Call Me “Mister Helpful”

My most recent monthly session with my psychiatrist was a most unusual one, because Dr. R. U. Forereel opened up to me rather than the other way around.

“Have a seat, Neil,” Dr. Forereel said quietly when I entered her office, a small room whose every aspect is as stylish and welcoming as can be. I obeyed, placing my bony ass on the comfortable patient’s chair. It faced its clone, occupied by the good doctor, from a distance of five feet.

“Neil,” she continued, an unmistakable tone of dejection in her voice, “I’m in the midst of an existential crisis, one so powerful I can’t escape its clutches. I want to be totally upfront with you right now. Here’s the bottom line: My condition is interfering with my ability to do my job. Which is why I suspect that you won’t make much progress at today’s session. Not that you’ve progressed very far at all during the many years you’ve been seeing me.”

“That’s not true, Dr. Forereel,” I replied. “You’ve enabled me to understand more accurately and fully who I am. Your insights have helped me come to grips with the fact that, basically, I’m just the most average of Joes, making my way haphazardly and erratically through this earthly realm. Why, without you I’d still be reaching for the stars, getting disappointed right and left when things didn’t work out. As a result, doctor, you’ve turned me into a fairly happy individual. I am in your debt!”

“That’s so kind of you to say, Neil. I wish I could share your opinion of my talents, but I’m afraid that my existential crisis won’t allow me to feel joy.”

“There, you’ve said it again. What the hell is an existential crisis, doctor?”

“Well, my problems are deep-rooted, Neil. You see, I’m ill-fitted to be a psychiatrist. Far too often I’m unsympathetic and, undoubtedly, prickly. If I were of the male gender, it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe me not only as prickly but as a prick too. In any case, my soul is roiling and troubled. Neil, I question the whys and wherefores of my existence.” She paused. “I hope I’ve answered your question adequately,” she then said.

“Yes, doctor, you have. Oy frigging vey! You’re in bad shape. But I’ll try to help, even though help isn’t exactly my middle name. The last time I provided assistance to anyone was 60 years ago, when, despite her vehement protests, I carried a little old lady across a small puddle in the middle of the road. I ended up in juvenile court for that attempt at doing a good deed. Lesson learned!”

“Well, in that case I won’t say that I’m in good hands, Neil. But I am interested in what actions you might be proposing.”

“Doctor, I have a website called Yeah, Another Blogger. That’s where I’ve published the various articles I’ve written over the last seven years. You know about this, I believe.”

Of course I do! You bring up this boring topic every damn time I see you.”

“My bad, doctor. But here’s what I’m getting at: My advice to you is to take up writing, just as I did. You should aim to go farther than me, however. In other words, you should write a book, a memoir of the journey that led you to become the wonderful psychiatrist that you are. If you do, I guarantee you’ll recognize and take comfort from the fact that you’ve guided countless people to better mental and emotional health.”

Dr. Forereel sat silently for many a second, mulling over my comments. Finally, and most energetically, she spoke.

“Neil, this is a genius idea! Yes, yes, yes! I will tell my story, and the world will listen and learn. And, just as important, I will learn too. Thank you so much. I’ll begin writing when I arrive home tonight. I’m sure I’ll need an editor, though. Is there anyone you might recommend?”

“Edgar Reewright is your man, doctor,” I replied without hesitation. “He has edited my pieces right from the start. Maybe we should call him and feel him out.”

Doctor Forereel nodded enthusiastically, so I dialed Edgar’s number and put the phone on speaker.

What the hell do you want, Neil?” Edgar shouted. “I’m in the middle of looking over the story you sent to me yesterday. Per usual, it blows.”

“Listen up, Edgar,” I said, ignoring his insult. “I’m with my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel. She plans to write a memoir and wants to know if you’d edit the book for her.”

“Isn’t she the doctor whose office decor was voted best in the nation by the American Psychiatric Association this year?” Edgar asked.

At that, Dr. Forereel jumped right in. “Hello, Edgar! Dr. Forereel here. I’m impressed that you’re aware of the prestigious award I won from the APA. I’d be honored if you’d edit my book. I have so much to say and to reveal. Millions of people will take heart from my inspirational tale. Oh my, I’m feeling confident and purposeful once again. Please be my editor, Edgar!”

Edgar, undoubtedly envisioning a handsome commission, wasted no time in agreeing to the proposal. He chitchatted with Dr. Forereel for a while and then ended the call, promising to contact her soon to work out all the details. A few minutes later, my session having reached its conclusion, I rose from the patient’s chair.

“You are a lifesaver, a gift from above,” said Dr. Forereel as she ushered me to the door. “Thank you, Neil, thank you! To show my gratitude, your next five years of therapy, starting today, will be cost-free.”

“Doctor, I hope that I won’t need anything close to five more years of therapy. I’m doing so well, after all.”

“That’s what you think,” my doctor said. “But, alas, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. I promise that I’ll continue doing my utmost to try and help you see things more clearly.”

Shit!

Here’s Some Of What I Liked In August. What Rang Your Bell?

Yup, August has come and gone. And in a few blinks of an eye, 2023 will have arrived. Zoom! I tell you, there’s no doubt that time flies at accelerating rates the older we get. And being genuinely old, I ain’t happy about that. To say the least. I don’t know how many grains of sand remain in the upper part of my hourglass. But, whatever the number, a shitload more would suit me just fine.

Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it. So, to steer my mind away from the above paragraph’s depressing direction, let me mention some things that brought a smile to my crinkled face during the month that waved goodbye to us a handful of days ago.

First up are peaches and corn on the cob, without which life wouldn’t be as sweet. It being summer here in the USA, the harvesting season for those fine forms of produce, my wife Sandy and I would have been fools not to indulge in them during August.

I’ve loved peaches for nearly all of my life. I think, though, that their deliciousness began to make truly deep impressions upon me somewhere in my 40s. Man, what a treat it is to bite into a peach. A good peach, that is, not one of the mealy ones that have become more commonplace in recent years. Such beautiful flavor, as luxurious as you could hope for. And a texture, in the happy zone between soft and firm, that was made to seduce. I had some real good peaches in August. And tossed aside a couple of very sub-par examples too. You win some, you lose some. In any case, the peach season in the States hasn’t all that much longer to go, a damn shame.

Likewise, fresh corn’s availability already has peaked. Last month, getting while the getting was good, Sandy and I chomped down on boiled ears of corn at dinnertime three or four times. We gave them a thumbs-up. Helpful public servant that I am, I’d like to give you a tip for dressing corn on the cob: Peel back the paper a bit on a stick of butter, then rub the exposed butter all over the corn while twirling the cob. This method is much better than attempting to place pats of butter on the corn with a knife. Those pats, as we know, usually end up skidding all over the f*cking place. I’ve already accepted your thanks in advance!

Now it’s time to talk about television series, a media format that has pleased the hell out of me since the start of the pandemic. Hungry for entertainment, I began watching series in earnest at that time, something I hadn’t done in years. Sandy has been my viewing companion. And, even though Covid’s roar has lessened, we haven’t slackened our pace, for during August we devoured two limited series (We Own This City and the scripted version of The Staircase, not the documentary by that name) and one season each of multi-season productions (Capitani and Never Have I Ever). The first three that I mentioned are very much worth watching, but they are grim. Ergo, I’ll limit my commentary to the sole smile-inducing series among August’s fare.

Never Have I Ever, a thoughtful comedy on Netflix, tells the tale of Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian-American public high school student in California. Devi, smart as a whip but fairly low in the self-confidence department, isn’t one of the cool, popular girls at school. She has a loving family, fortunately, and several trusted, loyal girlfriends. Thus, her situation overall is quite decent, despite the cruel fact that the death of her father, during her freshman year, was a blow that tests her mightily.

There have been three seasons of Never Have I Ever so far. Sandy and I have watched them all, polishing off the latest run in August. During season three’s ten episodes, Devi loses a boyfriend, attempts to land a new beau, contemplates losing her virginity, and completes her junior year of high school with top grades. And her pals are no slouches in the busy-lives department either. Wow! There’s a lot going on in this show. Cleverly too, partly because of the sarcastic, sometimes-exasperated voice-over narration by, if you can believe it, John McEnroe. He’s the former tennis champ who was known for his verbal outbursts on the court as much as for the beauty of his game. McEnroe does a great job, adding volleys of whams and bams to a coming-of-age story that’s handled with insight and care.

With that, I’ll toss a tennis ball into your half of the court. What rang your bell last month, food-wise, entertainment-wise, nature-wise, anything-at-all-wise?

A Colorful Self-Discovery Story

When, via Yeah, Another Blogger, I began launching stories into cyberspace back in April 2015, I didn’t realize that, over time, the writing process would increase my knowledge about who the hell I am. I’ve found this to be kind of neat, an unexpected bonus. After all, I’m an old f*ck who, since his teens, has been a champ at moving unsteadily through life. So, you better believe I happily embrace any aha moments that arrive. It’s good when the lights turn on.

For example, while penning an essay (Hippieish Notes From The Information Desk) a few years ago, it became clear to me that the values of the hippie era — those heady days of my youth when freedom, open-mindedness, peace, love and understanding were put into practice by millions upon millions of young folks around the world — shaped many of my basic outlooks. Somehow this truth had eluded me consciously and, were it not for writing, probably would still be lost in the extensive foggy regions of my mind.

Which brings us to colors, a subject I’ll now present as a second example of my increased self-awareness. I’ve written about colors numerous times, having devoted pieces to red, orange and the beauty of flowering trees, to cite several instances. While knocking out the first few of my color-centric opuses, I came to appreciate more fully than before that colors are really important to me. They get to me emotionally, some color schemes relaxing me, some exciting me, some causing me to stare in wonder as the words oh, wow slip from my lips.

But my relationships with colors go farther than that, for, while writing, it also dawned on me that I encourage colors to affect me, by seeking them out pretty damn often. I’d feel a bit less alive if I didn’t. “Pursuer of colors” is an occupational title that I’m proud to have on my resumé.

Well, one morning a couple of weeks ago, as my bony ass sank deeper and deeper into my living room sofa, I decided that rising to my feet might not be a bad idea. Nor would a pursuit of vibrant hues to brighten up the day. That’s why I promptly stood up, exited the house and drove a few miles to Glenside, Pennsylvania, a fine town whose commercial corridors are studded with every type of small business you can imagine. I arrived there at 9:00 AM, under soothing blue skies.

Now, in my neck of the woods, which includes Glenside, neutral colors rule: the tans, browns, greys and blacks that, in one combination or another, fill buildings, paved roads and sidewalks. And greens are dominant too, the deep greens of foliage, specifically. As much as I like those tones, they never have, and never will, send me over the moon exactly.

Of course, plenty of happier hues, the ones I was on a mission to locate, also exist in Glenside. After pounding the pavement for an hour, I found a dozen or more scenes bright enough to put a nice big smile on my face. Five of the scenes illustrate this story.

There was no denying the power of the Sunoco gas station, for certain. Its signage, an in-your-face rainbow of colors, all bursting with life, won me over from the second it came into view.

As did a subtler composition, one that centers around avocado green umbrellas. The umbrellas, belonging to a café at the Glenside railroad station, added a ton of juice to a setting that otherwise would have been described as drab, man, drab. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.

All in all, though, I felt that there was one clear winner, a striking combination of Beauty (a dreamy mural) and the Beast (a mottled, pale-orange-tinged trestle, emboldened with wide black and gold stripes to lessen the chances that motorists will plow into it). When I saw the mural peeking out from behind the trestle, which supports overhead railroad tracks, I was taken by the incongruity of the overall display. An incongruity that totally works, however. The mural and the decorated trestle are partners. They feed off each other’s energy. The music they make together might be on the dissonant side, but despite that, it’s a composition that hits all the right notes.

To The Deck!

How fortunate am I to live in a house that has a deck? Real fortunate. I like the deck a lot, though I don’t take advantage of it as often as I should. About eight feet above ground level and attached to the rear of my abode, it extends fully from one end of the house to the other. From the deck I have an assortment of scenes to look at, including partial views of man-made stuff on nearby properties: brickwork, garage doors, sheds, recycling bins, etc. But who cares about any of that? Manufactured items I damn well would look at carefully, though, if they were there, are swimming pools and hot tubs. But only if gorgeous girls were occupying them. Some day, after I’ve bit the dust, a pool or hot tub or two undoubtedly will appear, and gorgeous girls will put them to good use. Shit! Bad timing on my part.

Luckily, I have worthy viewing options. For instance, when on the deck in daylight I sometimes gaze at the sky and at the trees in my backyard and on other lots, all the while listening to the birdies do their chirping thing. That’s one of my go-to ways of trying to become one with Nature. And, you know, sipping on coffee, and grooving to human music in addition to the avian variety, tends to make that combination of activities even better. Which is why, after plopping my ass down on a deck chair, I had a swell time one recent Saturday morning.

Ah yes, the trees. The deciduous ones are voluminous right now here in Pennsylvania, where summer is in full swing. As I admired a collection of trees from the deck, their leaves as green as green can be, I nearly rose from my chair and bowed down to them. Trees project a majestic aura. I don’t take them for granted.

The skies were wonderful too. A dreamy shade of blue, with strands of clouds lolling about, they put me at ease. What’s more, though we were in the midst of a heat wave, the early morning temps hadn’t yet gone haywire. I was as comfortable as I’d be on a crisp autumn day.

In need of caffeine, I wasted no time saying hello to my mug of coffee. As I did so, I tuned in to the birdsong. Although I didn’t spot any of our feathered friends, it was obvious they were out there in abundance, because an a cappella opus, consisting of trills and staccato bursts, bounced energetically through the air. Now, I’m a f*cking dope when it comes to birds. I can identify only a handful by sight and only one species (crows) by sound. Nonetheless, I dig the music they compose. Who doesn’t?

Amazingly, typical neighborhood noises were absent or minimal during the 40 minutes I sat outside. Human voices (belonging to kids in a house opposite mine) didn’t arrive until the 30-minute mark. Motor vehicle growls and screeches were few. And not a single canine bark rang out. What? How was that possible? There are a million dogs in my immediate neighborhood, and they ain’t famed for being quiet.

Anyway, as it turned out, bird calls were not the primary sounds to reach my ears, because I decided after a few minutes on the deck that the scenario I was part of might reach a higher level if recorded music were added to it. I was proven correct when I dialed up some SiriusXM satellite-radio channels on my smart phone. Nearly all of the songs I heard hit the spot, two in particular: Goodbye Mr. Blue, by folk-rock star Father John Misty, and Chill On Cold, by little-known blues and soul singer BIGLLOU Johnson. They were released in 2022 and 2021, respectively. Goodbye Mr. Blue is a moody contemplation on a failed relationship. Chill On Cold talks about a lady whom guys would be wise to avoid. I think it’s cooler than cool, and that BIGLLOU deserves to become popular as hell one day.

That’s a wrap, ladies and gents. Here are the tunes. Till next time!

That’s Life

A few weeks ago I headed to a nearby public library to engage in an activity that I like a lot: wandering up and down fiction aisles in search of my next read. Sometimes I have a specific author or title in mind. But more often than not I examine the shelves randomly, pulling out books here and there and giving them the once-over. Prone to quick judgments that undoubtedly are incorrect the majority of the time, within seconds I commonly return many of those books to their assigned places. Hey, they had a chance to make a good first impression, but they blew it!

However, by the end of almost every visit I stand at the checkout desk with two or more volumes in hand, hoping that at least one of them is worthy. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. A few weeks ago, at the aforementioned library, I won, arriving home with a pile of books that included An Actual Life, by Abigail Thomas, whom I’d never heard of until her novel caught my roving eye. Normally a herky-jerky reader whose attention span over the last 20 years has fallen off a f*cking cliff, I found myself gliding through Thomas’s opus, digging the journey. An Actual Life, which was published in 1996, is good. Damn good.

It is the saga of married couple Virginia and Buddy, their baby daughter Madeline, and a small cast of other characters. Virginia is 19, Buddy is 21. Though they knew far too little about each other, wanting to do the “right thing” they’d wed after Virginia, during the first coital session she ever had engaged in, became pregnant by Buddy.

Most appropriately and agreeably, Abigail Thomas has endowed Virginia, the narrator of An Actual Life, with a homespun way of talking. Set in small-town New Jersey and Massachusetts circa 1960, the book opens when Madeline is just shy of her first birthday, by which time Virginia and Buddy’s marriage has become nearly as cold as a refrigerator’s freezer section. Not only are they not in love, they never truly were. Unhappy and stumbling through life, Virginia doesn’t know what she should do. And she has little idea what Buddy thinks about their situation, or about anything else really, as he is pretty much the silent type. Around her, anyway. Her love for Madeline, whom she adores, is enough to keep Virginia going, but to where?

Right from the start the book pulls no punches. A couple of hundred words in, mulling over the fact that Buddy is with her only out of a sense of duty, Virginia has this to say:

And there’s really nothing about me to love anyway. There’s not even really any me, exactly. I keep changing inside my skin. There’s no definite person in here. My voice comes out weird and I hardly ever say anything I mean.

Man, those are heavy-duty statements. Virginia’s low self-esteem is on clear display throughout the remaining pages too. Fortunately for the reader, Virginia also is witty as hell. The combination of bleakness and barbed observations makes An Actual Life feel real. There’s nothing strained or artificial here. Thomas writes like a champ.

Unlike the vast majority of books I tackle, An Actual Life got me thinking about life, its challenges, pitfalls, delights, vagaries, and all the rest of the deal. If Thomas ever were to pen a sequel to An Actual Life, I’m guessing it would take place 15 or more years later, and that Virginia, having faced up to her realities, would be on at least fairly strong footing.

Isn’t that the way things go for most of us? In our teens and into our twenties or beyond, we’re still babes in the woods, more or less, trying to figure out what paths to take and to decipher what the hell our garbled inner voices are saying to us. Even if we don’t necessarily lift the veils perfectly, and few folks do, eventually we create lives for ourselves that make the grade.

What’s more, when we think about it, we likely realize that we’ve acquired a nice amount of wisdom along the way. The pearls I’m about to spout seem obvious to me now, but they weren’t until maybe 15 years ago. I believe, for instance, that being loving and kind absolutely is where it’s at, and that said behaviors are the keys to a fulfilling life. And I’m convinced that it’s crucial to cultivate and nourish friendships. We can’t have too many friends, good ones especially. Solid friendships, after all, bring us joy and, when needed, comfort, and can open our minds in delightful ways.

Well, seeing that I ain’t exactly Plato or Confucius, I sure as shit better end my philosophizing right now, before I get in way over my head. Till next time!

My Pal Alfie

Not a bad photo, huh? The dog, who goes by the name of Alfie and who is in possession of enormous eyes that peer deeply into yours, seeking your essence, is cute as can be. And he was even cuter a couple of weeks before this picture was taken. By which I mean that Alfie, a Wheaten Terrier, was the definition of luxuriously shaggy at that time (I’ve seen photographic proof of this). But when his owners — my brother Richie and my sister-in-law Sara — brought him to a groomer for what they thought would be a trim, the groomer, totally incompetent and/or smashed out of his or her mind, went hog wild and sheared off tons of hair. Alfie was left looking as sleek as a sausage. I’d have sued. Or maybe not . . . after all, the new version of Alfie is still damn cute.

I made Alfie’s acquaintance in early June when my wife Sandy and I visited the aforementioned couple and other family members in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The photo dates from that visit. Alfie was nine months old. At one time a human was prominently displayed in the photo too. Me. But I cropped the picture drastically because I look like absolute shit in it, disheveled and sporting neck folds as thick as ham steaks. I don’t know, maybe I look like absolute shit pretty much all the time. At my advanced age it’s perfectly possible. But I like to dream that such isn’t the case.

The most amazing and unexpected thing for me about the New Mexico trip was that Alfie and I took to each other as though we were predestined to become close pals. This was a wonderful experience. It felt totally natural, making me realize that I’ve missed the boat, pet-wise, never having had a dog or cat as a kid or an adult.

Now, cats ain’t my favorite cup of tea anyway, so I have no regrets about their continual absence from my life. They’re too aloof, though I know there are exceptions. Dogs, however, I feel fine about. I’ve been with a fair number of them, including three that Richie and Sara owned prior to Alfie. But only one canine — a mutt named Maggie who lived with friends of mine during the 1970s — ever showed more than the slightest interest in me. Maggie, exhibiting dubious taste, dug me a lot. The bond between me and her was the strongest I’ve ever had with a non-member of my species. Until Alfie entered the picture, that is.

My relationship with Alfie developed, no doubt, due to my lack of hesitancy in patting his head and rubbing his stomach. Alfie, it was clear to me, couldn’t get enough of those forms of contact. As a result, before I knew it he was paying meaningful attention to me, often laying his head on my legs or resting one of his paws gently on my arm. And gazing with wonder and interest into my eyes. Which resulted in my petting and rubbing him even more than I had, cementing the feelings that flowed between us. Strong feelings, you understand. Alfie, you’re my kind of dog. That is to say, you like me!

As for Sandy, well, she and Alfie had a mutual admiration society going too. But there’s no denying that Alfie seemed fonder of me than he did of her. Sorry, Sandy, but facts are facts!

Will Sandy and I ever get a dog? Probably not. Owning a dog is a big responsibility, one that requires a lot of time. I’m not particularly up for that. I haven’t discussed the topic with Sandy, but I’m pretty certain that she isn’t up for it either. You never know, though. The love and companionship that a dog provides aren’t to be underestimated, that’s for sure.

Sandy and I were around Alfie for eight days. When will we see him again? There’s a real chance that we’ll visit Richie and Sara next year. So, maybe it won’t be terribly long before my new friend and I commune once more. Usually it’s not easy making friends, especially when you’re frigging old, like me. If only all friendships developed as quickly as this one did.

A Family Gathering And A Desert Walk (My 300th Story)

It’s good to be around your relatives, is it not? Yeah, it is, but only if you like them! Well, my wife Sandy and I are crazy about my brother Richie and his wife Sara, and their oldest son Ben and his wife Amanda, and the latter couple’s two young boys. Ergo, we had one hell of a fine time recently when we gathered with this family grouping in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is where Richie and Sara reside.

Now, being Pennsylvania denizens, Sandy and I don’t get to see the folks listed above all that often, as they live so damn far away from us. Especially Ben and company, who call Hawaii home. So, when earlier this year the Hawaiian crew decided they would visit Richie and Sara in a few months, well, Sandy and I wasted no time in making our arrangements to join the upcoming celebration. We arrived in Santa Fe, via American Airlines, on the 31st of May.

We spent three days with the entire clan and, after Ben and company decamped for Hawaii, four more with Richie and Sara. The time flew by at lightning speed, as time is wont to do. Sandy and I did all kinds of fun things with the family. You know, shooting the shit, eating swell meals, playing with the kids, going here and there and there and here, etc., etc. It almost didn’t matter what was going on, though, since everybody was just plain glad to be together.

One activity in particular rang my bell exceedingly well. It resulted from Sara asking me, soon after Ben and his crew began their journey home, if there was anything special that I wanted to do in New Mexico. “Nah, not really,” I thought to myself. But all of a sudden I realized that there was: Below the surface I’d been itching for a desert experience, one that might rival the trek through Plaza Blanca that knocked my socks off when Sandy and I visited Richie and Sara in New Mexico four years ago (click here to read about it).

Right to left: Richie, Sandy, Sara, Alfie. (This photo and the other photos are from the Nambé Badlands.)

When I told Sara that the desert was calling me, almost at once she said that the Nambé Badlands was the place to go to. Man, turns out she was spot-on correct. A day later, there the four of us were (plus Richie and Sara’s trusty dog Alfie), strolling around this stunning wilderness together. Nambé thrilled our eyes and graciously allowed our feet to take us where they might.

The Nambé Badlands is a dizzying configuration, straight out of a surrealist’s mind, of gullies, canyons, hills, level grounds, and sculptural rock formations. It encompasses a huge chunk of territory about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. Sandstone and limestone are among Nambé’s main inorganic ingredients, and a highly surprising number of juniper trees, most of them roughly ten feet in height, pepper the landscape. We arrived at 9:15 in the morning, when the Sun was already more intense than we’d have liked it to be, but less so than it was when we bid adieu to the desert an hour and a half later. The skies were painted a sweet blue, and few clouds were on display. As totally expected, we spotted not a single drop of water on the premises.

For the most part, our group hiked on dusty trails, upon which we crossed paths with a dozen or so other humans, several of whom were zipping along on their sturdy bikes. The trails were easily followed. But I couldn’t resist going off-trail a couple of times, wandering down crumbly hills to peer more closely at canyon sides and dry gully beds. I toyed with the idea of making my way down to a bed or two, but in the end chickened out, though, to tell you the truth I think I could have done it. On the other hand, climbing back up without incident probably would have been a near impossibility for me, an old f*ck whose body contains more rings than 99.99% of the trees on Planet Earth.

Yeah, hell will freeze over before I’ll be mistaken for Indiana Jones. But so what? I lost myself for a while in the Nambé Badlands, my tensions and jumbled thoughts slipping away like yesterday’s news as I grooved on the wonderland surrounding me.

With any luck, some day I’ll be back.

(Girls and boys, this is my 300th story. I’m more than stunned that I’ve typed as many words as I have since launching this publication in April 2015. If I decide to throw a party to celebrate my unlikely feat, I’ll invite you all!. Here’s another important announcement: Anyone who enjoys mysteries that have a social conscience would do well to check out Murder At The Crossroads: A Blues Mystery, which was co-written by my friend Debra Schiff. It came out this year. A lot of info about the book is available by clicking here.)

Six Pix

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, in articles buried in this site’s musty archives, I know virtually nothing about the technical aspects of photography nor about the cameras, lenses and associated equipment that make serious photographers drool. Nonetheless, I get a bang from taking photographs, because I like looking at things while walking around, and often feel compelled to document what I’m looking at. Most agreeably, the cameras I’ve used over the years in this pursuit have allowed me — a lazy f*cker who can’t be bothered with complicated stuff — to snap away with a minimum of effort.

First there was the Kodak Pocket Instamatic, which served me well during the pre-digital 1970s and 80s. I took a zillion pictures with it. The Pocket Instamatic was small and worked automatically, producing a nice image nearly every time. Aim and shoot was all you had to do, a pretty perfect set-up for yours truly.

A long dry spell set in for me after that era, my wife Sandy taking over the photographic duties. However, in late 2015 I obtained my first smart phone, an iPhone, and soon fell heavily for its camera. The camera was as easy as pie to use and, no need to mention, was digital. Thus, the small hassle of getting rolls of film developed (as was the case with the Instamatic) didn’t exist. Absolutely my kind of camera!

Willow Grove, Pennsylvania (March 2022)
Goods on display in the Lids store, Abington, Pennsylvania (January 2022)

That iPhone was traded in some time ago for an updated model, which I’ve put to use a whole lot. This year alone I’ve pressed its button several hundred times. A fair number of the several hundred resultant images have appeared on this wobbly publication’s pages, but the vast majority haven’t.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (March 2022)

And so, in honor of the fact that we currently are hauling our asses through month number six of the year, I am decorating this article with six previously unpublished pix, all from 2022, that pleased my eye recently when I scrolled through the photos residing within my phone. I’ll limit my commentary to three of them.

Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (March 2022)

Isn’t the mural gorgeous? It was created under the auspices of Mural Arts Philadelphia, a quasi-governmental organization in Philadelphia that, since 1984, has orchestrated the painting of several thousand outdoor murals throughout that fair city. This one is in Philly’s Mt. Airy section. I took the picture in March as I was walking to a nearby tavern for a rendezvous with my great pals Jeff and Mike.

And you know what? I noticed while writing this article that the name of the mural, painted on the lower right corner, is Walking The Wissahickon. Well, as fate and/or coincidence would have it, my wife and I did exactly that — we walked The Wissahickon, aka Wissahickon Valley Park — about seven weeks after I took the mural’s portrait.

Wissahickon Valley Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (April 2022)

Man, the park, which extends for more than five miles through northwest Philadelphia, a swath that includes Mt. Airy, is damn well more gorgeous than the mural, as it should be. Sandy and I were there on a lovely spring day, admiring the greenery and the robust creek (Wissahickon Creek) that flows through the park, and adroitly sidestepping the occasional piles of horse shit that bless the main trail. Not having had a true Nature experience in months, we dug the heck out of the hour and a half that we spent in what I consider to be the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s parklands.

Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania (February 2022)

I’ll bring this opus to an end by talking ever so briefly about the photo of Sandy and me posing before a mirror in the Michener Art Museum, a superb institution in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There we are, squashed within the mirror’s confines, our faces half-obscured. Yet, despite all of that, we look pretty damn good, no? Gorgeous even, no?  I think so. And those of you who don’t agree should leave the room right now!

Thanks for reading, girls and boys. Till next time!

Ozark; Azaleas; Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn

Well, as millions of fans of dark and dirty doings know, the Netflix series Ozark has come to a close. And, predictably, this saga (44 episodes in all), heavily populated by morally compromised people doing despicable things, does not conclude in a tidy manner. As the screen goes dark and a gunshot thunders a mere moment before the credits begin their final roll, any number of questions are left unanswered about four of the show’s main characters, the Byrde family.

Unanswered, yes. I’d have to say, however, that the future clearly does not look bright for Marty and Wendy Byrde, the married pair around whom Ozark significantly revolves, nor for their 15-year-old son Jonah. Possibly Marty and Wendy’s daughter Charlotte, a couple of years Jonah’s senior, has a chance to grow towards the light. But I wouldn’t bet heavy money on that.

What else would you expect, anyway, from a series fueled by the unrelenting pressures placed upon Marty by a Mexican drug cartel whose monies he must launder if he wishes to remain above ground? Man, the directions in which those pressures take Marty, a financial advisor by trade, and Wendy are head-spinning. And the fallout from their maneuverings affects Jonah heavily, and nearly everyone else they come in contact with too.

Such an intense, over-the-top show! I couldn’t get enough of it. Each season I’d stare at the tube in disbelief as, left and right, minor and major players exited permanently, usually by gunfire. Ozark’s foulness put me in a bear hug and wouldn’t let go. I’ll miss the series. And I’ll pass on to you the one big lesson that Ozark taught me. Namely, don’t f*ck with a Mexican drug cartel, or with any similar enterprise, needless to say. You better believe that I damn well won’t.

I’m not strictly a denizen of the lower realms. So, some things way more positive than Ozark also have pleased me of late. For instance, the spring season. Yes, plant life has been looking good here in southeast Pennsylvania, USA for the last five or six weeks, with maple and oak trees and the like flaunting their foliage, and flowering trees dazzling human eyes with their blossoms. What’s more, most of the azaleas in my area burst into bloom about two weeks ago, adding tremendously to the spring spectacular. Ah, azaleas. When dense with flowers, they are hard to beat.

Fortunately for me, each year I get a mega-dose of azalea magic, because my friend Joyce, who lives nearby, is in possession of azaleas as fine as any I’m aware of. The azaleas in front of her house not only glow in a number of different hues, they also are enormous. I’d guess that the square footage taken up by those plants is about one-fourth of the square footage within her home. That’s saying something.

And, though maybe it’s only my imagination, Joyce’s azaleas look better to me this year, in terms of fullness and vibrancy, than ever before. In any case, I bow to them.

Before I bid you adieu, I’ll say a bit about a song, Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn, that needed no help in becoming a favorite of mine after I heard it for the first time earlier this month. It is a winner. (And, parenthetically, let me note that its title is as cool as they come.) Released in late 2021, Love Letter, by the blue-eyed soul band St. Paul & The Broken Bones, unfolds seductively. Lead singer Paul Janeway pours his heart out to the listener, quietly and in a falsetto as sweet as clover honey. Alone in a hotel room, he misses his lady. He’s homesick. He’s on the verge of crying himself to sleep.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones have got what it takes. I’ve seen them on TV and would love to catch them in person. After hearing this song you might want to also. Here, then, is Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn, a recording that would have made waves back in the 1960s and 70s, when soul music by The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, The Delfonics, etc., etc. rode high on the music charts. Till next time!

A Flowering Trees Story

Nobody is ever going to mistake me for a botanist, that’s for damn sure. By which I mean that I don’t know shit, basically, when it comes to plants. Yeah, I can identify a few trees and flowers. And I might exclaim “hey, there’s a fern!” when I see one. Beyond that, however, please don’t press me.

Nonetheless, I enjoy spending time outdoors among flora. Who doesn’t? We all want our minds to be expanded, if not blown, you see, even if we know it only subconsciously. And what better way to allow this to happen than to initiate close contact with Nature’s fibrous wonders, absorbing their good vibes?

With that in mind, on the morning of April 27th I eased my aged ass from the living room sofa, hopped, more or less, into my car, and drove to a pretty neighborhood in a nearby town. Specific sorts of flora — flowering trees — not only were on my mind, they were the reason for my mini-expedition.

I’m not sure why, but I didn’t pay much attention to flowering trees until fairly recent years. A big oversight on my part. Since then, though, I’ve made it a point to check them out in April and May, which is when they do their unfurling thing in my part of the globe (I live in Pennsylvania, USA). Their blossomy performance is, of course, a winner. What’s not to like about shades of, primarily, pink, purple and white? Those hues sure liven up the green-dominated landscape around here this time of year.

What’s more, knowing that the performance doesn’t last forever imbues it with poignancy. Poof! — before you know it the petals are gone. Until a new production is staged the following year.

Well, I wandered through the neighborhood for an hour, gazing at the flowers on magnolia, cherry, dogwood and other trees. They looked good. After 30 minutes, though, I found myself disappointed by the relatively modest numbers of those trees. At least half of the properties I passed that day contained none at all, in fact. Man, how cool would it have been if I’d seen 10 or 20 times as many? Very. The blossom experience then would have overwhelmed and enveloped, like an ecstatic fireworks display.

And so, with intensification as my goal, over the next half hour I got much nearer to the flowers than I had previously during the walk, within inches in most instances and nose-to-nose twice. The strategy worked. From those vantages the blossoms made a hell of an impression, intricately designed and decidedly gorgeous as they were. And they instantly became my friends, wanting only to please. “Hello, Neil,” they whispered, “thanks for visiting. We’re at your service.”

“You’re the best,” I whispered back.

“But don’t linger, old timer,” they added. “You won’t be a happy sightseer if someone storms out of their house, yelling at you to get the f*ck off their property.”

True! Thus, I kept my up-close-and-personal sessions short. Thank you, blossoms, for having my back.

Sitting at my computer keyboard now, a number of days after the events described above, I’m wondering what came over me halfway through the stroll, as I’d never felt let down before by any aspect of springtime. Maybe the rotten state of affairs in the world — Russia rearing its ugly head; the growth of fascism in many nations, including my own — was wearing on me, putting me in need of big jolts of beauty. In any event, I’m back to my normal self. Grumpy, as usual, but appreciative too.

Let’s close the proceedings with a tune that, title-wise, is a perfect match for this essay. I discovered it a couple of days after my close encounters with flowering trees. Ordinarily I’m not a big fan of bouncy songs. But the more I listen to Cherry Blossom, by pop and country star Kacey Musgraves, the more I like it. Beneath the sugar and gloss it has a strong layer of soul. Likening herself to a cherry blossom, Kacey hopes and prays that her relationship with her new boyfriend, whom she’s mad about, will hold, that the wind won’t blow her away. I’m pulling for her.