A Cheer For Beer

In June 2015, two months into my blogging career, I composed a paean to beer, and I’ve returned to the subject several times since then. I have my friend Cindy to thank for setting the present story in motion. Here’s why: I mentioned to her recently that, for quite a while, I’d been taking photos at home of beers, alongside their frequently snazzy cans and bottles. And that I’d been sending some of the photos (via email with a subject line reading Tonight’s beer) to a rotating selection of relatives and friends. Those folks included Cindy’s husband Gene. Cindy didn’t say that she thought this was a pretty ridiculous thing to do, as well it might be. Nope, her immediate response was, “You should write a story about that.”

Well, I mulled over her idea for a number of days, finally deciding to wax rhapsodic about beer once again. And so, I headed to my smart phone’s photo archives. There I discovered that my first documentation of a beer purchase occurred in November 2020, and that approximately 80 more beers/cans/bottles subsequently have posed for me. None of the pictures are wonderful examples of the art of photography, that’s for damn sure, nearly all of them having been snapped clumsily in my kitchen or dining room. But what the hell. They are what they are.

Despite their pedestrianism, one thing for certain is that they make me want to down a cold brew right now. I won’t, however, because it’s mid-afternoon as I type these opening paragraphs, and I drink (almost) only at night. And only five beers per week, to boot. Shit, you better believe that I’d like to be able to drink a whole lot more than that, but I’m a geezer with a sensitive system. I know my limits. Maybe that’s why I truly savor just about every quaff that goes down my aged hatch.

In the USA, where I live, the beer world started to turn into a wonderland in the early 1990s. That’s when small breweries began popping up like mad all over the States, producing styles of beer commonly known to some parts of the world, but unfamiliar to the vast majority of American beer drinkers (including me), who downed only Budweiser, Miller and other mild lagers. Around that time, also, beers from other countries began finding their way into my nation more plentifully than before. Lo and behold, I gradually learned about stouts, porters, pale ales, wheat beers and Oktoberfests, to name a few, plus lagers that put Bud and Miller to shame. With hundreds upon hundreds of American breweries each producing their takes on assorted beer varieties and sometimes developing new styles, and with varied beers arriving from overseas, a beer renaissance was under way on my side of the pond.

Over time I’ve become a beer geek. A devotee of most types of beer, I’m amazed by the deliciousness almost always awaiting me at taverns, restaurants and beer stores. And I enjoy few things better than seeking out beers that I’ve never had before, in bottles and cans and on tap. I think of this ongoing quest as a treasure hunt. It thrills and delights me. I’m not kidding when I say that the beer revolution, still going very strong in the USA, has been one of my favorite developments of the last several decades. It has made my life better.

And I can’t seem to restrain my excitement. Thus, since starting the photography project innocently over two years ago, I grab a picture of nearly every store-bought beer that’s new to me when I open its can or bottle (for instance, Iron Hill Brewery’s version of Oktoberfest, which I discovered recently). I also immortalize beers that have held, and continue to hold, a special place in my heart and mouth. Anchor Steam Beer, proudly brewed in San Francisco since 1896, though I didn’t find out about it till almost 100 years later, is a prime example of that.

What’s more, I feel compelled to share my enthusiasm. The dozens and dozens of my beer pix that have landed in a bunch of individuals’ inboxes attest to that. Do any of these people want my pictures? Do they think I’m batty to send them? Who knows? Who cares? The bottom line is that delicious beers deserve to be acknowledged and saluted. To which I add . . . olé!

My Best-Seller-To-Be

The other day, all excited, I phoned my editor Edgar Reewright and told him about the book idea that had floated into my mind, from out of nowhere, that morning.

“Very nice, Neil, very nice. You’ve got quite the imagination,” he said in a flat tone when I was done. Then he excused himself, explaining that he had to tell his wife something. He asked me to hang on, neglecting to put me on hold. “Yo, Loretta!” I heard him yell. “You know that blogger whose crap I edit?”

Loretta was elsewhere in the house, obviously, but I was able to make out her response. “Right, his name is Noel or Niles or something like that, isn’t it?”

“You’re close. It’s Neil,” Edgar replied. “And he’s on the phone. He called because he plans to write a book, and he wants me to edit it. He’s never written a book before. All he does is turn out pointless essays for his blog. But if he does write this thing, it’ll be so bad it’ll make his essays look good.”

A few seconds later, Edgar spoke again. “I’m back, Neil. Where were we? I’m all ears.”

“All ears, huh? Well, it seems like you’re overlooking your big, loud f*cking mouth! I mean, you weren’t exactly whispering to Loretta just now, Edgar. Only the deaf wouldn’t have heard what you said. My man, you’ve got a lot of nerve talking about me like that. I’ll have you know that I’m a valued writer. WordPress, for instance, holds me in high regard. They contacted me a few days ago to let me know that my blog came in first in their If You Look Deeply, There’s A Slight Chance You’ll Find Something Of Worth And Interest Here competition for 2022. First place, Edgar! I’m very proud.”

“As well you should be, Neil. Listen, what can I say? Your book idea sounds like a loser to me, but maybe I’m wrong. Explain it to me once more, this time in a little more detail.”

“Okay, Edgar. It’s about a homely guy, Roy Oy, who’s going nowhere in life. He’s in his 50s, living with his elderly parents in the house he grew up in and stuck in a dead-end job as the fact-checker for Who’d Have Thunk It? magazine. He hasn’t been on a date in over 20 years and, needless to say, never has had a girlfriend. He spends his off-hours clipping coupons and watching YouTube videos about how to get in touch with space aliens.”

“I’m listening, Neil. Reluctantly,” Edgar said.

“Well, early one morning he’s awakened by a tap on the shoulder. Standing beside him is a strange creature. It’s four feet tall and slender, its bright skin colors pulsating like the aurora borealis and its head spinning around and around so as to take in just about everything all at once.”

“The visitor says, ‘Your incessant YouTube-viewing has paid off, for here I am. I initially planned to abduct you and take you back to my home planet. But I can tell that you’re really pathetic, so I’m not going to bother doing that. However, because I’m very magnanimous I will grant you one wish before I’m on my way. What may I do for you, Mr. Oy?’ ”

“Roy loses no time in answering. He tells the space alien that he wants the world to become a paradise, a place where everybody is loving, kind and generous, and where peace and prosperity reign. The alien says ‘okay, it’s done’ and then leaves via the window it had raised a minute earlier in order to enter the bedroom.”

“So, that’s it, Edgar. Just like that, Planet Earth becomes magnificent. Troubles are over. Everyone gets along. End of story.”

“Yup, I get it, Neil. But I don’t like it. Where’s the tension? Where’s the drama? Hell, nobody wants to read some half-baked, half-assed Pollyannaish tale. Count me out. Go ahead and write the book if you like, but I decline to edit it.”

“As you wish, Edgar. But you’re making a big mistake. Millions and millions of people love books with happy endings. My book, I have no doubt, will climb to the top of the charts and stay there for weeks and weeks. I’m going to become rich, Edgar, and I’d have given you a healthy cut of the profits. Your loss.”

At that moment I swear I could see dollar signs flashing in front of Edgar’s eyes.

“You know, Neil,” he said, “my judgment has been off for a long while. That’s what chronic constipation can do to you. I haven’t taken a dump in weeks, for crying out loud, even though I eat prunes like they’re going out of style and take stool softeners right and left. So, on second thought, count me in!”

“Thanks, Edgar. I’m going to pay you in prunes.”

75 And Counting

Eleven months ago I published a piece in which I noted that I couldn’t believe how fast 2021, and hence my life, was flying by. Well, somehow 2022 has equaled or maybe even surpassed 2021’s fleetness. And I have no doubt that 2023 will tear out of the starter’s block like Usain Bolt and then do nothing but pick up speed. Man, time unquestionably is the most precious commodity of all. It’s unsettling too.

Now, not everybody would agree with my perception of time. Most young people, for instance, don’t sense time as being a high-speed train.  Hell, for the most part they don’t think about time at all. Like many senior citizens, however, I have time on my mind pretty often. Meaning, I’m anything but oblivious to the facts that I’ve been on Planet Earth for a good long while, and that I’m a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. I don’t become badly depressed about it, or anything like that. However, the reality of the situation definitely gets my attention now and then.

I mention the above because I was stunned big-time a couple of months ago as I neared the completion of my 75th journey around the Sun. I did not feel at all celebratory about the upcoming birthday. The cockles of my heart refused to warm even one little bit. “75? Are you shitting me?” I asked myself. “How is it possible that I’ve become so f*cking old?” I mean, it seems like only yesterday that I was in my twenties, let alone in my 40s. Holy crap, where in the world did the time go?

By anyone’s definition, 75 is old as frigging dirt, or nearly so. Yeah, I know that plenty of people are older than me. Not as many as you might think, though, nor as many as I thought until I researched the subject earlier this month on a website that can tell you where you fit, age-wise, on the human population ladder. (Click here if you’d like to see the site. When it opens, click on Let’s Go. Next, click on My Place In The Population, which is where you enter your age.)

The answer, for 75-year-old me, was not joy-inducing. That’s because I learned that I am older than 96% of the people on our beautiful, polluted planet. That figure was an absolute kick to the balls. All I could do was shake off the pain and acknowledge the bad joke with a half-hearted chortle. And then I got right back to doing the things I love, such as palling around with my wife and other friends, exploring the natural and man-made worlds, writing, reading, and imbibing cool music. They make for a good life. With luck, this regimen will continue for a bunch more years.

With 2023 a mere handful of days away, the time now has arrived for me to wish all of you a most Happy New Year. May it be rewarding. And may peace, love, understanding and freedom fully permeate the human condition one day. They are in short supply in many parts of the globe, as we know all too well. So, as I’ve been thinking about freedom a lot lately, I’ll conclude this essay by presenting a song, Miles And Miles, that knocked me off my feet when I heard it for the first time recently. It’s a brilliant rocker, released this year by The Heavy Heavy, a young British band that I wouldn’t mind hanging out with for a while, traveling with them from gig to gig and absorbing their vibes. For the song’s about being flushed with freedom as you groove to life’s rhythms and grab hold of the good stuff out there in the world. I tell you, that orientation has appealed to me exquisitely since I reached adulthood many moons ago. I hope I never stop feeling, and acting, that way.

Smiling Faces

The skies were depressingly grey two Saturdays ago, the wind was not gentle, and rain poured down in buckets. In other words, it was real shitty outside. I’m no fan of such conditions — except for ducks, who the f*ck is? — but I was itching to wander the aisles of a local public library, and my aged body was in need of some exercise. So, out the door I went that morning, scrambled to my car and headed off to take care of business.

Success awaited me at destination number one, the library, where I found a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time (A Year In Provence, by Peter Mayle). Next stop, Willow Grove Park, a three-story, enclosed shopping mall in the Philadelphia burbs. It’s located less than a mile from my house. I drove there not to shop but to walk its every corridor. I go for several walks each week, almost always outdoors. But when the weather truly sucks, and an exercise session is in order, I stretch my legs at this indoor mall.

And stretch them I did, for almost an hour, with plenty of bounce in my step and with an episode of The Many Moods Of Ben Vaughn, a music podcast that features a wide range of tunes, playing through my earbuds. There was a pretty good number of people at the mall, some of them youngsters lined up, in the special Christmas section, to have a chat with Santa Claus. A pretty good number, yes, but nothing much out of the ordinary, considering that the Christmas-shopping season was upon us. In fact, a third of the businesses, as I walked past them, had nobody but employees within. Can brick and mortar establishments continue to hang in there, what with the heavy body blows that online shopping delivers to them non-stop? It’s not an upbeat situation.

Being one with artsy leanings, I took a good look at the posters on display in store windows as I strode through the mall. Designed to catch the attention of potential customers, nearly all of them were great. And halfway into my walk it dawned on me that a considerable number of these artworks had something in common. To wit, they featured one or more people with smiling faces. Not just half-grins, mind you, but broad, joyful, glad-to-be-alive smiles. (A sampling of the posters illustrates this article.)

I was down with that. Absolutely. After all, what’s better than being happy and showing it too? Not much. Anyone who spends a meaningful percentage of their waking hours in that state has found a strong path in life.

When I began composing this essay several days after being at the mall, I recalled someone who would have been a natural for a store poster, as he wore a smile almost all the time. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who fits that description. I worked with Ray, for that’s his name, in the 1980s. Everyone liked him. How could you not like a guy who brought bright light to the workplace? Ray never was stressed, never was in a bad mood. Unfailingly helpful and friendly, he was nothing short of amazing.

The posters at the mall, and thinking about Ray, have made me realize that I should start smiling more than I do. I would have nothing to lose by doing so, and possibly a good deal to gain, right? There’s no doubt about it. What’s more, can you imagine how much better the world would be if everyone upped their smiling quotient? We’d be on our way to creating paradise if that ever were to happen.

With that in mind, give a listen to a song I heard at the mall, courtesy of Ben Vaughn’s podcast, if you’re in the market for something that will put a nice big smile on your face. The one tune Ben played that really jumped out at me, it’s by The Penguins, a long-defunct doo wop cum rhythm and blues vocal group. Their biggest claim to fame was Earth Angel, a syrupy ballad that became a smash hit in 1954. You hear Earth Angel to this day. On the flip side of the Earth Angel single, however, was Hey Senorita, a song so cool it’ll make you want to bounce around madly. Thanks. Ben, for airing it. Here it is:

A Puzzle Story

Almost every morning, while downing a couple of cups of coffee, I devote an hour and a half or so to numbers-based and words-based puzzles. Sudoku and crossword puzzles, specifically and respectively. Generally, I work my way through two sudokus and one crossword, a practice I’ve been pursuing for the last 11 years. The puzzles keep my brain limber, calm my nerves and provide a healthy dose of satisfaction if I complete them correctly. They are my pals.

Needless to say, I’m anything but alone in regularly attacking puzzles that revolve around numbers and words. Although some folks have no interest in sudokus, crosswords, cryptograms, Wordle, etc., or are interested but don’t have the time, legions of people are engaged with them. With jigsaw puzzles too. And there also are countless fans of the puzzles found in certain books, television shows and movies. To wit, the plots of mysteries, thrillers and the like in which it’s up to professional detectives or private individuals to identify and track down evil doers. I’m definitely drawn to that sort of fare. In recent weeks, for example, I watched the first three seasons of Unforgotten, a British drama series in which police detectives confront what they refer to as historical murders. In other words, newly discovered homicides that took place years before. Solving these crimes requires tremendous persistence and attention to detail. The members of Unforgotten’s police unit that take on these cases are up to the task, and I’m envious of their abilities.

And a few months ago I polished off A Mind To Murder, by the celebrated crime novelist P. D. James. It’s a good story with complicated circumstances, so much so that the lead detective, Adam Dalgleish, whose reputation for exemplary work precedes him, ultimately pursues someone who is not the killer. In the end, Dalgliesh is humbled by his errors and by the uncertainties that always surround him.

I hadn’t given this any thought before, but A Mind To Murder is more lifelike than most mysteries in that respect. Meaning, even the best detective might be thrown way off course. Man, if Adam Dalgliesh can blunder, what does that imply for the rest of us in the greater scheme of things? Oh well, what can you say? Life’s a big puzzle, for sure, one that’s always in flux and requires us to stay on our toes. We’re usually good at deciphering what’s going on, and consequently make appropriate moves to keep ourselves humming along decently. But it’s not always that easy, as we know all too well. Let’s face it, there are a lot of dynamics going on out there at every given moment, not to mention within us. Their interactions can be unnerving. Or worse.

With sudoku and crossword puzzles, though, you don’t run into unanticipated occurrences, emotional flareups, or anything of the sort. That’s because their components are designed to fit together precisely, unlike the components of life. Those are among the reasons why I enjoy sudokus and crosswords as much as I do. Which is not to say, of course, that they can’t be tricky. The most difficult sudokus are tremendously tricky, but can be untangled by applying rules of logic. And though some crossword puzzle creators adore tossing curveballs at us, via the sly wording of clues, that doesn’t change the fact that only one answer exists for each of those clues.

So, I feel as though I’m in a safe zone when I sit down in the morning to sudoku and crossword puzzles. I’m comfortable in their self-contained worlds where, intrinsically, everything is stable and exactly as it should be. What’s more, the peaceful hour and a half I spend with them makes me better able to deal with the noisy real world. Damn straight I give a big thumbs-up to that!

Two Sunsets By The Bay

It’s not as if there haven’t been enough sunset stories published over the years. Shit, their numbers probably run in the tens of millions. Nevertheless, I’m unashamedly adding to the mega-glut right now. And why not? Sunsets can be spellbinding. We watch primo ones quietly, maybe even reverentially, giving them the respect that they deserve.

From my experience, clouds, more than anything, are what make or break sunsets. Our friend the Sun, when setting, needs clouds to absorb, reflect and refract its light. To make things interesting, in other words. But not too many clouds, as the Sun ain’t got a chance when sheets of clouds abound. As for cloudless skies, well, they are canvases upon which sunsets do not rise above the meh level. When the white-hot fire ball heads downward on a cloudless day, the color and pattern possibilities for the upcoming sunset are limited.

And then there’s location. Needless to say, it counts for plenty when it comes to sunsets. If you’re in the middle of Manhattan, for instance, where tall buildings thrive, you are barely going to be able to see sunsets, whatever their quality, let alone appreciate them. On the other hand, if Cape Cod Bay is nearby, as it was recently for me and my wife Sandy, you’re f*cking golden.

Cape Cod Bay, enormous and fed by the Atlantic Ocean, abuts the northern coast of Cape Cod, a lengthy peninsula that’s part of Massachusetts, USA. We were on the Cape, vacationing our asses off, for a two-and-a-half week stretch that ran from mid-October to early November. During the trip, among a host of activities, we walked and hung out on four of the numerous public beaches along the bay. Over the years we’ve been on quite a few of the Cape’s other bayside beaches too, and have yet to be disappointed. The sands are clean, and masses of seagrasses are plentiful in many sections close to shore. And the waters themselves are inspiring, partly because of their vastness. Staring out at the bay, to me, sometimes seems like staring into infinity.

Our vantage point for the first of the two great sunsets we saw on the Cape this year was First Encounter Beach, in the township of Eastham. It’s one of my favorite Cape Cod Bay beaches, possibly my top pick, though the competition is stiff. There we were on a comfortable mid-afternoon, admiring our kite as it did its carefree thing way overhead. The bay’s waters had receded profoundly, leaving many acres of mudflats in their wake. Great beauty surrounded us, and we knew it.

First Encounter Beach (Eastham, Cape Cod)
First Encounter Beach (Eastham, Cape Cod)

After reeling in the kite, we took a stroll upon the sands. Then we made our way back to our car, contemplating dinner. But it wasn’t dinnertime just yet, and sunset was scheduled to take place in about 20 minutes. So, we decided to stay, a wise decision, for we soon witnessed a sunset that we are unlikely to forget. At its beginning, and made possible by well-positioned clouds, bands and assorted streaks of oranges, golds and greys filled the western sky’s lower regions prodigiously. The greys took a back seat after a while, allowing the brighter colors to go wild. The darkening sky, at that point, was absolutely aflame. What a sight!

The second excellent sunset arrived a week and a half later at the bayside swath of territory known as Corn Hill Beach. It’s located in the township of Truro, which is far out on the Cape and, unlike Cape Cod’s 14 other townships, totally rural.

I’ve been a big fan of Corn Hill Beach since discovering it around 15 years ago. Like First Encounter Beach, it faces due west, perfect for sunset-watching. What’s more, the views from Corn Hill Beach, when you look seaward, are wide and unobstructed. A wonderful place.

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

Both Sandy and I agree that, as far as we can remember, we’ve never seen a sunset such as the one at Corn Hill Beach. The sunset appeared to be foggy and misty, despite the fact that nowhere else, in any direction, was fog or mist visible. Light on its feet, the sunset was the ideal partner for the bay waters moving gently beneath it.

We absorbed the sunset and its surroundings for 20 minutes, then returned, a bit downcast, to Corn Hill Beach’s parking lot. For we were fully aware of what we’d be losing soon. The natural world in all its glory is readily available on Cape Cod. Alas, back home in the grossly overdeveloped suburbs of Philadelphia, where we’d be in 48 hours, such is not even remotely the case.

Some Walks Are Better Than Others (A Cape Cod Story)

Well, another Cape Cod vacation almost has reached its conclusion, as my wife Sandy and I will be back home just as this story hits the presses. We have had a wonderful time. We’ve done a lot and seen a lot on the 65-mile-long peninsula that we think of as our second home, and which we have visited almost annually since the late 1990s.

In some important respects, Cape Cod (which is part of Massachusetts) far surpasses the suburban jungle, in Pennsylvania, where we reside most of the year. You can find genuine peace and quiet on Cape Cod, for instance, and gorgeous waters, sands and marshlands too. In our overpopulated and overdeveloped home base? Fuhgeddaboudit! If health care were better than it is on the Cape, we would consider moving there permanently.

We pursue all sorts of activities on Cape Cod. We stroll through charming villages, play mini golf, fly our kite at beaches, watch sunsets, eat and drink well at taverns and restaurants, go to movies, concerts and plays . . . holy shit, I nearly feel guilty about how good I have it on the Cape!

If I had to place one activity above the others, though, it would be immersing myself, via hikes, in the natural world, which exists abundantly on Cape Cod. These explorations usually set my mind at ease and my heart aflutter. That being the case, I try to make a walk part of my game plan for nearly every day that I spend Cape-side. Now and then I trek alone. In most instances, however, Sandy is my companion.

We’ve been on a number of especially good walks these past two weeks. Magic, or who knows what, was in the air, elevating the experiences to special heights. We oohed and aahed in unison and fed off one another’s energy. And we each made a few pretty sharp observations about Nature that wouldn’t have occurred to the other party.

One of those excellent hikes took place on the eastern coast of Cape Cod, where the Atlantic Ocean, sands and sky make beautiful music together (except when raging storms are doing their thing). They are in harmony because most of the Atlantic coastline is government-protected territory, meaning that hotels, boardwalks, amusement rides and concession stands ain’t to be found. That’s just the way I like it. Another bonus is that not too many humans are on the beaches in the off-season, which is when Sandy and I visit the Cape. I’m down with that too.

There we were, then, on the stretch of coastline known as Nauset Light Beach, located in the town of Eastham. This particular beach is one of my favorites on Cape Cod, partly because of the mighty sand cliffs that back it. The cliffs, ranging from about 30 to 80 feet in height, are part of a chain of cliffs that covers at least half of the approximately 40-miles-long Atlantic coast. They never cease to amaze me. And that day, at Nauset Light Beach, I was struck especially hard by the deep grooves and primordial shapes that storms have sculpted in them. Those storms have pummeled all the cliffs on the Cape’s Atlantic coastline for time immemorial. It’s estimated that they strip away an average of several feet of sand from the cliff-faces every year. As a result, houses and other structures at cliff-top level keep growing closer to the edges of the cliffs. Over the years, some structures have had to be relocated farther inland, and some currently are in worrisome situations. Nature, in no uncertain terms, rules. (Erosion is an ongoing process and concern on many sections of the Cape’s sandy coastlines, not just its Atlantic Ocean side.)

The skies were cloudy as Sandy and I made our way along the beach, sometimes stopping to gaze at the uneasy waters. A strong wind blew, but it didn’t bother us. On the contrary, it energized us, boosting our awareness of the surroundings. As pompous as it sounds, we came pretty damn close to becoming one with Nature, as close as suburbanites have any right to be. We absorbed the unceasing roars, gurgles and hisses of the ocean, the imposing grey skies, and the haphazard array of stones, shells and driftwood on the beach. Everything seemed perfect, exactly as it was meant to be.

Our mini-adventure at Nauset Light Beach went by in a flash. We’d have stayed longer, probably should have stayed longer. But we had other places to go, other things to do. Till we meet again, NLB!

Back To Work!

When I bid adieu to my government-work career 13 years ago, opting to cash in on retirement pensions, I knew that the regimented style of life I’d engaged in for decades was one I’d be remiss to discard entirely. I mean, I liked the job and didn’t mind the commutes. And, of course, I was very used to the overall arrangement. Thus, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d be lost at sea if I didn’t replace it, to a decent extent, with a similar routine.

That’s why, three days after hanging up my paid-employment spikes, I began trying out part-time volunteer jobs at various institutions, six or so months later settling down for the long haul with assignments at a health system (a hospital and its related facilities) near my home in the Philadelphia suburbs. I enjoyed the medical-related gigs quite a lot. But when the devilish coronavirus conquered Planet Earth in early 2020, the health system lost zero time in placing its volunteer staff on hiatus. The risks of us contracting the virus, or of infecting people with it, were just too high for the organization to keep us on board. And the same thing happened with a local food pantry where I helped out a little each week.

Wham! All of a sudden I had a bunch of extra hours on my hands, as if I didn’t have more than enough of them already. I took the easy way out, spending more time than ever on my living room sofa, one of my closest friends. I’m not proud to admit that last year, upon said sofa, I eclipsed the previous Guinness World Records top mark in the “Most Time Devoted To Scratching One’s Balls” category. Hey, what can I say? I ain’t all that genteel!

I’m glad to report that now I’m less of a slacker and balls-scratcher than I was, because in July I returned to one of the jobs that I had held with the health system, which has opened its arms to volunteers once again. Though I’m on site only four hours each week, I feel pretty damn good to have some amount of scheduled work in my life, and to be of service. More likely than not I’ll soon try to expand my hours by getting an additional assignment within the organization.

My official job title is Greeter. And greet people I do, via a “how’s it going?” or a nod when they arrive at the three-story medical office building whose ground-floor information desk I man on Thursday afternoons (the medical office building is across the street from the hospital). And I say “see ya” often too, as visitors, having completed their doctor appointments, head to one of the building’s several exits.

The main point of my being there, though, is to help people. A lot of them, for example, aren’t sure which office their doctor is in (a staff directory, mounted on a wall of the sprawling ground floor, is easy to miss), or can’t find the public restrooms or the alcove where vending machines are located, or aren’t even sure if they are in the correct building (more often than you’d expect, they’re not).

That’s where I come in, verbally or physically directing the lost souls to their proper destinations, answering a substantial variety of questions, and sometimes becoming involved in fairly complicated matters. Such as when I go to the multi-level parking garage behind the building with those who, their appointments over, can’t remember where they parked their cars. I have an excellent track record in locating the misplaced vehicles.

The job may not be top of the ladder on the excitement scale, but its pace and quality fit me comfortably most of the time. On average I respond to questions and unravel situations around ten times per hour, which is enough to keep me interested. And I like the fact that I never know what question or dilemma will be presented to me next.

I’ve been involved with people-oriented volunteer work for much of my adult life. As clichéd as it sounds, I believe in giving folks a helping hand, in paying back and paying forward. And I get a nice amount of satisfaction from my modest deeds. Thankfully, most people are on the same wavelength about all of this as me. If that wasn’t the case, the world would be an even more unsettling place than it is, right? Right.

Philadelphia Delivered Once Again: Art On Wheels, Part Ten

So, what we have here is a Philadelphia story. It is one of many I’ve penned in which The City Of Brotherly Love has starred or played a supporting role. Were it not for Philly, the contents of Yeah, Another Blogger would be pretty damn scanty.

For employment reasons I moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, taking a liking to the city right from the get-go. I resided within its boundaries for about 30 years. And when my wife Sandy (whom I met in 1990) and I moved away in 2005, we deposited ourselves in a sleepy town not far at all from Philly, because we wanted to be within the city’s magnetic field.

Yeah, I absolutely dig Philadelphia. Even now, deep into my retirement years, I do one thing or another there anywhere from two to six times each month. Concerts, museums, parks, restaurants . . . the city is loaded with them and with other enticements, and I can’t resist.

One of my favorite activities is to wander around Philadelphia on foot, exploring many of its sections, not just the downtown ones. I become invigorated when pounding their sidewalks and other walking paths, no less so these days than I did during my young adulthood and middle age. I might be older than dirt, but my shoes were made for walking!

A recent Philadelphia walking adventure took place on a mid-September summer day. The weather was mild, guaranteeing that I wouldn’t sweat like a frigging pig, and the skies were a friendly shade of blue. I boarded a train in my town at 9:36 AM and found myself, 45 minutes later, inside a station in the heart of Philly. After taking care of business in the station’s men’s room, I headed for the streets. My mission was to keep my eyes open for, and to photograph, enticingly decorated vehicles. Yes, the time had arrived for me to begin creating the tenth installment of a project I’ve become enamored with: Art On Wheels.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, one block from the train station I exited from, is a funky, lively area replete with Asian restaurants, produce vendors, nail salons, Chinese-American attorneys’ offices, and on and on. Within moments I was strolling its streets, positive that a cool truck or two would enter my field of vision in no time. When that didn’t happen, though, I began to get an uneasy feeling that my quest for vehicular beauty was destined not to pan out.

Not to worry! Twenty-five minutes into the walk, as I crossed from Chinatown into the city’s Callowhill section, a winner presented itself to me. Has the combination of orange and white ever looked better than it does on the Harbour Textile Service truck? I think not. Bold and confident, the design proves that simplicity can pack a punch with lasting effects. The Harbour vehicle is one of my two favorites from that day.

All in all I spent three hours, interrupted by a short lunch break, on the streets of Philadelphia, my aged legs covering a total of six miles. Besides Chinatown and Callowhill, the stroll took me into four or five other neighborhoods, including Spring Garden. That’s where I made the acquaintance of La Marqueza, a gorgeous food truck that I like as much as Harbour Textile Service and maybe more. It was parked alongside Community College Of Philadelphia. Man, I gazed upon La Marqueza hungrily, allowing its vibrancy and warmth to raise my spirits. Then, off I went in search of my next victim.

By adventure’s end I’d taken the portraits of about 15 vehicles, later deciding that only five were worthy of immortalization. Ergo, those five decorate this page. The final notable one I saw belongs to Foreign Objects, a craft brewery in Monroe, New York. That truck, far from home, is endowed with delicate and wispy artwork, not at all what you’d expect a beer truck to display. All I can say is, “damn straight, I’ll drink to that!”

In closing, I’ll mention this: The first seven editions of Art On Wheels are set in the suburbs, where I had to drive all over the f*cking place to find worthy specimens. Screw that! I’d rather locate them via foot power in Philly, which is what I’ve done since then. That’s why I’m sure that at some point next year I’ll return to the city I know best for Art On Wheels, Part Eleven. I’m already looking forward to it.

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!