Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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

Darkened Skies, Beautiful Philadelphia

img_0891 At about 8:30 PM on the first Friday of the current month, my wife Sandy and I exited Capofitto, an Italian bistro cum gelato/sorbetto (ice cream/sorbet) store that we like. We’d downed a pizza-centric meal there, capped off with scoops of cappuccino gelato and peach sorbetto. Pretty damn good for sure. Capofitto is in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City section, whose roots go back powerfully to Colonial days. No doubt the block on which Capifitto resides, a length of Chestnut Street, was trod upon countless times by any Founding Father you can name, not to mention his romantic partner(s), as was just about every Old City block. I find it très neat to think about that. Old City is a cool part of town.

“What next?” we asked ourselves. Should we go back to our home in the burbs? Nah, the night was young. And quite dark, as the Sun had set an hour earlier and neither moonlight nor starlight was apparent to me. Essentially, Old City was being illuminated by electric lights, and in a muted manner. Which I enjoyed. Everything seemed dreamy and atmospheric — the semi-ancient brick buildings, the stone-paved streets. I felt as though I was on a movie set. I asked Sandy if she’d like to go for a walk. She said yes, and off we went down Chestnut Street toward nearby Penn’s Landing, a large swath of Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. The night not only was young, it also was calling. 

img_0894Like the Founding Fathers, Sandy and I have moseyed along Old City’s arteries many times. That’s an activity that doesn’t get old. We keep coming back for more. And this being a night whose effects I actually was paying attention to, which isn’t always the case, I felt myself getting into the scene more than usual. “Holy brotherly love,” I murmured to myself when, half a block from Capofitto, I turned around and saw the huge and perfectly-sculpted United States Custom House, which went up in the 1930s, glowing warmly in its white lights. “That’s gorgeous.” Indeed it was. I snapped its picture, the first of many that Sandy and I would snap as we investigated Philadelphia under darkened skies.

img_1546In a flash we were at Penn’s Landing, a once unassuming and still developing stretch of territory that city officials have been master-planning and trying to force into glorious bloom for over 50 years. To put it another way, the keys to unlocking Penn’s Landing’s full potential as a tourist and city resident draw have yet to be discovered. But it’s getting there, as we shall see. First thing you notice at night when you enter Penn’s Landing near its northern end, as Sandy and I did, is the Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects our nations’ first capitol with Camden, New Jersey. The bridge is massive and grand and, when skies are black, a visual wow. Why? Because years ago someone had the sterling idea to string colorful, Christmassy lights along it. Sandy and I looked at the bridge long and hard and, as on many nights before, we liked what we saw.

The park's LED lights (center right) seen from a distance.
The park’s LED lights (at right) seen from a distance.

I must have realized this on past visits too, but that night I was taken by the low-wattage illumination in most parts of Penn’s Landing. Just like in Old City. Philadelphia — and I’m all for this — ain’t aiming for a Times Square type of lighting blitz. A feeling of intimacy, I think, is the result throughout most of the city. And that casual, relaxed spirit was true even in the section of Penn’s Landing that the masses have discovered and turned into a destination. I speak of Spruce Street Harbor Park, which drew closer as Sandy and I headed south along Penn’s Landing’s walkways. At night we couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, because the possibly thousands of color-shifting LED lights hanging from its trees were superb and put us under a spell. And we didn’t need to don shades . . . yes, the lights dazzled, but subtly.

img_1552Spruce Street Harbor Park, loaded with things to do, overlooks Penn’s Landing’s marina, which I never used to think much of because I’d rarely if ever notice anything interesting going on within it. And the grounds of what is now the park, which opened for business in 2014, once were as bland and barren as an unbuttered slice of white bread, except for a grove of trees and a monument to Christopher Columbus. That, at least, is the way I remember the area. But all that has changed. Lo and behold, SSHP has become, I’d guess, the most popular place to hang out in all of Philadelphia. The governmental folks who orchestrated the park’s development birthed a phenomenon, a winner that has far exceeded in popularity anyone’s expectations.

img_0926img_0911Designed to have a summery sort of ambience, the attractions at Spruce Street Harbor Park have a limited run each year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be are brainstorming ideas that would keep the park open most or all months. Yeah, more is better, guys! This year, SSHP’s season began in early May and will end on September 25. At the very least, why not open the gates in mid-April and close them in mid-October? Sounds like a plan to me. Anyway, the place was mobbed the night Sandy and I visited. With good reason. It has a low-key, breezy combination of things going for it, besides the groovy LED shafts whose color blips rise and fall regimentally.

 

img_0920img_1557There are hammocks dangling between trees; tables and chairs of different sizes and shapes scattered all around; a boardwalk lined with food shacks; craft beer stands; an indoor arcade; restaurants floating in the marina; a bocce court . . .  you get the picture. Among other pursuits, folks lounged, strolled, stuffed their faces and watched others lounge, stroll and stuff. And played their parts peacefully and politely. The nitwit factor at Spruce Street Harbor Park and the rest of Penn’s Landing and, come to think of it, in Old City, was nil that night. Do hypnotic lights amid semi-darkness induce commendable behavior? I don’t really know, but there might be something to that.

 

Alas, all good things that first Friday evening, for Sandy and me anyway, came to an end. To a train station in central Philadelphia we eventually proceeded. And, not long after that, at our abode’s doorstep, a mere handful of miles from one of the city’s borders, we arrived.

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(All photos, except that of the United States Custom House, by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Mann Oh Mann: Richard Thompson And Bonnie Raitt In Concert

Philadelphia’s Mann Center For The Performing Arts is a great outdoor concert venue that can be a bitch getting to and leaving from, depending on where you live and what mode of transport you opt to use. The Mann, built into a hilly section of enormous public parklands, is decently accessible for those who reside not too far from it and who visit using foot power or public transit. Not so for just about everyone else. That’s because just about everyone else drives. For them, the traffic jams they usually run into and the post-concert nightmare of trying to exit the parking areas at the same time as thousands of their fellow citizens . . . oy frigging vey, to say the least. In the early 1990s, an incredibly awful Mann traffic experience sent my now-wife Sandy’s and my blood pressures to Guinness World Records levels. And, amid the type of shouting matches in the car that would have made us stars on The Jerry Springer Show, nearly caused us to divorce one another, even though we weren’t even married yet! Shell-shocked, we stayed away from The Mann for eons after that memorable night. Until a week and a half ago, that is, when we learned about a pleasant method of Manning-it, and took in a terrific show.

In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.
In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.

The concert-in-question’s headliner was Bonnie Raitt. The opening act was Richard Thompson. Double bills as strong as this one are not everyday events. Sandy and I were there with our great pals Cindy and Gene. The two couples ended up sitting in different sections of The Mann, but arrived at the scene in the same vehicle. Turns out that SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit authority, runs a dedicated bus on Mann concert nights. Sandy and I never knew about this till Cindy clued us in. And thus we took a train from our home in the burbs to central Philadelphia and hopped on the special bus soon after arriving in the city. Several stops later, Cindy and Gene, Philadelphia residents, hopped aboard too. Mannward we headed. Calmly.

Raitt and Thompson are pushing 70 and, judging from the crowd at The Mann, don’t exactly have a huge fan base among Generations X and Y. Despite this, they can sell plenty of tickets. Between them they stimulated about 6,000 bodies to lay down dough for seats the other night. As opening acts are prone to do, Richard played first. I’ll come back to him soon, but have decided to say a few things now about Bonnie Raitt.

IMG_1540For two hours Bonnie was on stage with her backing band of four (drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and electric guitarist/mandolin player), a well-oiled and flexible machine. She was wonderful. Bonnie’s music goes down easy and brings together currents of the blues, singer-songwriter, rock, gospel and folk music streams. She is famed for her electric slide guitar work, but to me, to tell you the truth, she seemed not a guitar slinger. And she didn’t emphasize her songwriting efforts. Though she has written or co-written a decent number of songs during  her 48-or-so-year career, she hauled out only two of them (What You’re Doin’ To Me and The Comin’ Round Is Going Through, both from her new album Dig In Deep ) for her 20-song set. What she had going for her, more than anything, was her voice. Warm and natural, Bonnie’s pipes drew the crowd into each song’s lyrics. And, without strain, she belted out whatever needed to be belted out whenever the occasion arose. I held on tight when I knew that high and powerful notes were a-comin’, expecting to be swept up into the clouds. And that’s what happened. Her voice may have burnished oh so slightly since her younger days, but basically Bonnie sings as well as she ever has. Which is saying something.

Take John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, for instance. This song about a beat-down elderly woman began with only Bonnie and her acoustic guitar. She sang majestically, probing Prine’s chilling narrative. Halfway through the tune the rest of the group entered. Ricky Fataar’s cymbal and high-hat work was simple and quiet and appropriate. George Marinelli’s mandolin solo was sweet. Goosebumps, I think, swelled throughout The Mann, whose audience jumped into a standing O, the evening’s second, at Angel’s end. You will find a recent live version of the song by clicking here.

I have a feeling that most people have heard of Bonnie Raitt, and that far, far fewer know about Richard Thompson, though his abilities are extraordinary and his career long (he was a founder of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967). Me, I believe that RT is one of the greatest musical talents among us. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a guitar player. In a fair and just world he’d be a megastar. Poor guy, he has to settle for truckloads of praise instead of ocean liner loads, and for making a really nice living instead of raking in countless millions. Life’s tough.

This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left.
This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left. Mea culpa.

Well, if I ran The Mann, BR would have opened for RT, not the other way around. Forty-five minutes of him and his band (Taras Prodaniuk on electric bass, Michael Jerome on drums) weren’t enough. Sandy and I have seen Richard in performance a number of times, and he hasn’t lost a beat. His steely, deep voice cut like a knife at The Mann. His electric guitar playing snarled, jabbed and tunneled into realms so dense he left me in disbelief. During some RT solos, Sandy said she thought I was going to give myself whiplash, what with my head pivoting and swiveling so much. Such as on his piercing song If Love Whispers Your Name, during which he went atomic on his guitar (click here for a version of this tune from three years ago, and note that RT’s long, amazing guitar solo begins at about the 3:20 mark).

Back to Bonnie. She is more than a Richard Thompson supporter. She said to the audience that he is one of her heroes, and brought him onstage in the middle of her set for two songs. In case you were wondering, the guy has a delicate side that adroitly examines life’s heartbreaks and mysteries in some of his quieter compositions, such as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Dimming Of The Day. To be sure, Dimming Of The Day is a remarkable creation. When in the correct hands it will stun you. Which is what occurred when Bonnie and Richard, each working an acoustic guitar, intertwined their voices in a heavenly manner and, totally deservedly, received the evening’s first standing O when Dimming’s final notes slipped into the air. A beautiful version, from some years ago, of Bonnie and Richard performing Dimming Of The Day exists on YouTube. By clicking here you will see what I mean.

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The Short And The Long Of It: Scattered Thoughts About Music

Tomaz oYou know, when earlier this summer I showered cyberspace with a three-part recap of my wife Sandy’s and my recent European frolics, I thought I was done with that subject. Next thing I knew, though, I was typing out a story that had its genesis during that same trip, in Amsterdam. In said story (which is viewable by clicking here) I wrote about the owner of a bistro we had dinner in. The restaurant’s name is Tomaz, and possibly the owner’s name is that too. But seeing that I don’t know for sure, I referred to him in the piece as Maybe It’s Tomaz. Man, I can’t believe it, but I’m about to talk about MIT again. Obviously it’s a good thing I met the guy, because he has become fodder for your frequently-devoid-of-story-ideas narrator. MIT, if by some fine miracle you ever read this post or the previous one in which you star, please know that I’m in your debt. Figuratively, not financially. Anyway, I’m certain you’d feel fully compensated by basking in the limelight that my epic tales place you within. Well, maybe limelight is too strong a word, considering that this blog is among the least-read publications on Planet Earth. Nevertheless, write I must. Or must I? I’ll have to think about that.

MIT became part of this article’s thought process the other day while I was listening to WXPN, a sharp radio station based in Philadelphia. They play so much music from so many genres, and know so much about music, it’s amazing. And the station always is trying to come up with cool ways of packaging its product. For example, during the other day that I mentioned, they hit upon a great idea. For hours on end they played only short songs. Short meaning under three minutes.

Now, I’m no music historian or researcher. My brain capacity, not to mention my patience, isn’t sufficient to take on either of those roles. However, I’m pretty sure that, before the hippie era bloomed in 1967, the bulk of recorded songs were under five minutes, and oodles of those — the truly short ones — topped out beneath three. This partly was due to the limited storage capacity of vinyl singles and albums. And there also were commercial considerations. Namely, if songs were short, then pop/Top 40 radio stations would be able to play a sizeable number of them per hour and still have plenty of time left over for ads. Things loosened up in many ways in and after the late 1960s, including the length of songs. To this day though, some still don’t surpass the three-minute mark.

3MinuteLogo riattrezzare-macchina-in-3-minutiOK, as with much of life, all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I’ll have to think about that one too. Getting back to WXPN, I listened on and off the other day for a total of an hour or so and was pleasantly blown away by all the great tunes that they spun. I’ll name a few (if you click on each title you’ll hear the songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic?. Paul McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely. The Box Tops’ The Letter. Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las. Each song has a wonderful melody, an alluring arrangement and is packed with feeling. And each satisfied my soul completely and then . . . bam! . . . was over just like that. They are perfect.

Would MIT have loved the XPN playlist as much as I? Let’s see. As Sandy and I ate in his restaurant, MIT and I gabbed away about music. Like me, MIT is a music nut. MIT piped sweet stuff through the restaurant’s speakers by Harry Manx, Jonathan Wilson and Israel Nash, artists I wasn’t familiar with (examples of their work are embedded in the aforementioned article in which MIT appears). The songs were on the long side (six minutes and up I think), transporting and satisfyingly spacey. And were, said MIT, typical of what he mostly listens to nowadays. He made a point to say that a song’s length, not just its style, was part of his selection method — he was into music that took its time telling a story. I liked the Manx, Wilson and Nash numbers. A lot. If I hadn’t been involved with swigging beers and downing a steak dinner, I might have laid my head on the table and gone on a magic carpet ride. Yes, I imagine that MIT would have said “yeah, terrific” about WXPN’s focus on the short the other day, but would have turned off the station after a bit and gone to Spotify or wherever to get his massive daily requirements of the long.

What’s my point, then? Good question. I’m likely to nab the trophy awarded to “The Person Who In 2016 Made The Most Obvious And Lame Observation” for the upcoming sentence, but here goes anyway: Music, as everyone knows, can be a joy and an inspiration and a release. (Oy. Let’s continue). The need for music is somehow built into the human genome. And my guess is that the need’s long form is the dominant gene. Really, not much is better than closing your eyes during a worthy, lengthy number, letting the sounds wash over you and take you on a journey. That’s true whether you’re listening to recorded music at home or on the go or grooving at a concert. On the other hand, there’s no denying the rush that just might overtake you from good songs that are oh so brief and tight. Me, I’ll keep listening to both the short and the long. And to whatever’s in between too.

Amen.

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Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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I Won An Award! (Sort Of)

Folks, this is a post I never anticipated writing. It has nothing to do with what my blog’s about, whatever that might be. And at first I wasn’t going to write these words at all, but then I took a look at the smiling face of blogger April Greene and was charmed into proceeding.

liebsterYou see, a number of years ago someone out there in the blogging community came up with the idea that bloggers would do well to recognize and encourage and promote their peers. Can’t argue with that. And that same someone decided that a good way for this to happen would be for newish bloggers to bestow an award upon other newish bloggers. And that same someone, as far as I know, also named the award. The Liebster Award, that’s what it’s called. Why Liebster?  Who knows? The award’s origins are about as clear as the waters of the Ganges River. In other words, not. Whatever, Liebster Awards have been granted to oodles of bloggers over the years. And April Greene, an excellent writer whose blog and smiling face may be viewed by clicking right here, has nominated me for (meaning, she has awarded me) a Liebster. Thanks, April, for thinking of me.

Wouldn’t you know it, though? This whole Liebster thing is a form of a chain letter, so it’s kind of a pain. More than kind of, actually. Yet, at this point I’m pretty happily playing along because, as April Greene mentioned on her website, Liebster Awards are all about spreading the love. OK, I’m ready! Let’s go!

As part of the chain I am expected to nominate other bloggers for the Liebster. I shall do so, but I totally understand if my nominees decide to bag it and break the chain, which is what my initial reaction was. In any case, let me mention that I look periodically at many relatively new blogs, of which loads are worthy of recognition. I wrote the names of those worthies on pieces of paper, placed the pieces in a big bowl and randomly pulled out three. They are my nominees. There are plenty of real good articles to read in those three blogs, as you will discover by clicking on the following links:

Runaway American Dream          Speaking Of Life         Bookmark

Naturally, the Liebster Awards come with various rules that seem to have evolved over the years without firm consensus as to what are the rules. For the sake of making things somewhat easier and less time-consuming, I’m going to modify the rules once again by reducing the number of hoops a Liebster nominee need jump through.

Most versions of Liebster’s regulations ask nominees to answer 11 questions posed to them by their nominators, and to nominate 11 bloggers for the Liebster. To that I say: “Huh? Who’s got all day to do this stuff?” And thusly if any or all of my nominees decide to accept the Liebster from me, and by so doing decide to keep the ol’ chain in motion, they need answer only three questions. And I suggest that they propel the Liebster mechanism by nominating no more than three bloggers.

And now for a Q & A session. Complying with her duties as a Liebster nominator, April Greene asked 11 questions of me, per the instructions she received from her nominator. Here are her Qs with my As attached:

  1. What’s the coolest award you’ve ever gotten? (You can say the Liebster Award if you want.) —  Hey, I’ve been awardless till now, so Liebster it is.
  2. When did you last ride a public bus? — I only take limos.
  3. Have you ever slipped when getting out of the shower and felt older than you actually are? — No comment.
  4. Which of your childhood friends are you saddest to have lost touch with, and what do you think they’re doing now? — My teddy bear. He’s exploring Antarctica these days.
  5. Honestly: Do you really consider it the three-second rule? Have you ever extended it to more seconds? If so, how many? — Thousands upon thousands.
  6. Why do you think all those houseplants have died under your care? — How did you know?
  7. Please describe the time you sung most humiliatingly in public. — It would take too long.
  8. Best popcorn topping. Go. — I like the classics (ketchup and mustard).
  9. Would you rather dream of a spider infestation or a snake infestation? Why? — Yuck!
  10. What is your least favorite color? Explain. — Only my psychiatrist is privy to this.
  11. Should 7-Eleven have discontinued their Sour Patch Watermelon Slurpee flavor? Why or why not? — No. The masses will revolt.

Moving right along, I now am obliged to ask questions of my nominees. I’m not feeling smart-alecky anymore, so the questions will be legit.

  1. What television series, if any, are you currently watching?
  2. What are your favorite fruits?
  3. What are your hobbies?

Finally, as guidelines for my nominees I’m supposed to list the Liebster Award’s general rules and regs. Here goes:

Once you accept a nomination, you are asked to complete the following steps:
– Create a post in your blog displaying the Liebster Award logo
– In that post, thank and link to the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, answer the questions assigned by the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, nominate new favorite bloggers for the Liebster Award
– In that post, come up with a list of questions for your nominees
– In that post, provide rules/instructions for your nominees in re accepting the award
– Notify the nominees
– Post your Liebster blog post link in the comments of your nominator’s Liebster post

If anyone out there has read all of this, my condolences.

Normal programming will resume with my next article.

I Was Destined To See Israel Nash In Concert, Wasn’t I?

IMG_0842Everything was going smoothly. The train I’d boarded in the suburbs deposited me in downtown Philadelphia at 8:30 PM. Four minutes later the blazing neon sign of one of rock and roll’s heavenly venues, MilkBoy Philly, stared me in the face. I snapped its picture. Then I entered MilkBoy and climbed the stairs to the second floor music hall. A band was playing, undoubtedly the opening act. They were loud, man, loud. I stopped two stairs shy of the top and took in the scene, the little of it that I could make out. The place was so dark my eyes would’ve performed no worse in the dead of night in Amazonian jungles. One light, the only light anywhere near me, turned towards me. It was attached to the forehead of the keeper of the gate, the guy who used the light to check IDs and sell tickets at the top of the stairs, and maybe to do some mining in his spare moments. I couldn’t make out his face or body. “How’s it going? Didya find any promising coal seams tonight?” I almost started to say, but decided against it. In half an hour or so, no doubt, I’d be watching Israel Nash in concert. Destiny, which had begun spinning its threads five weeks earlier, was playing out. That’s a swell word, isn’t it? Destiny. How sweetly it rolls off the tongue.

Here’s where this little saga began: On the final night of our stay in Amsterdam in June, my wife Sandy and I had dinner in a great, intimate place named Tomaz. A gastropub is what we’d call it in the States, but I don’t know if that term is used in The City Of Canals And Marijuana. Hardly matters. Sandy drank wine, I downed a couple of beers, and we each had a steak dinner and, for dessert, a chocolately, moussey concoction. A delicious meal. Our waiter was the bistro’s owner. I didn’t ask his name, but maybe it’s Tomaz.

Anyway, Maybe It’s Tomaz is a music lover. Has been for decades, like me. As soon as Sandy and I sat down I was taken with the song playing in the restaurant. I commented on this to MIT. “That’s Israel Nash,” he said. The tune was the type that will carry you away on a long, spacey ride. MIT purposely had programmed it, via Spotify, because, as MIT told me, the music he liked best these days are the dreamy, atmospheric sorts that emerge from various just-so combinations of country, folk, rock, blues and sometimes other styles. And he mentioned two more practitioners of the amorphous genre whom, as with Nash, I’d heard of but knew next to nothing about: Harry Manx and Jonathan Wilson. MIT played multiple tracks by all of them for my listening pleasure. Between bites and between conversation with Sandy and MIT, I half-listened to the songs. And eventually Sandy and I bid our music-drenched host our adieus.

Back home in the States I did some barebones research into Messieurs Nash, Manx and Wilson and checked out a handful of their tunes on YouTube. What I heard sounded very good (click here and here and here for the smallest of samples). Perhaps I’d get to see one or more of them on stage some day. That would be nice, I thought. And then my short attention span kicked in and I moved on to other important topics, such as pondering how many new varieties of Cheez-Its I might give a whirl, and whether my shampooing regimen needed an update.

I should have seen it coming. A few weeks ago, checking out a local music website, the name Israel Nash jumped out at me. Good gawdalmighty, he would be at MilkBoy in three days, it indicated. And when, in the blink of an eye, the third day arrived I looked at MilkBoy’s website to see when the show would begin. The site said 7 PM. What? The last time a show began that early at a rock club was . . . well, never. Must be a misprint. I called MilkBoy for clarification. No answer. Called again and again and again. No one picked up. It figured.

But I had a good feeling all along. It wasn’t by chance that five weeks earlier I had heard, for the first time ever, a song by Israel Nash. And in a foreign land, no less. Some elusive guiding force had befriended me that night in MIT’s restaurant and was leading me to the proper culmination of the storyline. I was meant to see Israel Nash in concert. At MilkBoy.

“Who’s this? The opening act?” I inquired of the gatekeeper. The light attached to his forehead was tremendously focused. Only a few strands of illumination were able to make their ways sidewards. But those faint rays revealed to me that MilkBoy was incredibly packed with human bodies. That night, the phrase Standing Room Only didn’t apply. Standing Room Nearly Impossible did. Not only that, the air was thicker than thick with perspiration and other inspired body odors. Any high school gym’s boys’ locker room smelled a lot better.

“No, this is Israel Nash,” said the man with the light. “He has only half an hour left in his set. Do you have a ticket?”

“Uh,” I mumbled, and turned around. Down the stairs I went.

So, what’s the thrust of this story? Is there a moral? Something to be learned? Well, those questions usually are pretty much out of my league. I’m not all that bright. However, I have a half-decent answer in this case: When destiny appears to be knocking on your door, do what the man with the light would do — check its ID.

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If I Were A Painter . . .

I’ve penned some love letters to Cape Cod on these pages, but it has been a while since last I did. Yes, I’m in love with The Cape. My wife Sandy seconds that emotion. The enormous expanses of undeveloped oceanside shorelines; the humungous, otherworldly sand dunes that run for miles within the peninsula’s far reaches; the I-never-would-have-expected-them-to-be-there woods and forests that pepper the landscape . . . Cape Cod has natural beauty up the grand wazoo. And, that being what we most favor about The Cape, Sandy and I spend lots of time poking around the great outdoors during our Cape vacations. But we also like to emerge from the wilderness and do other types of things that ring our bells. For example, we get big bangs from some of the old village sections of certain Cape towns, such as those in Provincetown, Wellfleet and Orleans. They are cute and charming. We wander on their streets, investigate their stores and stuff our faces at dinnertime in their restaurants.

Last October, in Orleans, we took in a cool event one Saturday morning. The Addison Art Gallery, one of Cape Cod’s best, organized it. Two or more times each year AAG selects an outdoors Cape area to be immortalized and invites a bunch of the artists it represents to find views that spark them in said area, set up their easels and paint away. In October, Addison chose Orleans’ villagey heart, in which it is located, as the locale. The artists were instructed to paint and complete their masterpieces between 8 AM and noon, and then to bring the canvases to AAG where they would be framed and hung on the walls and offered for sale that evening at an artsy gathering to which the public was invited.

Maryalice Eizenberg.
Maryalice Eizenberg.

Sandy and I, who haven’t lifted a paint brush since grade school, like to watch good artists at work. So who knows why we got a real late start and didn’t arrive at the five or so square block painting zone until 11 AM. By that time most of the artists had finished their jobs and were packing up or already gone. Luckily we got to see two painters who were still going at it. On a sidewalk near AAG, Maryalice Eizenberg, hooded to shield herself from our friend the Sun, was staring down a big, old, yellow Victorian house across the street. She sweetly translated what she saw, in colors deeper than those 80 feet away. We chatted with her for a couple of minutes as she worked. “Have you seen what Paul Schulenburg is painting?” she asked us. No, we hadn’t. “Take a look. You won’t believe what his subject is.” And she pointed to where we’d find him, hidden from view from her own spot, but only half a block away.

Paul Schulenburg.
Paul Schulenburg.

Now, Paul Schulenburg is an artist whose oils I have seen at AAG over the years. He’s really good. His paintings have a stillness, a sense of completeness, à la Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Sandy and I followed Maryalice’s finger and came upon him. He and his easel were positioned between two houses, and he was zeroing in on a small section of one of the houses, a large and mostly white-shingled affair. But it wasn’t the house so much that he was interested in. What had caught his eye, and had become the focal point of his painting, was a bright green garden hose. Its color contrasted just-so with the less brilliant green of the side lawn, and had plenty to say to the house’s white shingles and red bricks. “Man, this guy is something else,” I more or less thought to myself. “A hose? Yup, and he is doing it proud.”

For reasons unknown, that October day floated to the top of my porous memory bank last week, and it got me thinking. Were there any aspects of my house’s exterior or grounds worth putting down on canvas? I decided to take a look. I would use my best impersonation of Paul Schulenburg’s painterly eye.

Sandy’s and my abode rests in the middle of a typical suburban block near Philadelphia. The house is modest and is surrounded by more shrubs and trees than I enjoy taking care of. All of it looks nice, but ain’t exactly a head-turner. I mean, Better Homes And Gardens Magazine has no plans to contact me anytime soon for a photo shoot. That, however, wasn’t the point. My mission was to pay attention to the details, to notice boffo alignments of objects, neato color contrasts, whatever, that were waiting to be discovered.

IMG_0821IMG_0799IMG_0805My house? Man, I’m glad to be living within it, but, take it from me, its exterior front and sides are vanilla. Tons of bricks and stones with almost nothing quirky or asymmetrical going on. I gazed artistically at one of the few ornamentations, a tangle of gas meter and pipes near the front door, and wondered if it would make for a decent painting. Well, maybe, but  . . . eh. I then walked around back and gave the grounds there a once-over, starting with the shed. How about its doors? Their designs seemed kind of sharp. Or did they? Nah, the scene lacked pop. A blooming Rose Of Sharon in the backyard, however, definitely did pop. How many floral scenes have been painted over the years, though? Maybe 20 billion. The world didn’t need this one.

IMG_0841All was not in vain. Because attached to the rear of the house is a great-looking deck that I figured would hold out hope. Hope morphed into certainty when I spotted something on one of the deck’s supporting posts. It was a knot, golden and aglow, in the wood. That’s what I would paint if I were a painter, I decided. It was a natural, a star waiting to be born. I walked around the knot, snapping photos, checking out various vantage points. And came to think that one perspective gave the best results for my imagined painting. In that vista you see the crazy quilt formed by part of the deck’s underside and the stairs leading up. You see a bit of slate patio and brick surface of the house. The scene’s palette is muted, all wan greys and browns, except for the golden medallion that you can’t take your eyes off of.

But I did take my eyes off the knot in a bit. And then I folded up my fantasy easel and went inside. It’s good to learn things, and I came away from all of this with an insight that never had occurred to me before: A painter in search of something to paint is little different than a writer (moi?) trying to come up with a story idea. And exactly the same is true for dance choreographers, photographers, film makers, chemists, astrophysicists, chefs, you name it, all on the prowl for projects that will make them buzz. The wellsprings of creativity are thick and bubbling, though not always easily tapped.

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(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The others by yours truly. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Great Blue, Good Blue, Bad Blue: Thoughts About A Joni Mitchell Song

My well-worn copy of Blue the album.
My well-worn copy of Blue the album.

Probably it was inevitable that Joni Mitchell’s album Blue would find its way into one of my essays. That’s because it is one of my all-time favorite records. And I hardly stand alone. Blue, after all, appears high on the “greatest albums ever” lists of music critics galore. With good reason. It’s an awfully brilliant work. Joni’s naked emotions, from high to low, saturate Blue’s songs, all of which she wrote. By no means am I an expert on the Mitchell canon, but from what I hear when I listen to Blue, and from what I’ve read, Joni’s openness was at its acme during the writing and recording of Blue, which came out in 1971. As self-revealing as many other of her albums are, Blue walks away with the “Here’s What I’m All About” prize. If you aren’t familiar with Blue, you will add some wows to your day by tracking it down and giving it a whirl.

But you know what? I’m not going to write any further about Blue the album on this virtual sheet of paper. That’s just like me . . . erratic. I won’t stray too far off course, however, as I now turn my gaze to Blue the sad song. It is the final track on side one of Blue the album’s vinyl incarnation. Although I’ve heard this song more than 100 times, I’d guess, over the years, it wasn’t till last week that I paid devoted attention to its lyrics. That’s just like me, too, a guy who has had trouble figuring out the meaning of 99% of the tunes he’s listened to during his life, including Happy Birthday To You and My Ding-A-Ling (it was a Chuck Berry hit). As an aside I’ll mention that my poor levels of lyrical insight and understanding are predictable. Back in my freshman year at college I stunned my Introduction To English Literature professor with my denseness. He had to create a new grade for me. An F wasn’t low enough, so he gave me a G, which stood for Gawdawful. Miraculously, my interpretative powers have inched upward a bit since those days.

Blue the song is track five on side one.
Blue the song is track five on side one.

When I heard Blue the song last week, it struck some heavy chords with me, as it always does, and I began trying to figure out a way to work it into a story. I was all set to compare it to a couple of other sad tunes with blue in their titles. Such as Dinah Washington’s 1955 version of Blue Gardenia and Willie Nelson’s 1975 take on Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. But before I could do that I needed to examine Blue’s lyrics and attempt to decipher them. I looked at them and came away, I think, with a reasonable understanding. And that’s when an interesting thought entered my brain. Lyrically, Blue is so Joni-personal, and musically so shape-shifting, I wondered if anyone ever covered it. Nah, that’s pretty doubtful I decided. But oh so wrong I was, as some Googling revealed. Amazingly to me, lots of people have taken a crack at it, some more successfully than others. Wham! “There’s a story in there,” I said to myself. Probably many. However, we’ll save many for future days and keep the remainder of this analysis on the modest side.

There’s no better place to continue than with Blue’s words, which are relatively few. Here they are:

Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.

Hey Blue, there is a song for you.
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.

Well there’s so many sinking now,
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass.
Needles, guns, and grass.
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs.

Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though.
Blue, I love you.

Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.

Those lyrics startle me. They rock, they roll, they roil. Delicately. They paint a picture of fragile love. And until last week I hadn’t realized that they are addressed to a specific person (James Taylor, Joni’s boyfriend during parts of 1970 and ’71, is many observers’ guess) whose identity she isn’t revealing but, for the song’s sake, she has nicknamed Blue. Joni loves Mr. Blue, but can’t quite reach him. There are more than a few degrees of disconnect. A head-over-heels-in-love song for him wouldn’t fit the nature of their relationship. The best she can do is to pen a foggy lullaby to help fill in an empty space. Ouch. Love hurts.

Joni Mitchell sings Blue fervently, her voice sometimes quivering, accompanied only by the piano whose keys she hits good and hard (click here to hear the song). Her vocal is forthright and drips with pain and uncertainty. She didn’t want additional instruments or voices to distract from her message. She aimed for simplicity in her rendition.

Joni’s Blue is pretty perfect, don’t you think? The world would be just fine with no version of the song but hers. I can understand, though, why others would approach it. For some artists, Blue might cut so deeply they are uncontrollably compelled to record it. For others, putting a different spin on singular Blue seemingly becomes a challenge they can’t resist undertaking.

Roughly 100 cover versions of Blue have been recorded. And I gave a listen to a dozen of them before I said to myself: “Yo, anal dude! Enough already.” But the 12 I visited comprised an ear-opening experience. And speaking of yo . . . Yo, Kevin Sandbloom! What the fu*k were you thinking? Kevin — your jumpy Blue is wrong, man, wrong. Haven’t you ever heard of subtlety? And what’s with your vocal undulations? They send the song on a nasty roller coaster ride. Joni should sue you, man. Driver, let me off! (Click here to listen)

On the other hand . . . Yo, Dubistry! I shuddered at first listening. But your version grew on me. Who’d have thunk that a reggae-clothed Blue would work? Those crashing drums and cymbals send shock waves. But, in the end, your Blue can handle them because you didn’t allow the spirit of Joni’s Blue to disappear. (Click here to listen)

Yeah, the spirit of Joni’s Blue. I guess that’s what I was looking for all along. And I found it in the Blues lofted to us by Cat Power and Sarah McLachlan. Picking one over the other is tough, but I’m going to go with Sarah’s, which you can listen to by clicking here. Sarah does Blue proud. She sings the song slowly, buoyed by quiet and well-placed electric bass notes, by shimmering electric keyboards, and dramatically by a multi-tracked heavenly female choir. Sarah’s Blue sounds better and better to me the more I return to it. It is ethereal, majestic. A week ago I’d never have believed I might say this, but the McLaughlin Blue equals and possibly outdoes Joni’s.

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Me And My Muse: A Cry For Help (Hers, Not Mine)

Planet Earth contains over seven billion humans who are pushing hard to raise that number to eight billion. Of that multitude I’d estimate that 20 or 25 persons might recall my story from a few months ago about Erratica, one of the Greek goddesses and, more to the point, my wondrous muse (clicking here will make the tale appear). Clearly, my readership’s growth curve has almost limitless room to expand. That’s a positive, isn’t it? Go get ’em, cowboy! Yeah, you can do it!

Oh, Erratica, Erratica. She has helped me immeasurably since I took up blogging last year. Nearly every week she has materialized in my home to guide me, to prod me into getting my thoughts in order. Without her this blog would be nothing. Come to think of it, though, it’s kind of nothing anyway. Aww, shit.

Erratica
Erratica

Yes, like clockwork for the most part, Erratica has appeared on Thursdays. Except during my vacations, that is. She and I have an agreement that she won’t pop in on me when my wife Sandy and I are away, as we were for part of last month. But after we returned home, Erratica missed her next scheduled appointment. I didn’t give that much thought, figuring she had gotten my vacation dates wrong. But I began to worry the following Thursday when again she was a no-show. What was going on? Had Erratica abandoned me? If she had, I was staring the end of my blogging career in the face.

This past Thursday evening, as usual, I sat in my suburban Philadelphia home’s library. Decked out in hot pink cargo pants and my favorite bright blue t-shirt emblazoned with Wazzup, Dawgie? in neon green letters, I dazzled. Worn out from worrying about Erratica, sleep began to overtake me.

“Oh, Neil. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you. It seems like weeks since last we met,” an unsteady voice said, quickly awakening me. Erratica was in the house.

“My goddess, where have you been? I’m overjoyed that you are here. The last two weeks without you turned me into a nervous wreck. Miraculously I was able to write articles, but it was a struggle.”

I stood up and looked Erratica in the eyes. Something was very wrong. A handful of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. I had never seen her like this. She needed a seat. I brought a chair from the dining room and placed it next to mine. She took it and opened up her heart.

“Neil, I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do. You know my dad? Zeus?” she half-sobbed.

“Well, I’ve never had the pleasure. But I know of him,” I said. “Is he ill or something?”

Ill?” she cried. “He’s fitter than a fiddle, that old guy. He’s indestructible! But something has come between us. He can’t tolerate the way I’ve been performing my job . . . my bad attendance record, my lack of patience with my charges, the sarcastic barbs that I throw at them. Neil, I’m supposed to help unpolished writers like you, and for millennia that’s exactly what I did. But I’ve been failing them of late, including you. So, my dad has done the unthinkable . . . he has put me on probation. ‘Daughter, you better get it together fast, or you’re out!’ he said to me this morning. Neil, you are the first pseudo-scribe I’ve visited since he uttered those words. I need your help!”

It took me more than a few moments to process what I had heard. Then I took a deep breath, not knowing what words would tumble from my mouth.

“Erratica, somehow you have it all wrong. You have been a lifesaver to me these past many months. Sure, you can be crabby and mean, but so what? The bottom line is that your kicks to my ass have been productive. Because of you I’ve turned out a load of stories. Without you, I’d spend my writing sessions with fingers frozen to my computer’s keyboard.”

“But I need to become more reliable and customer-friendly, Neil, like I used to be. Somehow I got worn down by all the griping and whining that you and your amateur tribe are famous for.”

“Erratica,” I said, gently placing a hand on her left shoulder. “The world, on a human level, is a tough place, filled with negatives that make griping and whining seem like pablum. And I think that all of those real problems have gotten to you, even though you’re not human. If I tell you about a few good things that have been going on, might that help?”

“It might,” Erratica said quietly. “It might.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes. As you know, Sandy and I went to Paris and Amsterdam last month. We had a superb time. They are such great places. We did a lot and were with a couple of our friends for most of the trip. It was primo fun. For instance . . . ”

She cut me off. “I’m familiar with the details. Believe it or not, I read your stories about the vacation. I’m one of the few who did.”

“And you liked them?” I asked, wary of the forthcoming answer.

“Uh, they were okay. You’re not exactly Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, though, are you?”

“Be nice, Erratica.” I said. “I’m your friend.”

“Forgive me, Neil. It won’t happen again,” she said. And for some reason I believed her.

IMG_0793 (2)“And very recently we went to the movies to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s delightful. Taika Waititi, who I never heard of before, wrote and directed it. The flick takes place in New Zealand. It’s about a 13 year old who has spent his whole life in the child welfare system being passed around from one foster care family to another. At the start of the movie he looks and acts like a sullen bag of trouble. Doesn’t talk to people, dresses like a gangsta-in-training, which he fancies himself to be. Then he gets placed with a back-to-nature couple living in bush country, and his world changes. His sweetness and innocence begin to emerge, don’t ask me why considering everything he’s been through. Probably he barely knew himself that they were there. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation. And he’s not the only person who changes for the better. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything else. Erratica, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. We all need a healthy dose of healthy emotions these days, and this movie will give that to you.”

The sofa that Erratica eyed.
The sofa that Erratica eyed.

Erratica’s face brightened. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks for the boost,” she said. “Sounds like a good movie. And sounds like you’ll be banging out a story about it for your blog.” She paused for a second. “Neil, I’ve been in a bad way for a long time now. But I’m going to try hard to get back on track. My father’s a no-nonsense sort and means what he says. If he kicks me off of Mount Helicon I’ll have nowhere to go.” She walked into my living room to take a peek. I followed her there. “Could I crash on this sofa if it comes to that?” she asked. “It looks comfy. Oh my, how the time flies. There’s a nitwit in Vermont who I have to visit now. For kicks he gets a colonoscopy every week and writes narratives about them for his blog. The blog’s called Checking Up On My Innards. And it’s actually pretty interesting, a lot better than you’d expect. Somehow he doesn’t run out of things to say. Neil, I’ll see you in a week.”

And in a poof she was gone.

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