Two New Movies That I Liked A Lot: “American Animals” And “RBG”

As I’ve mentioned a few times before on this publication’s pages, I go out pretty often to the movies. So far this year I’ve caught 20 of ’em. Maybe early in 2019 I’ll do a nice, big writeup on the flicks that passed before my eyes and ears during this, our current year. But for now I’m going to limit my focus and write briefly about only two. I saw both very recently and they agreed deliciously with my delicate system. Okay, away we go.

By the time you read this essay, American Animals may be gone from the theaters. If it remains in one near you, however, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and go to see it. Or do likewise in the comfort of your home whenever it materializes on Netflix or HBO or whatever. (But note the caveat several paragraphs below).

What we have here is an indie effort that struck me as near-perfect filmmaking. The movie is entertaining as hell. Its plot unravels tantalizingly. Its screenplay nails the way that people talk. The acting is excellent. And you’ll be sweating bullets when the going gets rough. Hey, you get the idea. I’m an American Animals fan!

American Animals tells the story of four college-age guys who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare and valuable books (including an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America) from the special collections department of Transylvania University’s library. Believe it or not, there really is a Transylvania University. That institution is located in Lexington, Kentucky. And believe it or not once again, the story that plays out in American Animals really did happen. Writer and director Bart Layton constructed the movie by cutting between reenactments of the crazy story lines, using professional actors, and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The latter offer fascinating commentaries on what was going through their minds at various points in the heist’s planning and execution.

It would be wrong, wrong, wrong for me to spill any more beans about American Animals. You’ll thank me, should you view the movie, for not being a spoiler kind of individual. And so I’ll end my discussion of Animals by noting that anyone who wilts and/or takes shelter from barrages of F-bombs should stay away. As for everyone else, I believe that this one’s for you.

Oh wait. There is another thing or two: I’d never heard of Bart Layton before, and knew but one member of Animal’s cast (Blake Jenner), but so what? The movie proved to me, as numerous others have, that the world is awash with very talented though hardly famous individuals. I’m totally down with that.

RBG, a hit documentary that entered a sizeable number of American cinemas in May, and is still in quite a few, was not on my to-be-seen list. I don’t know why, but I decided that I wasn’t all that interested in learning about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest (age 85) of the nine justices who comprise the USA’s Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the land. But my wife Sandy badly wanted to see it and, peerless spouse that I am, I capitulated. Off we went on a miserably hot day to watch the film in downtown Philadelphia.

I’m here to report that I was wrong. RBG (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) is really good. Justice Ginsburg has led a remarkable life, one devoted to her family, to the advancement of human rights and to the intricacies and necessity of the law.

This movie might not be up the alley of those who, like The Donald, are narrow-minded, mean-spirited and eager to restrict and oppress. But if you believe in respect and equality, then I imagine you’ll become an admirer of Ruth. Hell, you probably already are. Unbeknownst to me, without trying in the least she became a cultural icon and a judicial rock star over the last 10 or so years. This was quite an unexpected phenomenon, since Ginsburg is a quiet, unassuming sort. But millions of Americans have become captivated by her steadfastness, by her support of abortion rights and of gender rights. And by the slight twinkle in her eye and shy smile on her face that she often wears. She’s endearing. No other justice on the high court has a devoted fan base like hers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is smart as a whip. She graduated from law school in 1959 and began to make her name in the legal world in the 1970s, co-founding The Women’s Rights Project and ultimately arguing six gender-rights cases before the Supreme Court. Little did she know that she herself would become a member of that court in 1993, after Bill Clinton nominated her for the job.

Now, I’m anything but a jurisprudence expert, but I’m being more than decently accurate, I think, by describing Ginsburg’s philosophy on the high court as liberal but cautious, common-sensical and mindful of people’s needs. She has taken her job extremely seriously, as well she should, working enormous numbers of hours. And she has no plans to retire. As she says in the film, she won’t step down until she feels that she is unable to keep up her full-steam-ahead pace. She’s a source of hope and pride for many in these right-wing crazy, Trumpian times.

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A Better-Than-Usual Walk Around My Hood

It was hot as hell two Fridays ago, as in 90°F (32°C), a temperature that usually makes me want to stick to the comfort of my air-conditioned house. But come 2:30 PM I was getting restless. And so, grabbing a cap to shield my hair-challenged pate and a pair of sunglasses to make me look like a movie star, I unlocked the front door and stepped outside. Ordinarily I don’t particularly like walking around my neighborhood, part of a suburb a few miles from Philadelphia, because I’ve seen it a million times and because there’s nothing much here that’s going to knock your socks off. But what the hell  . . . I needed to stretch my legs.

And stretch them I did on that tail-end day of June. For an hour. Under a summer sun that was sending down heat rays as if there were no tomorrow. Luckily, it turned out that there was a tomorrow. If there hadn’t been, then I wouldn’t be at my writing station right now, pecking out this ultra-fascinating tale.

What with the heat, a lesser man might have decided quickly that he’d made the wrong decision, that he’d be better off back inside his cozy house where he could resume reading the collected works of I. C. Fairley-Farr, the all but forgotten British existentialist whose philosophy is best summed up by a simple phrase. To quote him: Life is for living, water is for drinking, and . . . shit, where’d I put my distance glasses?

Stumps I, II And III

But on that day I wasn’t a lesser man. Nope, for some reason the brutal ball of fire in the sky wasn’t bothering me. And for some reason, right from the get-go, I found myself enjoying the walk. Why, only half a block from my house I noticed something that on another day might not have registered at all — three neat and concise tree stumps on the lawn of a church. Transfer them to the grounds of an art museum, give them a title such as Stumps I, II And III, and they’d gain esteem as a fine piece of minimalist outdoor sculpture. See? There’s always an alternative way of looking at things.

And how about the township park and playground behind the church? There wasn’t a soul there, not even on the basketball courts. Yeah man, I had the neighborhood to myself!

Well, not really. Still, during the walk I came upon only 25 or so people, many of them unloading this or that from their cars, and not a one of them out for a walk. And I crossed paths with but one dog. I exchanged hellos with its master who, positioned on his home’s front path, was eyeing me with mouth slightly agape. It must have been my sunglasses. In them, I’m a ringer for George Clooney. Or so I’ve dreamt.

Suburban jungle

Block after block I wandered along, going downhill on some and uphill on others. My area is seriously hilly, almost San Francisco-worthy in places, and the upward climbs got me decently sweaty. One thing I realized was that I should have a much better working knowledge of the layout of my hood than I do, because I trekked upon a couple of streets whose names I didn’t even vaguely recognize. And I also realized something that I knew but hadn’t experienced in a healthy while. To wit, parts of my neighborhood are very, very heavy with trees and other foliage. Those blocks are a suburban jungle, a dreamscape in shades of green.

Tiger Lillies

On the other hand, most of my hood’s blocks, though cute in a comforting way, are kind of vanilla in appearance, including the street on which my house sits. But I found myself getting into the vanilla, grooving on those blocks’ occasional good-looking flower beds and other decorative touches that homeowners here and there have added to increase their residences’ wow factor. When I passed one abode with a fine grouping of Tiger Lillies, naturally I stopped to admire them. And to take their picture. I couldn’t have done otherwise, seeing that the house in which I grew up, forever ago on Long Island (near New York City), was blessed with large patches of Tiger Lillies. My heart since then has maintained a very soft spot for that variety of flora.

And the walk turned out to be a learning experience too. Only two blocks from my house are extremely tall metal towers. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 13 years, yet I’ve never known what the heck those towers do, if anything. For all I knew, they might have been decommissioned years ago after serving one purpose or another.

As it turns out, they are important pieces of equipment. They transmit messages to and among personnel of police departments, fire departments and 911 emergency systems. I know that now because, early in my walk, there was a worker at the towers as I approached them. I stopped to ask him what the towers’ functions are, and he told me. Yes, opportunity had presented itself, and I took advantage of it. Too bad I haven’t applied that principal consistently over the course of my life. Oh well.

As far as I can recall, this walk was the longest, time-wise, that I’ve ever taken in my neighborhood. I don’t expect my next venture into the hood, whenever that may occur, to resonate with me as satisfyingly as this one did. But that’s okay. I returned home mentally refreshed, feeling pretty chipper and somewhat seeing the brighter side of life. Not every walk is a keeper, but this one was.

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Are We Living In Television’s Golden Age? I Think So. Do You?

Over the last year or two I’ve mentioned to a few people that American television’s Golden Age — by which I mean its greatest era in terms of scripted series — is now. In my humble opinion, needless to say. I said it just last week to my pal Gene as we were munching on our lunches in a café near to where I lived, many moons ago, in Philadelphia’s University City section.

Yes, I know that the Golden Age title long ago was bestowed by some on 1950s American television, because it was in that decade that the small screen came of age in the USA. But let’s face it — when it comes to quality, 1950s American TV doesn’t deserve to wear the crown. And speaking of America, it’s that country’s products that I plan to talk about in this article, since I know not much more than diddly-squat about television’s offerings from elsewhere.

Getting back to Gene and me: Our conversation, as always, was all over the map. Part of the time we talked about television, about series from TV’s earlyish days, such as Have Gun Will Travel and The Twilight Zone. They, and plenty of other shows from the 1950s and 60s, not to mention less-ancient decades, are in repeats on an assortment of networks. And some of those series hold up. The Twilght Zone, for instance, will mess with your mind and emotions nearly as much now as it did when it was originally on the air (1959-1964). Overall, though, a pretty high percentage of elderly shows don’t seem so good anymore.

But Gene and I didn’t have too much to say about the tube’s post-2000 scripted fare. That’s partly because neither of us, especially me, has seen a lot of it. I used to watch quite a few series. But, for reasons I’m not too sure of, that mode of behavior became very sporadic starting in the early aughts. When Sex And the City hung up its high heels in 2004, followed by NYPD Blue’s closure the following year, my series-watching came almost to a halt.

But despite that, I’ll assert once again that we are in the midst of American television’s greatest era. (And let’s define that era as starting around 15 years ago). I’m certain of this because I keep up with reviews, and I’ve never read as many good reviews of scripted shows as I have since the early 2000s. It’s often one rave after another. Far more excellent shows have been birthed in the aughts than in the 30 years that preceded them, substantially because there are way more networks and other outlets (Netflix, Hulu et al) airing original material than ever before. Take these examples of series from our present century: The Wire, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and Homeland. From what I gather, hordes of people would say this about each: “It’s the best series of all-time.”

And I’m certain because my wife Sandy clues me in on the programs that she watches. Currently she’s in love with, among others, This Is Us, Elementary, black-ish, Better Things, I’m Dying Up Here, Modern Family and Homeland. And she swooned over The Middle, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire and many more whose plugs have been pulled.

And how about these high-quality programs that are churning out new episodes and which Sandy hasn’t (yet) added to her menu? — Killing Eve, Atlanta, Westworld, Dear White People, The Chi . . . the list goes on for distances too lengthy to travel. Maybe that’s why I watch so few of them: There’s just so much good stuff, the multitude of options is intimidating.

It’s not that I don’t turn on the television. I do, though usually for only an hour and a half late at night when my usual pattern is to flip from sports show to talk show to news show to whatever. And it’s not that I haven’t seen any scripted series at all. I have. In the last three years, for instance, I’ve watched various episodes of five: Blue Bloods, Modern Family, Everybody Hates Chris, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Lopez. The first two, which are still in production, I catch now and then in repeats. Ditto for EHC, which was cancelled in 2009. And I wouldn’t have missed even one installment of Curb’s latest arc (from 2017). Curb Your Enthusiasm is hilarious.

As for Lopez, I was one of about eight people who knew of its existence. I liked its adorably quirky characters and went into a mild depression when I learned a few months ago that it wouldn’t be returning for season three. I hope that George Lopez reads this article and, out of the goodness of his heart, decides to cast me in whatever his next series might be.

Of all the many, many series that I could be tuning into, how’d I come up with those five, only two of which (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) not only began in our Golden Era but meet its high creativity standards? Well, it’s just one of those things. So, yeah, I need to up my series-watching game. I mean, I’m not an anti-TV snob. These days, sadly though, I allot too many hours to contemplating my navel. You would too if yours alternated every 30 minutes between being an innie and an outie, as mine does. Very distressing. Yes, spending more of his time with an increased number of primo TV series would be a far better way for what passes as a grown man to behave.

Readers, am I right or wrong about American television’s Golden Age? What current shows do you like, and why? Which of them do you consider to be top-notch? Which are guilty pleasures? What are the best series of the last 15 years? Or of any time? Etc., etc.

And let’s open all of the above questions to series that are not of American origin. What’s the state of affairs, TV-wise, in countries outside of the States?

I’m awaiting your responses eagerly. This, for me, is a learning exercise. One’s never too old to learn, after all. And one’s never too old to grab hold of good entertainment.

Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

Hey, you in the back row! I see you rolling your eyes! I know what you’re thinking: “What’s wrong with this guy? Enough already about New Mexico. It’s time to move on, fella! Give us an article about your lifelong quest for the perfect jockstrap, or about your failed attempts to launch yourself to the Moon by using a mile-long rubber band. Anything except New Mexico, Part Three!”

Well, cowpoke, you’re plum out of luck. The conservation-minded Boy Scouts organization, in the early 1960s, taught me to waste not. And so I’m plowing ahead, about to squeeze New Mexico like a boa constrictor until a few ideas pop into my head. Take some deep breaths, Neil, and squeeze! Squeeze!

Oh man, it’s working. Something’s happening! I don’t know where this is going to lead but we might as well find out. Part Three, here I come!

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Okay then. As I indicated in Part Two, the grandeur of wondrous landscapes and seascapes is hard to appreciate fully, at least for me, when legions of your closest total strangers are practically breathing down your neck. That was the situation at Frijoles Canyon last month when I visited its gloriously pockmarked cliffs with my wife Sandy and brother Richie. Part of Bandelier National Monument, Frijoles for centuries was home to many indigenous peoples, who now are referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo. Due to a variety of circumstances they left Frijoles Canyon around 400 years ago, moving to other locales.

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Sure, I thought the cliffs were magnificent. Heavy erosion over almost countless millennia has turned them into rutted works of glory. But their beauty never fully sank in because I kept getting distracted by people sharing the trail with me. “Get a move on, asshole. You’re holding up progress,” I could swear one of them had to restrain himself from saying to me.

And things became really crowded near and at Frijoles Canyon’s most famous site, Alcove House. It’s a large opening in a cliff wall, 140 feet above ground. According to the literature I read, about 25 Ancestral Pueblo used to live in the cave at any one time. Others lived in smaller elevated holes in the cliffs, though the vast majority of Ancestral Pueblo occupied tidy housing built at ground level, Frijoles Canyon and nearby lands having been home to several settlements.

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

Bandelier National Monument’s personnel have made it possible to climb up to Alcove House. They’ve done this by bolting four wooden ladders into the cliff wall. Rock steps separate one ladder from the next. Climb a ladder, climb some rock steps, repeat, repeat, repeat. Voila! You now are inside the alcove, looking out at, and down upon, the various landscapes.

The views from up there were great. And I got a kick from the ascent that had brought me to the aerie, and later from the descent. But not as much as I should have, because both directions involved a lot of waiting — there were at least 20 people in front of me. What the f*ck was this? Disneyland?

A paucity of people: That’s one reason why I liked Plaza Blanca, my focus in Part Two, a whole lot better than Bandelier. There are times in life when I just don’t want to be around many members of our species. They can spoil the picture.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

And speaking of pictures, I’ve studded this story with some photographs that please my eye. Shots of the Frijoles Canyon cliffs, as you’ve seen. And one of a home in Santa Fe so intriguingly constructed that its exterior seems to be on the verge of turning to gel. The house is one of several in that same pliant condition that I noticed during my walks around New Mexico’s capitol city.

I couldn’t resist adding the photograph of a bright yellow newspaper box in Santa Fe. It was the first of about 180 pictures that I snapped during the eight days spent in New Mexico. Nor could I resist the allure of a snazzy blue newspaper box in the town of Taos. Sandy, Richie, my sister-in-law Sara and your humble reporter visited Taos during a day trip from Santa Fe, where Richie and Sara live. Hell, newspapers have been having a hard time of it for the last 25 years. The day may come when newspaper boxes will be found only in antique stores.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

As for the remaining photos, something about their colors or off-kilter arrangements or juxtaposition of objects convinced me to immortalize them in cyberspace. They’ll thank me some day. They better.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gentle (or not) readers, I am going to conclude my New Mexico trilogy with these notes: I did virtually no research in advance of or during this trip. I’ve become a lazier and lazier son of a bitch as the years have elapsed, so my dearth of research wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, I believe that the trip was a smashing success. Sandy concurs with that judgment. I thought, correctly, that Richie and Sara would have a fine stash of ideas as to how we all might spend our time together. And everybody left plenty of room for wandering, whimsy and improvisation.

Chimayo, New Mexico

I’m not suggesting that anybody reading this story should skip doing research for their future journeys. You’ll need to do plenty of it, unless your tour guides are as good as Richie and Sara. But I am saying that there’s a lot to be said for frequently allowing gentle breezes to carry you here and there.

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Plaza Blanca Knocked Our Socks Off: New Mexico, Part Two

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about what I should include in the second installment about my recent adventures in sun-drenched New Mexico. Climbing up ladders attached to the sides of cliffs in Frijoles Canyon (part of Bandelier National Monument) — to reach niches within which indigenous peoples lived centuries ago — seemed a natural, as did viewing the deep and dangerous Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos village. But you know what? No more will I now say about those experiences, as excellent as they were, because wafts of inspiration caressed my face a little while ago. And, as I’ve learned over the last few years, one shouldn’t argue with inspiration. This story, therefore, shall be about Plaza Blanca.

Plaza Blanca

May 29, the last full day of my wife Sandy’s and my visit to New Mexico, found the two of us inside a Honda Accord being driven by my brother Richard. We were on our way from Santa Fe, where Richie lives with his wife Sara, to Abiquiu, an area famously known as the one-time home of the late, great painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Richie had printed out some information about the sights in the Abiquiu region and, 10 minutes into the journey, asked me to take a look. Scanning the pages I noticed a paragraph about Plaza Blanca (The White Place), described as unusually beautiful. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said. Nobody objected.

Luckily I found a website that provides precise driving directions to Plaza Blanca, because it’s not the easiest locale in the world to find. The final leg of the motorized segment of the journey was upon a dirt road. Expecting numerous ruts and holes, we were relieved to see almost none. Richie parked the car in Plaza Blanca’s small parking section. Then the three of us got out and looked around. From first glance we knew that we were in a special place.

We spent an hour hiking through Plaza Blanca, a masterful collection of rock formations not far from forested mountains. The sun was high in the sky, clouds were few, and the views, to employ a cliché, were awe-inspiring. I’ve gone limp now and then over the years from the beauty of what was in front of my eyes, but that hadn’t happened in a good long while. And, now that I think about it, I hadn’t been as stunned by a natural landscape or seascape since 1982. That was the year of my trek through the high Himalayas in Nepal, the one truly astonishing adventure of my life.

And I wasn’t the only one to gaze in wonder at Plaza Blanca’s cliffs and columns, or at its other wildly surreal sculptures. Sandy and Richie were as spellbound as me. We were in a stark fairyland where strange, beguiling shapes reigned supreme. The formations sat stoically, yet pleased with themselves. They knew that they are remarkable creations. I caught Richie staring unbelievingly at one vista, imperceptibly shaking his head and not quite knowing what to say except for the obvious: “This is incredible” were his words.


As for Sandy, she agreed when I suggested that Plaza Blanca likely was the most beautiful and fantastic landscape she’d ever set foot in. A compact expanse of desert, Plaza Blanca is where one might go to let the problems circulating within one’s head fade away for a bit of time. It’s where you likely will be able to engage undisturbedly with the powers of nature, since Plaza Blanca is off the beaten track compared to many other spectacular sites. Only two other souls crossed our paths as we made our way around. That was two too many, but it was far better than the hundreds you’d encounter at the Grand Canyon or at Yosemite.

A geologist I’m not, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, Plaza Blanca is the result of volcanic activity that took place roughly 20,000,000 million years ago, and of the subsequent effects of heavy erosion. Its cliffs and other structures are composed of varieties of sandstone and of other types of rocks. The place was drier than the driest bone the day that my trio was there. But I’ve read that flash floods sometimes develop during heavy rains, racing mightily between the giant pieces and with the potential to sweep incautious visitors away.

Georgie O’Keeffe, From The White Place. Image copyright: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe was smitten with Plaza Blanca (as she was with much of New Mexico). She wandered around and painted in The White Place many times. Her desert homestead was about 15 miles away. I wouldn’t mind owning one of her renderings, From The White Place, pictured above, which she painted in 1940. It would look smashing on a wall beside my living room sofa. I doubt if the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where the painting is housed, plans to put it up for auction anytime soon. If they do, however, I’m ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $20,000,000 or more that will be required to make it mine.

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

As I mentioned in my previous essay, staying very hydrated in New Mexico is the thing to do. The Sun there can be brutal. I’d been downing water conscientiously before arriving at Plaza Blanca and continued to do so during my hike on site, but there was no point in taking any unnecessary risks. My companions must have felt the same way. Without discussion we took our last looks at Plaza Blanca, immersing ourselves in its glory. And then we made our way out from between the art works and headed back to the car.

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(All photos are by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin, with three exceptions: Richard Scheinin took the photo of Sandy and me. I took the photo of Rio Grande Gorge and the one of Sandy and Richie.)

Santa Fe Pleased Us Just Fine

My wife Sandy and I had been itching for a good while to stretch our traveling legs, to go somewhere we’d never been that’s far from our suburban Philadelphia environs. But where? “How about here? How about there?” we pondered.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Well, in the end we left here and there for another day, as the answer was right at hand. My brother (Richard) and sister-in-law (Sara) moved to New Mexico several months ago, after occupying space in California for 30 years. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol, was their new home. Sandy and I wanted to see them and also were more than happy with the idea of poking around Santa Fe and other parts of NM, a state full of deserts, soft-colored hills, mountains and mind-boggling rock formations. New Mexico it would be.

Ergo, late last month we spent eight days in the Land Of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called by some, unpacking our bags chez Richie and Sara and doing our best to be good houseguests. I think we succeeded in the latter, but, as with much of life, who really knows? Anyway, we passed mucho hours wandering around Santa Fe with them, occasionally without them, taking in a good deal of sights and the general swing of things. I’ll leave New Mexico’s natural landscapes, which we also visited, for a future story or two. My typing fingers are all set to concentrate solely on Santa Fe right now. Away we go.

Turns out that Santa Fe, a sweet place whose buildings primarily are adobe-style and low to the ground, is high as hell. By which I mean that this city of 80,000 humans lies in the high desert, 7,200 feet above sea level. That’s up there. The air is dry and fairly thin and, when a drought is on, as is currently the case, the sun is unrelenting. Drinking lots of water throughout the day, therefore, is pretty much a must even if you’re the indoors type, unless you enjoy the effects of dehydration. As is slathering on lots of sunscreen and donning a hat if you plan to spend more than 20 minutes outdoors.

I took to Santa Fe from the get-go. I liked its look, an amalgam of the influences of indigenous peoples and of the Spanish, who conquered and colonized enormous chunks of the Americas starting in the 1500s. Adobe, adobe everywhere. The earth colors made for a soothing experience. As did Santa Fe’s overall quietness, the lack of a mad rush of residents and tourists. Motor traffic gets fairly rough on certain avenues at certain times of day, but for the most part cars and trucks don’t interfere with the easy-going feel of the city’s central sections.

At right, Richie and Zella

A number of my walks through town were in the company of two individuals: my brother and Zella, who is Richie and Sara’s large dog. Zella is a Bouvier, a breed I’d never heard of till making Zella’s acquaintance several years ago in California. Zella doesn’t use sunscreen or wear a hat in Santa Fe, though I urged her to. She took offense at my suggestion, indicating that she doesn’t look good in hats and, in no uncertain terms, that I should go f*ck myself. Naughty doggie. However, Zella does imbibe a sensible amount of H2O throughout the day. Smart doggie.

Zella received a good deal of attention from pedestrians during these walks, far more than I did. And she was made right at home at a shop we passed one morning, a dog-loving establishment that has a Dog Bar, just outside its front door, where water and treats are at the ready.

One afternoon, Sandy, Richie and I were plopped on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, a park in the center of downtown. Zella wasn’t with us. We were eating chicken fajitas that we bought from a food stand at the park’s southeast corner and were watching the world go by. You never know what you might see in parks, which is part of the fun of hanging out in them. That afternoon a bubble-blower, probably a Plaza regular, showed up. With a net-like bubble-making device he filled the air with soap bubbles, some of them really big. The fajitas were tasty, the soap bubbles were captivating. Sandy and I agreed that we were feeling fine.

Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, crafts galleries, museums . . . Santa Fe has them in quantities far beyond what you’d expect in a small city. It’s one of the major art centers in the USA, which was fine with me, as I’ve been popping into galleries and museums for nearly all of my life.

Left to right: Sandy, Sara, Richie

Appropriately enough, Sara and Richie took us to Museum Hill, a part of town that, also appropriately enough, is home to several museums, including the Museum Of International Folk Art. Our group of four headed to the Hill one afternoon for lunch at a café. We then entered MOIFA, an astonishing place. Sara had been there before and decided to go back to the café to read a book. Richie wasn’t a first-timer either, but he was in the mood to see the collection again.

Mexican musicians

And what a collection! I spent time mainly in the Girard wing, which houses folk art from all over the globe that one couple (Susan and Alexander Girard) accumulated during the mid-1900s. They donated their collection to the museum in 1978.

Mexican village

The Girard wing contains dozens of exhibits that are recreations of village scenes and of everyday life, all populated with miniature renditions of people, houses and appropriate accoutrements. The two exhibits that rang my gong the most were Mexican-themed, one of a village in all its colorful glory, the other of musicians having the times of their lives in a crowded three-level performance area.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Trees In Autumn 1920/1921, oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation

You can’t go wrong in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum either. It’s one of the many museums in Santa Fe that are not part of the Museum Hill complex. I’m a fan of O’Keeffe’s paintings and had a tip-top time looking them over. On her canvases, O’Keeffe captured the essence of the landscapes and objects before her — be they mountain scenes, vast deserts, or flowers only inches away — with bold shapes and intense colors.

O’Keeffe lived in New Mexico for part or all of every year starting around 1930 until her death in 1986. For much of that period she made her home on a property in the desert about 60 miles from Santa Fe. She attained huge fame in her lifetime, and her reputation since then hasn’t waned. Deservedly.

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery store

Nor can you go wrong in Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, one of the many shops that I entered. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an indoor space of any kind whose every item struck me as beautiful. But that’s what happened at Fisher, which carries Native American ceramics both old and new. Magnificent stuff, beautifully proportioned, colored and decorated, in styles that date back numerous centuries. I should have made a purchase. Man, I can be dumb as shit.


Okay, I can’t leave without talking a little more about food. Sara is an excellent cook. She and my brother fed us deliciously. And on a couple of nights the four of us ventured out for dinner, hitting the jackpot on one of those excursions when we had terrific pizzas at Pranzo Italian Grill. Sandy’s and my Margherita pie, with added olives, is pictured above in the forefront. Its extremely thin and charred crust was a model for how pizza crusts should taste and look.

Good trips are good for the soul. Sandy and I had a very good trip, spending quality time with family, gathering new experiences, seeing sights worth seeing and dining well. We’re fortunate folks.

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An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

How many good musical recordings have been made over the years? Man, coming up with an answer to that one is a tall, tall order. First of all, there are the millions upon millions of records you’d have to listen to. And then there’s this sticky point: Who’s to say what good is?

Still, I’m undeterred! I’ve placed the query on my TBDBIDBPL (To Be Determined Before I Die, But Probably Later) list, which now has 46,786 entries on it. I’ll take that list with me to my grave, where I intend to continue working on it. What, like I’ll have anything better to do?

Getting back to my questions: You know, some days you just plain luck out when it comes to hearing music that rings your bell just right, even within a really compact amount of time. That’s precisely what happened to me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I backed my car out of the driveway. The Hyundai, feeling parched, was pleading with me to inject some refined liquid down its maw. It was going on and on, making a big deal out of nothing. Hell, cars, like humans, sure as shit can be emotionally needy. “Yeah, yeah,” I said not so soothingly, “where do you think we’re headed?” And continued on my way to my favorite gas station.

The gas station is a measly 0.9 miles from my house. If I lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the trip to the station, by car, might take two minutes. But I live in suburban Philadelphia, which isn’t any better traffic-wise than living in just about any part of The City Of Brotherly Love itself. In my little town, traffic lights and stop signs abound. What’s more, a few blocks from my house are railroad tracks upon which passenger trains do their thing throughout much of the day. It’s not easy to avoid meeting railroad track gates in the down position. They seem to be down a whole, whole lot.

The point that I’m making, and it’s not exactly a genius observation, is that in our day and age it can take longer to get from Point A to Point B than you’d like. Normally I wouldn’t have been thrilled that my mini-trip to the gas station used up 10 minutes of my life, crawling along as I was on the first leg of the expedition, then coming to a total standstill at horizontal railroad track gates, then crawling along some more before pulling into the gas station.

But I wasn’t mad at all. In fact I was cheerful and loose as a goose, because I spent those 10 minutes bopping to four mighty fine songs. They came to me consecutively on Soul Town, a great station on SiriusXM satellite radio. It’s a good day when I Thank You (by Sam & Dave), First I Look At The Purse (The Contours), Bernadette (The Four Tops), and James Brown’s Hot Pants Part 1 enter your life. A very good day.

Now, I’ve decided not to devote much wordage to the beauty of these songs or to their artists. I figure that nearly everyone who reads my stories has heard these recordings any number of times and knows of their majesty. And if that’s not true for you, then you’ve got yourself some livin’ and learnin’ to do! The numbers are old-school classics (they came out between 1964 and 1971) and are guaranteed to get you reeling and rocking, which, generally speaking, are excellent ways to behave.

I listen to music of all different sorts from all different eras, but I never stray too far from the kind of fare that Soul Town broadcasts: soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. Funny thing is that I’ve gotten much deeper into these genres over the last eight or so years than ever before. I always liked them aplenty, but I’m a real nut about them now. Superb singing; fabulous arrangements; beats that’ll send you to the sky (and maybe to the chiropractor) if the tune is a heavy workout, or make your heart melt if it’s a ballad; and strong melodies. What more could you want? And yeah, I know that Hot Pants Part 1 isn’t blessed in the melody department, but that’s not what that tune’s all about. As James Brown says: One two, one two three, uh!!

So, get down while the getting down’s good, girls and boys. The four songs here are anything but of the ballad variety. Yeah, baby, I can see you, now you’ve got it, keep on going, c’mon, c’mon, oh yes you’re smokin’!

I’m seconds away from saying over and out, as this here is a piece whose main purpose, I suppose, is simple and clear: to set cyberspace a-tingling a bit with songs that have what it takes. You bet we’re lucky to live in a time when it’s oh so easy to bathe luxuriously in terrific music. Terrific music is all around us, only a click or a tap away.

Over and out.

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Books That Are Short And Good

Fourteen months ago I wrote a piece (click here) about my successful attempt to re-enter the world of book-reading after a two-year hiatus from same. I’d taken baby steps, no doubt about it, but the two books I’d read at that point during 2017 (Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means Of Escape) had me bursting with pride at my accomplishment. I was back in the saddle!

One major reason for my choosing to read those two works was that they were très compact. As were nearly all of the five subsequent volumes that passed before my eyes in 2017. I don’t know, my attention span has shrunk like an icy dick in somewhat recent years. So, any book I’m apt to tackle is going to be on the easily consumed side in terms of page count and likely blessed with nice, big print. The days of possibly giving Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov a shot are gone, baby, gone. And I can live with that! Happily.

Well, I’m here to report that consistency continues to reign in my book selection process. So far this year I’ve etched three notches on my literary belt, and the books for which the notches were created average around 200 pages in length. Short, in other words.

Good books they are, too. And although dubbed novels, two of them come awfully damn close to being memoirs pure and simple. As for the third, also a novel, it’s a memoir at its core despite its many flights of fancy.

The first one that I took on, Big Sur (by Jack Kerouac), is a mass of jagged and breathless energy. It recounts Kerouac’s efforts, three years after 1957’s publication of On The Road made him famous, to get away from the fans and from the media attention that he felt were dragging him down. To a cabin in California’s idyllic Big Sur he retreated, soon to discover that he couldn’t escape his alcoholic and highly unsettled self. In Big Sur’s pages, Kerouac tears into himself pitilessly. The public might have thought of him as a cool guy, a free-flying bird. But in reality, uh-uh. The so-called and supposed King Of The Beatniks, Kerouac wasn’t destined for many more years on our orb. He passed in 1969 at age 47.

Next up was Portrait Of The Artist, As An Old Man. Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, completed it shortly before his demise, at age 76, in 1999. Catch-22, which entered the world in 1960, was Heller’s first and most popular book. I’d say that Portrait, of whose existence I was unaware until noticing it sitting all lonesome on a library shelf in March, deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This is the book that I mentioned above wherein flights of fancy flourish.

I tell you, this book made me squirm, not because it’s creepy or weird in any way. No, this is Heller’s account of a novelist (himself with a fictitious name) whose muse has bolted south. But needing to write (“He had nothing better to do with his leisure than to try writing another novel . . . ” Heller notes in one of many permutations on the notion throughout the book), our hero keeps coming up with one lame or unworkable story idea after another. Man, I can relate! Funny, human, almost adorable, Portrait is a satiric picture of a man determined not to give up, for lack of anything better to do, come what may.

I’ve known of Charles Bukowski for eons, but never read a word of the zillions he put to paper until I decided to give Post Office a spin. It’s Bukowski’s telling of his career during the 1950s and 60s as a mail carrier and letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, and of his life during the hours when he wasn’t on the job. Crazy anecdotes and bushels of nastily humorous lines fly from Bukowski’s pen. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Bukowski wasn’t cut out to work within a bureaucracy. A model employee he never was nor ever wanted to be. A hard-liver, a heavy drinker, a denizen of society’s underside, a street poet and a true character, it’s amazing that he hung onto his job for as long as he did.

Bukowski was and remains a cult literary figure, primarily known for his poems. I get the feeling, though, that quite a few millions of folks are into his work. That’s a big cult. I might relax with another of his “fictional” novels one of these days, because rapid-paced Post Office pleased me. Apparently totally at ease with his drinking, race-track frequenting and disheveled lifestyle, Bukowski comes across as a guy I’d probably have enjoyed talking to, but maybe for not too long. His energy would have swallowed me whole. Despite holding the antithesis of a holistic orientation, Bukowski hung around for a decent amount of time, his tenure ending at age 73 in 1994.

Okay, that’s enough about those three guys. It’s time to get back to what this publication mainly is all about. Me. Hell, if I don’t write about myself, who the f*ck will?

But, appropriately, I’ll keep it short. Getting back to my short attention span, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly when and how it developed. Maybe it settled upon me as a result of societal osmosis, since cultural analysts and pundits have been saying for 20 or so years that most peoples’ attention spans are skimpy. Whatever the reasons may be for the state of mine, I’m not sure if I can or want to elongate it, to bring it back to where it once was during the decades I spent in the academic and paid-employment worlds.

But hey, maybe I just stumbled upon the key. It could be that when I hung up my career spikes in 2009, when additional hours each day became mine to deal with as I chose, my ability to stay focused began to slip. Now I kind of flit from one thing to another. Not that I mind flitting, to tell you the truth. I’ve gotten used to it and maybe even like it. In fact, in a day or two I’m going to flit over to a local library and scour its racks for a shorty. It’s time to etch another notch on my literary belt.

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Another Side Of Keith Richards (He’s A Genius Inventor!)

When my cell phone rang in my bedroom a week ago Monday at 4:30 AM, I bolted up from the deepest sleep I’d been in since I don’t know when. Shit, I’d forgotten to leave the phone out of earshot! Double shit, the jolt was so dangerous I came this close to reaching the end of my Earthly days. Hallelujah though, my wife Sandy continued to sleep the sleep of babies. Grabbing the phone, I tiptoed out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the living room sofa.

“What the f*ck’s wrong with you, man?” I said to the caller. “Don’t you know what time it is here? It might be late morning in Ireland, but I don’t live in Ireland!”

Photo by Mark Seliger

“Calm down, bro,” said Keith Richards. “I forgot about the time difference, ya know? Gimme a break. And by the way, it’s good to hear ya voice.”

I put my hand over my heart. It still was beating like a big bass drum, but overall I felt alright. I put on a happy face and resumed the conversation.

“Keith-o, what’s happening? How are the rehearsals going?” He was in the Emerald Isle with the rest of The Rolling Stones, preparing for their latest tour. It opens next week in Dublin. And yeah, damn right that Keith and I are buds. You can learn a bit of the backstory by clicking here.

“Ah, man, I don’t know. I mean, the band’s still got it. We’re smokin’ hot, but I’m feelin’ blue. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right career choice. I mean, I like writin’ songs and playin’ on stage and all, but is that all there is to life? Neil, I shoulda been an inventor. I’ve got lots of great ideas. There’s one that I’ll call the Bravo Toilet if I decide to try and bring it to market. Did I ever tell ya about it? Here’s the deal: After ya finish doin’ your business — it don’t matter if it’s number one or number two — and push the flush handle, two big mechanical hands pop up from behind the tank and start applaudin’ real enthusiastically! And they don’t stop clappin’ till the tank has refilled. Not only that, a recorded voice keeps yellin’ ‘Bravo! Bravo! A magnificent performance!’ over and over. Ain’t that the coolest?”

I had to agree. Keith had a very brilliant idea there. I was more than impressed. “Yo, Keith,” I said, “this is a side of you I’ve never known about. What other genius notions have you been keeping secret from me?”

“Well, how about this one? Chewing gum, Neil. Its potential is almost untapped. Think about all the flavors of gum that nobody makes. Brussel sprouts, prunes, kale, quinoa. Oh, and I forgot to mention turnips and parsnips. I tell ya, the list goes on and on.”

“Keith, my man, your future is bright. Very bright. You’ve got more lightbulbs going off in your head than I have strands of hair on my head.” And that’s when a lightbulb went off inside my head for a change.

“Good buddy,” I said, ‘‘you need to turn your attention to finding the cure for baldness. Come up with that one and your legacy will be unmatched. You can do it, Keith, I’ve got total confidence in you.”

“Neil, after this tour is over, curing baldness will become the heaviest item on my plate. I’m gonna tackle that problem with laser intensity. You’ve got my word.”

“You rock, Keith-o! Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to pay a visit to the little boys’ room. I wish I had a Bravo Toilet installed, because my impending dump is going to be majestic. But I have to ask you one more thing: I have a blogging buddy who lives in Scotland. Andrew Ferguson is his name. Andrew and his musical partner call themselves Tribute To Venus Carmichael. They play great songs that Venus composed over the years. Thing is, nobody knows where Venus herself is these days. She’s been performance-shy for forever. You remember Venus, don’t you? She was part of the L.A. music scene in the 70s.”

“Holy crap, Neil, I can’t believe that you’re bringing her up. Sure I remember her. We were an item for a nano-second back in those days. Gorgeous girl. Excellent songwriter. And you won’t believe this, but I’m pretty sure that I saw her in Manhattan last month. I was on my way to a recording studio — me and Mick were working up some new songs there — when I swear she walked right past me. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but I think it was her.”

‘‘ ‘Venus, baby, it’s Keith,’ I said. ‘It’s fantastic to see ya again.’ But the girl didn’t give me a glance. What can ya say? Maybe it was Venus, maybe not. In any case I’d love to know what Venus’s been up to all these years.”

“Okay, Keith. I’m going to let Andrew know about this. And I wasn’t kidding about what I said a minute ago. Nature is calling me in a deep, powerful voice. See you, Keith-o. You can start applauding in a few minutes. And don’t forget to yell bravo. I’ll hear you from across the pond.”  

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(P.S. Andrew Ferguson is real, as is the musical duo Tribute To Venus Carmichael. Is Venus Carmichael herself real? You’ll have to check out the TTVC website to find out. Is anything else about this story real? Well, the Stones begin their latest tour next week in Dublin. As for the rest . . . )

Flowering Trees Were Calling Me: A Stroll Through Chestnut Hill

On April 9 of this our present year, I went out in search of signs of spring, which was damn well taking its time in arriving. Though I didn’t come up empty-handed, the cupboard indeed was awfully bare. Naturally, having donned the hat of writer a few years ago, I wrote about the expedition, publishing the story six days later.

In the interim, however, nature began bubbling halfway decently in my region. To wit, two or three days after the 9th I began to spot some flowering trees in bloom. Finally! Spring was coming out from behind the curtains.

Now, I had no particular plans to place a second springtime-related opus into the ethers of cyberspace in 2018. Believe me, more than enough of those bad boys are already up there. But it turns out that I couldn’t resist. Last week’s Monday clinched the decision for me. Conditions-wise the day was ideal. The skies were so blue, my knees went weak looking at them. The temperature was 68°F (20°C), one of my favorite numbers on the dial because it meant that if a stroll around town would cause me to break a sweat, the sweat would flow only minimally. Ergo, a stroll was in order. But where to? I hadn’t been in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia for a while. It’s a large, beautiful area, countrified and quaint and pretty hip. A village unto itself in effect, Chestnut Hill is almost always a good place to pass your time in.

Callery pear tree

At about 2:00 PM I jumped into my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. Eight miles later I was in Chestnut Hill. I was psyched for the impending walk. And I knew what my focus would be, photographically anyway. While enjoying the pleasures of the day I, for no brilliant reason, would take pictures mostly of flowering trees.

Saucer magnolia tree

I spent an hour and a half in Chestnut Hill, walking along all nice and relaxed. Everything was quite peaceful. I heard but one barking dog, unlike in my suburban nook where barks are as common as dandelions. And though lots of cars were on the roads, not a one of their drivers honked within my range of hearing during my excursion. I don’t know, maybe Chestnut Hill is a magnet for good quality canines and humans.

Getting back to spring, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that it had a long way to go. I mean, 90% of the non-flowering deciduous trees (maples, oaks, whatever) had no leaves on them whatsoever, though the budding process was under way.

But the flowering trees were another story. Though there weren’t as many of them as I’d have liked to see (and I assume that all members of the flowering varieties were in fact blooming), there were enough. And I took a good look at every one I passed. Who can resist gentle creations aglow in creamy whites, pretty pinks and other reddish shades? Not me.

Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking west
Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking east

One block in particular was a wonderland of sorts. I speak of W. Southampton Avenue. I was heading downhill on Germantown Avenue, the steeply sloped main drag filled with clothing boutiques and restaurants and other shops, when a marvelous mass of white blossoms caught my eye. They were attached to a series of cherry trees that occupy a good bit of W. Southampton, a residential block. I crossed Germantown Avenue and dove into the milky white scene. From Germantown Avenue I hadn’t noticed it, what with my strong case of myopia, but a petal storm was going on. Dropping from the trees in big numbers, petals were floating through the air rhapsodically. Man, it was beautiful. I was all set to lay myself down on the sidewalk and go blissful. But then I remembered that I’m not so good at going blissful. Shit, I knew I should have enrolled in a Zen Buddhism program years ago! You live and you learn. Sometimes.

Well, I snapped some pictures of W. Southampton, hoping like crazy that I’d capture some mid-air petals. If you look closely at the photos that I’ve included you’ll see a few. They and their siblings were a sight.

Saucer magnolia tree

Ah, the mystery of petals. Towards the end of my walk I found myself ambling along a stretch of sidewalk covered with pink ones. They had fallen from a saucer magnolia tree, which nevertheless was still grandly laden with flowers. The next day, at home, I gave a bit of thought to those and the other petals that I’d encountered in Chestnut Hill. So many already were off their trees, even though the trees had been in blossom for less, probably, than two weeks. Seems a shame that the great flowering-tree show comes and goes as quickly as it does. If its design had been left up to me, I’d have commanded that it last for two months or more. A magnificent extravaganza, it’s worthy of that, without question.

Not long after stepping through the carpet of magnolia petals, I found myself back on the block where I’d parked my old Civic. I liked the way my car looked, demure and cute despite the large blotches on its trunk and roof, as it waited patiently for me in front of a small, adorable cherry tree. The tree’s bone-white blossoms contrasted righteously with the Honda’s deep green paint. A photograph of the scene cried out to be taken. A few minutes later I got into the Honda and made my way back to the burbs. A flowery excursion had come to its end.

P.S. I’m indebted to Karen Flick, landscape manager at Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to flora. I sent some of my photos to her, and she identified the trees for me.

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