Monday, June 24, 2019

College Plus 40

By the time your 40th college reunion comes around, you’re old. The alma mater is eager for you to come back so that you’ll remember it when you’re at the lawyer’s office cutting a ne’er-do-well relative out of your will. When you finally find the invitation you received in the mail (“I had it when I walked into the room…”) you see that it’s sponsored by Lipitor and Depends and includes a coupon for the school’s official funeral home.

Since I started going to my college reunion at my 20th—lured by the promise of seeing Mary Wilson of the Supremes—I’ve always had a fantastic time. Gathered on the University of Virginia’s lovely Grounds (no, it’s not a campus) with other Wahoos, it’s a weekend of telling your friends that they haven’t changed a bit, rehashing old stories, enjoying plentiful food and drink, and attending a seminar or two. If that’s not enough, there are tours, music, dancing, and yes, sometimes hangovers.

This year, my coworkers were concerned that in my eagerness to relive my college days, history might repeat itself. That’s right…. that I might participate in, and then report on, reunion-related canoodling. While I was, in theory at least, open to the idea of a canoodle, their delicate sensibilities were safe: I have no canoodling to report on.

I drove to Charlottesville with my friend Di who was coming from upstate New York. We stopped at Virginia Farm Market in Winchester on they way. I'd show you a photo of their fantastic apple cider donuts, but I ate all of them before starting this blog.

We took a scenic detour near the little town of Crozet and were mightily amused by finding Dick Woods Road.

The moment I walked into Alumni Hall I had one of those “Toto I don’t think that we’re in Kansas anymore” moments. There was LOTS of blue and orange. And I do mean lots. Men and women were nattily dressed in blue blazers and orange neckties, blue and orange striped polo shirts, and anything else that might come in blue and orange.

Di and I presented ourselves at the appropriate registration desks and soon enough were outfitted in the official color-coded lanyard that served as our tickets for the weekend.  We each received an official UVa tie tack and even an official school pennant. Who knew pennants were coming back?!

After getting the lay of the land from the earnest young Wahoo at the check in table, he pointed me in the direction of another desk where someone would print my alumni association membership card entitling me to a 15% discount at the UVa bookstore. The merch didn’t even have to be blue and orange.

I told the man at the counter that my name was Rick Bryant.

The Rick Bryant…. from The Declaration?  

Uh no
, I said.

The Declaration (as in of Independence…clever, no?) was a weekly student tabloid.  My doppelgänger was a BMOG law student. He played racquetball. People would call me about scheduling games with him.

His given name is Frederick, I said, defending the good name of Richards everywhere.

With that conversational gambit shot down like a clay bird in a skeet shoot, the man behind the counter went to Plan B.

“So where are you from?” 

“State College, Pennsylvania. As in Penn State.” 

“Oh, do you know Tina Hay?”

I chuckled.

“Why yes, I do. She's great.”

The man handing out the membership cards turned out to be the editor of the UVa alumni mag. He'd met Tina after hearing her talk about crisis communications.  Small world. 

While I usually stay in on-Grounds housing (as in a dorm), I opted for the considerably less spartan Courtyard by Marriott near the UVa Medical Center. I thought it would be a better option if I were to have a canoodling-related heart attack or worse, a you-know-what lasting more than four hours.

That evening, Di and I and another friend walked down the street for dinner at Maya, a trendy Yelp-endorsed restaurant. I read later that the neighborhood is called Midtown. Back in the day it would have been called “Yeah, do you don’t wanna go there…” 

But that was a long time ago.

Maya is a trendy spot, welcoming both inked skinny-jeans-wearing regional cuisine aficionados and doofus hipster-wannabes.  The Yelp-ers are on to something: not only was the food good, but the historic cocktail of the month hit the spot too. However, our zaftig crimson-lipsticked waitress never really warmed to us. My guess is that she wouldn’t be caught dead in blue and orange.

NFL Man of the Year, owner of two Super Bowl rings, Wahoo, and C-ville local Chris Long came in for take-out and waited at the bar right by our booth. And to answer your first question, no, he was not wearing skinny jeans. Do they even make skinny jeans in sizes for NFL players? He was very polite and didn’t interrupt our dinner to ask to take a selfie with us. Had he asked, I would have said yes.

After dinner we still had time for a nightcap at The Virginian, a sort of diner/bar where you can get not only Maker’s Mark but tits too. My friend Margaret once found a cockroach in a farmer’s omelet there. Presumably in the intervening years the exterminator has come. I didn’t stay out late: my reunion-ing schedule started early the next day.  Yeah, I’m old.

There were plenty of things on offer. There were uplifting seminars covering a wide variety of topics from UVa sports to retirement to nuclear energy to Walt Whitman. If you wanted to hang out with friends from the Honor Committee or the Veterans of the Old Dorms Panty Raids you could do that. If you care to go farther afield, there were tours of new buildings on Grounds and local hot spots, like wineries and Monticello. And if Bill was your friend, there were twelve step meetings.

I typically stick to the historic stuff and do a few tours of new and different parts of the Grounds. I wasn’t much of a joiner, wasn’t in student government, and even let my membership in the Old Dorm Panty Raid Association lapse a few years back.

My first seminar was called 1968: A Year Drenched in Blood, a perfect choice to shock the brain cells into something approaching thinking. The prof, Brian Balogh, whose podcast, Backstory, is a personal fave, used lot of video clips to talk about the fracturing America of 1968. He illustrated his points with everything from an ad from the Nixon presidential campaign to clips of the Chicago police beating the crap out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic convention.

During the Q&A, one member of the audience, from the class of ’64 or ‘69, talked about his experience returning from Viet Nam, when the manager of a swank hotel in San Francisco comped his room as a way of welcoming him back from the war.

At this, the older gentleman sitting by me became visibly distressed and tears started rolling down his cheeks. When I offered a tissue, his wife told me that he’d had the opposite experience returning from Viet Nam. He was called a baby killer, and that was just for starters.

Another audience member identified himself as one of the five African-American students of the 1200 men (as in no women) of the class of 1969. He talked about performing in the Glee Club’s spring concert when someone came into the auditorium and announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed. He said everyone in the hall turned and looked at him.

All three of these men were reminders that although there are lots of things we need to work on, America is a better place than it was in 1968.

When I was sufficiently depressed it was time for my second talk, Rum, Rummy, Rampaging, and Research: Life at Early UVA for Students, Faculty, and the Enslaved.
We learned that before the Civil War The University was a dangerous place. Students were often drunk and violent. Gunfire on Grounds was a frequent occurrence. Lots of the violence was intended by students to assert dominion over the enslaved community. The young men sent to UVa to learn leadership skills spent much of their time leading the way to local liquor and ammo stores.

Ante bellum UVa sounded like The Three Stooges Meet Jim Crow, only worse. In addition to the traditional Oh, a wise guy, eh? before some eye gouging and sucker punching, the fighting also included lots of nose biting. Yes, nose biting. It was a thing. It’s even documented in university records. Yikes.

And of course, there was wenching and whoring.  Those boys wenched and whored out the ying yang. Faculty members did a lot of hand wringing about the wenching and whoring. There's plenty of documentation of that, too.

Fortunately, I could only fit in two depressing seminars before lunch back at The Virginian, where one of my friends told me that his nonagenarian father was getting married the next day. Impressive! I didn’t ask if the bride were knocked up.
After lunch it was time for a tour. The architecture school's gravel parking lot has become a parking garage, band building, and a studio art building. The area now has a fancy name, The John and Betsy Casteen Arts Grounds, which presumably has replaced its former name, "You have classes way out there?". While there were bright spots, the tour was a bit like listening to someone you don’t know brag about their grandchildren.

At about 5:00 p.m. a thunderstorm of biblical proportions descended on Charlottesville. The lights in the hotel went out briefly, and the phone system was knocked out for the remainder of the weekend.  Fortunately the Alumni Association had announced earlier that evening activities would be at their inclement weather sites.
The evening's new location, the John Paul Jones Arena, was impressive even if it wasn't designed by Mr. Jefferson or Stanford White. The huge athletic complex was living proof that in the years since I was a student, UVa has embraced bigtime sports, to the detriment of time spent wenching, whoring, and nose-biting.

Saturday was a beautiful day so my friends and I got bagels from Bodo’s (a C-ville institution) so that we could have breakfast on The Rotunda steps while watching the morning’s academic procession. UVa is very big on academic processions. Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn, with its rows of columns leading from one focal point to another is the perfect spot for them.

When we arrived, cute Josh (even at my advanced age I still have the ability to read a nametag) and his cute and perky co-workers from Alumni Hall were there to carry the class banners.  Each time I see them I’m impressed with how handsome they are. The banners, I mean.

Soon enough a man in academic gown holding the university’s mace showed up, followed in short order by a guy in a kilt with bagpipes. The kilt wasn’t a blue and orange tartan, a clear branding goof by some junior development person attached to the events office. The new university President, Jim Ryan, arrived—easy to spot since he was the only man in a dark business suit.

We fell into a ragtag procession by class, behind the guy with the mace, the bagpiper, university President, and the cute banner folks from Alumni Hall.  Classmate Katie Couric stepped out of the procession to capture the scene on her phone, our very own Abraham Zapruder.  I hope I was smiling.

When the procession neared its end, we all clapped for those who’d graduated fifty years ago.

Josh took a photo of Di, Pete, and me with our class banner.

After the procession, there’s an assembly where people from the alumni association and the development office act as the de facto opening acts for the University president. They pass out awards to the classes that did the best with fundraising and attendance.

Before the speakers started, my friends and I talked about what a terrible job someone did hanging the screen over the stage.  How could they not align it with the room’s cornice? Architects notice these things.

President Ryan was impressive; the university seems to be in good hands.  As the Q&A from the audience wound down, in an amusing bit of theatre, the last questioner randomly chosen from the audience was Katie Couric. She asked about the college admissions scandal. President Ryan them answered her like the skilled politician a university president needs to be these days.

After the President’s address, I hit a seminar on Mr. Jefferson before going to the Architecture School luncheon in the garden of Pavilion VI. The Dean’s wife turned out to be the woman who did the architecture school portion of the arts grounds tour the day before. She was very nice though I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing the same black dress as the day before. She did, however, change her shoes.

Saturday afternoon I took a friend to the airport, went to the university bookstore to see if my math skills could calculate a 15% discount.

Afterward, I took in an exhibit on Walt Whitman. 

Leaves of Grass had some terrible reviews. Yikes!

After Walt it was time to return to the hotel to shower, shave, and Aqua Velva before our big class finale in McIntire Amphitheater.

I could barely fit into my pink Ralph Lauren party trousers that I wore to the same event five years previously, but as long as I didn’t plan on inhaling, exhaling, eating, drinking, or moving, I figured I’d be ok.

It was a beautiful night for a party, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by historic white columned buildings that are part of the UVa brand. It was the like the best wedding ever except without annoying relatives, the possibility of children in attendance, and having to wait forever for the bride and groom to cut the cake so that you can leave.

 My friends and I laughed and laughed and laughed some more.

Dessert was the C-ville delicacy, the Grillswith. It's a grilled glazed donut topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It wouldn't be a UVa reunion without them. 

Around 9:00 p.m., Atlanta’s Perfect 10 Band started to play. They’re a horn band fronted by three women—one with a baby bump--in sequined jumpsuits and one guy in the tightest pants ever. They are fantastic entertainers.

In about a half a second there were lots of aged and not quite infirm Wahoos on the dance floor gyrating as if they once knew how to dance. At some point the guy in the tightest pants ever led a conga line around the dance floor. I can't tell you the last time that I was in a conga line.

The Perfect 10 band was the opening act for Skip Castro, the band that’s played at all of our reunions. Sure, they’re long in the tooth, but they’ve still got what it takes.

On our way out of the party we met some younger Wahoos who had scored some lanyards and were on their way in. I think they’d been partying all evening, but hey, it was Reunions Weekend, I could hardly blame them.  In the course of chatting, he told me that he was looking for $450,000 venture capital for his startup. He's got gizmo (or maybe it was a process) that turns kombucha into rolling papers. I told him I was in for $50,000. Fortunately, he was more interested in running to the bar than running my credit card.

Di and I took a selfie with Mr. Jefferson and then sat down on the Rotunda steps to chat with some friends of hers.

Three twenty somethings appeared out of the dark and were horsing around on the grass in front of us. Someone—I think it was Di—yelled to them that they should streak.

Soon enough, there were piles of clothes in front of us and they ran down Lawn together in the altogether. On the return trip, they ran right up the steps of the Rotunda. That was when I noticed that they knew that a Brazilian is not just a citizen of that really big country in South America. 


The final thing on the schedule was the traditional Sunday morning going away breakfast at the aquatic center. It's headlined by the droll politics commentator Larry Sabato, the head of UVa's Center for Politics and a member of the class of '74. He spends an hour or so politically prognosticating while bleary-eyed alums munch on breakfast food.

Unfortunately the end of his talk signaled that another reunions weekend was coming to a close. As he finished talking, Frank and Heidi and Guy and Melinda and Pete and Laura and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice and anyone else I might have laid eyes on said our goodbyes and promised that we wouldn’t wait 5 years to get together again.

This time we really mean it.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico, Part 5. Hacidenda Carmen

Hacienda El Carmen is the Mexican version of a Venetian villa or English country house that has been converted into a luxury hotel and spa. It’s an oasis of manicured lawns, blooming bougainvillea, and gurgling fountains. It’s separated from the dusty village of El Carmen by a high stone wall.
I am not bowled over very often, but wow, I was bowled over.  The place is fantastic.  It’s a far cry from my usual Courtyard by Marriott.  It was as if we were in the home of a Mexican aesthete from the 1940s where they hardly changed a thing to convert it into a small hotel.

I expected to see Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks, Guy Williams, George Hamilton…take your pick) each time I turned a corner. Instead, I saw shadows.

The place was all brightly colored thick masonry walls, Catholic memorabilia out the ying yang, more Spanish Colonial decorative arts than I’d seen in my entire life, with a with a touch of crazy thrown in to keep it interesting.

It’s definitely the other F word: fabulous.

It was a Monday night, there were just a few other guests about. We could tell fart jokes all we wanted without bothering anyone. Except for numerous statues of Catholic worthies, I mean.

The fart jokes would have to wait since we had spa appointments. Did I mention that Hacienda el Carmen is a spa too?

Robyn made it very clear to us that we needed to bring swim suits so that we could go to the spa. So there I was, in my more vintage than it used to be swimsuit, from Lands End’s Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection. A bunch of little holes in its left leg are testament to many years of wearing Stone Harbor beach tags.

The spa was in its own building, a short walk from the big house.  In its former life, the building was a granary, but today it’s a chic spa staffed by technicians in crisp white uniforms.  We’d already discussed the available “spa treatments” so I knew which boxes to check when they handed me the English language version of the spa menu.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I opted for the "Fruit Exfoliation", I figured if anyone could offer a unique perspective on "Fruit Exfoliation", it would be me, especially since Jesús the male stripper from Puerto Vallarta was nowhere to be found. Interestingly enough, there was no discount for bringing your own fruit.

After the requisite paperwork was done, I met my spa Fairy Godmother, a woman of a certain age named Martha. This Martha didn’t speak English. At all. My Spanish won't get me through the Taco Bell menu. As you might guess, communicating was a challenge.
But when Martha handed me the pair of paper boxer shorts, I understood that my Lands End swim trunks, even though they were from the Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection, were not up to her standards. But the paper shorts....they were hideous. They had to have been made in East Germany.   I put them on and joined the party in the hot tub for a soak.

When I was sufficiently soaked, Martha led me by the elbow (did she think I was going to get lost?) to our treatment room. Apparently this is a thing they do...leading you around by the elbow. Who knew?! I was feeling broadened already.

Martha—I’m not exactly what her job title is—masseuse, exfoliator, worker-over-er—was a short woman, with a grandmotherly figure, big smile, and the hands of Rosa Klebb. While she was all smiles and warmth, I had no doubt that in the blink of an eye, she could, based on ancient Aztec techniques of hand-to-hand combat, break several parts of me that I consider important, if not downright crucial.

My first challenge was to change from the baby blue East German paper boxer shorts into a new garment (and I use the term loosely) that Martha gave me.  It guarded a lot less of my modesty than the paper boxers.  This thing was as a strip of blue paper connected to a couple of loops of narrow elastic.  It was completely confounding to me, especially since it came with no instructions, at least instructions in English.

I figured that it was to cover up my nether regions but I couldn’t quite figure it out to work it. And that was how I ended up putting it on sideways.  After struggling into it, I decided that even if I had the figure of an underwear model, wearing it would have been illegal in several states.

As someone who aspires to move from geekbod to dadbod, this bit of baby blue Handy-Wipe was just not cutting the mustard as a way to protect myself from Martha’s clutches….or the other way ‘round.  I was grateful I hadn’t had a tequila or two at lunch since I might very well have decided to go with it just the way it was.

Fortunately, I had a Eureka moment and it hit me that it was an East German g string and that the strip of blue fabric went from front to back instead of from side to side. Even the right way 'round the thing's probably still illegal in Texas and Tennessee. Then again, governments in both of those states  look askance at fruit exfoliation.

When I was all situated, Martha came back in the room, put on some soothing music and proceeded to rub my skin with a wet mixture that was a cross between kosher salt and crushed Life Savers.  Then she covered me up, whispered something in Spanish in my year, and turned on the shower in stall at the end of the treatment room. When I heard her leave the room, I guessed it I was to get up and wash off my exfoliated fruitiness.

After my shower I saw that Martha had put out a new East German G-string for me.  So I put that on—the right way ‘round on the first try. When I was situated on the massage table, she came back in and slathered me with what I guessed to be strawberry Chobani yogurt.  After the slathering--and she laid it on thick--she wrapped me up in a plastic drycleaning bag and left the room. I would like to say that it was relaxing and I fell asleep as my skin was gently rejuvenated by a fruity emulsion. However, a dab of Chobani started to drip into my left ear. Argh! I was stuck. I couldn’t wipe it out since I was mummified in a drycleaning bag.

Eventually Martha returned, turned on the shower, put out a new East German G-string and then whispered something into my ear that I think meant "Get up and wash this stuff off" or “In all my years of fruit exfoliation, you’re the fruitiest.”  I just don’t know.

After I washed off the Chobani and put on my clean east German g string, it was back onto the table for a post-exfoliation massage. I'm especially grateful that Martha didn’t resort to any Aztec jiu-jitsu as she readjusted my chi.

Readjusted and exfoliated, yet still fruity enough to harbor visions of strippers from Puerto Vallarta named Jesús, I was ready for a relaxing evening of cocktails, conversation, and delicious fare on the rear terrace of the big house. It was a lot of broadening for one day: I slept like a log that night.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 4, Tequila!

The day after our trip to Chacala, we left bright and early for an overnight to trip to Tequila. (Upper case Tequila is a place. Lower case tequila is a drink.) Paul is a tequila guy the way that some of my UVa friends are bourbon guys, or plutocrats are are single malt scotch guys. Paul appreciates nuances in tequila that are lost on my low end tastebuds.

We drove north along the coastal road for a ways—some of it looked familiar since it was the road we took to my cousin Jake’s wedding two years ago. Paul and Robyn were thoughtful tour guides, giving us the low down on places we passed.
Near San Blas, I think it was, we got on a new toll road. There wasn’t much traffic, the road was in fantastic shape, especially when compared to Pennsylvania highways.

We stopped at a rest stop to use the facilities.

I loved the signage for the men's room.

After a couple of hours, we were in a landscape of agave fields—the juice extracted from the blue agae plant is distilled to make tequila.  In my pre-broadened state, thought I’d seen agave fields between PV and P and R’s house, but those fields were pineapple, not agave.

Until I went there, I had no clue that the region around Tequila, filled with fields of blue agave, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tequila has been distilled there since the 16th century and UNESCO recognizes that the region is a key part of the Mexican national identity.

The city of Tequila reminded me of medieval Italian city: built for walking, not driving, ancient buildings in various states of disrepair, narrow cobblestone streets, and thriving tourist economy.  Paul found a place to park near the city center.

After a quick look at the swanky Jose Cuervo showroom, we headed for the main square. Paul stopped to talk to two boys who holding an iguana tied to a bit of nylon rope. After some haggling, he (or she, I don’t know how the iguana self-identified) was Paul’s for 100 pesos, about $5 American. After untying him, which took some doing, Paul and Billy walked up the street and released it at a vacant patch of land.  I don’t know if the iguana scampered away to safety or just waited to be caught again by those two boys to be sold again at the town square.

We walked around the square, looking like tourists.

 We watched people taking photos in front of the large Tequila sign and took some of our own.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception was at one end of the square. Its exterior is quite primitive with the exception of some carved stone elements on the entrance front. (And of course, a neon cross at the very top!) 

The interior is a handsome classical space with a polychrome vaulted ceiling. I was expecting bells and smells, but there were no small chapels illuminated by flickering candles.

Instead, there was a memorial to a Father Toribio Romo Gonzalez, who was killed by government troops in 1928 during the Cristero War. Until that moment, I'd never heard of the Cristero War, it was a broadening moment. 

There's an even larger statue of him in the plaza in front of the church.

He was canonized by the church in 2000 and is now seen as the patron of migrants. My guess is that The Donald wants his friends the two Corinthians to beat the crap out of him.

We had lunch at an outdoor café on the square. In addition to some government function taking place under a big tent in the square, there was a performance in the square too.

The performers were seven indigenous people, aka locals, decked out in red trousers, white smocks with floral sashes and lots of fringe, and hats that looked as if they were made from repurposed maracas.  They danced around what looked like a May pole, while one of their number played the drums and another the pan flute. Of course, I’ve never seen a real maypole in real life. I’ve seen plenty of poles, some of them in the month of May. But none were anything like this.

The dance around the maypole lasted long enough to make you think that you’d never, ever, get their indigenous ear worm out of your head.

At the end of the dance number, five of them climbed up the wobbly pole, which was perhaps 40 feet tall. At the top of the pole, four sat on a rickety looking frame, while the fifth stood atop the pole played the drums and pan flute simultaneously. Clearly this was not a job for President Gerald R. Ford, who, according to Lyndon Johnson, could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Four of the men wrapped ropes around their legs and stepped off the rickety frame and twirled around the pole till they reached the ground. It was a circus act without a net. I was glad I’d picked different parents than those guys.

According to Wiki, it's called the Danza de los Voladores.

You could take a tasting tour of the area in buses shaped like a red pepper or a tequila cask, but I'll have to wait for the next visit. Hacienda Carmen was the next stop on our itinerary.