squash, a seasonal take on my requisite ending to a meal.

Beau was so impressed with the Kuri squash cake that he said he'd eat it by itself, while I far preferred having it adorned with chocolate mousse, chocolate malt, sage ice cream and divinely crunchy candied sage leaves.

Then, and only then, fully sated and with Mr. Fine Wine cranking up the turntables, did we relinquish our table. The chef ducked out the back door, telling me she was going home to put on her face and change clothes before coming back to join the party.

With Mr. Fine Wine, everybody's all in. "Thanks for coming," she said. "You never miss one of these, do you?" Sure don't.

The next three hours were an absolute ball. We began with a bottle of Paul Direder Gruner Veltliner but by the time Pru and I returned from our first dance-off up next to the turntables, it was clear water was going to be as essential as grape if we were to go the distance. And lots of it.

With Mr. Fine Wine, it's a marathon, not a sprint, especially as the room began to fill to capacity (and beyond?) and heat up. As usual, I didn't hesitate to go over and open a window to allow the cold night air in.

At one point, Pru looked at the mass of humanity quizzically and asked if I knew anybody in the room. Are you kidding?

Let's see, besides the oenophile taking the first level of her sommelier tests this week who greeted me when I arrived before they did? Other than the guy who came over to our table to hug me and tell my friends that he only runs into me at the coolest events?

Well, I congratulated the former freelancer and now reporter while ordering wine. The electronic musician/visual artist gave me a hug and told me to come dance with her. Familiar foodies and servers were rampant, especially representing the Church Hill contingent.

Even Grandma Muriel, aka the talented sax player who calls bingo at Gallery 5 wanted to chat, although he was noticeably without his peignoir and mask tonight.

But some of the best conversations and dances came courtesy of strangers. I love how when Mr. Fine Wine is spinning, there are no formalities.

A guy is dancing next to you one minute and the next he's bumping hips and circling around you. Or you're just standing there catching your breath and you feel a hand on your back inviting you to dance.

Naturally, this also results in some pretty spectacular conversation. Coming back from the loo, I rounded the corner and a smiling stranger grabbed me to dance. When the song ended and another seamlessly began, he didn't let go.

"I know you're older," he says between twirling me. "What, 41?" Trying not to laugh, I answer a question with a question, curious about where he falls in the 20-something continuum. He's coy about admitting it, but already on to other things. "Do you like cocaine?" and suggests we adjourn to his car.

I pass. Give up one minute of Mr. Fine Wine? It is to laugh.

Reaching down for some lip gloss, I find an empty Underberg miniature and have a pang of regret for not finishing our rich meal with the German digestif bitter. Next time.

It's so crazy crowded around 1 a.m. that when Pru goes out for a cig, she's gone for so long Beau gets worried. Then he's gone for ages. Turns out - and I had no idea because I was too busy dancing with others in their absence - that we'd reached critical mass and were on a one for one policy. They'd both had to wait for someone to exit the restaurant before they could be re-admitted.

All those sweaty bodies meant it was so hot that even Mr. Fine Wine had to shed his colorful cardigan and was spinning in his t-shirt. With only a dress on, I didn't have that luxury.

We were still dancing when lights came on to signal closing time, but I couldn't leave without telling the DJ what a fantastic evening he'd curated. I'd also been really impressed with one of his recent radio broadcasts, a tribute to Allen Toussaint, and mentioned that.

Taking my hand and thanking me, he said, "We met last time, didn't we?" We certainly did, not that I'd expected him to remember. As if I wasn't already high enough, my evening ended in the best possible way: leaning over the turntables still playing, talking to Mr. Fine Wine.

Hella good night...

Friday, November 20, 2015

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

The working for the weekend crowd was in full force tonight. In costume, no less.

Walking toward Vagabond to eat, Pru and I pass three women already in line (and in '80s attire) two hours before the sold out Legwarmers show.

Who stands in line for hours to see a cover band?

Inside Vagabond, it gets worse. The dozens of people inside and obviously going to the show are dressed like a parody of the '80s. One guy looks like Doc from "Back to the Future," a movie that just happens to be playing at the Byrd tonight.

Don't these people remember the reality of the Reagan years?

Never have I seen so many lace fingerless gloves or, yeesh, legwarmers. Yes, Madonna wore a net skirt to sing "Like a Virgin" on the MTV music awards, but tonight women are walking around with net skirts like it was a thing back then. It wasn't.

Seated at the edge of the bar, we have a bird's eye view of people coming in to pre-game before the show. The bartender tells us people have already sat down and ordered a drink and a dessert to satisfy the $15 minimum that qualifies them for early entry to the National next door.

"They leave the dessert," he says, shaking his head. "What possible difference does it make to get in a little early for a show like this?"

Beats the hell out of me.

That said, in spite of himself, he says he's been singing along to every song that's come on the '80s station they're playing tonight in the restaurant. "I grew up listening to this music," he says half-reverently. May Bow Wow Wow forgive you.

Another staff member comes over to share an anecdote with us, a look of astonishment written all over his face.

"These people called to ask about our corkage fee and I told them it was $15 as long as we don't carry the bottle," he said, still shaking his head. "Pretty standard for the industry, right? They just showed up...with a box of wine. That's like three bottles! I've never seen anything like it in all my years working in restaurants."

So not only are they costumed poorly, but they're crass as well. Or maybe they still think it's hip to be square.

As the bar fills up with more concert-goers, I tuck into spicy goat tacos with Thurston Wolfe Pinot Gris, followed by an exquisite Italian take on rockfish collar prepared with basil cooked in olive oil and a little Thai salad that eats even better than it smells, an amazing feat considering the aroma that announces the dish's arrival.

As if that weren't delightful enough, Pru casually mentions, "You're not gonna believe it but I'm on YouTube," explaining that she was roped into playing bells onstage at a recent performance of "Forever Plaid" and naturally, Beau filmed it. She's right, I don't believe it.

The world's gone mad tonight. Or should I say Madge?

Fleeing the former kids in America crowd, we make for the Basement and Theatre LAB's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's  Bar & Grill," where, mercifully, the crowd is less hungry like the wolf.

Yet again I am impressed with how the malleable Basement has been transformed, this time into a small Philly jazz club with a postage stamp-sized stage, a piano off to one side and low tables for drinks for those with a front row view of Katrinah Carol Lewis as Billie Holiday.

Just as impressive is how much more diverse the crowd is than typically. I especially enjoy the couple sitting nearest me because they don't hesitate to react to what's said onstage.

When Lady Day is talking about how much she likes cooking, she says, "I cook pigs' feet real good. I boil 'em, then I bake 'em till they're crispy like potato chips," I hear him mutter appreciatively, "Mmmm, mmm!" almost licking his chops.

Clearly he appreciates a woman who can cook a mean mess o' pig's feet.

Set in 1959, the year she dies, the play portrays her after her prime, as a drug user (thanks to a man, natch) and post-jail time, but as a singer who can still move people with her voice and poignancy, albeit while moving through a bottle of booze onstage.

Between songs, she talks to the audience about her life and tries to get her pianist to interact with her.

For me, it was fascinating seeing local musician Larry Branch play the part of pianist Jimmy after years of seeing him play keys around town in various ensembles. Besides being seriously talented, his taciturn demeanor and valiant attempts to keep her on track added a note of pathos to the show.

Of course, with a one-woman show, you need a hell of a woman to pull it off and Katrinah is that woman, alternately (deservedly) disparaging white people and then breaking your heart with her back story.

Except when she's hilariously telling the story of a white restaurant hostess who refuses to let her use the whites only bathroom. Holiday solves the problem by pulling up her dress and taking care of business on the woman's sequined shoes and then Lewis goes into her breathtakingly beautiful rendition of Holiday's classic "Strange Fruit."

Past performances have proven what a gorgeous and robust singing voice Lewis has, so it was all to her credit that she managed to sound so much like the life-weary Lady Day as she moved through her repertoire, needle tracks on her arms evident.

No question, Billie Holiday's story was a tough one and by the time it finished, my interest had been piqued to find a good biography of the woman to further flesh out my understanding of her now that I knew bits and pieces.

When the lights came up, I heard the guys behind me tell friends that they'd "snuck out to the bar halfway though to get another bottle of wine."

Why not? I feel sure Lady Day would have approved.

What Lovely Fervor

A good daughter cooks and bakes for her mother and answers her father's questions before going out to play.

"What band sang 'Highway to Hell'?" he asks from the family room. AC/DC, I tell him

"Who was the 'Originator'?" When I say Bo Diddly, he fills in the crossword blanks with a satisfied smile. "Ah, yes!"

At this point, Mom gets involved. "If you need any more assistance, you'd better ask her now before she goes because I can't be of any help to you on this stuff."

I assume that she means she doesn't know anything about music history. "I blocked out that whole rock and roll period!" she says with disdain, although the truth is she's been to multiple Neil Diamond concerts and some of her favorite songs are by Stevie Wonder.

It's all rock at this point, Mom.

Today's road trip to the Northern Neck had been motivated by Mom's bridge luncheon tomorrow, so I'd spent my time helping make chicken noodle soup, chicken salad and a Viennese torte, all of which took a solid three hours and endless conversation.

Answering Dad's questions takes seconds, and that includes him asking me about my love life.

As parents go, mine are pretty cool.

After driving back through a series of rain squalls, I consider my evening's options and decide that Quill Theater's historic play reading series wins out because it's "Luminous One: An Evening with Ethel Barrymore" and I know nothing about the woman besides that she's a distant relation to Drew.

It doesn't hurt that it's being presented at the Branch House and while I've already seen the new exhibit, I certainly don't mind seeing it again. To my amazement, I overhear a woman say she's lived in Richmond for 17 years and never been in the building.

"What is this place?" she inquires of her clueless friend. Tragic.

I, on the other hand, am enchanted to find the heavy leaded windows are open on this unusually balmy, wet November evening, allowing the moist air inside. This fact alone makes the evening special.

The one-woman show, ably written and directed by Melissa Rayford and starring the reliably impressive Melissa Johnston-Price is set in Richmond and kicks off with its premise.

"I've been asked to write a memoir. Horrors!" Ethel exclaims, standing next to a typewriter. From there, she reminisces about some of what's happened in her life, never writing a word.

She talks about her grandmother who "experimented with marriage" (haven't we all?), her memories of going to the Jefferson for the wedding of Charles Dana Gibson and Irene Langhorne, saying, "By the time she married, she'd had 60 proposals," and dancing on the Jefferson's rooftop garden the night before.

And, like my Dad, Ethel's father kept his word count to strictly what was necessary. When she cabled that she was getting married ("I was constantly trying to let myself get married and it never worked"), he responded with, "Congratulations. Love, Father."

When she broke the engagement and cabled her father the change in events, he responded, "Congratulations. Love, Father."

Turns out Ethel's life involved Winston Churchill, Henry James, the Duke of Manchester, Teddy Roosevelt and Spencer Tracy while wearing black, white and gray clothing because they were cheapest.

Apparently the Barrymores are known for two things: mismanaging money and drinking excessively.

In a particularly telling moment, Ethel complained about the current generation expecting art to be an instantaneous pleasure. As if. Or, as Ethel put it, "If you don't like it, you need to figure out why!"

When the reading ended, we broke for a dessert buffet and mingling. In the course of commiserating about the evils of Verizon, I manged to devour four little sweeties, as my Scottish friend would say, followed by chatting with a handsome stranger.

My mother and her sweet tooth would be proud.

A panel discussion followed, where we gleaned obscure tidbits such as the fact that if Drew Barrymore's children become actors, they'll represent 300 years of Barrymores in the profession. And how Ethel's hair was imitated just like Jennifer Aniston's was a century later. That the Barrymores gave each other red apples on opening night.

Yet another fine Ethel-ism: "You grow up the day you have your first yourself."

The logical place to end my evening was celebrating the third Thursday of November, also known as the day Beaujolais Nouveau is released and as good an excuse as any to visit Amour, enjoy some young wines and sample Beaujolais Nouveau sorbet (while patting myself on the back for missing last night's guests).

Not only is this years' Georges du Boeuf Beaujolais Noveau far better than the usual bubblegum-flavored sipper, but one of last year's Noveaus has aged amazingly well and how often does that happen?

My favorite French teacher and part-time model tries to convince me to consider modeling in local fashion shows and I wonder how I would like being looked at for wearing clothes not my own. The entire bar discusses the difference in "cruise people" and "boat people."

In the strictest sense, I qualify for neither. On the other hand, I've been proposed to eight times, I've experimented with marriage and I've laughed at myself for as long as I can remember.

And you know what I'd hear from the Northern Neck about that?

Congratulations. Love, Dad.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It's Not a Habit, It's Cool

I love bingo but I'm not addicted to gambling.

I am addicted to sitting at a table with strangers in a dim room listening to Grandma Muriel call numbers using effects pedals.

Make no mistake, I come from a family of gamblers. Growing up, my Dad made a weekly foray to pick up the "Racing Form" to plan his weekly track betting. He and my sisters bet on football, do the whole March Madness bracket thing and love betting on card games. On a related note, most of them have a lead foot and gamble on a ticket every time they get behind the wheel.

Not me.

But after last month's refreshingly bizarro bingo game at Gallery 5, I came away a changed person. Maybe it was having a costumed, cross-dressing caller. Maybe it was winning the best prize. Maybe it was just whatever minuscule amount of gambling blood I do have being activated by the unexpected excitement of waiting to hear my number called.

A guy tonight likened the bingo thrill to substance abuse. You keep buying more cards because you need another fix. Like crack without the drug dealer.

Word must be on the street, too, because tonight's fun attracted three times the people it did last month. Hell, people were still arriving to join when we were on the third of four rounds. Not sure what caught them by surprise more, Grandma Muriel or the eerie Halloween soundtrack and dim lighting.

Sitting next to me was a first-timer with a lucky streak drinking peanut butter oatmeal stout who repeatedly cracked up at the spectacle of it all. Or maybe that was the stout.

She not only won the cleverest prize of the evening, an instant NASCAR party (tablecloth, napkins, two #14 koozies, plus $10 for beer) but in the very next round, also took home $14 and a gift certificate for two dozen Sugar Shack doughnuts.

Damn, girl.

We were excited for her after the first round when she came back with her NASACR gear, proudly announcing, "Oh, yea, my birthday's coming up!" to which the guy across from me responded, "Your birthday is today!"

When she said that she was going to invite all of us to her NASCAR party with doughnuts, one woman who had yet to win piped up, saying, "I don't believe you." People get bitter at bingo quickly, it seems.

Laugh all you want, but once you come play bingo, you'll understand. Bingo gets under your skin once you're at the table.

After four rounds, we were technically finished, but organizer Nick decided to go for a fifth round after a few more people straggled in late, so everyone bought more cards for a shot at the $30 prize.

Turning to my doubly lucky tablemate, I told her that the crowd was going to stone her if she won again, a fact that didn't subdue her enthusiasm one bit.

"Are we playing corners?" one of the newbies called out, barely into the game, incensing Grandma Muriel. "Get out!" she bellowed, pointing at the door. He didn't.

We don't play no stinkin' corners at Gallery 5 bingo, kids.

It was barely five calls in when one of the new arrivals yelled out "bingo" and brought his card to Grandma to be checked. "Look upon my work, ye mighty, and despair!" he announced loftily while we marveled that he'd won so quickly.

"You are not the chosen one!" Grandma Muriel announced from behind her mask. Apparently he'd misheard a number and didn't yet have bingo. Things heated up quickly.

Grandma continued to entertain us, knocking the hanging light so it would swing, using various effects to distort her voice and crazy inflections to make us laugh. "This is what my life has become," she muttered late in the evening. "Little numbers on a cube."

One of those little numbers - N42- had me calling "bingo," only to hear another voice echo the same a few seconds later. Yep, I was part of a double winner round, taking home $15 cash money for the pleasure of gambling with strangers.

It's like the guy across from me said early in the evening, "Crack is expensive, bingo is cheap."

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

For Want of Sin No. 2

Color me bowled over by "Rodin: Evolution of a Genius."

Walking over to the VMFA at the butt crack of dawn (8:30) on this sunny morning, I was unprepared for what a magnificent - and extensive - show this is, yet very much eager to see all those naked bodies.

"I have infinite worship for the nude," the master sculptor went on record as saying, and after seeing so many examples of his interpretations, I get it. Acknowledging that he couldn't work without a model, Rodin gets extra points for insisting on choosing ones with strength and vigor.

Both qualities, I might add, that I used to get my half-asleep self to the museum this morning.

"The All-Devouring Female or Sin No. 2" showing a woman consuming the other figure has a name fit for a high-end perfume...or a dominatrix.

Not sure what appealed to me more in the erotically-charged "Ecclesiastes," that the recumbent figure rests on a book (my reader roots run deep) or that Rodin used a figure of nude female bending forward and places her on her back on the book. Yes, that's a curvy bottom, her legs in the air, facing the viewer.

So many pieces caused me to pause, walk around for a 360-degree view or just stare in awe, pieces such as the "Despairing Adolescent" - and aren't they all? - with its arms outstretched overhead, portraying 19th century teen-aged angst.

Angst also abounded in the many figures cast to be part of the monumental commission for the "Gates of Hell," yet it brought to mind Ghiberti's far less gruesome "Gates of Paradise" in Florence, another set of magnificent doors I'd ogled while in Italy.

Despite being a rabid Whistler fan, I'd never heard that Rodin had been commissioned to create a monument to the artist after his death. The public, unfortunately, was not happy with his large armless nude, criticizing it as unfinished looking and rejecting it after his death for that reason.


What I hadn't expected was the collection of photography - deliberately dreamily shot with soft focus and blurring of images -documenting his work and apparently hung at shows along with his sculpture.

It was impossible not to be gobsmacked at seeing "The Kiss," a monumental casting of "The Thinker" and, at least for this art history geek, "The Burghers of Calais," and revisiting that story, which I only vaguely recalled from long ago college classes.

Standing under one of the larger-than-life size burgher figures to inspect the anguished face may have been the ultimate Rodin in Richmond moment.

Or maybe not. Already I know I'll need to see this exhibition several more times. In fact, I was talking to a guy who works there about it and he said that the Rodin galleries were his cut-through when he needed a cup of coffee.

Even though I'm not a coffee drinker, I might consider taking it up if I worked there, solely so I'd have a frequent excuse to walk through.

In case you haven't guessed, I have infinite worship for Rodin's nudes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Everybody Was So Young

You know I do it for the art.

Feel free to argue the point with me, but the fact is, Richmond is underserved by public art. The real issue here is how it's possible we can have this public art school that's won accolades from all over and still be a city deficient in outdoor art.

But tonight the recently-formed Public Arts Commission convened a public meeting so I showed up to share my feelings.

Actually, lots of people showed up to sit at the map-covered tables, clearly far more than the commission was anticipating since a few tables had no maps and some people wound up sitting along the walls, not even within reach of a map.

The good news is that Richmond requires that all capital projects set aside 1% of their budget for the public art fund., so there's no reason to think our new commission isn't going to get the public art ball rolling a bit more earnestly than in the past.

We began with slides of public art, moving through the different kinds: iconic (the "Cloudgate" bean in Chicago), memorials (St. Louis arch), functional ("Flying carpet," a topographical carpet in the Sacramento airport), integrated (Austria's Muir Island Bridge, a man-made metal island with two bridges linking it to land), interactive ("Crown Fountain" in Chicago) and temporary ("Park-cycles" in San Francisco).

I admit I've only seen the two in Chicago, although maybe "Park-cycles" is in my near future.

A lively group discussion allowed people to share their most memorable public spaces, while discussion of why Richmond is unique devolved into one-upmanship with people trying to show off their knowledge of Richmond minutiae (one woman bragged about our Class 5 rapids, which we don't even have).

I had a proud moment when someone mentioned Jackson Ward as one of our best features. Yes, sir, it is.

More enjoyable and satisfying was getting to put stickers on those giant maps of where we'd like to see public art. At my table, stickers landed on Manchester, the Jeff Davis corridor and Chamberlayne north of Broad, places such as Barton Heights and Highland Park.

Hell, I put stickers over by Shockoe Hill cemetery and Hospital Street. Talk about an area that could benefit from some beautification. One woman put a sticker on Libby Hill, a place I feel already gets plenty o' love and already has public art. I left soon after.

I got home just as a friend was dropping off a book for me, the beautifully titled, "Everybody Was So Young" by Amanda Vaill, a book she thinks I'll enjoy as much as she did. I intend to find out so we can discuss it over absinthe sometime soon.

Despite having seen music Saturday and Sunday nights, I was still feeling a musical deficit, so I told her I was off to Gallery 5 for three bands. Her response? "Of course you are."

The door guy greeted me with a grin and a question. Had I used my gift certificate to Max's yet, the one I'd won at bingo? Nope. Was I coming to bingo tomorrow? Yep.

It was a small crowd, even for a Tuesday night, and as usual, the punctual were punished and the tardy rewarded with a later start to accommodate them. Luckily, the people-watching was good to pass the time.

Up first was We Never, a young-looking band, and the lead singer's parents were in the crowd, meaning that when he took a big swig of beer and followed it with a massive burp, Mom yelled, "Nice!" to correct him.

"Get outta here, Mom!" he called from the stage, trying to salvage a little dignity. Some Moms just aren't cut out for rock and roll. Their brief set ranged from low-key acoustic to a honky tonk barn burner and, yes, when it ended Mom complained loudly that it had been too short.

Overheard during the break: "She loves a good cat video. There's nothing better for her than that."

Brooklyn duo Shana Falana was next and I felt owed them. Although I'd gone to their May show at Balliceaux, their set had inexplicably begun early and I'd missed some of it. Tonight I wanted a full dose of their trippy dreamgaze sound and groovy light show.

Cosmic, man.

With guitar, drums, a bass backing track and lots of reverb, they achieved woozy psychedelic status from the first moment Shana opened her mouth to sing. Even the talkers in the crowd shut up once they realized they were hearing something pretty terrific.

After their set, I was joined by a music-loving couple who were drawn to me by the enticing scent of the clementine I was eating (hey, sometimes a person needs a show snack). Although I've known them for about five years, I knew nothing about their history and set out to correct that.

What a great story! Became platonic roommates 25 years ago and got married five years ago on the anniversary of her asking him if he thought he might ever want to marry her.

My question was why, after ten years together, had she posed such a question? He looked at me, looked at her and admitted that even he didn't know the answer to that one. Answer: She'd gotten a toy ring that day and it got her thinking that he was just the kind of person she'd want to marry someday.

The rest, as they say, is history. Two art kids meet at SCAD, go on a date to see Peter Murphy and live happily ever after.

About then Recluse Raccoon took the stage, but only to tease us with a couple of instrumental songs. The singer had no voice, so Blanks joined them onstage and as lead singer Jessica put it, "We're gonna swallow them," making for a quintet: two guitars, drums, bass and a lovely cello.

Their set was brief - Jessica had been drinking coffee when I arrived, admitting she was seriously tired - but we got a couple of gems out of them, songs such as "Tidal Wave" ("This is more for them than for you," she told us, gesturing at the band) and "Fishing in the Dark."

Ah, yes, I felt so much better.

Some women seek out cat videos and some of us need nothing more than a few hours of live music. There's nothing better for this her than that.

Walking to Jefferson

For an evening that began with my car dying and an unexpected walk home, it ended splendidly.

I have Quirk's Maple and Pine - along with a smart, amusing date - to thank for that, although I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the entertainment value of a gaggle of tourism people, name tags strung round their necks, also at the restaurant, including a slightly tipsy one from Virginia Beach ("A coin toss brought me there"), whom I officially met in the ladies' room.

You know the one, down the stairs, under the sign that reads, "Love, Happiness, Restrooms." Joke all you want but sometimes a restroom does make me extremely happy.

Meanwhile, the tourism types. So. Much. Networking. Quirk seems to already be a magnet for those kinds of gatherings, or at least in my experience of three visits that's been the case.

And why not? The space is gorgeous, there's Prosecco on tap (although why the taps are on the outside of the bar I can't quite figure) and the staff is engaging. Our dimpled server even gave us a dramatic pose to make a point.

But what I like best is that it's a hotel so you're bound to see out-of-towners. I spotted two of them lounging by the windows and pegged them for visitors at once. Bingo, one with an accent as thick as butter on a biscuit from Wilson, North Carolina and the other with colorful socks and patent leather shoes from Miami.

When they left to hit the streets, we wondered where they were headed, only because it can be challenging to find major fun on a Monday evening.

A handful of people in the big tourism group opted for a tour of Quirk and their metro-sexual guide paused near enough me that I could overhear his spiel, including that the building had originally been (J.P.) Mosby's Department Store.

What were the chances? We'd been wondering about the building's origins since we'd sat down.

We'd also been eating from practically the moment we'd arrived, starting with the smoked pork pate I'd already had twice (and adore), chicken wings that had me licking sauce off my fingers and meaty oxtail egg rolls and moving right through marinated vegetables in brown butter and duck breast with quinoa and finishing smartly (and with the bartender's seal of approval) with chocolate espresso mousse studded with orange and hazelnuts.

The latter bites were accompanied by a Left Coast Pinot Blanc that conjured memories of drinking it at the winery this summer and the delightful conversations we'd had with the owners. She and I discussed working in publishing and he smiled at me a lot and refilled my glass every chance he got.

I'd liked them both and tonight's bottle was a delicious reminder of that.

Only the sound system disappointed, with too few and tinny-sounding speakers pointed at the ceiling and insufficient volume to provide true ambiance. My friends know how seriously I take my restaurant (or any) music. Obviously, Quirk does not.

But it does have charm in abundance.  Although I've already seen plenty of pooches paraded through the lobby and restaurant to the elevators, tonight owner Katie Ukrop was pausing to let her dog pee on the tree in front of the hotel, and while urination per se is hardly charming, seeing an owner going about the business of life in front of her pretty pink and gray hotel most definitely is.

Keepin' it real in Richmond. Maybe that's what the tourism people should have seen.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Promise of Change

Sometimes the big questions rear their heads and the right answer isn't immediately obvious.

Or, it is perfectly clear, but no one's quite brave enough to deal with it yet, a situation better suited to a procrastinator than the efficient sort. For the record, I'm not a procrastinator.

Without hesitation, I did go to the second installment of Battery Park Stories to hear reminiscing from long-time residents about the neighborhood. One recalled his childhood in Battery Park as akin to "The Wizard of Oz" after Dorothy got to Oz and everything was technicolor. Apparently the birds were chirping and the sky was sunny every day in Battery Park in the '60s.

Another recalled how back in the '80s, he couldn't get a pizza, much less a sub, delivered to his house, a sorry fact that is no longer the case.

Connections were made. A man on the panel spotted a woman in the audience and said, "When did you grow up? I haven't seen you in 40 years!" It was kind of charming.

One woman told a fascinating tale of her siblings and their vastly different school experiences. The oldest two went from kindergarten to graduation with the same  bunch of neighborhood kids.

One of her sisters wound up being bussed, a circumstance that required her friend's grandfather to walk them across Brookland Park Parkway for safety. The woman on the panel had yet another experience. She'd been bussed to an integrated school where she found the shock to be not kids of another race, but kids of another (shocking!) neighborhood.

The most poignant moment came when discussing changes in the 'hood. One man said intellectually he loved the diversity, the additional businesses, the feeling of living in a TV show, but emotionally, he had to acknowledge that it was no longer the neighborhood where he spent his childhood.

He's still trying to adjust to the joggers and free libraries. "In ten years, will I even recognize it?" he mused aloud. "Will I be a minority in my own neighborhood, the place where I grew up?"

Another woman pointed to the post-Gaston period when neighbors pulled together and race was of no importance. She got choked up talking about it and people in the audience nodded their heads in agreement.

Everyone seemed to agree that we can all get along.

Rather than stay for the potluck, I moved on to dinner at Rancho T, which was so low key as to be almost dead tonight.

That said, we had a lovely meal of short rib pupasas, roasted beet salad, tacos (both rockfish and beef tongue) and chocolate ancho cake, with a bottle of Gruet Brut and the most fabulous '70s soundtrack of the likes of Chic, Earth, Wind & Fire and Jean Knight to accompany it.

I love how great music adds so much to the dining experience. Just as cool is that space, where I once spent so many nights watching bands when it was Sprout, and now still echoing with music I want to hear.

Leaving my date's wheels at Rancho T, we walked in the chilly night air to Balliceaux for music to finish out the evening. Luray was playing and all I'd ever heard live of them had been a few minutes as their set ended. Unacceptable.

Lots of familiar faces crowded the room, including Luray's bassist, just back from a mini-tour and singing the praises of the Philly audience, as respectful as a Listening Room setting, he said, while NYC's crowd had cut out after the opener. Their loss.

First up tonight was Andy C. Jenkins and the New Blood, the blood consisting of Cameron Ralston on bass, Pinson Chanselle on drums and Alan Parker on guitar (and, oh, that lap steel!), with Andy singing lead. Things got very earnest with a solid rhythm section behind and Alan producing terrific noodling or what my date referred to as "tasty licks."

For the next-to-last song, Andy invited local star Matt White to join him onstage for a song they co-wrote, a real treat for the crowd, especially those of us who'd missed his Friday show at the Broadberry.

And speaking of treats, finally seeing and hearing Luray's full set was rewarding on several levels because lead singer Shannon's voice was gorgeous and the trio behind her - Scott Burton's cinematic stylings on guitar, Brian Cruse's steady bass lines and CJ's interesting drums and percussion - took her banjo playing firmly into indie territory while her beautiful voice beckoned us along for the ride.

As a friend so succinctly put it, "Least BS I have heard from  a young band with a banjo in forever." We should know given all the young band banjo we've heard together over the past six years.

Practically every song started out sounding like the scene was being set for a movie, before seguing into a definitive shape, her appealing vocals weaving a sonic tapestry with the three talented musicians around her.

It took me far too long to see these guys and not because I'm a procrastinator. I do, however, think long and hard about the big questions.

I'm not getting any younger, you know?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Don't Believe What You Read

Vagabond was not to be tonight.

Oh, it was our intention to have dinner there before the symphony, but Holmes and Beloved had barely picked me up when Holmes realized that he'd left one of the symphony tickets at home, so back we went.

Finally parked and making our way up hill, we decided to detour into Greenleaf's since neither of them had been and I'm rather fond of the pool hall as a dining destination. Beloved's Negronis were testament to the skill of the talented new barman and she happily noted that Greenleaf's vibe and look felt more like being in NYC than RVA.

After deviled eggs - smoky classic style and picnic style with fried chicken skin on top - and bar toast - a scrumptious layering of Chorizo, chimichurra and goat cheese with caramelized onions - we all chose sandwiches for dinner.

High points went to all three, although neither the patty melt nor tuna melt were served as open-faced sandwiches for some inexplicable reason. The artisan bread supporting them was superb, though, with a companion noting, "I like my bread with some resistance." Men and bread, me, too.

And the grilled cheese and chunky tomato soup combo were out of this world, grown-up even, with Gruyere and aged Provolone adding depth and complexity to what is usually a simple, straight-forward sandwich.

I ran into a friend on my way to the loo and we paused to dissect InLight, which we both felt had been compressed into too small a space at the VMFA this year. We agreed that the experience was diminished by the necessity of herding visitors in a way that allowed no time for lingering and truly experiencing any of the installations, not the case in past years.

At least I knew I wasn't alone in my take on the evening.

From there, our trio strolled one block to CenterStage to join the throngs of white hairs and blue hairs slowly making their way inside.

Tonight's program was Sibelius and Liszt and the first selection, "The Swan of Tuonela" was dedicated to the victims and their families in Paris. "We stand in tribute," conductor Steven Smith said of the piece that featured Shawn Welk blowing a beautiful English horn.

As the grand piano was being maneuvered onstage for Liszt's "Concerto No. 2," Holmes sniffed and observed, "Aww, now we can't see the violas." I teased him because for him, a viola player, it's always all about the violas. But even he had to acknowledge, "But we can see the pianist's hands. We have good seats for that!"

Pianist Orion Weiss' hands put on a fine show, although the guy behind me tapping his foot against the back of my chair was maddening. Fortunately, that was followed by Sibelius's "Symphony No. 2 in D Major," a piece that was alternately ho-hum and positively rousing but elicited no foot thumping.

As Beloved noted afterwards, "Once I heard it change to a major, I knew we were coming to the end." I don't say things like that because I don't hear such things.

Because it was still ridiculously early, we took the party back to Holmes' man cave for record-listening with both Hillinger and Corail Rose, despite Holmes' complaints about being a bit tired after a too-raucous Friday night.

We headed straight back to my youth when he began with Squeeze's "East Side Story," in all its New Wave glory and multiple influenced sounds. I'd forgotten how Stray Cats-like they could be at times.

You have to understand the set-up to see the humor in the next story. Holmes is stationed behind the bar, next to the hi-fi, while Beloved and I perch on bar stools directly across the bar. He has full access to his record collection under the bar, which we can't even see, and pulls treat after treat out.

At one point, pulling out a record resulted in another dropping to the floor. "Oh, Streisand fell on the floor," he said and went back to putting Squeeze away. He had no intention of looking for the errant chick record.

Well, the cold hard fact is you're not going to mention Streisand - an album that undoubtedly came from his deceased wife's collection, not his - to two women of a certain age (see: Beloved and me) and not expect them to want to hear it.

Holmes acquiesced, I think because of the huge array of musical talent on the album.

Or maybe because he was tired, but he put on 1977's "Streisand Superman" while we discussed the array of song composers on it - everyone from Paul Williams to Kim Carnes to Roger Miller to Mr. Pina Colada song himself, Rupert Holmes.

Probably the best known song on it was Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," a classic best sung by a New Yorker a la Streisand.

But for me, that album had been more about a woman's statement of self. Songs such as "Cabin Fever" repudiated the stereotypical housewife role while "Lullaby for Myself" sang the praises of the single life, at least right up until the very end.

Walked the night and drank the moon
Got home at half past four
And I knew that no one marked my time
As I unlocked my door...

Sure, it doesn't sound all that anthemic in 2015, but in 1977, it was enough to make a woman sit up and take notice. Don't forget, that was the same era as films such as "An Unmarried Woman" and young females I knew were taking the message to heart. Sort of.

Time to spare and time to share
And grateful I would be 
If just one damn man
Would share the need
To be alone with me...

I give Holmes high marks because he not only tolerated "Superman" but also located "The Way We Were," a soundtrack album notable not so much for the treacly theme song as for a robust discussion of the 1940s and the vintage music on the record, stuff like "In The Mood" and "Red Sails in the Sunset."

Which is right about where we sailed, but not until many hours after we'd left the dock. Not that it mattered. I knew that no one marked my time as I unlocked my door.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Eventually Everything

Have you noticed that InLight is the visual cousin of the Folk Fest?

Who doesn't go? For eight years now, people from all over Richmond have made it their business to be anywhere the one-night extravaganza happens - Broad Street, Grace Street, the Canal Walk, Monroe Park - and see what light-based art awaits them.

Then they go and put InLight in the museum's sculpture garden and bam! Even more people are going to feel comfortable coming to see what the fuss is about.

Add in streets being closed for the VCU homecoming parade and it took a record-setting 20 minutes to go the two miles from Jackson Ward to the VMFA tonight.

Crazy. Sounds like this place is getting a little too big for its britches. Since when do I have to build in time to allow for traffic? Hello, this is Richmond?

Meeting my friend on the steps to the Boulevard entrance, the first words out of her mouth were, "I didn't recognize you. Your walk doesn't match who you are." She seems to think I appear to walk with purpose in contrast to having a laid-back personality (her words). She lopes, I march, according to her.

Early as it was, the museum was already jumping when we headed up to Amuse and a bird's eye view of the sculpture garden abuzz with last minute activity. Hell, I'd seen an artist setting up before noon this afternoon and the exhibit didn't open until 7.

A night like tonight is a seductive reminder of how lucky we are to have Amuse in the VMFA. From the moment we arrived until we left to go outside, it was like being part of a big party with strangers, but all celebrating the same thing: yet another standout happening in River City.

Moira and I seized the moment, beginning with Cava studded with multi-color cordial-filled jello shooters (baby's first Jello shooters, so a baptism of sorts for her), a cheese plate, oysters and some major dishing. Adulation was discussed and better phrasing sought. D.C. and the Renwick beckon.

Looking around the dining room, it was easy to tell  that people were jazzed about the evening. I, for one, am thrilled any time the museum is willing to stay open until midnight.

Properly fortified, we headed outside after a sigh-worthy stop to see "Nightfall: Prints of the Dark Hours," and ogle 400 years of print-makers' ability to convey so much with line and rubbing. Yankee Stadium at night took her breath away.

Then light beckoned.

Perched in the sculpture garden, the view looking inside the brightly lighted interior abuzz with activity made Richmond look urbane, sophisticated and art-loving. We could have been a picture postcard.

From the people milling around the Best Cafe deck next to the glowing red Chihuly reeds to clusters of people, drinks in hand, on Amuse's balcony of ipe (a Brazilian hardwood I learned about from a British carpenter later), a visitor would likely think, wow, seriously epic place.

Meanwhile outside the museum, scads of people were patiently traversing the walkways to see the two dozen installations. Less than half an hour after opening, "Problem Piece," the installation in and around the Confederate Memorial Chapel, had a line down the walkway that turned the corner and turned another.

Last time I saw a line like that for art was for "Disrobed" at Gallery 5, an all nude show.

I'm inclined to think that all the fuss the Sons of Confederate groups raised only served to pique public curiosity. Unintentionally, they succeeded in getting probably hundreds more people to see a chapel they'd have never seen otherwise without their bellyaching.

Personally, I thought the installation was brilliant, from the cinematic lights outside shining a literal light on antiquated attitudes or the unexpected soundtrack once inside the once-sacred space, it definitely challenged your take on it.

From further away, "Dielectric Bridge" looked like a dazzling beacon of light, but once on it, the light effect was dim and less dazzling, like being in a wholly different place. Truly beautiful was "no_places_nostories," which involved a collage of colorful media images projected onto the 1936 facade of the VMFA.

"Object-Orientalis" was provocative and political, using women's bodies as symbols, but isn't that what Eva Rocha does best? I saw a bit of  Bohyun Yoon's "Glassorganism" performance, watching the sounds made with the glass bottles translate to visual imagery.

Where I saw the Big Mouth Singers game, Moira saw electrocardiogram images. Go figure.

Coming back down from the highest level of the sculpture garden, we followed a barely-moving pack of people making their way along.

Kid #1: It's like a prison death march.
Kid #2: That was the worst joke.
Kid #1: It wasn't a joke.

To set the record straight, they were ten years old, tops, albeit jaded and politically correct ten year olds.

Around at the front, trying to understand "Circuit," I overheard a woman complaining to her husband. "It's like the Greek festival, it used to be fun but now it's too crowded. It's no fun being herded."

It is fun seeing so many people with alcohol in hand, the first year it's been a part of the InLight experience, legally anyway. It's less appealing seeing a big table set up for ID checks and bracelets like just another beer fest.

My thoughts exactly, so I did what any self-respecting iconoclast would and temporarily abandoned InLight for the museum. Taking a break on a low-slung chair, I had an ideal view of the passing parade, which included some familiar faces - the former restaurateur, the retired PR queen and world traveler, the gentleman farmer.

Back at Amuse, I joined Homes and Beloved for a glass of Rose and an offbeat chat with the carpenter from Manchester named Rhett (because of course a British woman is going to name her son Rhett a dozen years after "Gone with the Wind" comes out), who has taken a shine to Holmes and is rabidly discussing the Beatles, the Damned and the Sex Pistols.

I am brought into the conversation. Most unexpected question? "Are you heterosexual?" Aren't I?

There is banter, talk of a northside pool where the membership is chiefly reprobates and outlaw types, as well as lively discourse on why 30-year old males are not yet men. Rhett and Holmes discuss the wearing of Chuck Taylors post-30 and sing snippets of a Captain Sensible song to each other.

After a great deal of happy talk, we adjourn to Holmes' pad for Corail Rose and a short record-listening party before walking the block back to InLight and finding the crazy Confederate protesters just outside the entrance.

Out of the way, losers, we've got art to see.

Making my way around for the second time, only this time with male company, I finally make it into the chapel, see a few pieces I missed on my first round and make the most of the lack of crowds at 11:30.

For the first-time visitor, the disappointment is that some pieces are already turned off and abandoned. It's a shame because it seems lame to cut out before the official ending time. It's wonderful not being herded; it's unfortunate not to see everything still fully lighted.

You don't see any of the Folk Fest acts skipping their last set, do you? Frankly, my dear, we're a big town now. We can stay lit 'til midnight.