Look Up, Young Man!

When the phone rang at 8:15 AM on Wednesday of last week I reached for my blood pressure pills and popped not one, but two. Ordinarily that’s a big no-no. But somehow I knew who was calling. And since said individual has the talents to launch my diastolic and systolic readings halfway to the Moon, a medicinal overload was a necessity. On the fourth ring I picked up.

“Good morning, Edgar,” I said to Edgar Reewright, my blog’s editor. “It’s always a pleasure.”

“Cut the small talk, Neil,” Edgar said, “and let’s get down to business. Neil, I know you. Right now, I’m more than certain, you’re at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a buttered, toasted bagel and your vial of blood pressure pills in front of you. And you’re doing your damnedest, without much success as usual, to solve The Philadelphia Inquirer’s crossword puzzle.”

I gulped. Heavily.

“I’m fed up with having to remind you of your responsibilities,” Edgar continued. “The five or six people who look at your blog — your wife, your criminal defense attorney, your proctologist’s mistress and a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify — have come to expect one stab at an article from you each week. And my gut feeling is that you’re planning to let them down, that you’re all set to take a week off. Neil, this is unacceptable. There are dozens of stories out there waiting to be written. Get off your unbalanced ass and start working.”

Holy crap, not only is Edgar annoying, he also was correct. And so, after politely ending my conversation with him, I gathered myself and my thoughts together, pondered this and pondered that, and eventually came up with a story idea. Look Up, Young Man! would be its title. And central Philadelphia would be where I would attempt to make it blossom.

Thus in early afternoon I boarded a Philadelphia-bound train in the suburbs, arriving in the fair city’s central section an hour later.

“Look up, Neil,” my parents used to say to me when I was a kid walking along with my eyes aimed downward. I must have been suffering from a lack of confidence in those days, reluctant to meet the world head on. Not that I’m bubbling over with confidence all these many decades later. Anyway, I don’t stare at the ground anymore when I’m strolling around. I look straight ahead or side to side.

But upward? Well, like anybody, I do some of that. But consistently for a couple of hours or more? Nah, I couldn’t recall ever doing that in my life. It’s not exactly a world-class notion, but it had appealed to me when it jumped into my mind a few hours earlier. I liked its simplicity, its openendedness. Who knew where or what it would lead to?

Pow! Moments after exiting the train station and stepping onto Market Street I gaped at what to me is one of the iconic outdoor sculptures in Philadelphia. It’s a giant replica of an electric guitar, and it rotates, as if on a spit, 15 feet above the ground at the corner of 12th and Market Streets. It’s hard not to notice this symbol of the Hard Rock Café, which is housed within one of the classic stone buildings that once belonged to the long-defunct Reading Railroad.

But I wanted to look higher than 15 feet. So I crossed to the south side of Market Street and, lifting my eyes to the skies, took in the first of five or six incredibly tall construction cranes that I’d come across during the afternoon. As I usually do when staring at one of these amazing machines, I wondered how in the world it stays balanced and how in the world anybody is able to manipulate its movements so precisely. Good thing it’s not me at the controls.

I was off to a good start. And one block later the good start continued when a sweet juxtaposition caught my eye. Philadelphia is famed for the several thousands of murals painted on the sides of buildings, and a great one adorns the lower reaches of a 16-or-so story office building near the corner of 13th and Market Streets. The mural is titled The Tree Of Knowledge. A ladder, a good item to have if you’re planning to pluck some information and wisdom from a tree, comprises a major part of the composition. I sidled up nice and close to the wall and looked up. The office building’s windows took on a new aspect, flowing gently in streams towards the heavens. And the ladder? It led the way to the levels above. I was tempted to climb it and see what happened.

Forty-five minutes later another mural, Reach High And You Will Go Far, crossed my path where 20th and Arch Streets meet. It too is a beauty, painted on the side of a three-story structure. Only a fool would argue with its message. I couldn’t get up close and personal to it though, as I had with The Tree Of Knowledge, because it is fenced-in. But I remembered to look up. And what I saw behind the mural, one block to its east,  was a giant tower, the under-construction Comcast Technology Center, that will top out at over 1,100 feet when completed next year. It is destined to become Philadelphia’s tallest building by about 150 feet. Reaching high, for sure.

All told I spent two and a half hours roaming the streets, covering several miles-worth of territory. I spent much of the time in the areas where the city’s skyscrapers are most concentrated, and also walked along many blocks whose buildings are of normal size. My eyes darted here, there and everywhere, but I kept my mantra — look up! — firmly in the front of my mind. The patterns up above formed by contrasting buildings, the wonderful reflections of sky and surrounding edifices in way-up-there glass sheathings and windows, the loving details carved into stone not far above ground level in stately three-story homes . . . all of these made me smile.

I admired the words etched above the entranceway to The Alison Building, a calmly regal structure that faces one of the city’s finest parks, Rittenhouse Square. On an ordinary day, with my eyes looking straight ahead, I wouldn’t have noticed them. “He that soweth bountifully shall reap bountifully” they read. Hmmm, sounds like something that Benjamin Franklin might have said, I guessed. Incorrectly, of course. The phrase comes from the Christian Bible. Ben, though, probably knew and liked the statement, one you definitely can’t argue with.

My stroll ended alongside Philadelphia’s City Hall, an impossibly ornate hulk smack dab in the center of town. This monolith took around 30 years to build, finally opening for business in 1901. I’ve never been able to decide whether I like its exterior design or not. Some days I do, some days I don’t. It depends on how receptive to over-the-top decoration my mood is. As I approached City Hall from the south I naturally had to look at its highest point. Namely, the hat sitting atop the giant statue of William Penn, who more or less was Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s founder in the late 1600s. That hat rests 548 feet above the ground, which made City Hall the tallest building in the city until 1987, when the first of Philadelphia’s now-numerous sleek, modern skyscrapers was erected.

Well, it almost was time to call it a day. I made my way to a subway station and rode a sub into South Philadelphia, an enormous area filled mostly with row houses. There I met two of my bestest pals, Mike and Jeff, for dinner at a pub. The hours of looking up had ended. Beers and some grub were the next things on the agenda.

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A Trip To Fallingwater

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during the 69 years I’ve taken up space on Planet Earth. Been to Asia (Nepal). And to the Middle East (Israel). And to North Africa (Egypt). And to various countries in Europe any number of times. And I’ve been here and there in the States and Canada. How about Pennsylvania, then, the state I’ve lived in since my late 20s? Well, I’m nicely familiar with its greater Philadelphia region, which is my home territory, but outside of that orb I haven’t ventured all too much. And in the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I may have been missing. A trip to Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike that my wife Sandy and I made a few weeks ago drove the point home pretty decisively. “Wow, look at all these mountains and farms. Who knew?” I said to Sandy more than once during that westward journey. “It’s time to explore Pennsylvania. Let’s do plenty of that before the sands of time run out on us.” Those weren’t my exact words, but they are close enough.

Smartly, we had already planned a day and a half of discovery in the Keystone State. On the way back from Ohio (you can read about the Ohio visit by clicking here) we drove to Uniontown, a less-than-flourishing community nestled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we had booked a hotel room. The following day, Monday, would be our visit to Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that has become a tourist destination. Neither Sandy nor I had ever been in southwestern Pennsylvania before.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty writing about Fallingwater. It’s not as if the world needs any more mentions of the place, as the 2,400,000+ Google results for Fallingwater obviously prove. But what’s a blogger to do? I considered typing an opus about what I ate for breakfast this morning (strong coffee, and Wheaties with blueberries), but opted instead for Wright’s creation. Nobody wants to read about my breakfast, not even me, no matter how delicious it was. Fallingwater it is.

To summarize Fallingwater’s history: Edgar Kaufmann, a department store magnate who lived in Pittsburgh with his wife Lillian and son Edgar Jr., commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a weekend/vacation home for the family. The house was to be set within the enormous, heavily-forested swath of land that the Kaufmanns owned in the Allegheny Mountains. That plot was (and is) about 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Wright completed his design in 1935. Two years later the house was in place, and two years after that a guest house, uphill from the main residence and connected to it by a short cement span, went up. In 1963, some years after the death of his parents, Junior donated Fallingwater and the family’s mountain acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land and water protection organization. The Conservancy opened the buildings and grounds to the public in 1964, and before long Fallingwater caught on. Really caught on. To date, upwards of 5,000,000 visitors have toured the facilities. For a place that some might describe as being in the middle of nowhere, that’s genuinely impressive.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

And here’s why they keep on coming: Fallingwater’s exterior looks better than just about any house that you’ll ever see. It is sleek, lovingly tiered, rustically handsome and highly imaginatively laid out. And the house’s placement is, as they say, unparalleled. It is built atop and alongside boulders, a few of which poke out into the living spaces. And, rather incredibly, it is perched above a descending stream at the point where the waters – you guessed it – fall over rocks. A waterfall! A modest waterall, to be sure, but beautiful nonetheless. Fallingwater, a looker in an admirable, peaceful way, communes righteously with the natural environment that surrounds it. Harmony definitely prevails.

After breakfast on Monday, Sandy and I jumped into our car and drove the 25 miles, half of them along winding country roads, that separate Uniontown from Fallingwater. Our tour, scheduled for 11:00 AM, began on time. Twenty or so folks were in our tour group. The guide, alas, informed us that photography wouldn’t be allowed within the house. Nor would touching of the objects. Bummer. The interior shots I’ve included in this humble essay, therefore, are photos that I’ve snatched off the Internet. By the way, Fallingwater’s room arrangements and furnishings have been left pretty much as they were when Junior turned over the keys to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Photo by Jeffrey Neal

Most of the tour took place inside, as opposed to outside, Fallingwater. My memory being duller than a butter knife, let me pass on a few recollections before they fade into oblivion. First, I dug Wright’s color scheme. Earth tones predominate. They make for a calming, comforting experience, which without doubt was his intention. And I was surprised to learn that Wright designed not only Fallingwater’s structure, but many of its objects – desks, cabinets, chairs and tables. And they are beautiful. The guy was something else. Was there anything he couldn’t do? Well, he couldn’t walk on the waters of the stream flowing beneath the house, right? Or maybe he could.

Photo by Brad Ford

I noticed a couple of broad wooden desks, wedged into corners, that have portions of their tops neatly cut away so as to allow windows to swing open. Brilliant idea! And I spent some time in Junior’s bedroom looking over the smallish but swell collection of books on his shelves. They reflect an open and bright mind. Among them are the 10-volume set of The World’s Best Essays, a long-forgotten collection published in 1900. I’d have loved to pull out one or two of the volumes to take a look at the wisdom contained therein. But that wouldn’t have been a wise move, as the tour guide might have dragged me off the premises by the few strands of hair remaining on my head had I attempted to satisfy my innocent desire.

The one-hour tour over, Sandy and I headed down a trail that paralleled the stream and led into deep forest country. Rhododendron bushes grew in numbers you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. Oak and maple trees flourished, as did a variety of evergreens. It felt good to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods for a while. Take more forest walks is something I’ve added to my to-do-soon list. Forests don’t exist in my paved-over home area, but a few are within reasonable driving distance.

The next morning we drove home, southwestern Pennsylvania before long disappearing from our rear view mirror. Now, I’m not going to say that this rural region of Pennsylvania is a must-see destination. For those who groove on mountain hiking or fishing or rafting, it’s absolutely A-OK. For those not of that persuasion but who are passing through the area or taking in the sights in Pittsburgh, here’s the thing: You could do a lot worse than make the drive to Fallingwater. Sandy and I agree that Fallingwater made our trip worthwhile. The place is a beaut.

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Carol, Goodbye

There we were – my wife Sandy and I – zooming westward along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two Fridays ago. We were on our way to Ohio, its Cleveland area, for a reunion of some members of Sandy’s side of the family. We see a few folks from her clan regularly, but not so for the others. The occasion promised to be a somewhat reflective one, in that it was a gathering in honor of Carol, one of Sandy’s and my cousins who, in her mid-60s, died several months ago in Arkansas. There, for decades, she had made her home with her husband Mike. Carol’s brother lives with his wife near Cleveland, and it was said brother and his spouse, Steve and Carolyn, who organized the celebration of Carol’s life.

The gathering turned out to be wonderful. Thirteen folks, including Sandy and I, made up the group. Everyone was glad to be with one another. Lots of hugs and kisses were exchanged during the three days we were together. Lots of good food was consumed. Happy chitchat glided effortlessly through the air. And on Saturday, in memory of Carol, we all piled into our motor vehicles and drove to downtown Cleveland to attend a Cleveland Indians baseball game, the signature event of the family members’ weekend.

When it comes to Carol, only one thing could have been more appropriate than our visiting the Indians, and that would have been our attendance at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Carol, as big a baseball fan as I’ve ever known, grew up in the Philadelphia region and at an early age became infatuated with the Phillies. That infatuation gripped her for the rest of her life. But through her brother, another baseball aficionado, she came to love the Indians too. During visits to Steve and Carolyn over the years she went to a good number of Indians games. If only she could have been with all of us that recent Saturday. In her element, she’d have had a blast.

45 minutes before game time
45 minutes before game time

I was pretty well stunned by the beauty of Cleveland’s  stadium, Progressive Field, when it came into view moments after I walked out of the parking garage. Intimate, with narrow outfield foul territory areas, it was modestly populated at 3:30 PM, forty-five minutes before game time. Hordes of fans soon would arrive. The outfield grasses, green as can be and meticulously groomed, looked magnificent. The enormous scoreboard flashed excitedly with bright-colored messages. With no rain in sight, the day held much promise.

Steve and Carolyn had gone whole hog by renting a suite for the family. I’d never been in a baseball suite before, and, you know, I have to say that it ain’t a bad way to go. A guy could get used to it. There was a buffet area within the room, a frig stocked with beer and a big screen TV for those who chose to watch the game artificially. And, best of all, a clean bathroom.

Photo taken from within the suite

And there was a door that led out to the open air, to a balcony of sorts that held a dozen chairs. The suite was halfway down the third baseline, and from the balcony the view of the game was fine. As were its sounds. I was amazed by the high decibel level of pitched balls crashing into catchers’ mitts. Man, pitchers these days throw hard. Harder, I think, than ever before. Boom, boom, boom, indeed.

Shadows enter the infield!
Shadows dominate the infield!

Well, the game passed pleasantly, though the final outcome wasn’t favored by Cleveland rooters, the Minnesota Twins winning the battle by the score of four runs to two. Like most of the family members I paid only half-attention to the game, spending much of the time wandering into the suite for food and beverage or talking about this or that with one person or another. Or fixating on the heavy, menacing shadows that began to cover the infield midway through the proceedings. How a batter can see a ball well enough to hit it under those shadowy conditions is way beyond myopic me. Carol, though, would have watched the action on the field with an eagle eye. You have to if you’re going to document the step-by-step developments throughout a game on a scorecard, something that few people know how or would want to do. Carol, though, knew how, and did. She was a true lover of the game.

Now, there was much more to Carol’s life than baseball. She was someone of wide mind and interests. But baseball is what many of us who knew her think of when we think of Carol. I mean, in Arkansas she subscribed to a special major league baseball television channel so that she could watch Phillies games. And at family gatherings it wasn’t unusual for her to be wearing a Phillies jersey.

It was fitting, therefore, that a few hours after the game ended, back at Carolyn’s and Steve’s home, everyone adjourned to a large room in which a piano resided. Steve and Carolyn possess excellent musical talent. And Mike, though not in their class music-wise, is a free-spirited singer, liable to burst into song at any given moment. Carolyn sat down at the piano and Steve placed his violin on his shoulder. Their young-adult son, also in possession of musical gifts, picked up a violin too. Next thing you knew a most rousing version of Take Me Out To The Ball game was under way, Carolyn hitting the keys hard and exuberantly, Mike singing with startling gusto and the two violinists fiddling away like their lives depended on it. Everyone else in the room was singing or humming along, and when the song reached its conclusion they burst into loud applause. It was by far the best rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game that I’ve ever heard.

Another good person has left the planet. Carol, goodbye. We miss you.

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Love, The Lovers, And The Race Street Pier

There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences.  The latter type are so weird and unexpected even a fervent skeptic such as myself might be led to murmur a mighty “Mmmmm, I wonder . . .

The most potent examples of unusual coincidences that I’ve personally come across began making their appearances not long after my wife Sandy and I moved into our suburban Philadelphia home. We set down stakes here in 2005 and soon met quite a few of the occupants of other houses on the block. Some of the adults lived alone, but most were couples of the heterosexual variety, with children. Proverbially happy couples, I believed. That’s why you could have knocked me over with a sturdy feather when next-door neighbor Tony [his and all other neighborly names have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty] told me in 2006 that his wife Diane had moved out and that they were divorcing. Huh? Well, you rarely really know what’s going on behind closed doors, right? I was sorry to see Diane go.

A few years later things went south fast for the next-door folks on the other side of our house. Tom and Nicole each let me know that they had decided to divorce, but that in the interim they would remain within the same abode. That arrangement went on for a while. Then Nicole moved away. The finalized divorce followed. Sandy and I scratched our heads, amazed that a second couple had gone down for the count.

Well, four years ago love disintegrated once again on my street. The victims were Bob and Yvonne, the pair living directly opposite from Sandy’s and my front door. They too remained within their abode, how I don’t know, while the wheels of divorce spun. A year later they sold their house, each moving elsewhere. Their divorce became legal soon after that.

Holy crap, what was going on? Had Sandy and I moved into Divorce Epicenter? Well, maybe, because the pattern continued. The new occupants of the house directly across the street saw to that. A year and a half after moving in, Horace moved out. Joan is still there. But there’s little chance of the two getting back together. They have divorced.

Incredible, no? But what can you say? Love is a complicated emotion. It ain’t easy to manage. It can be strong as granite. Or not.

A new movie, The Lovers, is a shining example of all of that, except for the granite part. Sandy and I watched it on the big screen a few weeks ago. It isn’t playing in many theaters anymore, but if it hasn’t yet made its way to Netflix and the like, undoubtedly it will before long.

Azazel Jacobs, who has had a nice cinematic career but has yet to hit it big, wrote and directed The Lovers. In the movie, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are a very confused, long-married couple that has grown apart. They have tired of one another   Yet they live together. And, strangely, they sleep together, though on opposite sides of the bed, never touching for most of the movie. Each has found romance outside the home — Michael with Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary with Robert (Aiden Gillen). Both Michael and Mary have promised to their flames that they will move in with them. But first they will have to spill the beans to their legal mates. That process is slow. Painfully slow. And it becomes complicated by the fact that far along the way Mary and Michael rediscover some smidgeons of the feelings that ages ago had brought them together.

Now, I liked The Lovers. But it sure paints a cynical picture of the human heart. Love comes. Love goes. Love can’t make up its mind. Love roils and muddies the waters. Is this the way it is out there for a hefty percentage of people in the real world, or merely a broad and comic exaggeration? I’m not someone with good answers to those questions. But I will say this: Twelve years ago I sure as hell wouldn’t have believed it possible for four couples living within spitting distance of me to call it quits.

That’s enough about love partly or fully on the rocks. It’s time to turn our attention to that which might have the power to keep love whole. And in Philadelphia I know of no better medicine for such than a visit, at night after the stars have come out, to the Race Street Pier. It’s a former commercial dock that has been repurposed and transformed, an example of tax dollars well-spent. Now it’s a public park, full of trees and lawn areas and wide walkways. It opened six years ago. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey, towers above the park. When darkness has fallen the bridge looks magnificent, glowing with thousand of lights that decorate its length. What a sight.

Race Street Pier and Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Sandy and I were on the pier a few weeks ago with our pals Cindy and Gene. The skies were clear, a perfect breeze tousled our Sassoon-worthy hairdos, and the bridge presented a commanding presence. For an hour we chatted while looking at the bridge, the boat traffic on the Delaware River and the lights in Philadelphia and Camden.

Race Street Pier is mutedly lit at night, and it’s not overrun with visitors. A more atmospheric and romantic urban place in which to spend some moments you’d be hard-pressed to find. The four of us fell under the evening’s spell, that’s for certain. And the spell was powerful, irresistible. Eventually, though,  we had to leave, what with early morning hours fast approaching and our internal gas tanks running a bit low. We said goodbye to Race Street Pier, till next time. The two couples then bid one another adieu and made their ways to their respective homes.

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Here Comes The Night

When not at home I spend many hours erect, most of them devoted to walking around here and there or, occasionally, impersonating a cigar store Indian in front of Wawa and 7-Eleven food markets. At the home front, though, it’s a different story. There, when not sleeping, I sit. Mostly I rest my bony ass on the living room sofa, my assigned chair at the dining room table, or the chair I’m occupying at this moment while pecking away at a computer keyboard. And sometimes I move outdoors to a chair on the large wooden structure that is seven feet above ground and bolted to the rear of my house. The existence of said structure was a prime reason 12 years ago that my wife Sandy and I decided to buy our house. Shepherded around from home to home by our real estate agent, I took one look at the deck and kind of fell in love with it. I’d never before considered owning a deck, but instantly that became an idea I wasn’t going to discard. A month or two later the house with deck became ours.

Now, I’ve given lots of time to the deck since moving in, but in the last year I’ve fallen down on the job. Somehow I pretty well forgot that the deck was there. How is that possible? Sandy didn’t forget, but that’s because she isn’t an idiot, unlike me. She lolls on the deck many mornings. It’s such a lovely creation. And its aims are pure: to provide pleasant views for our eyes and what passes for fresh air for our lungs.

Thankfully, times have changed. So, brothers and sisters, gather around. I’m here to announce that those days of neglect have ended, as I’ve headed out to the deck, usually at night, a lot in the past couple of weeks. I’m hooked once again on deck usage. Hallelujah! My sinful ways shall be no more!

I slipped outside to the deck at about 8:40 PM on Monday last week. The Sun had dipped below the horizon 10 minutes earlier. Plenty of light, though, remained in the skies. I took my seat beside the glass and metal table that takes up much of the deck’s floor space and placed upon it my tools for the night: a portable radio, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a glass of iced tea. The afternoon had been killer hot, with temps reaching well into the 90s Fahrenheit. But the night, what with the Sun gone and a calm but steady breeze doing its thing, was comfortable.

I decided to pay attention to what was happening around me, something I often avoid doing for fear of discovering more than my nearly-filled-to-capacity brain can handle. I looked up. Wow! The clouds were beautiful, set against a sky that quickly was turning from baby blue to deeper shades. And the trees filling and surrounding my backyard appeared more solid and wise than normal. The scene was quiet for the most part because, for reasons unknown, humans were not to be heard, nor were barking dogs. Maybe the canines and their masters were all indoors watching must-see TV shows such as The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills and Chrisley Knows Best. Whatever the reasons, I wasn’t complaining.

There were noises though. I astonished myself by noticing four different patterns of birdsong. Needless to say, however, there was no way I knew which species were involved. I have a hard enough time trying to visually identify a bird, let alone its tune. Hell, I’d barely recognize a cardinal if one were to fly up beside me and give me a loving peck on the cheek. “Ouch, you bright red motherf**ker, that hurts!”

Odd thing is that at about 9:00 PM, when darkness was filling the air, the birds stopped chirping away. Do they go to sleep when light has faded? That’s something I never thought about before. And, once again, it’s something I do not have any answers to. I hope that somebody out there will clue me in.

The small white dot is Jupiter

A few minutes after nine o’clock I spotted a bright light finding its way into open space from behind a neighbor’s enormous tree. It sat in the sky all alone and seemed to be slightly larger than a star. Therefore, I brilliantly concluded, it was a planet! And, as I learned the following day by speaking with astronomer Derrick Pitts at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the orb was Jupiter, which is very visible at night this time of year in my region of the globe. I went inside to get my binoculars. Back on the deck I pulled them from their pouch and took a look at the gleaming spot. That view didn’t much improve anything. I did, nonetheless, admire the bold whiteness a bit more than I had with my naked eye. I’m going to ask Santa Claus to bring me a telescope later this year. I could use one.

The dimmer dot is Arcturus. The brighter one is Jupiter.

And the nighttime show continued. The Moon hadn’t yet risen, but another bright object, dimmer than Jupiter, was higher in the sky and east of that bad boy planet. It was the star Arcturus, Mr. Pitts told me the following day. Arcturus is one of the brightest stars in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky. Natch, I’d never heard of it before.

Well, I had had a fine time staring into space and letting my mind wander the celestial pathways. Dozens of Cheez-Its had gone down my gullet very admirably, the iced tea had refreshed, as it’s supposed to do, and the songs on the radio had provided excellent company. And so I picked up my belongings one hour after entering the deck and returned to the bosom of my home. I was in better form emotionally and mentally than before my outdoors adventure began.

This article now is nearing its end. I’ve said just about everything I wanted to say. Which, admittedly, isn’t all that much. Nobody is going to confuse me with Henry David Thoreau, clearly. Such is life. What’s more, I hear the call of the wild. I can’t resist. It is quite dark outside at this moment. I will stop typing. To the deck I’m going to go.

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Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session
Ditto

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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Bruce Springsteen Made Me An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America

I’d always heard that, off-stage, Bruce Springsteen is a very normal sort of person. Meaning that the uninhibited, propulsive sides of his personality are reserved for those many moments when he stands beneath spotlights. Yes, everybody knows that in concert he rocks and rolls like few mortals ever have, sweating up storms of great magnitude while giving it all he has. And now I can attest to the truth of this paragraph’s first sentence too, because last week I met The Boss. At my house, no less. He’s a good guy. As is his buddy Steven Van Zandt, a guitar slinger who has been a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band for many years. I didn’t know that they were planning to visit me. I’d have put on something more flattering than a Donald Duck tee shirt and a pair of candy-striped shorts if I had. Whatever, as they say. The main thing is that it’s a good thing I was home when they knocked on my suburban Philadelphia front door yesterday afternoon.

“Hey, Neil, surprise!” said Stevie when I opened the door. “You’re not the best looking guy I’ve ever seen, but you’re nowhere near as ugly as I was expecting. Bruce and I drove all the way from northern New Jersey to meet you. We’re glad to be here. Nice shorts, by the way.”

“Holy crap!” I said. “Stevie? Bruce? What the hell’s going on? Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?”

“Hi, Neil,” said Bruce, peeking out from behind his friend. “Believe it or not, we’re here on serious business. Well, maybe not all that serious. We’ll explain all. C’mon, man, can we come in? I’ve got to use your bathroom. Half an hour ago I emptied a two liter bottle of RC Cola in no time flat. Big mistake. My bladder is sending out an SOS.”

“Gentlemen, enter!” I said, bowing and sweeping my right hand in a dramatic, welcoming arc. Enter they did, Bruce quickly spotting the ground floor john and heading towards it pronto. Stevie and I shook hands and took seats in the living room. I stared at him in disbelief. He smiled that smile of his that’s wide as a canyon.

“Stevie, what do you want to drink?” I finally managed to ask.

“Got any seltzer? Bruce I’m sure would love some, too.”

“I’ve got gallons of it. I’ll be right back.”

Two minutes later I strode into the living room with a big tray that held glasses of fizzy water and bowls of pretzels and chips. I looked at Bruce, who had finished his business and taken a seat on the sofa, and at Stevie. We lifted the glasses to our lips and reached into the bowls.

“Guys,” I said, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Woody Allen is the only star I ever met before. That was in 1973 when I was living in Manhattan. I accidentally knocked him over with a shopping cart in a Gristedes supermarket when I made a U- turn in the cereal aisle. He got up from the floor, glared at me and kept on shopping. Never said a word. More importantly, he didn’t sue.”

“Yeah, Woody’s the forgiving kind, so that doesn’t surprise me,” said Stevie. “Anyway, here’s why we’ve paid you a visit. It’s because of that story you wrote last week about your weakening obsession with music [click here to read it]. It found its way to one of the Springsteen-fan websites.” Bruce nodded in agreement. “And Brucie boy, having nothing better to do, checked out that site the other day. Your story jumped out at him like a wild animal. After reading it he knew that he had to take some action to try and help you out. So, he called me, told me what your article was about and explained everything he had in mind. I was on board just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point. “Ergo, here we are. And don’t bother asking how we found out where you live. It’s a Google world, my man. The only person that nobody can find hasn’t been born yet.”

“Stevie, Bruce, I’m humbled. Please continue.”

“Neil, we’re all about the same age here. Not getting any younger, that’s for sure,” Bruce said. “But Stevie and I are having the times of our lives. Just like always. We haven’t gotten tired of rock and roll in the least. Man, the passion, the fire are still there. It broke my heart when I read in your article that you’re only one-fifth the music guy that you used to be. Neil, we have come to get you out of what I am convinced is a funk. We want to turn you back into the rock and roll animal that you once were. And you know how we’re going to do that? Hold onto the few strands of hair that you have left on your wrinkly head . . . Neil, we want you to become part of The E Street Band! You’ll have more excitement than you ever thought possible. You’ll travel all over the world. You’ll drown, like me and Stevie and the rest of the band, in audience applause. Man, you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Photo: Don Marshall

I swear, my jaw dropped through the living room floor and into the basement. Whose wouldn’t have? Quickly I pulled it back into place, slapped myself in the face and said, “Bruce, this is an offer only a fool would refuse. My life has been good till now, but I wouldn’t mind it becoming great. Only problem is, I’m unfit to be in your band. You guys are the best. Me, I can’t stay on pitch when I sing. And I have less talent on musical instruments than the average three year old.”

“Doesn’t matter, Neil,” said The Boss. “We’ll teach you to sing simple background harmonies. You’ll sound just fine. And as far as instruments go, I want you to play the triangle. Anybody can play the triangle. And on a few tunes maybe we’ll have you bang on some wood blocks. Some of my songs would be strengthened with some incisive wood block poundings, don’t you think, Stevie?” Steven gave the thumbs-up sign emphatically. “Thunder Road, for instance, and Born In The U.S.A. You will be able to handle this, Neil. I’m totally confident.”

At that moment Sandy, my wife, turned her key in the front door lock and entered our house. She had been out shopping for some Matisse-inspired toilet seat covers. Sadly, none were to be found. Bruce and Steven rose, fine gentlemen that they are, when she came into the living room. Not unexpectedly, her jaw dropped not only into the basement but through the basement floor itself.

Well, Bruce and Steven hung around Sandy’s and my house for a few more hours. We all got on famously. Like I said, they are good guys. Very good guys. Bruce and the band are taking a break from the road right now, but plans for the next round are in the works. Rehearsals and touring start early next year. Sandy will fly to be with me now and then, like when the band is in London and Amsterdam and Stockholm. I’m psyched about what’s ahead.

This is the damndest thing, isn’t it? Me, a schlub who gets yanked from behind a computer keyboard to become a cog in one of the most popular bands in the universe. You know, I’m awake, but pinch me anyway. I won’t mind in the least.

 

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My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

A Wobbly Stroll

We all have those days, at least I do, when a wobbly stroll from one place to another is the best we can do. This is one of those days. Here then is a story formed from the tentative searchings of an unfocused mind, a tale that will touch upon technological miracles and upon lovely songs chosen almost at random, all partially obscured by the haze of cigarette smoke. Yes, it’s that kind of a story. I’m interested, myself, to see how it comes out.

To begin, awkwardly: My understanding of how most things work is at the sub-kindergarten level. Combustion engines? I have nary a clue. Harnessed electricity, which, it seems to me, is the driving force behind the modern world? Ditto. Radio and television and Internet transmissions that fly invisibly through the air or through cables and manifest themselves on billions of devices in the homes, businesses and hands of mankind? Ditto once again.

And, in my experience, I’m hardly alone in that lack of knowledge. Practically everybody, I’d guess, is more or less like me in that way. When we hit the power button on the TV or ask Siri a question or turn the key to start the car, we expect our machines to behave properly. And almost always they do. How they do what they do is something we rarely delve into. And that’s okay. Our brains are overloaded as it is.

Needless to say, therefore, I take my iPhone for granted, though it is nothing short of miraculous. Somehow I was living in the dark ages till a year and a half ago, which is when the iPhone entered my life. I could live without it, and pretty easily I believe, but hell, I wouldn’t want to. I love the frigging thing.

Part of its attraction to me, beyond its amazing capabilities, is that it’s about the same size as, and reminds me of, a pack of cigarettes. Man, did I love my cigarettes in my sinning days decades ago, the gratifying and comforting feelings I got from rolling around lit cigarettes in the fingers of my right hand, from casually knocking off the ashes and from sucking hardcore smoke deep into my lungs. But I loved the packs themselves almost as much as their contents. I’d feel fine whenever I pulled a pack of Winstons, my brand, from my shirt or jacket pocket, tapping it just so to force out the tip of my next cig. Holding the iPhone gently, practically caressing it, which I do, brings me back to those glory days.

More importantly, I find my way around the iPhone pretty decently. I’m not boasting, by the way. I’m fully aware that it was designed and programmed with nitwits like me in mind. Texting, telephoning, surfing the web, snapping photos and checking out tunes via Shazam . . . who’d believe that a five ounce contraption could handle all of that and far more? Incroyable, n’est-ce pas?

“What’s Shazam?” I heard someone in the corner table ask. Oh, it’s you, is it? Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to talk with food in your mouth? I’m going to wait till you swallow that load. Okay, that’s better. What’s Shazam? It’s the music-identifying app that gives you the answers within seconds when, to avoid plotzing like a whimpering fool, you have to know right away  the name of the song you’re listening to and/or who is singing it. Hold your Shazam-equipped smart phone in the vicinity of the speakers from which the number is pouring out and voila! — all the details will be revealed on the phone’s screen. As long as, that is, the same recording is stored within Shazam’s database. Otherwise, identification is impossible. There are millions of recordings in there, though, so disappointment isn’t frequent.

Ah yes, Shazam. I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of writing something or other about that bad boy, so taken am I with it. But, in my current wobbly frame of mind I’ll postpone any extensive examination of Shazam’s place in the world. Instead I’ll pursue a flimsy connection that I noticed when relentlessly scrolling up and down the list that the app maintains of my Shazamming history. What eventually jumped out at me was that many songs on the list contained one-word titles. Efficiency aficionado that I am, that aspect appealed to me. What’s more, three of the one-word-titled tunes began with the letter S. I was sold. That’s all I needed to proceed. Sure, the three songs have nothing much in common. What’s more, they amount to a nearly random selection. But what the hell? Randomness can add plenty of spice to life. Anyway, the songs are good, very good. Which, connection-wise, is more than enough.

Sleep. Steamboat. Stewball. Those are the songs, in alphabetical order. Their performers are, respectively: Azure Ray, a female duo (Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink) whose music is well-known in certain ambiant and indie pop music circles, though the lasses spend more time on hiatus than they do recording or touring together; The Drifters, rhythm and blues titans whose history of personnel changes during their golden era (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) is dizzying enough to send you to bed with a bad case of the jitters; and Eric von Schmidt, who was a medium-sized name in American folk music during the 1960s and 70s.

I’ve listened to Sleep three times on YouTube since deciding to jot down a few thoughts about it. The song is the first track on Azure Ray’s debut album, which Maria and Orenda presented to humanity in 2010. I’m in tune with the tune. I like its contrasts. Though it’s vocals are dreamy and gauzy, the incessant keyboard chords that initiate and anchor the song give little mercy. Those chords, to me, represent an agitated psyche. The Azure Ray girls are in the midst of love troubles. They can’t sleep.

Dreamy and gauzy are words that don’t apply in any manner to Steamboat. It’s a punchy, bluesy gas, powered by hard-hitting drumming and très cool boogie-woogie piano work. The vocals, lead (Bill Pinkney) and background, are superbly jaunty. The Drifters’ original and famous lead singer, Clyde McPhatter, had left the band a few months before Steamboat was put on wax in 1955, and Ben E. King, another leading star, wouldn’t arrive for a few more years. Hardly matters. Steamboat rocks like a motherf***er.

As for Stewball, well, it’s a song with a highly complicated history. I read the Wikipedia entries about it and came away way more confused than I like to be. The song, it seems, has its origins in 1700s England and has evolved over time, spawning various, differing versions. A lot of folks, including Lead Belly and The Hollies, have recorded one version or another. I think that Eric von Schmidt’s take is awfully fine. At first the song appears to be about Stewball, a talented racehorse. But the final set of lyrics turn everything around, leaving me with the impression that the song’s narrator is using Stewball in a metaphorical sense. What he really is singing about is his regret for the life that he has thrown away.

There we have it, folks. Three wildly different songs that prove, as if we needed proof, that we live in a musical wonderland. Tens of millions of tracks have been laid down in the past 100 or so years. A large percentage of them are out there in cyberspace at our beck and call. It’s a delicious situation to be in.

My wobbly stroll has concluded. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece.

Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

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