The cab not taken….

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Sometimes in life you’re presented with an opportunity you just shouldn’t pass up. That happened to me last summer, and I’m still regretting not having jumped into it with both feet.

My significant other and I were looking forward to using a generous gift certificate about this time last year. It was for a wine tasting followed by an elegant four course meal with wine pairings. The setting was Barboursville Vineyard, just outside rural Gordonsville, Virginia. The vineyard has been around for some forty years and its reputation is exceeded only by that of the restaurant adjacent to it, Palladio. As regulars at the weekly wine tasting here in my small hometown, we were looking forward to expanding our horizons. Plans were made for an overnight trip, including a stay at a charming bed and breakfast that appealed to me because Jack the dog’s photo was included with those of the staff on the website.

Never one to let a neurotic impulse go unchecked, however, I worried that we would have a hard time that night. We would, after all, be tasting a large number of wines…there were 19 available. That would be followed by an evening of still more wine…four different kinds with the meal, to be precise. Since my capacity is about a glass and a half (my daughter has in the past noted my cheeks getting rosier at the table and commanded, “Step away from the Pinot Noir, Mom!”), I was apprehensive. I knew we’d be in the middle of nowhere, coming back to the B and B in the dark, and on winding roads that could play tricks on the eyes after even one glass of wine, let alone three or four. With that in mind, I began hunting up possible taxi service to and from the vineyard.

Trust me on this…there’s not much available cab-wise near Barboursville. But one of the sites that came up when I googled possibilities intrigued me. It was called “Cabioke” and, as you might surmise, combines the best of both a taxi cab and karaoke. There was no information, just a name and phone number; evidently, this was a one-man operation. The friendly guy I spoke to assured me that in addition to the karaoke screen, the requisite disco ball was in place in the cab, thus adding to the fun. I was more than a little excited about this possibility, I must confess…I pretty much never pass up the chance to make a fool of myself. I could just see it. Me, lustily singing at the top of my lungs, probably a little louder on the way home than en route to the winery. I could fulfill all those latent desires to perform in front of the masses, belting my heart out to “I Will Survive” or “Dancing Queen.” And while being seated would cramp my ability to groove to the music to a degree, I still felt like I could put on a pretty good show.

By the time the day approached for our trip, we’d done a bit more checking. As it turned out, my knowledge of “wine pairings” was more than a little deficient. It seems they only provide about a 1/4 of a glass with each course, possibly taking into account the possibility of customers’ cars landing in ditches at evening’s end. I suspect the expense involved in a larger pour, along with tasting tradition, also plays into this decision. Moreover, the wine tasting that preceded dinner would be like others we’d attended; you’d certainly have the option to toss any leftover wine after a sip or two. So both practicality and thriftiness played a part in our choice to make the drive to and from the vineyard on our own. Truthfully, I was sorely disappointed, and didn’t forget about that “cab not taken.”

So I recently did a little more checking online. While the impression I had from the guy I spoke to is that he indeed had a standard sized cab decked out, that is not what you find when you google the term “cabioke” today. Instead, you are squired about in a limo (yes, they let us know it’s “pimped out”), which I found very tempting. After all, my best college pals and I are making plans to visit Wintergreen Resort next spring, and a winery tour is in the works. Cabioke touts itself as providing just such a service! I truly see no down side to our booking this smooth ride: friendship, raucous singing that could include backup for the lead, a built-in audience with more room for any needed choreography, a variety of wines, and safe travel. What could be better for friends of more than forty years? Are you ready, girls?! I may not have hailed that oh-so-special cab before; I’ll not let another chance slip by!

A Dem’s Dream….

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I recently lucked out and got to hear former President Bill Clinton speak in Richmond, Virginia as part of the “Richmond Forum” series. The luck came in the form of a friend’s husband. She is politically liberal; he most definitely is not. Since they had purchased season tickets for the Forum this year, she asked if he’d mind missing that particular program, since she knew his reaction to Mr. Clinton would most likely consist of ongoing eye rolls. When she e-mailed to ask if I might be interested, I played it cool, calmly responding, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!!”
You see, I’m one of those folks who was born with the “hard core Democrat” gene. In addition to brown eyes, dark brown hair, and an eerily similar paternal birthmark, I inherited from my parents the proclivity to vote exclusively for the Democratic candidate, regardless of whom that might be. An unkind term for folks like me is “Yellow Dog Democrat,” which means, of course, that we vote for the candidate with (D) by his or her name on the ballot, even if that candidate happens to be a yellow dog. While I have yet to see a golden retriever on any ballot I’ve marked, I’d happily vote for one over the Republican on any given day, so I certainly take no offense at the moniker. The only time I did not vote for a Democrat in an election–be it for town council, state, or national office–was when I lived in Alabama. The Democratic candidate vying for Attorney General in one of the elections there went by the name “Bubba.” I confess time has erased the last name from my memory, but that’s not important. The point is that this fellow’s Christian name was “Bubba.” It was not a nickname. Try as I might, I simply could not bring myself to pull the lever.
Since that minor deviation in the 80′s, however, I’ve been unswerving in my Democratic zeal, driving by myself and waiting for hours…some of it in the pouring rain…to see Barack Obama and Joe Biden on the campaign trail, canvassing for those two closer to the election, posting signs in my yard, sporting bumper stickers for Democratic candidates of every stripe, passing out flyers in freezing weather in a largely Republican polling place, yadda, yadda, yadda. You get the picture…I will bore anyone who is willing to give me two minutes with political chat lauding the Dems.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when the ticket to this sold out program landed in my lap. My friend…a real peach…wouldn’t even allow me to pay her for the ticket, for goodness’ sake. We headed to a spot about two blocks from the venue, cleverly avoiding the parking garage that would have delayed our exit by at least an hour at program’s end. She knew of a cute little place on the VCU campus where we could grab a bite. As we sipped two of their signature beers and waited for our table, we struck up a conversation with a couple about our age, also waiting for a table prior to attending the program. While they weren’t overtly political (“I think it’s interesting to see these speakers, even if you don’t always agree with all of their politics,” said he), we did not hold that against them, and even shared a table with them when one finally became available. Turns out they have season tickets with seats close to my pal’s, so she and her husband will be seeing a lot more of them at programs in the months and years to come….
After a quick walk to the venue, seats were found, programs perused, and at last the event opened with a mini-documentary on President Clinton, focusing far more on the good works he’s done in the years since leaving office than on his legacy as a politician. The audience rose and applauded heartily as he stepped onto the stage, then settled back to listen to this master speaker. Two things about his talk stood out for me. Though I’d heard that his speech was to be limited to about forty minutes, with another twenty or so for questions, I found that timeframe more than a little unlikely. This is a man who is a dynamic speaker and one who…let’s tell it like it is…likes to hear himself talk! My yellow dog label allows me to honestly admit that I love listening to him regardless of the topic, so if he’d deviated from the alloted time I wouldn’t have been upset. To my surprise, however, his speech was nearly on schedule. We were seated fairly high up, but big screen t.v.s allowed us a good look at the former president. While he looked fit, he definitely seemed to have aged a bit. However, his voice was strong and he never wavered as he warmed to his subject that night, which was the second unexpected aspect of his appearance.
Rather than launching into a detailed analysis of politics past or present, he instead focused on the challenges that confront the global community in working together to make life more sustainable. He highlighted several programs his nonprofit foundation has launched, partnering with others to bring about real change both here and abroad in such areas as health care and empowering citizens economically. Only during the question and answer period (with questions having been pre-selected), did Mr. Clinton address political issues, touting compromise in Washington (good luck with that!) and, much to the chagrin of many audience members, eschewing term limits for members of Congress. I’d sort of hoped he might address his spouse’s possible run for the presidency, but…probably to no one’s surprise…no questions on that burning issue were chosen.
The evening was, in short, fabulous! The visit and speech may not have made history nationally or even locally, but it certainly did personally. While seeing this dynamic former president wasn’t on my “bucket list,” it’s only because I hadn’t taken the time to add it. I’m not sure I touched the sidewalk as we headed to the car that night. And I have to admit it: The smile on this yellow dog Democrat’s face has yet to fade….

Those Whom I Loved First

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“I find as I grow older that I love those most whom I loved first.” Thomas Jefferson.

I will confess from the outset that this quote was stolen from a college classmate, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind. It expressed so beautifully how I felt after returning from my fortieth college reunion last weekend that I simply had to make it mine (well, Mr. Jefferson’s and mine).

I attended a small college in a beautiful part of the state, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and given to spectacular autumns of red and gold maples with a backdrop of picture perfect sunsets. From the time I visited the spring before freshman year with a small church group I knew I would love it, in no small part because the college was, in a sense, family for me. Both my brothers, an aunt, uncle, and various and sundry other relatives had attended this church affiliated school; it was a bit like coming home. No towering modern buildings to be found here! While I can’t vouch for ivy on walls, others with a better memory probably would; the campus was that quaint. We didn’t know everyone, but with an enrollment of only 900, we knew a lot of folks. My high school class in Northern Virginia had boasted 550 students in the graduating class. I began to finally feel a bit like a big fish in a small pond, as opposed to the rarely noticed minnow I’d been before.

The girls on my hall, every one of them freshmen, bonded immediately. We later agreed that the year passed in somewhat of a blur, as we all averaged about three hours sleep a night. It was basically one long slumber party, and we subsisted nicely on popcorn, Coke, and whatever care package had been sent that week. It was the late sixties and the world churned outside our doors. We sat up late and fervently tried to solve the world’s problems; but to no less extent, we also tried to salve one another’s broken hearts after someone had been disappointed or summarily dumped. We quizzed each other for tests and exams, laughed at everything and nothing, cried at one another’s sorrows–real or imagined–and formed friendships that have managed to stand all these years later.

When I look now at the faces of my classmates from so long ago…and not just my dorm friends from that first year, but all of us who crossed the stage four years later to collect our diplomas…I get a definite lump in my throat. The faces that I see are lined, the hair on the men thinning or a fond memory, the middles on all of us expanded a bit from the lithe creatures we were at eighteen. And yet these are the people whom I loved first in my burgeoning adulthood, whom I lived among in the closest of quarters for nine months of each year. In those faces I recognize that boy I had a crush on in math class. The girl from first floor who loaned me a shawl for the Homecoming dance. The couple who married sophomore year and are together these many years later, still holding hands as they head for the dance floor. Those sweet, wonderful faces that I know have endured every joy and sorrow there is. Many of us have faced illnesses that we thought might prove stronger than us, only to fight through. We have lost spouses to divorce and death, seen our children struggle mightily, been unemployed, loved and then parted from friends. And yet here we are all these years later, brought together by our love of this place and these people. Stories are swapped, yearbooks flipped through. Laughter abounds, arms are linked in affection; hugs are plentiful. “We must get together sooner,” we cry. “Let’s not wait five more years…how about two?” The old songs are danced to one more time, and though the hips move a little more slowly, the Motown beat still courses through our veins.

As I head home at the end of the weekend, exhausted but oh so happy, I send up a silent thanks that we’re all still so close. That we can look at one another with a vision that extends beyond the present and allows us to remember those innocent years so long ago. May it continue to be so for a good long time, my friends.

A fresh start….

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Welcome to the newest incarnation of my blog!  What you’ll find here are  slice-of-life pieces I’ve done over the last year plus, and which have been well hidden on a blog I maintained in Blogspot.  I began to use WordPress for my work blog and found it to be a good bit more user friendly;  hence the changeover.   I hope you’ll enjoy these random meanderings  and if the spirit moves you, please feel free to leave a comment.

This particular day I’m thinking about a recent piece I saw on “CBS Sunday Morning” (best weekend show, bar none)  about the loss of one of the best and brightest of our current female writers, Nora Ephron.  She both lived and died the way she wished, not telling even friends about her leukemia until the very end, a couple of weeks ago.  The tributes to her have been many, and she will be missed.

Her talent and good taste were brought to mind for me a couple of months ago when I attended the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Conference in Dayton, Ohio.  One of our keynote speakers there was Ilene Beckerman, who served as an inspiration because she was lively, funny, self-deprecating (always a plus!), had a great sense of style,  and–most importantly–did not take up writing until she was 60.  Her collection of reminiscences and drawings created  for her grown children was published and ultimately turned into a five woman show  produced off Broadway by Nora and Delia Ephron with a rotating cast of well known actresses.  The “Sunday Morning” commentator doing the remembrance of Ephron had performed in the piece, and worked with her in a variety of other settings, as well.  She commented on her professionalism, warmth, and the care she showed for even the most minor actors in her movies.  This, of course, is in addition to her writing talent and ability to make even the cutest dialogue ring true.  My oldest brother, whose book judgement I completely trust, tells me I must read Ephron’s Heartburn, about her marriage to Carl Bernstein.  I will add it to my growing summer list.  And I will rejoice in the fact that we have books such as this and movies such as “When Harry met Sally” to help us remember the talented Nora Ephron.

On a wing and a prayer

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I’m preparing to take flight, both literally and perhaps metaphorically, when I head off to a conference several hundred miles from home day after tomorrow.  Because I work full time and travel by either car or train would be both inconvenient and slow,  I’m left facing one of my worst fears….flying!  I’m not so immobilized by the experience that I can’t do it;  indeed, if I want to get some place badly enough, I’ll readily (if not happily) book a flight.  But I tend to have both Dramamine and prayers at the ready, and am always flashing a much bigger smile at the end of the flight than at the beginning.

Perhaps I started flying too late; I didn’t board my first plane until spring break of my freshman year in college.  I was flying to the Midwest with a good friend to meet her family and savor farm life for a few days, and–being moderately neurotic even then–was nervous.  This was only compounded when my always helpful pal looked out the plane’s window in flight, did a double take, and then looked at me, eyes wide, and announced that she’d seen a small hairy creature tinkering with the plane’s wing.  Yes, it was the scenario most of us are familiar with from “The Twilight Zone” (both t.v. show and movie).  Thanks, Cyndy, for reminding me of that frightening scene mid-flight….exactly what I needed!

Things didn’t improve much five years later, the next time I flew, as I traveled from Minneapolis to Virginia for the holidays.  By this time I was married and had the security of  a fellow passenger in the adjoining seat who was calm, loving, and, alas, asleep.  Though he wasn’t much more experienced in the air than me, my husband was adroit at falling  asleep most any time and place the urge hit him.  So, as I sat rigidly trying  to read while simultaneously keeping the plane aloft by not shifting even the tiniest bit (a little known physics phenomena and surely expected of all passengers), he dozed happily.  I was sure all was lost when the plane began to experience turbulence.  As the cabin wobbled, so did my stomach, and my heart dropped precipitously when the man in the seat ahead of us–a priest–stood up.  Fully convinced that the end was upon us, strains of “Nearer my God to Thee” ran through my head and I smiled sadly at my sleeping spouse…we were too young to die!  Fortunately for all concerned, the plane’s erratic motion stopped about then and the priest continued his path down the small aisle to the bathroom.  Evidently nature, not God, had prompted him to stand at precisely that moment.

I think the tiny planes affectionately known as “puddle jumpers” by those who can joke about such things frighten me the most.  It seems to me that the small amount of metal surrounding us while flying in them simply can’t be enough to ward off thunderstorms, errant flocks of birds, or any of the other horrible mishaps that could easily ruin one’s trip (or life, for that matter).   Moreover, I have to smile when the one attendant on these flying Cracker Jack boxes admonishes the passengers to “Not congregate in the aisles.”  Trust me, it’s nearly impossible to walk in the aisles (Exhibit A:   The passengers’ hips that bump you as they make their way to the bathroom), let alone gather in small groups to exchange travel stories.

Until jet pods such as those used by the Jetsons can make travel instantaneous, however, I am stuck with boarding planes occasionally.  I’ve managed to develop an aptitude for feigning sleep during both take off and landing (the two scariest times for me) when I’m actually praying, discerning when my fellow sardined seat mate simply isn’t interested in my random chit chat, and empathizing with parents of screaming toddlers, no matter how they might make my head hurt.  I just hope all who travel with me will be equally tolerant as I step off the plane and kiss the ground upon arrival; after all, if it’s good enough for the Pope, it’s good enough for me….

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Thanksgiving Memory

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I  tend to miss my mother most, I think, at Thanksgiving.  In fact, just last week I was telling the other folks in the teachers’ lounge about Mom’s incredible “stir and roll” (Betty Crocker) pie crust.  Absolutely the best I’ve ever tasted, rich, flaky, perfect every time, especially as part of her renowned plum pie which appeared (along with apple and pumpkin) at Thanksgiving.  That crust has, I’m afraid, spoiled me for the ready-made variety!

Thanksgiving was always at our house and it was always very full, brimming with all four children and their families in more recent years.  In years past, it was my aunt and uncle and my cousins, and of course their families as time went on.  Mom cooked for weeks preparing ahead of time, and resolutely refused to let folks bring anything or do dishes (though of course she was overruled on both counts).  The one dish that we haven’t had since we stopped doing Thanksgiving at their place is sauerkraut with pork.  I know…it doesn’t fit the mold of traditional Thanksgiving fare, but Mom was most definitely a Pennsylvania-Dutch cook and my, but it was good!  She would cook it all the day before, I think incorporating an entire pork roast, then set it on the window unit air conditioner just outside the dining room to cool (I suppose to keep the smell at bay), with a large rock on top so critters could not feast on it before we did.

Just before we ate, Dad would offer a lovely prayer or The Doxology was sung by everyone.   There was always that heaping of plates, and groans of “Oooh….I can’t possibly eat any more,” only to be replaced by, “Well, Marcia, maybe just a sliver of your plum pie.”  The cream was always freshly whipped right before desserts were laid out, and was the final, glorious topping for those pies.  And there was more than the pies; raspberry jello with canned fruit as a sort of simple bit of sweetness, as well as for any little ones present, who loved to see it wiggle and sway.  Finally, there was one dessert that was my favorite and which I incorporated into my family’s Thanksgivings when we lived too far away to come home.  Totally decadent and prepared the day before Thanksgiving, it consisted of chocolate or coconut wafers with real whipped cream between each one, then covered in same, to form a rich, soft loaf by the time it was spooned into the next day.  I haven’t thought of that particular confection in years…how it takes me back!

Mother and Dad are both gone now, but we kids and the grandkids still gather to feast on all the staples.  While the meals are always good, they’re never, of course, as delicious as those that Mom labored over for so many hours.  I suspect that though the ingredients are the same and recipes similar if not identical, there is an intangible that is missing from the repast. It is, of course, the joy Mom both received and gave as she went about her cooking weeks in advance.  Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday, and it showed; it’s mine, too.  And you know, this year I’m going to bake Mom’s plum pie.  I suspect she’d like that.

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The Season’s Reason

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Each year for as long as they can remember, the citizens of our small town have been treated to what is dubbed the “Old Time Christmas Parade.”  The fact that this event is annually held more than a month before the actual holiday in no way dampens the Christmas spirit exhibited by either its participants or audience.  Indeed, an abundance of green and red is evident, and Santa hats abound.  Small children wait patiently (or not) for the grand marshal–often the town’s mayor or similar dignitary–to kick off the event, and their eyes widen with each band, float, car, or farm animal that passes.  Herewith, a few random observations from one who left childhood behind some fifty years ago.

            I have to confess,and I realize charges of curmudgeon may be leveled at me,that it rankles me that the parade,as mentioned,takes place more than a month before Christmas;in fact, it precedes Thanksgiving by four days. Ridiculous! I’m already annoyed by the fact that Thanksgiving–a lovely holiday–is nearly usurped by Christmas decorations, ads, and songs that begin to appear in late October. An early parade merely adds to my chagrin.  But enough about me….

            The parade itself is a fascinating mix of secular, sacred, and silly in varying degrees. Separation of church and state appears to be a moot point for the creative teams behind the floats, with more than one declaring, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and admonishing the good townspeople to “Put Christ Back in Christmas.” While I didn’t attempt even an informal survey of onlookers, I suspect very few would cop to a cavalier removal of Christ from the holiday, and most would turn up their noses at the ubiquitous substitution of the word “Xmas” during the season.  The one accession to political correctness was a homemade paper menorah perched atop a flatbed truck; I thought it rather a nice touch. More than one float managed to mesh both secular and sacred; I couldn’t help but grin at the sight of a plastic Santa peering down from his chimney perch into the innocent face of baby Jesus nestled in the manger on a float or two.  

              As in every parade since time began, there were majorettes of every size and shape.  While the day wasn’t bitterly cold, most of the girls had the foresight to cover arms and legs beneath their skimpy outfits.  As times change, so too do the parents chaperoning the dance units, Cub Scouts, and high school bands.  A number multitasked as they marched, keeping an eye on their young charges while chatting or texting friends on their cell phones.

            The animals proved fascinating again this year. A covered wagon full of folks dressed in pioneer garb and lustily singing folk songs was pulled by two of the largest  oxen I’d ever seen. A sign on the back indicated both livestock and wagon were available for wedding receptions and various other occasions.  I assume the singers would cost extra….In addition, all of the horses participating, a goodly number, were as festive as any of their human counterparts. They had either a Santa or elf hat perched over their ears, large bows on their tails, or–in the most extreme cases–both. Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure these magnificent steeds were embarrassed by the sparkling duds.  If they were capable of blushing, I suspect they would have done so.

            While the parade’s motorized units ran the gamut from Shriner mini cars to antique fire engines, my favorite had to be the two clubs of local Corvette owners. I’m a little stymied, honestly, as to how our middle class town supports not one but two groups with members earning enough income to each own a Corvette.  Stranger still is the fact that they are evidently divided along racial lines. The first, composed primarily of Baby Boomer good old boys, blared familiar Christmas carols as they rolled slowly along.  The second, and to my way of thinking more fun group, was African Americans whose radios blasted hip hop, while owners implored the crowd to,  “Get up, get up, get up!” We happily complied; the street was alive, moving to the decidedly un-Christmasy beat!

            Overriding the floats, baton twirlers, Women’s Club marching packages, and barbershop quartets was the ever present threat of a passing train. You see, ours is a train town, and both passenger and freight trains make their way through daily at various times.  Normally no one thinks anything of it, merely stopping conversation if you happen to be near the tracks. Since the parade route, however, traverses the tracks, all units must grind to a sudden stop whenever a train appears. This in turn leads to impatient Camp Fire Girls restlessly kicking their legs off the back of their “Santa’s Workshop” float, and Miss Lucille’s Level 2 Dance Troop tapping in place for several minutes with annoyed looks on their faces.

            Eventually, of course, the parade resumes, the horse clean-up brigade springs back to life, and–at last–Santa appears atop the town’s hook and ladder, siren screaming. He smiles sweetly, tosses candy, and waves.  Rosy cheeked toddlers, prompted by moms, wave back with awestruck faces. And in that moment I think we’d all agree–young or old, participant or spectator, Cub Scout or Corvette owner– that in those uplifted faces lies “the reason for the season.” Be it ever so early, Merry Christmas, one and all!

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