This Is My 200th Story! Will It Be My Last?

Image by Karma Willow Designs

It’s amazing! They said it couldn’t be done! I’m going to throw a party to which you all will be invited. I’m going to hire a sky-writing plane to fly over Manhattan and cover the heavens with this announcement: Neil Scheinin, a grand slacker, somehow has written 200 stories for his blog. A miracle has occurred!

And after all of that I might just hang up my writing boots forever. Why? Because writing mentally exhausts me. I mean, after I finish a piece I’m so limp you’d have no trouble folding me up and squeezing me into a goldfish bowl. I’ve gone through this 200 times now. Maybe that’s enough.

And if it is enough, that wouldn’t be so bad. With writing no longer on the menu, I’d devote the extra time on my hands to my living room sofa, where I’m already spending an average of 10 hours a day. The sofa is where I do my best kind of work anyway, you know. By which I mean that I am a master at twirling the handful of hairs remaining on the crown of my head while stuffing my maw with boxfuls of Cheez-It crackers. I love my sofa. My gratitude for having the comfiest place in the world to rest my ancient ass is eternal.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Making the decision isn’t easy. Which is why I’ve recently sought guidance from three individuals. The first conversation took place a week ago. It was with my esteemed editor, Edgar Reewright.

“Neil, the exorbitant fees that you pay me for my services are crucial to my financial stability,” Edgar screamed over the phone after I laid out my thoughts. “Do you hear me? Crucial, I say. My stable of writers has been shrinking like a Greenland glacier. Without you on board I don’t know what I’d do! Oh, why was I born? Why was I born? I should have listened to my parents and majored in philosophy in college. If I had, then I’d know the answer to ‘why was I born?’ Shit, maybe it’s not too late. Where are those volumes of the collected works of Plato and Aristotle that I occasionally glanced at years ago? Ah, I remember. They’re under my dog’s mattress, firming it up. Spot! Spot! Get off your bed! Daddy needs to get something.”

“Later, Edgar,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

Edgar’s situation is no joke. Though not many people depend on me, he definitely does. Conversely, my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, is someone upon whom many people depend. Including me. The day after I spoke with Edgar I attended my bi-weekly session with Dr. Forereel.

“Doctor,” I said to her after seating myself in her patients’ chair, “I know that we normally discuss issues that have their roots in my misspent childhood, such as why in my 71 years of existence I’ve never once bonded with a cat. If I weren’t so sphinxlike, maybe by now we’d have uncovered an answer or two to that one. My bad! But today I need your opinions about my creative outlet. I’ve been writing steadily for almost four years, as you know. My next story will be my 200th, a true milestone. But I’m weary, doctor. Writing has taken its toll on me. I’m thinking of ending my career.”

Career?” Dr. Forereel immediately exclaimed. “What career? Neil, the essays and other pieces that you produce are trifles, no? And you receive how much in payment for them? Wait, let me guess. The answer begins with a z and ends with an o and has an e and an r in the middle. Am I right? Neil, what you do with words amounts to nothing more than a hobby, a way to pass the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s important to look at things realistically. I have no couch in my office for my patients, only a chair. But you, Neil, have a wonderful couch at home, as you’ve told me many times over the years. Take further advantage of that sofa. It’s one of your very best friends. Writing means little in comparison to the peace of mind that your sofa brings.”

At the end of the session I thanked the good doctor and then went to my car. Her advice echoed through my mind continuously during the drive back home.

Later that day I poured out my heart to my wife Sandy. Edgar Reewright had implored me to continue writing. Dr. Forereel had said, basically, “why bother?” What were Sandy’s feelings?

“Listen,” she began, “it’s entirely up to you. But I’ll say this: At least you’re not getting Cheez-It crumbs all over the couch when you’re at your writing desk. So that’s a good reason, in my opinion, for you to keep turning out your stories. However, there are how many projects around the house that you’ve never gotten to? Twenty? Thirty? Seems to me that starting a blog might be what you came up with to avoid doing what needs to be done around here.”

Valued readers, I’m in a quandary. I’m going to have to look deep within myself over the next several days. There’s plenty for me to ponder. Maybe I’ll be back on these pages. Maybe I won’t. Time, as always, will tell.

(Yo! Despite the uncertainties presented above, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Mucho gracias.)

Advertisements

The Story That Almost Wasn’t: A Sculptural Walk Through Philadelphia

“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774

Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.

If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.

For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.

I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.

Bolt Of Lightning, by Isamu Noguchi

My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.

In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.

Milord La Chamarre, by Jean Dubuffet
Paint Torch, by Claes Oldenburg

After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.

The Bond, by James West
(Ben Franklin on left, George Washington on right)

In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.

Brushstroke Group, by Roy Lichtenstein
Rock Form (Porthcurno), by Barbara Hepworth

Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.

The Burghers Of Calais, by Auguste Rodin

I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.

My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.

Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.

Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.

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

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open is a separate window.)

Too Much Stuff? (A Story About The Modern World)

A couple of weeks ago, my fingers quivering with excitement, I began to thumb through the January 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker magazine, a publication I’ve been subscribing to for eons. Great magazine, where lightweight and goofy forms of content happily share space with heady material.

These days I gravitate to short New Yorker pieces, rather than the lengthy articles that the magazine also serves up. That’s because my attention span over the last 20 or thereabouts years has shrunk like a chilled dick. It was with relish, therefore, that I read an easy-to-manage story (click here to read it) about one Martin Kesselman, a “color consultant to home owners and decorators” (to quote the article). Not long ago Martin co-created what he feels is a perfect shade of white paint. Known as Elliyah, it is named after his daughter. Apparently that shade of white has found good success in the marketplace.

Before you ask what I think you might be all set to ask, read this: “Does the world really need another white? Benjamin Moore has a hundred and sixty-four versions of it, all of which Kesselman sells. But he believes that Elliyah is different.” Those are the words of Patricia Marx, the article’s author. See, she anticipated your question.

Elliyah is different? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But even if it is, how different can it really be from many of the whites available from Benjamin Moore and the world’s other paint manufacturers? Well, maybe that doesn’t matter. After all, we live in expansive times. Hand-in-hand with an exploding human population (it’s pushing eight billion), there have been bigger and bigger demands for products in just about any category you can name. More people equates with more buying, after all. And within each category the number of available items has skyrocketed to the Moon. Hip, hip, hooray! Choice is good, right?

When I was a high school senior, which puts us back in the years 1964 and 1965, I worked part-time at a Bohack supermarket. (Bohack, for you trivia buffs out there, was a chain in the New York City area, where I used to live.) It was an average-size supermarket for its time, maybe 90 feet long on each side. Whatever its dimensions were, they would pale in comparison to the supermarkets of today. I mean, you could probably fit 20 Bohack stores inside the Giant supermarket (a member of an aptly named chain) half a mile from my current home in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The cereal aisle at Giant.

Talk about choice! My local Giant carries so many items, it’s amazing and dizzying. Teas, breads, cereals, cookies, fruit juices, frozen dinners . . . hundreds of feet of shelf space are devoted to pretty much every category. And that’s only to be expected in our Amazonian age of untold options. Do you want to buy a Bulgarian-made desk lamp that doubles as a miner’s cap, or monogrammed bras manufactured in Azerbaijan? After a handful of clicks and other keystrokes, they probably can be yours.

The cookie aisle at Giant.

I sometimes wonder what the avalanche of choices means. Have buyers gone loopy, constantly on the lookout for something new to distract them from our angst-producing world? Are we genetically programmed always to demand more, more, more? Are we just wild and crazy guys and gals, out for a fun time? Whatever the case or cases, manufacturers are more than happy to read our minds, to anticipate our wants and to induce new cravings. Let’s look at cookies — at Oreo cookies specifically — as one of 25,000,000 possible examples. I mean, plain ol’ Oreos weren’t good enough? Now there needs to be white fudge Oreos and chocolate mint Oreos and a half zillion other types of Oreos too? Uh, let me think about that. Okay, I’ve come to a conclusion: Yeah, man, nothin’ wrong with white fudge and chocolate mint Oreos. They’ve got my votes!

The tea aisle at Wegmans.

Let it be said, however, that overall I’m not much of a shopper, at stores or online. But I do like to go food shopping. For one thing, it gets me out of the house, which is a positive. Hell, at home I’m very unproductive, spending 80% of my waking hours scratching my head and my balls. (What, at my advanced age there’s something better for me to do?) At food stores, though, I have a good time and I don’t scratch. Anyway, one day last week I paid visits to my local Giant and to Wegmans, another airplane hanger-sized supermarket. I breezed through their aisles, quickly picking up the items on my shopping list.

Part of the beer section at Wegmans.

But there was one exception to my breezing: At Wegmans I slowed down to smell the roses, alcoholically-speaking, in its beer section. I’m not all that interested in the enormity of choices on our planet for automobiles, smart phones, toothpastes, hot sauces, whatever. Beer, however, is another story. Small, adventurous breweries began popping up left and right in The States and elsewhere around 1990. I got into their products in 1994, on my honeymoon. Ever since then I’ve made it one of my missions to explore the wonderful world of beers, while of course drinking in moderation and while not scratching my head or my balls.

Wegmans’ beer area put a smile on my face the other day, as it always does. It’s colorful, intriguing and worthy of deep investigation. So many choices! What to buy? What to buy? After 20 minutes I opted to go home with a craft-your-own six pack. Before transferring its contents to the frig, I arranged the bottles neatly, asked them to smile for the camera and took their picture. Beer. That’s one category that, for me, never will have too many options.

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

The Best Movie Of 2018 Is . . .

I speak nothing but the truth when I say that I’ve never paid much attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which are honors bestowed upon the film and television industries. (I’m not anti-awards shows, by the way, being a lifelong Oscars devotee.) However, two news flashes are in order in regard to that opening sentence: 1) Hardly anybody gives a shit about what I do or don’t pay attention to, which is entirely as it should be. 2) Many millions of people pay a good deal of attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which may or may not be as it should be.

Recently, though, for the first time ever I did spend a few minutes looking online at the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes event held on January 6. That’s because I was curious about how much overlap there would be between my choices for 2018’s best flicks and the choices of the folks who vote for the GGs.

There wasn’t a ton of overlap. The Globes nominated 20 films (five nominees in each of four categories: drama; musical or comedy; animated; foreign language). I saw only six of them, of which I thought highly of three (A Star Is Born; BlacKkKlansman; Isle Of Dogs). And as for the winners, I caught but one: Green Book, good but not special in my estimation, won in the musical or comedy division, though in my view it isn’t a member of either of those genres. It’s a drama with light comedic brushstrokes. Whatever.

Also bringing home the bacon at the GGs were Bohemian Rhapsody (drama), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (animated), and Roma (foreign language). I have a feeling that I’m going to love Roma when I see it. As for the latest Spidey affair, there’s almost zero chance that I’ll fit it into my schedule during my remaining time on Planet Earth. Bohemian Rhapsody, though, definitely is on my radar screen.

So much for the Golden Globe Awards, then. The time now has arrived for me to pen some thoughts about my nominees for best picture and about why my winner from that pool captured the top spot. Caveat: Even though I’ve seen a lot of movies — 32 — that were released in the USA during 2018, there’s no question that numerous good ones didn’t pass before my eyes. But you can’t see everything. Away we go.

Of the 32, a few, such as The Death Of Stalin and On Chesil Beach, stunk up the joint mightily, in my modest opinion. But most of the others were enjoyable, some remarkably so. And a small group were not only highly enjoyable but thought-provoking and poignant too. It’s those three characteristics that elevate them into my Best Films Of 2018 category. Here they are: The Hate U Give; The Insult; American Animals; BlacKkKlansman; The Rider; Leave No Trace. Three others (Eighth Grade; First Man; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) came awfully close to making my list, but six is more than enough for me to deal with.

That sextet is a very fine group. I mean, these are thoughtful, carefully-crafted movies. The Insult, filmed in Lebanon and subtitled, peers at the societal and familial ramifications brought about by two men’s stubbornness and unchecked emotions. BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give throw American racism right smack into your face. American Animals, about which I’ve previously written (click here), is a depiction of screwy, exciting people on a crazy quest. Their quest kept me nervous as hell.

The final two flicks, unlike the four just mentioned, are enveloped with calmer vibes. A quiet, contemporary tale set among Native American cowboys, The Rider matter-of-factly and movingly presents tragedy and love in equal measures. And what about Leave No Trace (click here to read my earlier comments about it), in which a father and his teenage daughter, living off the grid, eventually have to decide how far into society they will venture? Well, among other things, it absolutely broke my heart.

When I began tossing around ideas for this article, I thought it would be difficult for me to select a winner. Turns out it wasn’t. Only one of the nominees has popped into my mind semi-regularly since I watched it. And although each of the six got to me in one or more meaningful ways, the depth to which Leave No Trace penetrated leaves no doubt that crowning any other movie would be oh so wrong. Leave No Trace, I bow before your powers.

At the start of Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik (who notched those same credits for 2010’s excellent Winter’s Bone), dad Will (played by Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are doing their best to keep away from organized society. They live in a makeshift campsite deep within an Oregon public forest, where they forage and hunt. Will, an emotionally and psychologically damaged war vet (he probably served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, though we never find out), has chosen this life for them. But he’s not a hopeless case, not when it comes to Tom, who is the apple of his eye and for whom he’d do just about anything. And Tom’s feelings for her father are as deep as his are for her.

As might be expected, though, time and the legal and social welfare systems catch up with the duo. After evaluations by social workers, Will and Tom are placed into a soft corner of the real world. The second half of the movie is an elegant laying out of their responses to their new circumstances. The movie’s end, sad and profound, yet life-affirming in a sense, just might break your heart as much as it did mine.

Okay, I’m about to bid you adieu, but first I have to state the obvious. Namely, it’s as clear as a bright, sunny day that no one movie is the best of 2018, or of any year. Everyone has their own opinions. The Golden Globes picked their 2018 winners, and I’ve picked Leave No Trace. I’d be very interested to know which films, from 2018, you think stand out from the rest, or any other thoughts you have about movies. So, please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias. Goodbye till next time!

Rock On, Old-Timer!

Hey there! This piece is partly a commentary about growing old, a subject and a sad reality that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. And, consequently, writing about. I don’t obsess over it by any means, but as I mentioned in an article a month or two ago, I am very aware of the grains of sand that steadily and relentlessly are falling to the bottom of my hourglass. Man, I’m 71, at least 20 years older than I’d like to be. But hopefully I’ll be around for many more years, hitting the Publish button for scads more stories on this website. And if not, well, c’est la f*cking vie, as they say in Gay Paree.

Doom and gloom, however, will not dominate the present proceedings. Nah, that’s not me. Age-wise, I may be nearing lofty heights. (Nearing? Shit, I’m already there.) At heart, though, I’m still kind of a rabid 20-something.

Which is why I was bouncing like a rabbit on amphetamines a week and a half ago, on the way back home from the supermarket. I was in my trusty, humble, beat-up Honda Civic, model year 2001. This car is well-known in my neighborhood for its pitted paint and for the fabric langorously sagging from the roof’s underside. Hell, I’m pitted and sagging too. Naturally, then, the Honda and I get along real well.

I listen to music a lot when I’m in the car, but it’s pretty rare for my body to react like it did on the short drive home. My hips, my shoulders, my head were jumping around excellently, fueled by the energy coming through the speakers. I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t believe that not one, not two, but three catchy-as-hell, blistering rock tunes in a row accompanied me on the drive. I hadn’t been blasted like that in quite a while. It was good to be reminded that hard, driving rock and roll is hard to beat, and that, old as I am, I love potent rock as much as I ever did.

The music came over 88.5 FM, the frequency of  WXPN, a Philadelphia station. More important, these are the songs that I heard: Feels Alright, a brand new number by the young band The Nude Party; Do Anything You Wanna Do, a classic by Eddie And The Hot Rods that came out in 1977; Silver, from 2017, by the group Waxahatchee. You can listen to them now, if you wish, via YouTube. My epic tale continues below the YouTube offerings.

Yeah, ever since my late teens I’ve been under the power of snarling, soaring electric guitars, throbbing electric basses, and pounding drums. Not that I don’t like the less-wild forms of rock or other styles of music. I do. A lot. In fact, I’m into almost everything, except for rap, opera and Madonna-style pop. And I even get along with those genres at times.

But if I had to pick the one type of music that perfectly meshes with the hidden recesses of my inner self, there would be little contest. It would be vigorous, tuneful, guitar-driven rock. Were I a musician, that’s what I’d be playing. I’d man the electric bass, helping to hold the rest of the band together, and getting my rocks off stratospherically.

Alas, I have zero talent as a musician. Like most of the rest of humanity, I’m a listener, not a player. But there’s a lot to be said for listening when you have the capacity to go higher, higher, higher. What a rush! What a gas!

Why, then, don’t I listen to the recordings of powerful bands (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Patti Smith Group, etc.) at home as much as I did when I was single? Well, my wife Sandy usually prefers that things be on the calmer side in the house, so that’s the main reason. And yes, I know I could listen through earphones, but I’ve always found them to be uncomfortable.

As for hearing the strong stuff in person, there’s not much of it in the burbs, where I live. Most of it is concentrated in clubs and theaters in The City Of Brotherly Love, an hour’s drive away. It’s tough to find a parking spot near those Philly venues, and the shows start late and aren’t over till after midnight. Which means that I’d arrive back home well into the wee small hours. Thus, when I attend concerts these days (I go to quite a few), they tend to be of non-hard-rock varieties in places within comfortable driving distance of my home.

But you know what? Those excuses in the above paragraph are lame. I know for a fact that a smattering of people in my age bracket go to the music venues that I’ve been avoiding. They’re not embarrassed to shake and groove among music lovers 40 or more years younger than them. And neither am I. That’s why, a few days into our new year, I’m making one resolution: I am going to start visiting some of Philadelphia’s rock meccas now and then. Johnny Brenda’s, Boot And Saddle, and Union Transfer, here I come! It will be fun. It will be soul-satisfying. And I’d better do it while I can, because those frigging grains of sand have no plans to take a break.

(As I always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

Friends, Pals, Chums, Amigos . . .

There I was the other afternoon, walking with my friend Gene along the streets of central Philadelphia, both before and after we ate lunch at Black Sheep, a cozy, wood-paneled pub. The skies were massed with clouds pre-lunch, but no rain was falling. After our repast, however, water began to enter the picture.

A few minutes after we left Black Sheep, as a couple of raindrops clunked us on the head, I decided that I’d try to turn the post-lunch segment of our stroll around town into a blog piece. I’d covered Philadelphia from all sorts of angles for the publication that you’re now gazing at, but never from a rainy one. It was a natural! Visions of an impressionistic, watery essay began to float in my head.

The couple of raindrops soon turned into a drizzle. And then the rain’s pace picked up, so that 20 minutes later we were getting noticeably wet. Tough, dauntless guys that we are, though, we smirked at the meteorological conditions, refusing to protect ourselves (Gene didn’t open his umbrella, and I, who was sans umbrella, didn’t raise my coat’s hood). We continued what we’ve always enjoyed doing together: wandering around, casually looking at this and that, and talking about a mishmash of things.

On Chestnut Street we admired the Dolce Carini pizza parlor and Maxamillion’s barber shop, and were about to extend our westward journey along Chestnut when I noticed a bus approaching. It was heading north on 20th Street. “Does that bus go to your neighborhood?” I asked Gene, a Philadelphian. He answered in the affirmative. “Listen,” I then said, “I know that we’re tough and dauntless, but possibly it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you climbed aboard.” He did.

The bus that my friend boarded

My gloves were waterlogged by this time and my hair had become a soggy mess. Yet, I persevered. Strolling around, I snapped a few more pictures with my iPhone and dodged a few puddles. But when my phone’s battery conked out a minute later, I said the following to myself: “F*ck it, this f*cking story will have to wait for another rainy day.” Nicely drenched, I pulled the hood over my head and strode to Suburban Station, from which I caught a train back to the sleepy town in the burbs that I call home.

If you’ve made it this far with me, I’ll now test your patience by changing the subject almost entirely. That’s because, later that night, I decided that a story about friends, not one built around a rainy day, should have been my aim from the start. I came to that conclusion when I realized that the afternoon in Philadelphia with Gene had been my fifth social engagement in December. For me, that’s a lot. Those get-togethers quietly had pushed friendship to the front of my mind. And friendship, as we know, is an important topic, one that — my bad! — I’ve barely if ever written about before. But, let me add, some of my photographic efforts from rainy Philadelphia adorn this story nonetheless. I’m a believer in waste not!

Friends, pals, chums, amigos . . .  Whatever term you employ, they are valuable assets, ones to appreciate and cultivate. Gene and I had had a fine time together earlier in the day, as always has been the case in the 10 years that we’ve known each other. I’m fortunate to have him as a friend. And fortunate because there is a medium-size bunch of others, both female and male, with whom I get along swimmingly and meet on a pretty regular basis, sometimes with my wife Sandy, sometimes by myself. And fortunate because of the several more individuals that I see only very occasionally, due to the thousands of miles separating us, but with whom I’m oh so tight.

It wasn’t always this way. A social butterfly in elementary school, friendships somehow became harder and harder for me to maintain and establish when I hit the age of 12 or so. And high school? Fuhgeddaboudit. I had about 100 times more pimples than good friends during the four years I spent in high school, an institution that I detested.

Fortunately, my friendship situation took a nice upswing while in college, and stayed almost at that level over the next 40 years. I wasn’t awash in friends, but I was doing okay. And during the last 12 years, an era that last year saw me enter the Holy Shit, Am I Really This Old? septuagenarian club, much to my amazement several new friends have come my way. Not exactly a miracle, but pretty damn close to one.

I’m not someone from whose mouth pearls of wisdom flow like a mountain stream. But occasionally I’m able to offer up good advice or insights. Here then is what I’ll say about friends: “You can’t have too many of them.” They help make our lives better, those folks we are on similar wavelengths with, can rely on, and whom we also respect. In fact, having plenty of friends — true friends — is a crucial key to a fulfilling, well-balanced life. (And yes, relatives absolutely can be true friends. But, for the purposes of this article, I’m sticking to the non-relative variety.)

“Hey,” I hear one or two smartasses say, “all of that is a big DUH. It’s obvious!

And so it is. Still, I for one never really began thinking about the importance of friendships until fairly recent years. I wish that someone had taken me aside decades ago, when I was in my early 20s, say, and laid out the friendship gospel for me. Maybe I’d have paid attention. Maybe I’d have made an effort to learn how to make friends more easily and to add even a few more of them to my little world. More is better.

I’ve heard Baby Boomers, of which I of course am one, say that making new friends at their age is kind of difficult. But I tend to think that this is true for millions upon millions at any age. Hell, life’s a challenge, and forging good friendships is part of the challenge. It takes effort. It takes discipline. And it decidedly might take big strokes of luck. When the mission is accomplished though, the payoff is sweet. Friends, along with some other key ingredients (strong family ties; open-mindedness; a charitable heart), are where it’s at.

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

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Will Santa Claus Make His Rounds This Year, Or Will The Job Fall To Me?

A few nights ago my cell phone began to ring 10 minutes after my wife Sandy and I lit the menorah candles on the eighth and final night of Chanukah. A secular Jew, I’m about as unreligious as they come, but I’m okay with Chanukah candle-lighting. When aglow, those slender wax sticks look so sweet and peaceful, they come pretty close to making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Or something or other on that order.

The caller’s name didn’t appear on my phone’s screen, and the displayed phone number didn’t register with me at all. But being in a relaxed and welcoming mood after watching the candles burn down for a while, I did what I ordinarily wouldn’t have done. In other words, I answered the phone.

I opened my mouth to talk, but the caller beat me to it. “Neil! I’ve lost my way! I have enormous doubts about my purpose in life, about my abilities to continue doing my good work, about whether the world really needs me, about . . . ”

I cut him off. “My man, calm down! I hear you. But I haven’t a clue who I’m talking to. Who the f*ck is this?” I yelled.

“Neil, it’s Santa Claus. You gave me your number two years ago, remember? I’d have shown up in person, but I’m too down in the dumps to even open my front door and go for a walk. Anyway, a phone call is a lot easier than flying thousands of miles in a sleigh to get to your house. Bottom line is that my wife’s not here to help me, and I couldn’t think of a better person to speak with than you.”

“Thank you, Santa. I’m humbled,” I said. “But where’s your wife?”

“Neil, don’t get me started on Mrs. Claus. She’s gotten so fed up with my moods and angst, she’s threatening to file for divorce. And she split a week ago. Last I heard she was flaunting her fine Nordic bod on Ipanema Beach, in Rio. Yeah, she enrolled in Weight Watchers last year and the program worked. She used to be on the plump side, to put it charitably, but now the girl is smokin’ hot! Who could blame her if she never comes home to the frigid North Pole?”

“Santa, oh Santa,” I said, “I’m so sorry. She’ll come back, though. I mean, there’s no better catch than you. Just give her time. What can I do to help?”

“Neil, my problems are so deep rooted, a plumber couldn’t flush them out. I appreciated the help you gave me two years ago [click here to read all about it], and as you know you weren’t the first to keep me focused on my daunting job. But, brother, this time I think I’ve had it. I suppose I’m having an existential crisis. Neil, I don’t see how I can do my toy deliveries anymore. Someone else might have to take over. I’ve done it long enough.”

“Santa, please reconsider. There’s no one who can replace you.”

“Well, then the world would have to adjust. I really need to start thinking about myself at this point. Maybe Judaism holds the answers for me. Should I convert, move to Miami Beach and start wearing that little skull cap . . . what do you call that thing, Neil?”

“It’s a yarmulke, Santa.”

“Yes! I’d look good in one of those, don’t you think? They’re usually in black, right? Black would match my belt, and I’d be happy to ditch my silly hat with the pom-pom on the end.”

“But, Santa, why the heck would you want to convert to Judaism? The Christian world relies on you. You’re one of its bedrocks. Santa, you’re an icon, someone who should have been awarded a Nobel Prize decades ago, maybe in best costume design. Oh wait, it’s the Oscars that do costume design. Well, shit, then you should have been awarded an Oscar!”

“Thank you, Neil. Thank you. You know, an Oscar would look grand sitting above my fireplace. Which reminds me, I’ve got to throw another log on the fire. I’m freezing my ass off. Be back in a minute.”

A minute passed, and then, true to his word, Santa was back.

“That’s better,” he said. “It’s starting to feel nice and toasty again inside this icebox that I call my house. I tell you, whoever they were that decided to start inhabiting these far northern regions ages ago were out of their freakin’ minds!”

“Neil,” Santa then continued, “I’m uncomfortable bringing this up. It’s a favor of the highest magnitude: If I decide to bail out from my job this month, is there a chance you might fill in for me? I know that Christmas isn’t your holiday, but who else can I ask? I barely know anybody, living up here in no-man’s land. Keith Richards sat on the sleigh with me last year [click here to read about it], but he wasn’t much help, to tell you the truth. He spent half the time strumming an air guitar, so there’s no way I’d ask him to carry the load all by himself. Neil, a large segment of humanity might have to count on you!”

Stunned, I didn’t answer right away. Finally, I spoke. “Listen,” I said, “I want no part of this. I’ve got hemorrhoids, Santa! Raging, powerful hemorrhoids. Endless hours of sitting in your sleigh might be the end of me. But I’ll do it if I have to! I’m that kind of guy!

“You’re the best, Neil. The best! Well, actually I don’t know you very well, so there’s a good chance I’m wrong about that. In any event, you have my thanks.”

“But here’s the thing, Santa,” I said. “I’m going to go outside in a few minutes. And I’m going to walk around my neighborhood, taking pictures of the pretty Christmas lights that lots of people have put up outside their houses. Then I’m going to write a story about our conversation. And I’ll add a few of the Christmas lights photos to the article. Read that story, Santa. And look at the photos! The lights in my neighborhood got you back on track in 2016, and I’ve got a strong feeling that they will turn you into your jolly ol’ self again this year. And if they do, there will be plenty of time left for you to pull everything together and make your Christmas deliveries. Okay, Santa? Do we have a deal?”

“Deal, Neil.”

“Goodbye, Santa. I’m ready to do my duty, if need be, but not as ready as you had better be a few days from now. Man up, Santa. Man up!”

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

(If you click on a photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Picking Pix: A Photography Story

It’s a wonderful thing, photography. At a push of a button we can immortalize anything or anyone we want: flower gardens; baseball games; birds in flight; bird crap on car windows; pals; lovers; favorite cousins; despised in-laws. You name it, somebody has taken its picture.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 2018)

Those obvious notions came to mind a few nights ago when I decided to green light an essay about photography, whose final form you are now looking at. I’ve written before on the subject. And that’s because I get a soul-satisfying kick out of shutterbugging.

Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 2018)

That kick had lain dormant for decades, but vigorously popped out of its coffin in January 2016 when I came into possession of my first smartphone. An iPhone, it struck me as miraculous. Hell, was there anything it couldn’t do? Well, the phone balked at fetching my dog-eared slippers and washing my dirty underwear. But other than that, it was primo.

Philadelphia’s Powelton Village section (February 2018)

And the phone of course came equipped with a camera lens that, despite its incredibly tiny size, took, for the most part, damn good pictures. Good enough for me, anyway. Within no time I was snapping away. And decorating my journalistic output with some of the results of those snaps (prior to that, my wife Sandy took the photos for the stories). Man, I had lucked out, if you want to look at it that way. Meaning, even though I was a whole lot older than I could believe, depressingly older, at least I had added two worthy creative endeavors (writing and photography) to the late autumn/early winter of my years. Excuse me for a moment, please, while I now resume watching those f*cking grains of sand continue to fall, fall, fall to the bottom of my hourglass. Oh, my breaking heart!

Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (October 2018)

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. Here’s the way I look at photography: Many of us, including yours truly, can’t draw or paint or sculpt worth a shit. But it’s not too hard for anyone to be pleased with their photographs. All you have to do is decide what angle you want to take a photo from and what person or object should be its focus. Then you frame the shot and, if needed, adjust the light level. At that point the magic moment has arrived in which to tap the camera’s button. Voila! Mission likely accomplished.

Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s an art form made for us all.

Coast Guard Beach, Truro, Cape Cod (October 2018)

So, what’s the deal with the photographs that I’ve included in this essay? Let me start by saying that all of them date from 2018 and that they are among the 1,000+ that I took during the year. None of them have appeared in previous articles. I suppose that my aim is simple: To publish photographs on this page that strike my artsy-fartsy sensibilities just right. Each has some combination of shapes, colors, angles and textures that I can’t deny. Yeah, these photos do something to me.

James “Blood” Ulmer, Philadelphia (April 2018)

Take the one of musician James “Blood” Ulmer, for instance. Ulmer, unaccompanied, performed deep, heavy blues in April in Philadelphia at the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. The golden hues of his outfit and the jumble of audio equipment nearly encasing him give the picture a techno/alien quality. “Prepare for blastoff,” the photo is announcing. “Destination unknown. Mysteries await.”

Tree in Santa Fe (May 2018)

And I like the grand grooves in the Santa Fe tree, and its thick, finger-like upper sections. But what gives the photo its distinctiveness is the modest yellow, black and red traffic sign standing contentedly next to the behemoth.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (May 2018)

The deeply pock-marked cliffs at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument are modern art taken to an elemental extreme. And the photo of trees, hills and houses in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico would have floored Paul Cézanne, so Cézanne-ish is it in its blocky composition. Talk about pure luck. I took that picture from a moving car. Nearly every other picture that I snapped from within the car that day was meh.

Cezanne-like scene from Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico (May 2018)

I’ll mention one more snapshot, that of the sunset at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. The picture appears almost theatrical in its lighting. The light on the picnic bench came from my car’s headlights. The car’s engine was running because it was as cold as a witch’s tit that night, and I jumped out only for a second, documenting the beautiful sunset with my phone’s camera and then admiring the view again from back inside the heated vehicle.

Mayo Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod (October 2018)

By the way, like every picture herein, the sunset pic is unmanipulated. Being a natural sort of guy, so natural that I prance naked in my dreams, I wasn’t about to crop, enhance, rotate or do anything else to my babies via the photographic software that came with my computer. Popeye The Sailor once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If my photos could talk, each would quote those immortal words.

Marshland near an Atlantic Ocean inlet, Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

In closing, I’ll add that all of the selections come from New Mexico, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, places that I’ve written about a lot this year. They are good places, fascinating and colorful and full of the unexpected.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

It’s not every day that a visit to a shopping mall inspires someone to write about eggplant parmigiana and good advice. This is one of those days. Off we go.

I can’t begin to explain how or why, for many years, I stopped eating eggplant parmigiana, somehow forgetting that it is one of my favorite dishes. I hadn’t overindulged on eggplant parm, thus getting tired of it. And I hadn’t turned away from Italian cooking in general. God forbid! No, sometimes life takes weird, head-scratch-inducing turns, and my losing awareness of eggplant parm’s existence was one of them. This southern Italian mélange of fried eggplant, tomato sauce and melted cheeses, which had gone down my gullet numerous dozens of times during the 1960s through 1990s, became a stranger to me in the current century. Until September 15 that is, about 10 weeks ago, when eggplant parm vivaciously reentered my life. Hallelujah!

That night my wife Sandy and I were at a good restaurant a few miles from our suburban Philadelphia home. Marco Polo is its name and Italian cooking is part of its game. We have thrown business Marco Polo’s way for around 25 years. Scanning the menu I was awakened from my eggplant parmigiana amnesia, for it was as if a Roman god or goddess slapped me upside my head and then trained my eyes on one and only one listing on the menu. My mouth began to water almost uncontrollably. I became a sputtering, emotional mess. “I must have it! I must! I shall!” I nearly screamed.

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

And so I had it. And, man, was it superb. The eggplant was moist and tender, the tomato sauce as sweet as a sunny springtime day, and the cheeses very fine and, importantly, not overwhelming in amount.

Since that joyous occasion I’ve eaten eggplant parmigiana six more times, most recently on Saturday past (November 24), when Sandy and I once again dined at Marco Polo. I’m hooked on the stuff! For the remainder of my earthly stay I plan to keep it that way, in moderation. I could do a lot worse.

Okay, then. That’s the eggplant parm part of this story. Now it’s time for some good advice, and also for a valiant attempt to connect those two themes.

Once in a blue moon I head to the wondrous, three-level, enclosed shopping mall near my home. Usually, like most people, I go there to shop. But two or three times I’ve gone to try and find something or other to write about for this publication (click here to read one example). On November 24, seven hours before dining at Marco Polo, the latter was my intention. There was a pretty good chance, I figured, that the visit might prove to be journalistically fruitful.

Maybe an essay about frenzied shoppers and kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap should have been the result of my time at the mall. But, you know, that just ain’t me. Instead, my attention was drawn to a sign in Macy’s department store, the first place I investigated within the mall. The sign, a store directory, said “Find Your Way” in big letters across its top. “Holy shit!” I thought to myself. “That’s powerful advice. It’s important for people to find their way, their true path in life. Fulfillment will result if they do.”

Whoa, what had come over me? I’m not the philosophical sort. I’m in the middle section of the deep-thinking pool, at best. And it wasn’t ganja that brought out that unlikely response from me, seeing that I haven’t smoked weed in 30 years.

Whatever the reason, I then went on a quest to locate other examples of good advice in the mall. And indeed I found some. “Believe In The Wonder Of Giving” commanded another Macy’s sign. “Love Your Mother” (meaning both your female parent and Mother Nature) proclaimed a tee shirt in Bloomingdale’s department store.  “It’s Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood” smiled down upon the customers at Build-A-Bear Workshop. And the finest advice of all came from a poster at Sephora. “Be Kind. Be Open. Be Gracious” it urged. Needless to say, the poster also should have said “Be Helpful.”

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

The final emporium in which I met words of wisdom was a Hallmark store. A small box, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table or shelf, contained a message that I paused over: “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” A pleasure-seeker to a sizeable degree, I could relate, because I took it to mean that we might as well boost our fun a lot while we can, seeing that the number of spins we make around the Sun are, shall we say, on the limited side.

But there’s a more expansive way to look at the message, as I decided the following day when it rose to the surface of my mind. There it joined with memories of my most recent Marco Polo meal and got me thinking. Eating eggplant parm is a fairly trivial endeavor, but it sure enough makes me happy. And when I’m happy, my frame of mind improves, increasing the volume of positive energy that I deliver to the world. In other words, increasing the frequency of my being kind, open, gracious and helpful to others. The uptick is on the minor side, no doubt. But considering the state of affairs on our planet, every little bit counts.

This isn’t just about me, me, me, though. If hundreds of millions of us followed the Hallmark store’s advice, the upticks might add up to something special. Hey, maybe the world would significantly change for the better. You never know. After all, those four adjectives  — kind, open, gracious, helpful — are where it’s at.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Many thanks.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Gutsy People: Thoughts About A Movie, A Book, And The Wider World

When I comment about movies on these pages, I try to be a good guy by not revealing all, especially endings. I mean, for anyone with an itch to see a certain flick, that itch might damn near disappear if they become privy to too much telling information.

But a spoiler alert ain’t needed for Free Solo, a documentary profiling the great rock climber Alex Honnold that was released in September and is still in some theaters. That’s because the beans already have been spilled in every review and article that has been written about this movie. In other words, hell yeah, he made it to the top! To the top of El Capitan, that is, the monster, vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he reached the top, about 3,000 feet above ground, by climbing El Cap without ropes, a harness or safety equipment of any sort. And without a climbing partner or partners. That’s what free solo means. The only item, other than clothing, that Honnold wore while becoming the first (and, so far, only) person to accomplish this superhuman feat on El Cap was a small bag on his back that contained chalk, a substance he’d periodically coat his hands with, the better to grip the rock. (Others had scaled El Cap over the years, but always with ropes and additional equipment.)

What any rock climber does seems pretty well off the charts to me. Shit, I would make it about two feet off the ground on El Capitan’s face, maybe three. Which isn’t bad actually. Only 2,998 or 2,997 feet to go. But what Honnold did on June 3, 2017 was so far off the charts as to be laughable, in a magnificent way, and nearly inconceivable. The film crew that captured his exploits agree. Skilled rock climbers themselves, they are shown in the documentary, nervous as can be and totally awed by what was taking place in front of their eyes.

For anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense, this is a movie not to be missed. If possible, watch it in a theater rather than at home. Whatever the venue, the bigger the screen the better. My wife, brother and I went to see Free Solo in early November. We sat in the sixth or seventh row of a cinema, nice and close to the action. We were captivated. You will be too.

By the way, when I mentioned for anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense a few sentences ago, I meant to include and an appreciation of guts. As modest and unflappable as Alex appears in Free Solo’s interview segments, there’s no denying that he is in possession of an oceanic amount of guts, and I for one find his courage to be very inspiring, And although not too many people are going to try and scale giant rocks, it’s of course true that in less dramatic ways many or most of us display courage throughout parts or all of our lives. And that’s inspiring too. Hell, for much of humanity, simply getting out of bed and facing the day is a brave act, considering the nasty, even horrific, realities facing them.

I read the late novelist Kent Haruf’s final book, Our Souls At Night (it was published in 2015, the year after Haruf died), a few days after watching Alex climb. There are a variety of ways in which to look at Our Souls At Night, as there are with Free Solo. It’s about love and the lack thereof. It’s about emotional pains that do not fully heal. And it’s also about the guts shown by a man and a woman, each around 70 years old, who throw aside their normal inhibitions and begin a relationship with one another.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed, are longtime neighbors who are acquainted only slightly. They live in Holt, Colorado, the fictional town that is the setting for all six of Haruf’s novels. But, as becomes apparent, Addie has had Louis on her mind for some time. One day she pays Louis a visit. Here’s some of what Haruf writes on Our Souls At Night’s second and third pages:

You probably wonder what I’m doing here, she said.
Well, I didn’t think you came over to tell me my house looks nice.
No, I want to suggest something to you.
Oh?
Yes. A kind of proposal.
Okay.
Not marriage, she said.
I didn’t think that either.
But it’s kind of a marriage-like question. But I don’t know if I can now. I’m getting cold feet. She laughed a little. That’s sort of like marriage, isn’t it.
What is?
Cold feet.
It can be.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Wow! Addie has guts. An abundance of it. Don’t know how many folks in her age bracket would do what she does. Couldn’t be a lot. In any event, Louis accepts Addie’s offer. They begin their affair — a platonic one at the start — cautiously. And, finding that they are getting along just fine, take it to higher levels. They become a strong and true couple, telling each other their life stories, opening up more than they did to their deceased spouses.

Addie and Louis do not go unnoticed in Holt. Snide and angry comments and actions come their way from the small-minded, which includes Addie’s adult son Gene. How do Addie and Louis end up? Hey, unlike with Free Solo, I’m not revealing the conclusion, a conclusion that I found to be wanting in relation to what had preceeded it. Still, I give Our Souls At Night a thumbs-up. Haruf, as is clear from his words above, writes beautifully. His style is direct and unflowery, and the book’s characters feel real.

Alex Honnold doesn’t boast about courage in Free Solo. Neither do Addie Moore or Louis Waters in Our Souls At Night. In fact, the three barely talk about it. But they each own courage and use it for their personal betterment, and in manners that bring no harm to others or to the natural world.

(As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks.)