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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons are below. Thanks.)

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

Advertisements

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. As always, sharing buttons are below.)

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

(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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. As always, sharing buttons are below. Thanks.)

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

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, sharing buttons are below. Gracias.)

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons, as always, are below. Gracias.)

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.”  

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons are below.)

(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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Sharing buttons are below.)

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

The Stairs And I: An Exercise Story

Yo, reading fans, listen up! It’s shout-out time, because if it weren’t for Janet Sheridan, the hunk of wordage that you’re staring at right now wouldn’t exist. If you end up not enjoying this story, then blame Janet, not me!

Now, Janet is the talent behind an excellent website to which she has given the name Aunt Beulah. You’ll have to go over to Janet’s place (clicking here will direct you to it) to find out why she titled it as she did. Janet is a witty and agile writer. Her essays about her life are well worth your time.

In a piece that she published on April 15, Janet talks about her experiences over the years with exercising. I added a comment to her article in which I indicated that I don’t particularly love to engage in regimented exercise, but that for a long time I’ve consistently performed one form of same. Lucky for me that I read Janet’s essay. If I hadn’t, nor posted a comment, then I wouldn’t have been sparked to write an opus of my own on the subject.

Zipley parking garage

Here’s what I said in the comments section of Janet’s essay: “I’m not as devoted to exercise as you. But I’ve been doing the following for years: Three or four times a week I climb (without stopping) the 130 steps in a parking garage near my home. Doesn’t take too long, which I like (because I’m lazy!).”

Damn right I’m lazy. And I’ve gotten to the age (70) where, in my biased opinion, there’s no shame in being that way. Hell, after decades of mowing the lawn, raking leaves, vacuuming rooms, shoveling snow, etc., etc. — all of which I continue to do, extremely reluctantly  — about the only things I actually want to break a sweat over anymore are chowing down Cheez-It crackers late at night while sitting on my sofa as I twiddle the few strands of hair remaining on the crown of my head, and devouring slices of pizza at lunchtime at pizzerias.

Excuse me while I catch my breath . . . that was a long sentence.

Oh yeah, and walking. I like to go out for walks, as regular readers of this publication are aware. If it weren’t for the walks I take and write about, this here blog would be only half the size that it is. But I don’t think of walking as exercise. That’s because it gives me love, not pain. Not only that, walking doesn’t raise my heart rate to the level at which I wonder if I’m going to expire within the next few seconds, which is something that true exercise, I think, is supposed to do. Expire? Me? Shit, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

I now shall devote some paragraphs to stair-climbing. But before I do I’m going to head out the door to the parking garage I mentioned. I’ll climb the stairs there and also snap some dazzling photos that I’ll place in this story. Is there anything better than looking at pictures of a parking garage and of its stairwell? Talk about excitement! I’ll be back at my keyboard fairly soon, hoping to complete this noteworthy essay in two or three more writing sessions. Till then, peace, sisters and brothers.

As promised, I’m back. Not only did I climb the stairs and push the button quite a few times on my iPhone’s camera, I subsequently went to a local pizzeria for a couple of slices. So I’m now typing away on a full, satisfied stomach.

Near the bottom of stairwell

Turns out I was in error when I said to Janet that the parking garage I frequent contains 130 stairs. On my jaunt up its stairwell an hour and a half ago (that is, at 12:30 PM on April 18), I paid strict attention to the number of stairs. There are 135 of them, and they are spread out over 15 half-flights. It was an uneventful climb. For some reason I was out of breath merely a bit by the time I reached the top. Usually I’m panting like a lost soul desperate for water in the Sahara and wondering if I’m going to expire. And, as always, I was glad that my workout was quickly accomplished, this time in around a minute and a half. Not only am I lazy, but exercise bores me. Those are the main reasons why I settled on the stair-climbing regimen that has been part of my life since the late 1990s. Boom, boom, boom and each session is over.

When the idea came to me to climb stairs as an easy way, hopefully, to keep in halfway-decent shape and strengthen my cardio system, I was working in an office tower just outside of the heart of downtown Philadelphia. I pounded the stairs therein countless times until I retired from my job in 2009.

The top of stairwell

But I knew that I needed to maintain a minimal exercise program after saying goodbye to paid employment, and not too much later I found the solution. Hallelujah, I would continue to climb stairs because only a mile and a half from my suburban house was the Zipley parking garage, the newest and tallest of several parking garages surrounding Abington Hospital. I felt right at home at Zipley. Why not? In mid- 2010, just before beginning to ascend the Zipley stairs, I became a member of the AH family when I started two volunteer assignments at the hospital, assignments that I continue to perform to this day.

View from middle of stairwell

Well, there’s only so much you can say about stair-climbing and parking garages, right? Yes indeed, truer words never were written. I can sense more than one pair of eyes glazing over, and that includes mine. But before I bring this story to its natural conclusion, let me add that I’m somewhat in awe of people like Janet Sheridan who conscientiously exercise for several or more hours each week. Me, I’m an incredible slacker compared to them, as I devote about six or seven minutes weekly to stair climbing. Water finds its own level, as we all know. And that’s mine.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Sharing buttons are below)

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

A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media or via email. Sharing buttons are below. Thanks.)

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

There’s No Getting Around It: Old Is Old

Holy crap, or more to the point, holy shit, I’m getting old. Old, as in old. I mean, how is this possible? I used to think that the rules didn’t apply to me. I don’t like this game!

Not until my most recent birthday, though, did I ever feel the least bit depressed about the advancing years. But when I spun the dial six months ago and it landed on the big 7-0, I gulped. Then I gulped again. Then I said to myself, “Neil, you’ve been around a looong time. In your head you might feel no different than you did when you were 45. But times have changed. The wrinkles on your face are multiplying faster than amoebae. Not to mention that your ass is starting to look as grainy as a minute steak. And the hairs on your head? Cowboy, there are fewer of those than there are fingers on your hands.”

“Man, the days when the occasional girl would give you the eye are gone, gone, gone,” I continued. “At this point, if a girl ever looks you over it’s gonna be because she has a case of myopia so severe she would mistake a McDonald’s sign for a rainbow. Neil, your glory days, as sadly placid as they were, are so far in the rear view mirror they in effect predate the Old Testament. You’re in the home stretch, fella, even if that stretch lasts another 25 years.”

Seconds after that cheery monologue ended I was on the verge of emitting a multitude of tears. Fortunately, I remembered that crying isn’t manly, so I merely wept very gingerly and very quietly. When the drippage came to its conclusion I shrunk off to a corner and stayed there until, my bladder near-exploding, I had to answer nature’s call. I haven’t returned to that corner since then, though I’ve been tempted to do so.

Fast cut to the present day. Gentle readers, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen the light. Moonlight, specifically, because on the evening of March 31 my phone rang. My childhood pal Mike was on the line. (We grew up in a town outside of New York City, and now reside 20 miles apart in suburban Philadelphia. Yeah, we’re stalking one another).

Mike, an astronomy buff of sorts, was calling to inform me that a Blue Moon was making its appearance, that it was the second Blue Moon of the year (the first having been in January), and that I should go out and look at it because a Blue Moon in each of two months within the same calendar year wouldn’t happen again until 2037. That’s a lot of info, especially for someone whose brain is as old as mine. I barely knew what he was talking about, but I did what Mike suggested.

The Moon was a beautiful sight. Of course, it wasn’t blue at all, Blue Moon being a phenomenon that refers not to hue. Instead it denotes the second full moon that occurs within a given month (a somewhat rare event, though not freakishly so). “Hey, if you’ve seen one full moon, you’ve seen ’em all,” I hear you saying? Uh-uh, not if you’re someone like me who 90% of the time forgets to look up when he’s out at night.

From my front lawn on March 31 I gazed hard and fairly long at the rock in the sky. It was not far above the horizon and it was huge and bright. I asked it to smile and say cheese before I took its picture, to no avail. “I don’t smile,” it said to me. “That’s not the way I roll.” I couldn’t argue with that, of course, and proceeded to document the moment. My phone’s camera doesn’t capture nighttime images too sharply, but I’m shoving that moon photo into this article nonetheless. I kind of like it despite its graininess. It reminds me of my aforementioned ass.

What does admiring the Moon have to do with feeling less than chipper about entering the stratosphere, age-wise? Well, a lot, actually. Yeah, I’ve traveled plenty farther down life’s highway than I wish was the case, but there probably are — what? — three billion members of humanity who feel the same way. All that any of us can do is keep on keepin’ on, with our heads held high and our hearts and five senses open to greet the good people and good stuff around us. No point getting too down about the nature of the cosmic set-up. We come and we go, just like everything else, even stars so large they make our Sun appear puny. I don’t particularly like that set-up, but what can you say?  It is what it is, as the truest of truisms goes.

I’m not the sort who ever will attain a relentlessly positive attitude about life. Never have been. But I get a charge out of more than a few things on a pretty regular basis. Not long after the day of my 70th I stuck the Unhappy Birthday card that I’d delivered to myself into my back pocket. I’ve been doing what I can to keep it there, out of sight and mind. As I’m typing this essay right now, picking up from where I left off the night before, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out a window at a gloriously foggy morning. I’m going to step outside for a few minutes to admire the fog. And I’ll take its picture. Onward we go.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media or via email. Gracias.)

(If you click on the photos, larger images will open in separate windows.)