Sunday, September 30, 2007

Grand Opening

Sometimes the weekend is filled with thrilling and novel adventures, sometimes an event is fun or moving or at least noteworthy in some way, and sometimes you go to a supermarket grand opening. The new Super Giant Food (no, all the food is actually normal sized) opened about 5 minutes away from us, and we couldn’t resist stopping by to check things out on Saturday morning, since it’s so convenient to us that we’ll probably end up doing most of our shopping there. I was hoping for quite a bit of grand opening hoopla: giveways, free food, maybe a mariachi band (I love a mariachi band). There were few free samples, no worthwhile giveaways, no raffles or prizes, no music, and we didn’t come home with so much as a flower or a balloon. But they did have a giant furry turtle, so the morning wasn’t a total loss.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Karaoke Night

Last night I went to my first karaoke party. Once on a family reunion vacation, when all the cousins of my kids’ generation were teenagers, we went to a karaoke bar and the kids did some singing. But I had never been up close to a karaoke machine before. Now this wasn’t a bar, it was a private party, which is a lot different. No one had to get up and sing by themselves (and only a few brave souls did). Most of the group was willing to get up in groups of 2 (or 3 or 4 or 6 or 8), and there was a TV turned towards the “audience” so that we could all sing along. So for the most part, everyone who stepped “onstage,” whether good or bad, was completely drowned out by the crowd singing at the top of our collective lungs. Add to that enough alcohol to make even the most uptight person relax, and the result was the most stress-free night of karaoke I can imagine. I even got up a couple of times (with a group, of course), despite a neurotic fear of public performance. I think karaoke has a reputation for being a nerve-wracking, anxiety-filled endeavor, but if you rent the machine for your next party, and just call it a group singalong (with “song leaders” at the mic), I suspect everyone would gladly accept the invitation and a fine time would be had by all.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

After Hours

Tonight we stopped by the Plank Rd. location of our favorite wine shop, Kybecca, which was hosting this month’s Chamber of Commerce “After Hours” event. This is a monthly gathering designed to help members schmooze... excuse me, I mean "network" with other business people. Now this is not the sort of thing I am generally interested in, despite having worked for over 25 years for companies that belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, but in this case, the email invitation promised wine tastings and a buffet catered by Laziza, the new Lebanese restaurant. Essentially this meant that no one in our house would have to cook dinner tonight. I think that’s pretty good motivation to attend an event--and yes, it’s surprising how often the prospect of free snacks really does get us out of the house. Of course, we had to earn our dinner by making an inordinate amount of small talk, but all in all, I’d say it was worth it. October’s event will be at an art gallery downtown, and then in November, the Fredericksburg Area Museum will sponsor the event, so I just may become a regular.

It would have been rude to take photos, so instead you’ll have to settle for another heavily Photoshopped scene of downtown Fredericksburg.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Chancellorsville Battlefield

If you’re looking for an outing on a crisp fall day, head over to the Chancellorsville Battlefield to hike the 4-mile history trail. This is a well-marked and well-maintained trail, mostly pretty level, good for beginning hikers and families. It’s very close to home for us, and right off Rt. 3, but the deeply wooded trail makes for a very back-to-nature experience. The Visitor Center is free, and has a nice display of exhibits detailing the battle’s significance.

On our last visit, we tagged along for the beginning of the walking tour that the rangers give. If you love military history, and the thought of a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow description of every troop movement and every skirmish of the battle excites you, this is the tour for you. If like me, that sort of thing makes your eyeballs roll back in your head, your body go numb, and has you praying that lightning would strike at the very spot the tour group stood, you might want to skip it. After 15 minutes, I thought my ordeal was over, but was just time to move on to Marker #2. Sensing that the primary threat lay to the north, I acted upon personal reconnaissance, maintaining my position while anticipating the next movement of the infantry’s senior corps commander. Sweat-soaked, I seized the initiative to swiftly retreat to a more southerly position without resistance, exploited my opportunity to maintain momentum while sweeping west of the left flank, traversed a small clearing, and made my escape undetected by the opposition. The maneuver exacted no casualties, and I was able to snatch a few moments' rest at the leafy bivouac while reveling in my improbable victory.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Beach Week

Today we returned home from a week at our favorite beach destination: Duck, North Carolina. This was the first full week’s vacation my husband and I have spent completely alone since before we had kids over 22 years ago. Because it’s the beginning of the off season on the Outer Banks, we were able to afford a beach house that is an upgrade from what we usually rent in the middle of summer, just a few steps from the ocean, and about a quarter mile walk to the sound. It was one of the most relaxing vacations I've ever had: we spent lots of time on the beach, took long walks, read books, worked jigsaw puzzles, played some tennis and beach paddleball, sat in the hot tub, and ate a lot of seafood.

No grand adventures to relate, but here are a few photos, starting with the beach:

The view from the soundfront deck:

From the top deck of the house:

A jellyfish on the beach:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center

The Fredericksburg Area Museum ran a First Fridays concert series from June through September in Market Square. The museum, which is in the middle of a big expansion project, gets most of its funding from memberships, so the evening (which also included free admission to the museum) was designed to spark interest and hopefully get some new members signed up. As part of the event, there was a tent set up for members with wine and munchies. When we discovered that a membership for a family was only $40, and that would guarantee us entry into the roped off members’ area for the ever popular “free snacks,” we joined right up. If we’re lucky, there will be more complimentary museum events in our future.

Fredericksburg is a great town if you’re a history buff (which I’m not), and the museum has a nice collection if you’re particularly interested in colonial era and Civil War history (which I’m not). But now that I’m a member, I feel it’s my duty to spread a little museum joy. So here’s a brief history, culled from the museum’s website. The museum is housed in what was originally the city’s Town Hall/Market House, built in 1816, in the Federal style. The lower story (the Market House) opened onto the Market Lot, where local merchants sold their wares. The upper two floors were used as the Town Hall, and continued to house the offices of the city government for the next 166 years, until the city moved to more modern digs in 1982. The building reopened as a museum in 1988.

The Market Square events have been pretty sparsely attended, but it’s a nice venue right in the heart of town, so the next time the museum sponsors something, stop by and check it out. Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Farmer's Market

I’m a regular at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market on Rt. 3 in Spotsylvania. The market starts in April with plants and a few spring veggies, has plenty of local berries in May, explodes in mid-summer with huge mounds of corn, tomatoes, watermelons and all of the summer fruits and vegetables, continues to convene through the fall, offering pumpkins, squashes, apples, and fall plants, and doesn’t close up shop till near Christmas. In addition to locally grown fruits and veggies, you can find artisan cheeses, cut flowers, herbs, honey, cider, specialty meats, and bakery items. I love the bins of hot peppers, from the sweet banana peppers to the hot serranos and jalapeños, from the mild poblanos to the searingly hot habañeros, and we buy enough each summer to freeze and use all winter long. I never had much luck with gardening (my excuse is that my yard is just too shady, but really, I lack the commitment that real gardening takes), but I don’t feel that badly when I can get such beautiful produce so many months of the year, just 5 minutes from home. Aside from getting the freshest ingredients, shopping at the Farmer’s Market supports small farms, and is environmentally sound as well, since most of the produce in the supermarkets has been refrigerated and shipped long distances, using large amounts of energy resources in the process. So think globally, buy veggies locally!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Music by Moonlight

On Saturday night, we attended the Fredericksburg Big Band’s annual “Music by Moonlight” concert in Hurkamp Park, which benefitted the local Salvation Army. The band was founded in 1966, and has been performing this particular concert for 19 years. They are especially good, with just about everyone in the band capable of taking a solid solo, and this event gets a huge turnout. As an added attraction, local celebrity Anthony Campbell (winner of the NBC Today show’s Super-Star contest) sang the National Anthem, and the Salvation Army Brass Band provided warm-up and intermission entertainment.

The band has a huge repertoire of well-known and some lesser known standards, and has a female vocalist who is featured on many of the numbers. The phase of the moon was all wrong for the advertised moonlight, but the band played over 2 hours, well past nightfall.

The bandleader is Mike Cappetto, who aside from being a talented sax player, also did instrument repair during my son’s rough-on-an-instrument high school marching band days. After someone fell on his trumpet in the bleachers, we took it to Mike for demangling, and later, when it was time for an upgrade, he helped us pick out a professional quality used horn. He’s a super nice guy, and quite a character, and we always enjoy seeing him perform.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Orange Street Festival

Yesterday we drove down to Orange, a small town about 30 miles south, for their annual Street Festival. We’d never been to this event before, and didn’t know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised. About 4 blocks of the downtown area (most of it, as far as I could tell) were blocked off, and the street lined with all of the usual vendors: the “crap crafts,” the street food, the businesses with information about their products and services, the political candidates’ booths with flyers and buttons, and a handful of real artisans. I’m not sure why we enjoyed this so much, since it really wasn’t any different than other street festivals we’ve gone to. Maybe it was just our mood, or the energy of the crowd, or the fact that despite being a very hot day, everyone was friendly and cordial, and we didn’t see anyone whining or complaining or behaving badly. Not even one kid begging for a toy or crying over a lost balloon.

Or maybe it was because our first stop was the booth of the 4-H Dairy Club, who were selling the most delicious milkshakes. At first I thought that these were special milkshakes, made from the milk of cows they had milked that very morning. Well, no, they turned out to be made from the usual milkshake mix poured into the usual milkshake machine. But I was assured that several people in the booth had actually milked cows that morning, even if none of it made it into our shake, and somehow that made me feel better.

Some pretty Guatamalan baskets on display:

This guy was getting an amazing sound out of these small wooden pipes:

Some street food:

And something I had never seen before, an artist selling Jesus posters.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Friday Night Football

The first Friday night of the high school football season signals the real start of fall for us. High school football has been a tradition for our family since our kids were in elementary school. It’s always been a great family outing, because the kids could run around and hang out with friends, and my husband and I could relax and enjoy a nice evening outside. These days, we still go to our “home team” games at Chancellor High School whenever we can. But if Chancellor is away, we’re more than happy to support the teams of the other local schools (and we have a lot of high schools in this area to choose from). Tonight we went to see the James Monroe Yellow Jackets play the Western Albemarle Warriors (or so the photo indicates—frankly, I wasn’t really paying that close attention, although I do know we won). Despite having a brand new high school, the JM team still plays at the old Maury Stadium in the middle of town. As stadiums go, I like this one the best. The field is in the middle of a residential neighborhood, rimmed with trees, with wide stone steps instead of metal bleachers, and an almost park-like atmosphere.

Football may be my least favorite spectator sport, but the high school games always have enough to keep me interested. As a cheerleading reject (I tried out, but was passed over because I hadn’t mastered the back jump), I find the cheerleaders mesmerizing. I love the marching bands, and when my son started playing in the high school marching band, the halftime show became even more of a highlight. And it’s generally just a great people-watching opportunity, whether I run into any familiar faces or not (and I usually do). When the weather gets cold (and it can be brutal in November at 10 pm up in the stands), we bring a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate and bundle up under blankets.

The only downside of high school football is that the games are about two quarters too long. By the end of halftime, I’ve sung the Star Spangled Banner, watched the cheerleaders run through their repertoire, checked out the crowd, visited the concession stands, and enjoyed the marching band. In the third quarter, the band gets a break (nice for them, but boring for me), and by the fourth quarter, I’m ready to go. I await the day that someone invents a recliner designed to perch on the metal bleachers of a high school football stadium so I can comfortably snooze through the second half.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Big House, Little House

Down the road from us is a new subdivision of enormous houses. The model home sits on the corner on the main road, and I’ve been through it several times, usually with visitors. I’m alternately intrigued and disgusted by it. This home is huge, with over 6,000 sq. ft of living space, 3 heat pumps, and an annual utility bill that must come close to the GNP of a third world nation. There are three staircases leading to the second floor, all within just a few feet of each other, which always reminds me of the line from If I Were A Rich Man: “There would be one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more going nowhere, just for show.” The home has five sitting areas: a living room, family room, conservatory, master sitting room, and finished basement sitting area. How much sitting does one family need to do? There are 4 bedrooms, each with its own full bath (no sharing for this family). Mom and Dad’s enormous bathroom (about as big as my family room) has not just double vanities, but double toilets and a double shower, for the couple that really thrives on togetherness. In addition, there is an office, a fitness room, a laundry room, a mud room, and a three car garage.

The intriguing part is that the fully furnished model is chock full of props to help you envision the upscale lifestyle you’ll have if you move here. There’s champagne chilling on fake ice in the conservatory, fake pies cooling in the kitchen, wine with fake grapes, fake cheese and a wine-tasting notebook in the laundry room (apparently, actually doing laundry in the laundry room would be much too mundane for these homeowners). The fake computer is ready to go on the office desk, and there are fake rose petals on the massage table in the fitness room. The bedrooms are filled with the trappings of successful children: Science Fair awards, sports trophies, ballet gear. It’s like an elaborate stage set, with all the details in place, from the tissue-filled shopping bags in the closets to the bottles of San Pellegrino on the kitchen island. But the overall effect to me is one of decadence and indulgence. How much space, how much stuff, how much luxury does one family need? I’m at a point in my life where I’m more interested in the minimum I need to be happy, rather than the maximum.

Which brings me to what is currently my favorite house in Fredericksburg. I pass this tiny brick cottage on Fauquier St. all the time. I’m told that it was bought and renovated with the goal of using it as a B&B rental, but the plan fell through and it is currently unoccupied. There are shutters at the windows, so I can’t see in, and have no clue to the floorplan. But I’ve imagined it in my head—the loveseat in front of the fireplace, the kitchen area with its café table and chairs, the narrow stairway to the bedroom upstairs under the pitched roof. I’ve become enamored of small living spaces lately, and I’ve been wondering just how many square feet one person actually needs. One person alone, I’ve decided, could be quite happy in a very small space. Two people in tight quarters full time would be more difficult, but don’t you think this little cottage would make a perfect pied-à-terre for someone like me living in the wilds of Spotsylvania County?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


This weekend we stopped at Ikea at the Potomac Mills Mall. God, I love that place! I know some people think it’s overrated and that “Ikea style” has been done to death, but I get a rush whenever I’m in the store. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I think it has to do with how every little room design is packed with all kinds of simple, affordable, practical furnishings, designed for people with limited space and budgets. At Ikea, form always follows function. My favorite displays are the complete “apartments” they furnish, showing you how you could comfortably live in as little as 600, 475, or even 270 square feet. Imagine having everything you need to live comfortably in only 270 square feet of space! Of course, not a single inch is wasted, and the spaces are filled from floor to ceiling with inventive storage ideas. As my mother says, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Yes, I hear her chuckling now, since no one would ever describe me as being particularly organized. Maybe that’s why I love it–I aspire to greater things. Less clutter, more organization, a simpler, more efficient life.

This is just part of the 270 sq. foot space. It's not just a glorified dorm room; the loft bed is a double bed, there is a storage unit with TV and comfy chair also in the living space, the kitchen has full-sized appliances, and the table expands to seat 6 (extra chairs are mounted on the wall). And yes, there's a full bathroom, too. Well, maybe this photo doesn't do the space justice, but I think it's a marvel of ingenuity, and if you lived in a tiny one-room apartment, I think you'd agree.


Today, with nothing special on the agenda, hubby and I decided to take a ride to Occoquan, a picturesque town on the Occoquan River, a tributary of the Potomac. Virginia is filled with historic towns that have reinvented themselves by renovating their downtown districts into boutique and bistro-laden tourist destinations like Occoquan, and we’ve taken day trips to many of them. Today was Labor Day, and we were surprised to discover that many of the shops were closed. I guess I thought Labor Day was a big day for retail, but apparently not big enough for small business owners to warrant staying open on the holiday.

Occoquan is downright tiny, just a few short streets of shops and restaurants. We went into several of the gift shops, which all seemed to have the same inventory—Halloween and fall themed home decor. You know the stuff: resin pumpkins and fall wreaths and Halloween figurines, the shops infused with the scent of “Harvest Spice” potpourri. I know Halloween has become one of the biggest decorating holidays, but all of this stuff seemed so completely useless to me. I’m trying to de-clutter my life, so I can’t imagine going out of my way to buy more clutter and bring it home, display it for a month or so, and then have to find storage space for all of it.

Occoquan has a tiny museum, a footbridge over the river that leads to a small waterfall, a small park with a gazebo, and some lovely boardwalk decking along the river. It also has an eyesore of a 3-story rusting steel dry dock at water’s edge, and sits right next to the huge Rt. 123 bridge project, a hulking concrete 6 lane highway (with 10 foot shoulders) under construction that overshadows the tiny village (VDOT: Building Roads No One Needs, In Places No One Wants). Talk about overkill. According to VDOT’s website, they “worked closely with the Town of Occoquan to design a bridge that would be compatible with the historic waterfront community.” See what you think:

Monday, September 3, 2007

Sunday Stroll

This afternoon, I whiled away an hour or so strolling Fredericksburg’s downtown shopping area, which is located within the city’s 40-block historic district. It’s what most visitors would consider “quaint,” and includes boutiques, antique shops, restaurants, art galleries and studios. So far, there are no retail chains with the exception of Ben Franklin, which is so outdated and old fashioned, I’m not sure that it counts. There are a few coffee shops, none of them Starbucks, a few bookstores, none of them Borders, and a few ice cream shops, none of them Baskin-Robbins. Of course, within the city limits, we have all of those chains and many more, with new ones opening all the time. It’s been hard for some of the downtown stores to compete with the big boys in the shopping centers that spread out from the town’s center in all directions, and a few have gone out of business because they haven’t been able to compete with their chain counterparts. But for the most part, the downtown retail merchants have adjusted to the competition from the malls and big box shopping centers and Wal-Marts, and the downtown shops seem to be holding their own.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bowling Green

Our travels today took us through the tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Bowling Green, the county seat of Caroline County to our south. This is a charming, old-timey town (population in 2000: 936), with a main street that is just about a block long, and everything you’d expect to find in a rural county seat: the courthouse, the hardware store, a tailor, a few shops and churches and county offices. There is a cafe where the locals gather on a Saturday morning, and the office of the Caroline Progress, the weekly newspaper that serves the county. The houses leading up to the “commercial district” are lovely old homes with huge trees and wide lawns.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center. It's good that the Visitor Center is open Monday through Friday from 10-2, so they can catch the multitudes of travelers who do their touring in the middle of the workday. It's understandable that the staff would be too exhausted from that grueling schedule to be around on Saturday morning at 11.

In front of the courthouse is a statue honoring the Confederate soldiers of the Civil War (Virginia is the heart of the Confederacy, after all).

What was much more unexpected was the monument just a few steps away which honored the contributions of the county's racial, ethnic and religious minorities. On this black obelisk, two sides were devoted to Caroline's African Americans, one to the Quakers, and one to the many ethnicities represented among the county's settlers.

The cafe on Main Street is named, surprisingly, The Cafe on Main Street. We were tickled to discover that the only other restaurant we saw in town turned out to be a Thai place.

Here's some gourmet cookware from the window of the home center:

These two historic churches were so sweet, standing side by side. On the left is the Shiloh Baptist Church; on the right, Antioch Christian.

Every now and then, it pays to take the long way home.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


In an effort to break up my sedentary workday with a little exercise, I’ve taken to spending 20 of my 30 minute lunch break walking around the Idlewild subdivision, near my office. Idlewild is what developers these days call a “traditional neighborhood plan,” designed to mimic the kind of neighborhoods you’d find in a place like downtown Fredericksburg—compact homes tightly clustered with tiny yards, a community park with a playground and a tennis court or two, stores and services right in the “town center,” and sidewalks so you can walk wherever you need to go. Proponents of this type of neighborhood planning claim that these communities promote walking, discourage sprawl, keep jobs close to home, encourage the use of communal green space, and generally foster a close-knit feeling among neighbors. Before WWII and the popularization of the automobile brought about the advent of suburban sprawl, these types of compact, mixed-use neighborhoods were the norm in America.

Idlewild has all of these elements. The architecture of the homes is evocative of historic towns, there’s a pool and a playground and tennis courts, and there are townhouses mixed in with single family homes to promote a diverse mix of residents (young singles, families, retirees, more affluent people, and, well...maybe just slightly less affluent people, because even the townhomes start at $312,000, not exactly what most people would call “affordable housing”). There’s a small area of shops where the shopkeepers can live above their stores (photo above), just like small town, prewar America, with a spacious, nicely landscaped plaza (photo below), complete with benches and a fountain at the center, just perfect for Idlewilders to congregate on a summer day.

So what’s missing? Why is it that I run into so few people on my daily walks? No moms out strolling toddlers, no kids on bikes, no one on the playground or the tennis courts. On the hottest day of summer, maybe 2 or 3 kids in the pool. No one is in the plaza, no one is going in or out of the few shops, there are no neighbors chatting in the yard. The place looks like a ghost town, or a movie set (think Pleasantville or the Truman Show). It’s like Sim City without any Sims. It seems, well...spiritless. Maybe it’s attracted mainly commuters, who aren’t home during the day. But I think that the problem is that Idlewild is just a replica of a real neighborhood. Towns evolve around locations where people need to be, and no one needs to be at Idlewild, except maybe the commuters who like living next to the interstate. Idlewild is like all the traditional neighborhood developments I’ve seen—nice subdivisions with lots of amenities, but nothing close to the feel of a real small town.

A lifelike simulation of a small town:

Just for comparison, the real deal: