Relentlessly, Time Marches On (A Mortality Story)

For nearly all of my adult life, walking around while looking at things has been one of the activities that pleases me the most. I especially like to stretch the ol’ legs in cities, where there is no end of interesting sights, and in unspoiled natural areas, where the wonders of organic and inorganic matter never fail to amaze. And I’m also an explorer of towns that look like towns. Their old-timey ambience gets to me every time. This year I went for a healthy number of walks in all of these environments, both in the USA and in Europe, and consider myself fortunate to have done so.

My neighborhood (November 7, 2019)

However, one place where I don’t go out for walks too often is my own neighborhood, which occupies a fair amount of space in the suburbs of Philadelphia, USA. Basically that’s because my neighborhood is bland, man, bland, as is much of suburbia. Early this month, though, the urge hit me to hit my house’s surrounding blocks. Why? I wanted to check out how much of autumn’s colors were still in evidence. So, off I went in mid-afternoon. I strode along many streets, my eyes primarily focusing on tree foliage, or what was left of it. One hour later I returned to my home, having been wowed not all too much. That’s because, in my little corner of the world, yellows and ambers and russets and burgundies were close to being placed on life support. The autumnal party was just about over.

My neighborhood (November 7, 2019)

Yet, the walk had its good points. The temperature was pleasant and the air was still. Few cars made their way along the roads, and I crossed paths with only a couple of fellow humans. My mind and emotions, as a result of all of this, were in a state of relative calm. I was getting my Zen on. And I kind of liked that. You know, maybe I should enroll in a Zen monastery. I hear that they give heavily discounted rates to old f*ckers like me. Plus, I’d look great in a real long robe.

Calm as my mind was during the expedition, however, the obvious failed to impress itself upon me. Two days later it did. What I realized is that not only is fall waning in my section of the globe, but winter is drawing near. Not exactly an earthshattering observation, of course, but a useful one. Note to myself: Get ready to start freezing your ass off!

And one day after that I became somewhat melancholy as my thoughts expanded beyond winter’s approach. What struck me is that last winter seemed to be not all that long ago. For instance, I can recall in detail the events of last December’s New Year’s Eve, when my wife and I went with friends to dinner and to see John Oliver perform stand-up comedy at a Philadelphia theater. Was that really eleven months in the past? It feels like five months max.

Which at long last brings me to the main theme of this opus. Namely, our lives are flying by right before our very eyes. This would be okay if we went on and on and on. Time, then, would be irrelevant. I’ve reached the age, though, where time’s rapid pace mildly depresses me. I think semi-regularly about how much time I have left. My end might be imminent, after all. Shit. Double shit. Then again, I might hang around for another 30 years, which would bring me into my early 100s. Who knows? Whatever, if it were up to me, I’d go on forever. As in forever. I know that some or maybe most people wouldn’t choose the same. But even though the state of affairs on Planet Earth is incredibly far from perfect, overall I like being here.

“Huh? Who would want to live forever, considering that wars, floods, droughts, health epidemics and untold other calamities never go away?” I hear someone ask.

“Well, to my way of thinking, these things shouldn’t exist,” I reply. “For that matter, the whole setup on our planet would be different if I were in charge. I mean, what’s the deal with animal species — and that obviously includes humans — feeding upon other animal species? Where’s the value of life in that? And let’s not get started about other orbs in the cosmos. I shudder to think what varieties of mayhem are taking place among life forms out there.” Sigh. “It’s a pity that I wasn’t around for consultation when the universe began spinning itself into shape.”

Yeah, yeah, I sidestepped the question big time. Sue me.

And so we move along through life, hopefully trying our best to do our best. What matters in life? We all know the answers: Showing others that you care, and attending to them when your help is needed; providing properly for those that depend on us, and for ourselves; respecting the planet on which we pass our days; pursuing that which rocks our boats, as long as our passions don’t cause harm.

The list, without question, could hold many more entries. But I think I got most of the basics right. Seeing that our time on Planet Earth is limited, we might as well spend it wisely and meaningfully. And, speaking of time, it’s a late morning as I type this essay’s final words. Shortly I’ll be out the door, meeting the world and trying to keep in mind the unsolicited advice I offered in the above paragraph. Onward and upward!

(As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)

Picking Cape Cod Pix

Last month, while vacationing on Cape Cod, I saw a small, very good exhibit about daguerreotype photography. The show, appropriately, was in a small, very good museum, the Cahoon Museum Of American Art. Before setting foot in the Cahoon I knew zero about daguerreotypes. Now I know a bit. What I learned is that daguerreotypes were the first form of photography widely available to the general public. During the 1840s and 1850s, which were the heyday for daguerreotypes, millions of them were produced. They documented the everyday and the less common aspects of the world.

What I also learned is that the process for making daguerreotypes is a mother. You need shitloads of patience and scientific know-how to turn out the finished products. Trained professionals handled the job in the 1800s, not the average Jane or Joe. You wanted a portrait of your family to be taken? You went to a pro’s studio, or maybe they came to your home, for that to be accomplished.

But time marches on, and sometimes fruitfully. For quite a few years now, any old fool — and I fit the last two words of that term awfully well — has been able to take photographs quickly and easily. Smart phones and digital technology have seen to that. Yup, I just stated the obvious.

How many people around the world are snapping away with their phones? I’m going to guess that the answer is about one billion. If the correct number is far higher than that, I wouldn’t be surprised. In any event, I was part of the snapping-away crowd while on Cape Cod. I took 300 photos, give or take a few, over a 20-day period.

Clearly, 300 is a high number. But I easily could have taken 300 more. I restrained myself from doing so, however, because obsessively photographing events takes away from truly experiencing life. You can get so caught up in photographing everything that catches your eye or seems to demand immortalization, you pretty totally miss out on the bigger picture.

Still, it’s a-ok to stop now and then to grab a shot or two or three. Playing the photographer, after all, usually is fun. For instance, when I began this blog over four years ago I didn’t anticipate that in the near future I’d be getting a kick and a half not only from taking pictures with an iPhone, but from illustrating my essays with some of them. It’s gotten to the point where sometimes I think I enjoy photography more than I do stringing words together. There’s a whole lot less angst involved with the former, that’s for sure.

Now, I’ve previously published two pieces about last month’s Cape Cod excursion, and each contains a bunch of my photos. It certainly seems unfair to me to leave all the rest of the pix sitting within my phone. I mean, those photos are begging to be set free, to travel through the ethers and to pop up on screens around the world.

On the other hand, I just heard a chorus of readers begging me not to loft every damn one of the photos into cyberspace. “Shit, Neil,” they said, “we sort of like you, but don’t try our patience. A relative handful of photographs is all right. Any more than that, though, and we’ll unfollow you faster than Superman can take a piss! Doing his business at lightning speed is one of his super powers, you know.”

Hey, I hear you! Here then are a mere nine previously unpublished photographs. I like them for various reasons. In some cases they portray what to me were unexpected scenes. In others, a feeling of melancholy or moodiness pervades. And the one of birds in flight over Cape Cod Bay was impossible to ignore. By the way, the photo within Land Ho!, a restaurant in the town of Orleans, was the first one I took during last month’s trip, though that isn’t the reason it’s included. The atmospheric ocean of dimly illuminated signs is why it’s here.

Land Ho! restaurant (Orleans, Cape Cod)
White Crest Beach, at the Atlantic Ocean (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)
First Encounter Beach, at Cape Cod Bay (Eastham, Cape Cod)

My wife Sandy and I returned from Cape Cod about two weeks ago. The trip is still on our minds, partly because Cape Cod’s combination of nature, culture, mellowness and good restaurants is mighty fine. If we vacation there again next year I’ll pen more articles about The Cape. And stick plenty of photographs into them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

A small section of the enormous dunes in Provincetown, Cape Cod
Provincetown village, Cape Cod
Chatham, Cape Cod

As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, if you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.

The Blue Trees, an outdoors art/environmental exhibit at Cahoon Museum (Cotuit, Cape Cod)
Hyannis Port, Cape Cod
Nauset Light Beach, at the Atlantic Ocean (Eastham, Cape Cod)

Goodbye, Cape Cod, Till Next Time: A Happy Place Story

Part One

Man oh man, time has been in overdrive from my perspective over the last 19 days, all of which I’ve spent on Cape Cod. That’s what happens when you’re having fun. And when your days are filled in a fascinating yet relaxing sort of way. Cape Cod, my home away from home, I’ll miss you badly when my wife Sandy and I are back in our permanent residence in the Philadelphia burbs. Ah, tears are already welling up in my eyes. Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?

I’m typing these words on the 21st of October, one day before we hit the road and bid a heartfelt adieu to The Cape. We have every intention of returning next year, and hopefully the cards will play out that way. After all, we’re Cape Cod addicts. Since 1998 we’ve vacationed here almost annually. Cape Cod has become a major part of our story.

It was a no-brainer, then, that I’d pen a second essay about our 2019 Cape Cod sojourn (click here if you’d like to read the first). But when I told Sandy what this piece would be about, she perceptively commented that I’d touched upon that theme any number of times before in this publication. Her implication was: Did I really need to go down that path again? Well, hell yes. I’m used to repeating myself. I mean, there are only so many directions in which my mind turns, and the number of them ain’t all that high. I’d have to start dosing myself with LSD and/or mescaline regularly to expand my way of seeing things. And although doing so is a tempting idea, I’m pretty sure that such behavior is not recommended by the American Medical Association for one whose brain is in the eighth decade of its existence.

Question: So, what’s the theme, Neil?

Answer: On Cape Cod I’m as happy, content and at ease as I could ever hope to be. Cape Cod is my happy place. (Am I really heading home on the 22nd? Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?)

Now, in the Philadelphia region I’m decently happy, content and at ease. But its high degree of vehicular congestion is a bold reality that jars my delicate constitution. Which is why I now and then need to decompress significantly. I do that, primarily, on Cape Cod, where my blood pressure heads south thanks to The Cape’s natural beauty, innate mellowness and relatively low ranking on the vehicular overpopulation chart.

What’s more, Cape Cod boasts more than enough museums, art galleries, cinemas, music venues and restaurants to satisfy this ol’ boy’s cravings. Sandy and I probably would move to Cape Cod if it were anywhere near as studded with medical facilities and physicians as is greater Philadelphia. But it isn’t. Not by a longshot. Shit.

Part Two

Cut to the 23rd day of October. Indeed, we have returned to our abode in the Philly suburbs. And I’ve taken up position at my trusty keyboard to bring this essay to its conclusion. Let’s return to the 21st, a day during which Sandy and I let nature embrace us, something that is part of our agenda regularly on Cape Cod.

More than anything, it’s nature that makes Cape Cod my happy place. I never can get enough of the woodlands, marshes, ponds, ocean and bay waters, and sands. On the 21st we encountered a majority of the aforementioned.

Baker’s Pond

I’d never given ponds a second thought until I became an honorary Cape Codder. Now I love ’em. But somehow we hadn’t bathed in any pond’s elegance during this most recent trip before the final day. Off we went to Baker’s Pond, about three miles from our rented house in the town of Orleans. I believe we’d been there once before, years ago, but I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Baker’s Pond, surrounded by quiet woods, is beautiful.

Baker’s Pond

It was a clear, autumnal early afternoon. Trees and other flora were in the midst of switching their colors. As I knew would happen, I could feel my blood pressure, already nicely low, drop a few more points. We gazed at Baker’s Pond from several vantage points as we moseyed along trails that brought us to about 10 feet from its edges. The water’s surface danced slowly, courtesy of a light wind. Ponds, in settings such as this, seem perfect to me. They appear to be in a state of calm fulfillment. They want for nothing more.

Nauset Light Beach
Nauset Light Beach

I, however, did want something more. And I got it later that afternoon at both Nauset Light Beach and at Nauset Beach, both of which are part of the lengthy Atlantic Ocean coastline on Cape Cod’s eastern side. If I had to pick the one aspect of Cape Cod that pleases me above all others, it would be this coastline. Being a government–protected area, it contains no boardwalks, no vendors. And, in autumn, not all that many people. The layout is basic and, to my mind, stark: ocean waters, beach sands, sand cliffs that back the beach along much of its length, and open skies. The coastline’s purity and vastness never fail to capture me. When I’m there, and if almost nobody else is around, I often feel as though I’m on another planet.

Nauset Beach

Sandy watched the ocean from the Nauset Light Beach parking lot, not joining me on the beach itself because of high winds. But two hours later, at Nauset Beach, which is about four miles south of Nauset Light Beach, she trod the sands with me, putting up with the winds because she knew that this was her final chance to be at the ocean during the trip. We looked for a stick on the beach, and found one. With it I wrote our names and the date in the sand. We’ve been doing this for a number of years at the ends of Cape Cod vacations. Taking a photo of the inscriptions was a requirement, needless to say. The picture would remind us of the good times we’d had once again on Cape Cod. Cape Cod, of course, is not solely my happy place. It’s Sandy’s too.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks very much.)

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Three Sunsets In A Row: A Cape Cod Story

As I begin to compose this opus on October 9, my wife Sandy and I are into day six of our annual Cape Cod pilgrimage. More likely than not we’ll have returned to our suburban- Philadelphia abode before I complete the piece. That’s because I’m on The Cape (a 65-mile-long peninsula in Massachusetts, USA) to indulge in fun and games and to immerse myself in natural beauty. Ergo, writing sessions are nowhere near the front burner.

We love Cape Cod, as I’ve noted in a bunch of essays since launching this publication four and a half years ago, and so far the trip has been absolutely A-OK. We’ve filled many of our waking hours with activities that bring us pleasure and joy. To name a few: walking along Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay coastlines; moseying around sweet villages; flying our trusty kite; chowing down each night in good, dependable restaurants; grooving hard to rock and blues bands; playing a round of miniature golf; going on a whale watch voyage in the Atlantic Ocean. Holy shit, I’m a fortunate f*cker, aren’t I? And I’d unhesitatingly call Sandy a fortunate f*cker too, except that she’d be very displeased with my language if I did.

Probably I’ll focus a bit more on some of the above pursuits in a future story or two. But the rest of this piece will be about a different subject, one that warms the hearts of much of humanity. Yes, somewhere in the vicinity of 80,000,000 articles already have been written about sunsets, but that won’t stop me. I’m a follower, not an innovator, so I ain’t too proud to squeeze yet another sunset story into the mega-humungous pile!

Is there anything about this sunset story to set it apart? Don’t bet your life on it. But it does have something going for it. You see, before this trip Sandy and I never witnessed more than two consecutive sunsets. But we improved on that by catching sunsets on the 5th, 6th and 7th of October, a personal record that we may never top. This wasn’t by grand design. Instead, things just casually fell into place. Not otherwise engaged on each of those nights at around 6:00 PM, we wisely chose to watch our friend the Sun make its way to the horizon, and we stuck around for a while longer because, as everyone knows, sunsets frequently become better after the Sun has disappeared. Then we headed off to dinner, feeling better ourselves.

Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)
Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)

The sunsets that we caught had different personalities from one another. The first, a gauzy cloth of yellow and orange in a cloudless sky, was the brightest, even though the colors didn’t cascade all over the heavens. The colors would have done so, I thought, if a nice amount of clouds, with their reflective and refractive powers, had been present.

Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)
Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)

But what do I really know about clouds? There were plenty of them, airy and tufted, the next night. The sunset remained muted nonetheless, with simple bands of orange and yellow that didn’t radiate into other regions of the skies. Clouds! I think they thumbed their noses at me that night just for spite.

Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)
Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)

And the third sunset was the least colorful of all. In fact, only hints of yellow were visible through a very dense cloud cover. But that was all right with me. It was a different form of sunset, a subdued one in greys, yet beautiful. And a lonely kite surfer was a good addition to the scene.

The sunsets took place over Cape Cod Bay, which abuts Cape Cod’s northern side. For sunset number one we took our positions at Rock Harbor, in Orleans. For the second we stood on the sands of Corn Hill Beach, in Truro. And for the third we gazed from Mayo Beach, in Wellfleet. I tell you, each of those locations is magnificent. The unfussy layout of all the pieces (sky, waters, sands, grasses) is as fine as you ever could wish to see. Hell, sunsets are the icing on an already-astonishing cake.

So, here’s the thing. At home in my suburban/urban region, there are not a lot of expanses where you can engage with nature properly. Overdevelopment has seen to that. And sunsets? Well, good luck viewing them over the houses and office buildings and other structures. That’s why, when at home, sunsets are rarely anything I think about. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

But on Cape Cod? Man, when I first came here, in 1998, my nature-loving component swelled in size and slapped me awake. While on the Cape I make it a point to walk on sands or in forests or marshlands every day, weather permitting. And though Sandy and I don’t seek out sunsets compulsively — too much of a good thing would dampen the glory — we never want to end a Cape vacation without having scratched “watch one or more sunsets” off our to-do list. Sunsets are there for the taking, after all, beautiful performances for which the tickets are free.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Gracias.)

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Hippieish Notes From The Information Desk

Infamously lazy as I am, it’s a damn good thing that for eight hours a week — four hours each on Mondays and Tuesdays — I man my post at a medical office building a couple of miles from my house. If it weren’t for these assignments, long ago I’d have set a world record for hours spent on a living room sofa, and my bony ass would have bored even deeper into my sofa’s cushions than it already has. And it has bored deeply.

Anyway, the medical office building is across the street from a suburban Philadelphia hospital and is owned by an enormous health care organization of which the hospital is another component. I’m a volunteer in that organization. My job is to provide information to visitors (I’m the answer man for questions such as “What room do I go to for my colonoscopy?” and “Where’s the men’s room, pal?”) and to help out those who find themselves in one sort of pickle or another. The job takes me here and there within and outside the building, but most of the time I’m positioned behind a sturdy, unassuming black desk. The information desk.

The information desk

Tuesday the 24th of September was a busy morning for the guy standing behind that desk. Questions came at me left and right. More in-a-pickle people than usual appeared. But, despite that, there were a number of lulls in activity during my shift. Usually nothing to write home about goes on in my mind during lulls. But on the 24th, from absolutely out of nowhere, some words of note silently materialized: “I was more comfortable in the hippie era than in any other era,” I thought to myself.

Wow! The succinct, unexpected notion startled me. And immediately I recognized that it was true. I never was a full-fledged hippie, but during the hippie heyday (1965 to 1972, more or less) I felt at ease with hippie philosophies and lifestyles. And I still do.

Copyright Anna Vynohradova

A baby boomer, I came of age during the hippie era. I’m not mentioning anything you don’t already know when I say that war in Vietnam raged during those years. And that political and social turmoil gripped the USA and other parts of the globe. And that, maybe partly in reaction to those realities, an inquisitive, peaceful and kind mindset developed among many millions of youths worldwide.

Who could argue with hippie slogans such as “Make love not war” and “Flower power”? Not me. I didn’t drop acid, move to San Francisco (the hippie epicenter) or put flowers in my hair. But I did grow my hair long and smoked a lot of cannabis. And I felt nothing but admiration for and solidarity with those who were all about camaraderie, harmony with nature, and attempting to bring peace to the world. Still, I was too unsure of myself to take a full plunge. So, I stayed on the hippie movement’s periphery.

Yeah, those were the days. I miss them. And, later that Tuesday morning, I was reminded of them a number of times while standing behind the information desk. Now, a lot of visitors to the medical office building are friendly towards me, but on most of my shifts one or two are unusually friendly, acting as if seeing my drooping eyelids and wrinkled puss is the greatest thing that’s happened to them in ages. I’m amazed by this. I mean, without even trying did I develop a lofty form of personal magnetism in my over-the-hill years? It ain’t likely. Shit, only in my dreams might Emma Stone or Charlize Theron appear at my doorstep, looking me over with lust in her eyes.

On the Tuesday in question, though, not one or two, but six individuals walked past me with their friendliest instincts at the fore. “How are you, man?” one guy said to me, a big smile on his face. “Take care, brother,” said another, unquestionably meaning what he said. In all six instances it felt good to be greeted so warmly. Real good. This kind of thing happened fairly commonly among the population in the hippie era. That’s because hippies’ good will, thankfully, permeated the culture to a decent extent.

The hippie movement, of course, went way beyond friendliness. Concern for the environment and a pretty wide degree of open-mindedness are among its lasting effects. How cool would it be if a neo-hippie movement, a drug-free incarnation, were to germinate and flourish? And if its good vibes and progressive actions were to become major parts of the norms throughout the world? Man, it would be more than cool. It would be miraculous. Our troubled planet is waiting.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

You Don’t Find Memphis Slim And Ludwig van Beethoven In The Same Story Every Day

If I’ve had a true passion for nearly all of my life, it’s music. The high decibel kinds above all. I may be at least 20 years past my prime, but I still like to fill my body regularly with driving beats and pounding drums and merciless sonic assaults. Yeah, hard rock, wailing jazz and raucous blues are very alright with this boy.

Having said that, I now will wimp out by adding that, often when I’m listening to music, I don’t care to be blasted into outer space. My constitution ain’t that far from the delicate side, so there’s a limit to how many wham-bam vibrations I can healthfully deal with. That’s why I keep at hand a welcome mat for mellow music. Hell, mellow is like Jell-O, right? There’s always room for Jell-O.

And I don’t mean that in a slighting way. Not at all. Sure, aggressive music is what you turn to when you need to shimmy and shake, when you’ve got to let the lava flow.

But music on the calmer side of the spectrum can work wonders too. Everybody knows that. How many more shoulder knots and jaws half-frozen in the clenched position would there be in the world were it not for the likes of James Taylor, Alicia Keys and Willie Nelson? A lot.

But you know what? Music, whatever its intensity level will, if you’re lucky, do something far better than what I mention above. Namely, transport you to purer realms. For me, I find that it works in different ways, depending on the nature of what I’m listening to. When it comes to hard-driving music, long solos from electric guitars (and, less frequently, from other instruments) sometimes capture me. I’ll close my eyes, find the gentle currents underlying the musicians’ explorations, and in moments will be hopelessly at ease, happily drifting in the ethers. These are out-of-body experiences, natural highs.

Calmer music, on the other hand, doesn’t bring me outside myself. What it does at times, though, is open a space within me that I ordinarily am out of touch with. This is a peaceful place. The noise of the world isn’t there. I settle into it and then let beautiful sounds wash over me.

What’s the difference between the two types of phenomena? Well, the first involves awe, meaning that I can barely believe the sweep of the magic carpet ride, nor my good fortune in occupying lofty regions in the first place. When the ride ends I find it hard to decompress.

Awe, however, doesn’t enter the picture in scenario number two, a more down-to-earth experience. It’s similar to when I’m in a museum, checking out this and that work of art, and meet a piece that immediately captivates me. Scenario number two isn’t as astonishing as its sibling, but it’s damn well good enough. The more smitten we are by the world around us, the better.

Naturally, I would like to add specific musical examples of both forms of enchantment to this story. But in a sense that would be cheating. You see, when I first sat down to compose the present piece, I didn’t anticipate that it would squirm around, mutate and head in the directions that it has. Awe wasn’t part of the original story idea. Any further mention of magic carpet rides will therefore wait for another day. Instead, I will say a few words about the two numbers, both of them members of the calmer side of the musical spectrum, that originally were meant to center and anchor that which you’re now reading. They struck me just right when I heard them, stopping me in my tracks to bask in their fineness.

I haven’t been to any concerts in the past week, but at home and in the car I’ve imbibed plenty of music. Many genres, many levels of intensity. As good as much of the music was, only Mother Earth, by the American bluesman Memphis Slim, and Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, by Ludwig van Beethoven (as performed by André Watts), separated themselves from the pack.

I was in the bathroom late at night brushing my teeth when Mother Earth came over the airwaves. I’ll be damned if I didn’t put down the toothbrush and listen hard. The song, a commentary on mortality, possesses a deep soul and unaffected beauty that can’t be denied or resisted. Memphis Slim, who wrote Mother Earth, recorded more than one version of the song. The one that I heard was the first, from 1951. Here it is. That’s Slim on vocals and piano.

Memphis Slim (born 1915, died 1988) was a big talent. He had what it takes when it comes to singing, piano playing and composing. And Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770, died 1827) was no slouch either — What, you mean that’s common knowledge?

I’m making a heretical statement, however, when I say that Beethoven is not among my very favorite classical composers. For example, I’ll take Haydn, Bach and Sibelius over him. But Piano Sonata No. 13, which Ludwig wrote during 1800 and 1801? Man, its grace goes straight to the heart. I was sitting on the living room sofa when I heard it on the radio a few days after putting down my toothbrush for Memphis Slim. After the first three notes I was convinced that it is something special. Several listenings later, I still feel that way.

Goodbye till next time, gentle readers. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, here’s the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 13:

A Reflective Day In The City Of Brotherly Love

Howdy, girls and boys, and welcome to the website of he who just can’t seem to stop writing about Philadelphia. And why not after all, seeing that The City Of Brotherly Love has got what it takes. Yo, if it didn’t I wouldn’t have spent most of my adult life within or near its borders.

Anyway, it’s not as if I have something better to discuss right now. Well, I suppose that I could go into exacting details concerning how I gained entry in the Guinness World Records book last week by virtue of having tied some of my lengthiest nose hairs to a 50-pound dumbbell and then hoisting that f*cker two feet and eight inches off the ground without using my hands. Shit, that hurt! Fortunately my nose hairs are preternaturally strong and well-anchored, which allowed the feat to occur without major adverse effects. But nah, Philadelphia’s more interesting than that accomplishment. What now follows hopefully will validate the previous sentence.

The present story had its genesis last month in my piece on Philadelphia’s elevated parks. During my explorations for that essay I came across wonderful reflections on the surfaces of skyscrapers that flank one of the parks. And when my online friend Tanja Britton posted comments extolling those reflections, something inside of me clicked. Indeed, I then put it in mind to stroll around Philadelphia, checking out reflections in glass and metal on the faces of buildings. I tell you, Tanja’s got the power to inspire. Not only that, she’s a fine writer, one who is smitten by the grandeur of nature. You’ll be glad that you did when you click here to access her website.

Cira Centre, in West Philadelphia

On August’s final Thursday, then, a sunny and pleasantly-heated day, I hopped aboard a late-morning train in my suburban town and disembarked at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station an hour later. The station, located in the city’s gigantic West Philadelphia section, sits across the Schuylkill River from central Philly. And hovering above the station is Cira Centre, a sleekly monolithic skyscraper that I immediately fell in love with when it opened in 2005. No way was I going to gaze at reflections around town without including those on CC’s surface.

Cira Centre, sheathed in glass, is a testament to the glories of reflection. Because it is not boxed in by other tall buildings, it has an almost unlimited capacity to mirror the skies. I spent a couple of minutes admiring the ideal shade of medium blue that saturated its facade. Still, I was somewhat surprised that, other than the heavens, the only thing pictured on the side facing me was one single building.

There are other skyscrapers not far from Cira Centre, some of them belonging to or associated with the two educational behemoths (University Of Pennsylvania and Drexel University) that abut one another in West Philadelphia. But my walking tour didn’t lead me to any of those towers. Strolling through the university campuses and on the blocks that surround and transect them, I stayed on the lookout for nifty images presented in the windows of normal-height buildings. I kept getting distracted though, because it was an excellent day for girl-watching in West Philadelphia, as it also would be an hour and a half later when I made my way around a healthy number of central Philadelphia’s streets. But you know what? Not a single female watched me. What do they have against guys whose eye bags droop halfway to the ground? Man, being a geezer ain’t easy.

Ladies notwithstanding, I didn’t lose sight of why I’d gone into town. I’ve always liked to look at reflections, but I’m almost certain that this was the first time I ever devoted more than a few minutes to seeking them out. It wasn’t hard to find them. And obviously it rarely is, a fact that somehow hadn’t registered with me before. During my travels that day, West Philadelphia and central Philadelphia gave me many images to groove on.

Saxby’s, near Drexel University
Gothic building on University Of Pennsylvania’s campus
Dunkin’ Donuts, in central Philadelphia

The orange tables and chairs imbedded in the window of Saxby’s coffee bistro, inches from Drexel University, intrigued me. As did the tree and blue sky in the window panes of a Gothic building smack dab in the middle of the University Of Pennsylvania campus. Ditto for the street scenes, complicated yet quiet, playing out in the glasswork of a Dunkin’ Donuts store in central Philly.

Comcast Center, in central Philadelphia
Looking toward the top of Comcast Technology Center, in central Philadelphia

And what, other than ooh la la, can you say about the sky, clouds and buildings captured in the facade of Comcast Center, the city’s second-tallest structure? That soaring canvas was hard to beat. Comcast Center, in the center of town, reigned as Philadelphia’s highest building for 10 years until its sibling, Comcast Technology Center, opened a block away last year. CTC is a gorgeous creation too. The geometric reflections upon its mirrored surfaces were a minimalist’s delight.

The Graham Building, in central Philadelphia

I was in the midst of a varied show. Some images were perfect or near-perfect replicas of the physical world. Others, though as clear as day, had a distinct life of their own, such as the tables and chairs at Saxby’s. And as for fractured pictures, I was totally down with the few I encountered, especially the dizzying plays of light on The Graham Building’s revolving door, a few blocks from Comcast Center.

Iron Hill Brewery, in central Philadelphia
That’s yours truly with the camera in front of his face, in West Philadelphia
Two Liberty Place, in central Philadelphia

Reflections can mess with your head in a good way and might put you under a spell. What else would you expect from phenomena that, though weightless, in their mysterious ways are as substantial as solid matter? One thing for certain is that I, who came close to flunking high school physics, never will understand the mechanics and processes behind reflections. But who cares? Their call got me off my bony, lazy ass the other day. I needed that.

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It’s Old, And Now It’s Almost Gone: Goodbye, Honda Civic

If it had been up to me, the Honda Civic that my wife Sandy and I bought fresh from the factory in 2001 would still be parked in front of our house, ready for action. I’ve always liked that car. Even though its body paint eventually mimicked the appearance of my age-mottled skin, and the fabric on the underside of its roof has drooped like a cow’s udder for years, I didn’t care. Sure, a paint job and a fabric repair would have been just what the doctor ordered, but I’ve got a knack for putting things off. Ergo, I happily continued to drive the Honda in its unattractive condition, allowing it to take me around my immediate area. In its old age, no way was I going to test the car’s capabilities on a long-distance drive. For modest daily transportation needs, however, the Civic has performed its job damn well.

On the other hand, Sandy has disliked the Honda, which I fully admit is an eyesore, ever since its appearance went south. She wouldn’t be seen as a passenger in said eyesore. Nor, as follows, would she drive it. She therefore stuck exclusively with our other car, a much, much newer model that I also motor around in a lot. And, needless to say, she also wasn’t thrilled that the Honda was on full display, for everyone to see, in the neighborhood. Who could blame her?

That’s why I promised last year that I’d help to make the Honda disappear by replacing it with a modern vehicle, one that looks good and is equipped with far more safety features than the Honda possesses. One situation or another kept getting in the way of that happening. But finally a miracle occurred a few weeks ago. Hallelujah, a new Toyota has become part of the family!

So, now we possess two recent-vintage vehicles. Sandy and I share them. And the Honda has been relegated to the bottom of the driveway, behind our house, where it awaits its fate. In a matter of days it will be towed away, a donation to a worthy charitable organization. I suppose they’ll get a few hundred bucks for it. I’ll be sorry to see it go.

Dig the drooping fabric inside the car.

But why will I be sorry? It’s a good question, one I probably wouldn’t have thought about had I not decided to bless cyberspace with a Honda tale. Luckily, a few insights have popped into my head.

I’ve never been too much of a materialistic sort of guy. Partly that’s because I had only a small amount of funds during the first 12 or so years of my adult life. And even though I’ve done all right financially since then, I haven’t felt the need to make up for lost time, acquisition-wise. Fact is, most of my possessions mean little to me anyway. Except for my vinyl album collection. Vinyl is f*cking cool, after all. And for a few pieces of artwork that tug at my emotional core. And for the Honda Civic, which, it’s only now dawned on me, reminds me of some qualities that I like and admire in people.

The Civic, which I’m going to refer to in the past tense here, was easy to be with, unpretentious, and made its way through life in good spirits despite my neglect of the face that it presented to the world. It also was reliable, having had very few mechanical issues in its lifetime, and, by virtue of its reliability, demonstrated excellent loyalty towards me.

Is it any wonder then that I felt totally at home when I slipped behind the Honda’s steering wheel? Being inside that car was like spending time with a good friend. I was on the same wavelength as the Honda. I understood it. Our personalities melded admirably. We were a compatible pair that had grown old together very comfortably.

I enjoy but have yet to develop anything resembling a love affair with either of the vehicles that Sandy and I now drive. And I’m nearly positive that I never will, which is okay. As long as they get me from here to there and back, that’s all that really matters. But they are too high-tech for me to fall heavily for them, too full of buttons and knobs and adjustment options and display screens. All of that places them far from the warm and cuddly section of my spectrum that the Civic occupied. These two newer cars don’t remind me of the sorts of people that I want to be around.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll go out for a final spin in the Honda before it’s towed away. Haven’t decided yet. Whether I do or don’t, the deep green Honda Civic, once as handsome as hell, soon will be gone from my life forever. Shit, I’m going to miss that old boy.

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Up Is Where It’s At: Philadelphia’s Elevated Parks

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

As loyal readers of this publication know, I have a propensity to mention that not only am I getting old, I strongly dislike getting old. I mean, what’s to like? I’m at the point where even if I were to live another 25 years, an unlikely occurrence that would take me deep into my 90s, the end sure as shit is still a whole lot closer than the beginning. Depressing, man, depressing.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I get a kick out of wandering around in search of that which is new to me. I tend to believe that a steady diet of fresh experiences possibly has the ability to hold back Father F*cking Time. In any event, encountering the new sure helps to keep your brain cells firing, to bring at least the semblance of a smile to your face, and to make most days decently bright. And so, off I went recently to a couple of places that I’d never visited before and was more than curious to investigate.

The Rail Park

I live not far from Philadelphia and head into that interesting city, which contains an almost endless supply of things to do, three or more times each month. On August 8, I decided that I’d go there to check out The Rail Park, which began as an idea in the early 2000s and became a reality when its first, and to-date only, section opened in 2018. Three more sections are on the drawing board. (If plans for the creation of those sections interest you, then feel free to click here to learn about them.)

Luckily I did a bit of googling before leaving the house, otherwise I’d not have known that another elevated park, Cira Green, occupies space in Philadelphia. As far as I know, The Rail Park and Cira Green are Philly’s only places with greenery that are up in the open air.

Close to central Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, The Rail Park was created by a partnership of forward-thinking area residents and governmental and private entities, and is built on what were abandoned, elevated Reading Railroad tracks. Those tracks once brought freight and passengers into and out of The City Of Brotherly Love. They were last used for those purposes in 1984.

And Cira Green? Well, unlike The Rail Park it’s not under city government’s oversight. It’s an entirely private enterprise, but everyone is welcome there. Its home is the roof of a parking garage that sits between two modern towers. (The two towers, the parking garage and Cira Green collectively are known as Cira Centre South.) Cira Green opened three years before The Rail Park did and rubs shoulders with The University Of Pennsylvania and with Drexel University in the enormous part of town known as West Philadelphia.

Cira Green

I took in Cira Green first. I rode the parking garage elevator to the 11th floor and then walked up a staircase that leads to the roof. Voila! Cira Green spread out before my eyes, one and a quarter acres of walkways, terraced lawns, shrub and flower beds, and a sprinkling of trees. There’s a burger and beer joint on the grounds too, and a big tent where organized events are held. Lawn chairs and chaise lounges were scattered around.

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

Cira Green is a solid piece of work, and dozens of people were there enjoying the sunny day. But it ain’t knock-your-socks-off beautiful. If it were on ground level it would be considered fairly pedestrian. But it’s not on ground level. One hundred and fifty or more feet above the streets, it provides a motherlode of fab views. Damn right I didn’t plop my ass into a chair or chaise lounge. What I did was walk all over the place, checking out those views.

West Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.
Cira Green. Reflections too.

Skyscraper-loaded central Philadelphia, across the murky Schuylkill River, gave me a buzz, as did West Philadelphia’s kaleidoscopic patterns, dominated by tans, browns and greys. But what I also couldn’t keep my eyes off of were the reflections in the facades of the two giant buildings flanking Cira Green. A person, such as I, could get lost in those reflections.

One public transit ride later, not to mention blocks and blocks of walking, I found the stairs that lead to The Rail Park. The park is in a gritty neighborhood that goes by various names, including Callowhill. Much of Callowhill went up in the 1800s. The area has an industrial look, which figures, because many factories once produced goods there. A few still do. Others have been converted to residential use. Parking lots are part of the landscape too, as is a dense array, too dizzying for me to digest, of other structures. The Rail Park was needed. It’s the only park in Callowhill, the only green refuge.

That’s The Rail Park up there.
The Rail Park

I liked The Rail Park. A mere 20 or thereabouts feet above street level, it doesn’t command the types of views that Cira Green does. But that was alright with me. As I walked back and forth along the park’s quarter of a mile length of planks and gravel paths, I looked here and I looked there, admiring the otherworldliness of the electric company substation very near the park and enjoying the neighborhood’s overall no-nonsense ambience.

The Rail Park
The Rail Park

The park’s plantings are pretty. The oversized swings struck me as a delightful touch. Basically, The Rail Park, at least during the moments I spent within it, was very welcoming. I felt comfortable and at home. If I lived in its vicinity I’d head over there now and then, book in hand, and find a comfortable perch on which to read.

One guy was doing exactly that. One young lady walked her dog. Two couples huddled, exchanging sweet nothings or something of that order. And a few folks of various ages, including an old guy, one of my peers, relaxed on the swings. Yeah, I definitely liked The Rail Park. I hope that Callowhill’s and Chinatown’s residents have come to embrace it, or will.

In closing, I tip my metaphorical hat to Philadelphia, a city that always has inspired me. Without Philadelphia, this website would be hurting for content. For real.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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When Martin Scorsese Asked For My Help, I Obliged!: A Cinematic Story Of Sorts

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

“Neil! It’s Marty. Do you got a minute? I really need your help,” Martin Scorsese, the titanic film director, said to me a few days ago. He was calling from his production studios in Manhattan, where he’s putting the finishing touches on The Irishman, a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How can a schlub like me be friends with a luminary like Scorsese? Maybe I’ll go into the details in a future article. For now, let me merely say that Marty and I first met, a few years ago, in a dream (click here to access that dream). Our relationship evolved and deepened organically from there into a real-life friendship.

Leonardo DiCaprio (photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

“Listen, Neil,” Marty went on, “here’s why I’m calling. You know Leo, right? Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s been in a bunch of my films.”

“Sure, everybody knows who he is. But I never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (attributed to Francesco Melzi)

“Leo’s a great guy,” Marty went on. “Talented as hell. Smart as hell too, a genius in fact. That’s why, I suppose, I came up with this fabulous idea: DiCaprio should portray Leonardo da Vinci in a movie. One genius playing another genius. One Leonardo playing another Leonardo. Could anything be cooler than that? I love it, man! It can’t miss . . . except that I’m having trouble figuring out what angle the movie ought to take, what it should be about. A straight drama? Forget it. I’ve done enough of those. A comedy? Definitely could work. Picture this: Da Vinci would be a bumbler in the film, stumbling from one misadventure to another. The running gag would be da Vinci getting his humongous beard caught in a door wherever he goes. ‘Get me out of this hairy situation, I beg you! The f*cking door is stuck!’ would be his catchphrase.”

“Marty, that’s good. You can’t go wrong with a comedy. But you know what’s even better? A superhero movie, Marty, a superhero movie. Da Vinci was gifted as hell. He was a painter, an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, a you-name-it. Shit, there was nothing that old boy couldn’t do. He was the Renaissance man of all Renaissance men.”

Marty cut me off. “I’m listening, Neil. And I like where I think you’re going with this. Tell me more.”

“Well, only the greatest Renaissance man of them all has what it takes to save the hub of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy — from two potentially catastrophic invasions. The first assault is by aliens, the second by zombies.”

“When the aliens, looking for all the world like seven-foot tall ants, descend upon Florence from a distant galaxy, in 1505, the city’s residents are thrown into a panic,” I continued. “But Leonardo da Vinci, a Florentine, stays cool, immediately putting his scientific know-how into use. Within an hour he invents a chemical spray that anything resembling an ant will be powerless against. Then he disguises himself with a Mona Lisa mask, whose enigmatic smile stops the invaders in their tracks. They’ve never seen such a smile before, and are nearly hypnotized by it. Spray bottles in hand, da Vinci now advances on the creatures, systematically killing them one by one.”

David, by Michelangelo (photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unna)

“‘All we wanted to do was steal Michelangelo’s statue of David from your city and bring it back to our planet,’ the alien leader says to da Vinci with its final breaths. ‘David’s hung like a horse, after all. Most impressive! The statue would have sat majestically in our supreme ruler’s palace. He’d have gazed at it admiringly and enviously, sometimes bemoaning the less-than-daunting size of his own genitalia.'”

“You’re on a roll, Neil,” Marty said. “What’s next?”

“Well, only one week after da Vinci dispatches the aliens, Florence is confronted with an untold number of zombies. Those f*ckers seemingly came from out of nowhere. But they don’t stand a chance, not with our Renaissance man on the scene. He dons his signature mask, whose smile has the same effect on the zombies as it did on the aliens. That’s when da Vinci whips out the hammer and chisel that he’s borrowed from Michelangelo — the very same tools that Michelangelo used to carve the David statue — and bashes the living crap out of the baddies. Problem solved! Case closed!”

“Yes, this is the best!” Marty exclaimed. “Mega-sance Man, short for Mega Renaissance Man, is what we’ll call da Vinci’s alter ego. And that’ll be the name of the film too. Neil, I can tell that this will be the most popular movie I’ve ever made, an absolute blockbuster. I’m going to hang up now. I’ve got to call DiCaprio and tell him about your genius ideas. For years he’s been itching to play a guy who saves the world. Thank you, Neil, thank you. You’ll receive a screenwriter credit, of course, and hefty payments for your contributions.”

“Marty, in your hands Mega-sance Man will be stunning. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive, would be flattered and proud.”

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