Thanksgiving, TV-Watching And I

It’s mid-morning on the 26th of November, 2020, the Thanksgiving holiday in the USA. Moments ago I placed my fingers upon my computer’s keyboard to begin composing this story. But I ain’t going to complete and publish it on the big day itself. No way! Shit, I’m too old and slow-working for that. But, better late than never, right? Well, actually, who the hell knows?

Anyway, getting back to Thanksgiving: I’m of the non-religious and non-believer varieties, which, among other things, results in many holidays being on my not-to-be-celebrated list. Thanksgiving, though, is a different story. As is true for most Americans, it is one of my favorite days of the year. I’ve always gathered with one medium-to-large-sized combination or another of relatives and friends on Thanksgiving, and by the time I was seven or eight or so, the holiday had burrowed deep into my heart. The burrowing hasn’t ebbed, because every year I’ve experienced Thanksgiving as a day of good cheer and good companionship. It means a whole lot to me.

Today, though, the combination of people with whom I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving will be, for the first time ever, composed of only two individuals: yours truly and my wife Sandy. Until recently, however, our plans were different. Several relatives were going to join us at our house to shoot the breeze and chow down on roast turkey with all the trimmings, pumpkin pie and a bunch of other dishes. But the skyrocketing numbers of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths in the USA caused Sandy and me to reevaluate the situation. The conclusion that we came to was that it was better for all concerned to be safe rather than sorry. As a result, we cancelled the party. We will have a traditional Thanksgiving meal at home ourselves, but it won’t be nearly the same. We’ll wish that our relatives were with us.

Yeah, as is all too painfully known, coronavirus has f*cked things up real good all over the world. In my case, which is totally trivial in the greater scheme of things, many of the enjoyable activities that used to fill up much of my days are, due to the virus, no longer available. Volunteer jobs, movie-going and concert-going, for instance. And now that it’s too cold in my part of the globe to eat outdoors at restaurants (on warm days, Sandy and I ate outdoors many times this year), restaurant-dining is off the table too. That’s because we won’t eat inside restaurants, where the chances of coming in contact with the virus are far greater than they are in the open air. Bummer, man. F*cking bummer.

But, as I’ve noted on these pages before, one activity has come to my rescue big-time. Namely, focused television-watching. For years my television consumption largely had been a smattering of this and that during late-night channel-flipping sessions. However, in the pandemic era, for an hour and a half or thereabouts most evenings, I have tuned in to series and movies on commercial-free outlets. And that fare has entertained the hell out of me, keeping me in halfway-decent spirits as I navigate life’s currently-murky waters.

I’ll say some words about two of the series that I watched in their entireties in November: The Queen’s Gambit and Patrick Melrose (they are on Netflix and Showtime, respectively, and were released, respectively, in 2020 and 2018). Each consists of a modest number of episodes, so you won’t have to devote half your life to watching them. More important, these productions rightly are series. By which I mean that if each had been condensed into movies, much would have been lost in character development and story complexity.

Who’d have thought that the game of chess would make for compelling viewing? Not I. The Queen’s Gambit certainly proves otherwise. Here we have the saga of an orphaned Kentucky girl, Beth Harmon, who at age 15 is adopted by a couple whose male half is indifferent to her, but whose female member gives her care, love and understanding, sometimes idiosyncratically. Beth, who suffers from substance abuse problems and personality development issues aplenty, has been, from an early age, heavily consumed by chess. Why? Because she possesses an almost supernatural ability to visualize and analyze chess strategies. Her gift eventually places her head-to-head and mind-to-mind with some of the best chess players in the world.

As for Patrick Melrose, I have to say that it was a hard watch for me, as it’s the sad tale of a British boy raised by terrible parents, and of the angry and confused adult that the boy becomes. Parental neglect and cruelty are the cornerstones of Patrick Melrose’s childhood, traumatic truths that don’t dissipate very much in intensity as he ages. Benedict Cumberbatch is the main star (he plays the adult Patrick). As is true in all the productions that I’ve seen him in, he does a superior job. That chap can act!

I’m going to close the proceedings by asking which activities have been boons to you during the pandemic era. And if television-viewing has been one of them, I’d be interested to know the programs and movies that have captured your attention. Oh, and if you’re an American, how was your Thanksgiving?

Till next time!

Autumn Colors; Biden And Trump; Three Songs By Joes

I wasn’t expecting to write about autumn for a second time this year, seeing that I pretty well summed up my feelings about this, my favorite season, in an essay that hit cyberspace only last month (click here to read it). But I couldn’t resist. How could I, when colors on many of my neighborhood’s trees finally came alive on the 9th of November? How did that even happen? It was kind of a miracle really, because the leaves had been nowhere near as vivid even the day before. And, soon after the 9th, the colors diminished greatly in effect and stature, as our woody friends were having a contest to see which ones could de-leaf themselves the fastest. Yes, I was in the right place at the right time when I took an early afternoon walk through my community on the peak day.

There’s no doubt, however, that I’d have much preferred to wander among gorgeous trees in a forest, or in a substantial wood. You can truly commune with nature in those landscapes, unlike in most of my suburban Philadelphia region, where nature has been paved-over  and tamed significantly. But forests and woods are anything but around the corner from my house. A car not being at my disposal on the 9th, a visit to anywhere not within walking distance was off the table.

I wasn’t complaining, though, because my neighborhood looked so damn good. Golds, ambers, coppers, russets and burgundies abounded, and I was pleased as punch to roam for 45 minutes, soaking up their beauty, basking in their glory, etc. In other words, I dug the shit out of the color explosions! What’s more, the temperature was perfect (72°F, 22°C) and the skies were as soothing a shade of blue as you could hope for. Days such as that one don’t come around often enough, and are rarities in my part of the globe in normally pretty-chilly November.

I almost always listen to music during the walks that, for exercise, I take each week in one locale or another. But not this time. That gave me the opportunity to do a bit more thinking than usually happens during my treks. And what popped into my head and stayed there for a while? Why, thoughts about Joe Biden, a good guy, and Donald Trump, a f*cking jerk. That’s what!

Yup, I don’t like Trump even a teensy weensy bit, he who shamelessly has been trying to steal a decided presidential election. What is there to like about someone who is a force for chaos and darkness; who sneers at democracy’s principles and structure; who emboldens white supremacists; who can’t go more than thirty seconds without lying; who is callous, vindictive, narcissistic, uncivil, unhinged and a bully? Nothing, in my opinion. Yet, roughly 74,000,000 American voters gave him the OK in the recent election. That’s a highly unsettling and sobering truth for anyone who believes in equality and progress, and is concerned about American democracy’s stability and strength. Fortuitously, for the USA and for the rest of the world, about 80,000,000 voters, and a majority of electoral college votes, went for Biden. As a result, better days, saner days, lie ahead. And, by the way, those who agree with my assessment of Trump owe a huge debt of gratitude to Biden for entering the race last year, because I’m certain that no other Democratic Party candidate for president would have beaten The Despicable One.

As I inch closer and closer to this story’s exit door, I feel compelled to conclude the proceedings with hot, steamy recordings by three guys named Joe, all of whom, sadly, are no longer with us. I’m doing this in honor of Joe Biden, who is strongly with us and poised to undo much of the damage that Trump has inflicted at home and abroad during the last four years. Yo, Joe! — you and Kamala could do a whole lot worse than to boogie down to these tunes at your inaugural balls on Inauguration Day (January 20). They’ll fill both of you with loads of energy and get the two of you even more psyched than you already are to do your new jobs.

As for Donald Trump, these songs are appropriate for him too. They would make a fine soundtrack for him to angrily shake his oversized booty to as he leaves the White House, on the just-mentioned January date, for the final time ever.

Here, then, are recordings by Joe Tex (Show Me), Joe Cocker (High Time We Went) and Big Joe Turner (Shake, Rattle And Roll). Enjoy ’em!

A Tuneful Time At The Mall (A Pandemic-Era Story)

Although I’m not much of a shopper, in at least a few respects I’m lucky to live near Willow Grove Park, a huge three-level shopping mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For instance, I like to go there now and then to gaze at its clean yet kaleidoscopic interior design and to marvel at the massive quantities of goods that its stores contain. I don’t think that the USA is anywhere close to being an idyllic land of milk and honey, but, as the mall demonstrates, there is no shortage of products in this country.

As things have turned out though, probably the main reason that I enjoy having Willow Grove Park close at hand is that it occasionally becomes story fodder for my blog. When I began this publication in 2015, never would have I expected that such would be the case. But I sure as shit am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. The story that you now are reading is the result of my latest visit to the mall. That visit took place on a recent, dreary, rain-dominated Thursday.

The mall was on my mind that day mainly because I wanted to take a walk. For the past eleven months, you see, I’ve been walking regularly for health-related reasons, four or five times per week and almost always outdoors. But an outdoors trek would have been unwise, as the rains were descending not in trickles but in f*cking buckets. Striding purposefully through the mall, an enclosed structure, though? Yes!

Due to the pandemic, the businesses in Willow Grove Park (excepting its two restaurants, which were allowed to sell take-out orders), along with almost countless other businesses state-wide, were ordered by Pennsylvania’s governor to close in mid-March. The lockdown eventually was partly lifted, the mall reopening on June 26. Arriving there at 11:25 AM on the wet Thursday in question, I was curious about the mall’s state of affairs four months post-reopening. How much damage had the pandemic inflicted?

Well, while spending 45 minutes walking the mall’s every avenue and byway, I saw a fairly decent number of people shopping and wandering, possibly about the same number that you’d find on a similar off-day during normal times. As for store vacancies, there were five or six, not the many more that I was half-expecting. However, several stores hadn’t opened for the day, which was not a good sign. Possibly they were on the verge of throwing in the towel altogether.

A truly bad scene, and probably indicative of the mall’s overall financial health, was the food court. There were not many customers at all, even though it was lunch time when I walked past that busy-in-normal-times area. It was sad to see the court’s businesses doing poorly. And, of course, millions of businesses worldwide are in the same boat, due to coronavirus. On any number of occasions I’ve said the obvious on these pages, and I’ll say it again: We need an effective vaccine pronto. It’s time for the suffering to diminish significantly.

But I’m not going to end this essay on a down note. How could I, seeing that I listened to an episode of The Many Moods Of Ben Vaughn, a terrific music podcast, as I walked through the mall? It put a whole lot of pep in my step and prevented me from getting anywhere near bummed out.

In that episode, which is from September 27, 2020, Vaughn spins the original versions of songs subsequently made famous by other artists. A large bunch of them jumped out at me. But let’s limit that bunch to three. Otherwise I’ll be here all day, and nobody, including me, would be in favor of that. The three songs are Louie Louie, Boys, and Do Wah Diddy.

Here are some facts: The infamous Louie Louie, an enormous hit for The Kingsmen in 1963, was originally recorded by Richard Berry And The Pharaohs way before that, in 1957 to be precise. Berry also penned the composition. The Beatles included Boys (written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell) on their first album in 1963, and popularized the tune, but the initial recording was in 1960 by The Shirelles. It was the B-side of their single whose A-side was wildly popular — Will You Love Me Tomorrow? And although Manfred Mann’s 1964 version of Do Wah Diddy (a composition by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) conquered the world, the song’s first appearance was a recording by The Exciters one year earlier.

The tracks by Berry, The Shirelles and The Exciters rock, roll and rouse. Day-brighteners, they appear below. I think you’ll like ’em. Okay, boys and girls, that’s a wrap. As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding any comments that you might have. Goodbye till next time!

The Missus Kicked Me Out! (A Guest Post By Santa Claus)

Holy crap, I can’t believe that it’s come to this. Here I am, flying high in the sky with my reindeer during late October, when I should be back home at the North Pole keeping an eye on my crew of elves. Those pointy-eared creatures are becoming lazier and grumpier every year. I tell you, without a demanding boss like me around, last year they’d never have built all the toys that needed to be built. Many kids would have gone giftless on Christmas.

Elves! Shit, one of these days I’m going to replace those weirdos with robots. And what the hell are elves, anyway? I’ve been working with them for almost forever and I still can’t figure that out. One day, eons ago, dozens of them just showed up from out of frigging nowhere. “Hello, Santa,” they said in unison. “It’s colder than a witch’s you-know-what here, but since you apparently don’t mind freezing your ass off, we won’t mind either. Where’s your workshop? We heard you need a hand.”

Actually, they got that wrong. I hate the cold! But that’s enough about elves. I’ve got a bigger problem than them, and it has to do with the inimitable Mrs. Claus. She’s the love of my life. She’s the yin to my yang, or whatever the expression is. And — I can’t believe it — she kicked me out, in the middle of the night, a few hours ago.

Santa,” she yelled at me, her right index finger pointing to the door, “open it and go!”

“But, dear,” I said, “I haven’t . . . ”

She cut me off. “Don’t dear me. I warned you that I wasn’t going to put up any longer with these beautiful Nordic girls showing up at our doorstep. The occasional female visitor is okay. But ever since the pandemic began in March, they’ve been arriving in droves. That’s a strange aspect of the pandemic that nobody could have predicted. ‘Where’s Santa, the adorable, cuddly hunk?’ they all ask me. And then they search the grounds and find you in the reindeer stables or out on the snow fields. I don’t even want to think about how many of these temptresses have had their way with you. Santa, I’ve had enough! Go, and don’t come back until you’re prepared to mend your ways.”

I turned the door handle and headed out, adding these words: “I’ve explained to you a million times that all I’ve ever done is talk with these girls, give them my autograph, and allow them to snap selfies with me. I swear to you that nothing further has ever happened. How could it, anyway? I mean, considering that my nuts are perpetually frozen solid in this icebox of a land, it’s amazing that I’ve been able to satisfy even one person occasionally, carnally-speaking. And that person, of course, is you.”

Where am I? I must be getting close. Ah yes, I see Willow Grove, Pennsylvania just a few miles away. I’m going to land the sleigh there in the backyard of my friends Sandy and Neil and ask them to take me in for the night (you can read part of our backstory by clicking here). Maybe it will turn out to be for many nights. Let me pull on the reins just so, and maneuver the reindeer downward. Success! We’ve landed silently. Sandy and Neil will be surprised to see me.

It’s 7:15 PM, and fully dark. I ring the doorbell. I hear footsteps. “Who’s there?” two voices ask.

“It’s Santa,” I say. “I need your help.”

The door opens, revealing Neil and Sandy. Both of them, like me, are masked. Neil, his eyes smiling, gives me a big hug. “Santa, what’s happened? By the way, you’re the first person, other than Sandy, that I’ve hugged since the pandemic started. You are virus-free, right?”

“Neil, I get tested every day. I’m as fit as a f*cking fiddle.”

“That’s what I love about you, Santa. You’re jolly and foul-mouthed, a hard combination to beat. Let’s all of us ditch our masks,” Neil says. We do.

“Foul-mouthed, yes. Not feeling too jolly right now though, Neil.” In a few brief sentences I explain the sorry situation that I’ve found myself in. “Sandy, Neil,” I then say, “I didn’t know who else to turn to. I can stay for a while, can’t I?”

“Indeed you can, Santa,” Sandy answers, planting kisses on my cheeks. “And maybe we will be able to resolve your big problem. First, though, how about taking a stroll with us around the neighborhood? Halloween is almost here, you know, and a lot of households in this town have gone whole hog in decorating their properties with Halloween displays. That’s become a thing, Santa. The decorations are almost as beautiful as the ones at Christmastime. You are sorely in need of some cheering up, and the displays will do that for you.”

Off we go. And my friends are right. I’m amazed by the colors, the lights, the ghosts and pumpkins. Ooh la la! My mood, which has been stuck on sour and troubled, is heading a bit north.

Back at the house, Sandy and Neil lead me to the ground-level guest bedroom. “You’ll be comfortable here, Santa,” Sandy says. “The bed is reinforced, so there’s no chance that you’ll collapse the springs. But perhaps you won’t need to stay. Santa, what’s Mrs. Claus’s phone number?” I tell her. She goes upstairs, out of ear range, and Neil and I wait for her return.

Five minutes later, she’s back. Smiling. “Guess what, Santa?” she asks.

“I don’t know. Mrs. Claus won the Powerball jackpot? She found my favorite pair of boxer shorts that’s been missing since 1907?”

“No, better. The elves, it seems, have been watching your every move for months. A half hour after you left the North Pole they went to talk with your wife. And they corroborated your statements. Santa, Mrs. Claus wants you to return home. Now!”

Well, needless to say, I guess that I’ve misjudged and undervalued the f*cking weirdos that work for me.

Elves!

(Santa suggests that you not be shy about adding your comments.)

A Not-Socially-Distanced Story

It’s funny, or maybe not, how my wife Sandy and I have changed our ways of thinking and acting during the it-better-end-soon pandemic era. Scared quite shitless when the era began in the USA in mid-March, we hunkered down, staying home nearly all of the time. We ventured out only to take walks, to buy provisions at supermarkets and to take out meals from restaurants. Right from the start, mask-wearing and social distancing were parts of our regimen. We wore disposable gloves when shopping, washed our hands regularly and used hand sanitizer profusely. None of this was unique to us, obviously. Most people were scared quite shitless, and took the same safety precautions that we did.

Thankfully, Sandy’s and my anxiety levels have subsided since then, mostly due to the easing of the lockdown in Pennsylvania, the state that we call home. As a result, we’re getting out of the house a lot more than we did a few months ago (we dine outdoors at restaurants frequently, for example), and are feeling better about things because of that. But the f*cking coronavirus, which ain’t going away any time soon, is still very much on our minds. Yes, we’ve ditched disposable gloves (hand-sanitizing and hand-washing make them superfluous, I think). But, in general we continue to follow safety guidelines.

“In general?” I hear a few voices ask. Right, 99% of the time we haven’t deviated from the guidelines. But the remaining 1% of the time we have, and that’s because we have pals named Cindy and Gene. When we’ve been with them recently, social distancing among the four of us has gone out the window.

It all began on an innocent day: the fourth of September. Sandy, myself, Cindy and Gene met up at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which only two days before had reopened after almost six months of coronavirus-precipitated closure. Masked, we began to wander the galleries together. Before we knew it, Sandy and I were practically shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends instead of the recommended six feet apart. If masks weren’t required in the museum, the four of us probably would have yanked ours off within minutes. Never fear, the yankings took place a couple of hours later when we all settled around a small table on the patio of a café near the museum. There we sat, ate and talked, a foot or two away from one another.

Now, none of us four ever will be mistaken for a wild and crazy type. What, then, caused the two couples to say goodbye to social distancing and mask-wearing when in each other’s company? In my case, I think it was because it somehow just felt like the natural thing to do. Subconsciously, I apparently had been as ready as could be to have normal interactions with these two close friends. And I knew that Cindy and Gene routinely follow the coronavirus guidelines, and trusted that they had determined, as best they could, that they were virus-free.

Let the good times roll! That’s what they continued to do in Cape May, a sweet, seaside, beachy town at New Jersey’s southern tip, about 110 miles from my suburban Philadelphia abode. There, Cindy had rented a condo for the Saturday-to-Saturday week that straddled late September and early October. At Cindy’s invitation, Sandy and I came down to stay with her for the final three of those days. Gene, who was needed at his and Cindy’s Philadelphia home for most of the week, arrived one day after Sandy and myself.

Yeah, we all had a great time together. We social-distanced from other people, but not among ourselves. We wore masks in Cape May’s stores and when walking on visitor-crowded streets, but otherwise not. Our time together passed quickly. Sandy and I were delighted to be on a mini-vacation in a popular area that we’d been to only once before, halfway to forever ago.

Cape May is a lovely place. It is filled, primarily, with old, well-maintained houses, hotels and other structures, all exuding strong character. And Cape May’s public beach, beside the Atlantic Ocean, is wide and lengthy. I, who hadn’t strode on a beach or seen ocean waters since a vacation last year on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was damn well thrilled to do so once again. And I also was damn well thrilled to walk through the woods and around the marshlands of Cape May Point State Park. They were a sight for sore eyes.

Well, hopefully Cindy and Gene and Sandy and I will be able to continue our undistanced get-togethers. I’m already looking forward to our next one, whenever that might be. And by the way, I’m sure that what the four of us have done is anything but rare. Worldwide, undoubtedly, plenty of people, who otherwise adhere to coronavirus-related safety guidelines, at times are meeting up with trusted relatives and friends in a normal, pre-pandemic manner. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about this and/or related topic(s).

Okay, that’s about it, girls and boys. Be well. Adios till next time.

(All of the photos were taken in Cape May, New Jersey, USA)

Autumnal Thoughts, Autumnal Tunes

Planet Earth, which we humans increasingly have been making a mess of since the Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s, nonetheless has remained reliable in various ways. It keeps on spinning, for one thing, and traveling around the Sun, for another. Good thing that it does, no? If those movements were thrown out of whack, we, along with every entity taking up earthly space, would be goners in a couple of blinks of an eye.

Well, as we know, on the 22nd of September those good ol’ reliable movements brought about the autumnal equinox and the vernal equinox in, respectively, the northern and southern hemispheres. This was due to the Sun being directly above the equator, by the way. For me, a resident of the north, this event officially marked the beginning of my favorite time of year — fall — and prompted me to gather some thoughts about that season. Here they are, along with a few recordings that capture fall’s cozy, mellow essence. Damn straight, I’m in an autumnal mood!

This is the main reason why I like autumn as much as I do: I was born in late October, smack in the heart of fall. And my birthday has been lovingly acknowledged and celebrated, by one combination of people or another, every year of my life. Over time it became only natural for me to associate autumn with my birth anniversary. How could I not, seeing that autumn never fails to whisper frequent reminders in my ear about the approaching big day? And when that day arrives, autumn, behind the scenes, is one of the celebrants. Yeah, autumn loves me, and I therefore love autumn back, you dig?

Hatboro, Pennsylvania

To meld with autumn righteously and timely, on its first day this year I took a long walk through Hatboro, a cute town a few miles from where I live in the Philadelphia suburbs. I headed there with the newly-hatched season fully on my mind. The mid-day temperature was lovely, about 73° F (23° C), the skies were as blue as you could hope for, and a light breeze ruffled the few strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. In other words, the day was pretty damn well ideal. How sweet it was not to be sweating like a pig, which I had done numerous times during walks in the just-departed summer. Autumn weather suits me just fine.

Produce Junction (Hatboro, Pennsylvania)
Hints of gold in a tree in Hatboro, Pennsylvania

Hatboro was starting to get its autumnal mode in order. For instance, I saw scarecrows on a couple of porches and in a couple of store windows, and I gazed with admiration at the arrays of pumpkins in Produce Junction, a store on Hatboro’s main drag. But there was little evidence of fall in the billions of leaves within Hatboro’s boundaries. Only in a smattering of trees did I notice a changing of the color guard, such as in a tree outside of Produce Junction. Hints of gold decorated that specimen, harbingers of full-blown color transformations yet to come. I’m eagerly awaiting mid-to-late autumn’s golds, russets, burgundies and ambers. That palette grabs me powerfully each year, yet tenderly. Yes, autumn is a period of beauty that goes down as satisfyingly as comfort food.

As I walked through Hatboro, I pulled some autumn tunes out of my memory bank and let passages of them play silently in my head. I’ve always loved Autumn Almanac, by The Kinks, and Van Morrison’s Autumn Song. They provided part of my stroll’s soundtrack. As did Harvest Moon, a Neil Young composition that quite a number of musicians have covered. Young’s version is special. It makes me go limp with wonder, so beautiful do I find it. In Hatboro, those songs, and a few others, kept me company excellently.

Back home later that day I did some research into fall-themed songs, discovering Eva Cassidy’s live rendition of Autumn Leaves (music by Joseph Kosma, English lyrics by Johnny Mercer). With vocals emanating from Cassidy’s most-private chambers, this performance would break the hearts of all but the stoniest. And I reconnected with Autumn Serenade (music by Peter DeRose, lyrics by Sammy Gallop), off the album that the famous saxophonist John Coltrane recorded in 1963 with the not-so-famous vocalist Johnny Hartman. A bit more research would have revealed many others, so deep a hold has autumn maintained on songwriters past and present.

Rather than overload this essay with YouTube presentations, I’ve decided to limit the recordings to three. I think you’ll enjoy the following Young, Cassidy and Coltrane/Hartman works. Be well, boys and girls. And, as I usually mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments.

Some Of This Year’s Pix: A Photography Story

Ah, the wonders and the ease of digital photography. I mean, you’ve got to love it. No mess and no fuss, which is precisely the way that little ol’ me, who is lazy as shit, likes things to be.

What’s more, digital photography can be quite addictive, as half or more of the world’s population is fully aware. I’m definitely addicted. In spurts, anyway. I don’t take pictures of every damn thing I do or of every place I go, but, ever since obtaining my first smart phone in 2015, I’ve snapped more than enough. And a fair number of those shots have found their way onto the pages of the publication that you now are reading. Man, writing stories for this site usually drains the hell out of me. But snapping pix for it with my phone? That’s a gas, gas, gas!

And so, the other day I decided to have a look at the hundreds of photos from 2020 that sit quietly and patiently in my phone’s storage room. I did so with the idea in mind to put a small bunch of them on public display for the first time. Fortunately, there were enough that struck me as worthy. Thus, this essay became a go. That brought a nice big sigh of relief because, as I’ve noted semi-regularly over the last few years, story ideas don’t exactly spew from me with the force of volcanic eruptions.

Miles Table (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). January 15, 2020
Abington, Pennsylvania. March 21, 2020
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. May 29, 2020

Are there any connective tissues holding these photos together? I suppose so, since they portray scenes that appealed to me sufficiently to try and capture them. For instance, I’m into color juxtapositions, arrays of angular shapes, and unexpected elements. And all of those are to be found in some of the pictures, such as the one taken in front of Miles Table, the Philadelphia café where my pal Gene and I ate lunch one January day.  The reflections in Miles Table’s windows intermesh giddily with the interior of the shop. Dig that crazy tree cozying up to a prim and proper table! You don’t see that every day.

Photo taken in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania on June 2, 2020
Georgian Bakery And Café (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). January 10, 2020
Photo taken in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania on June 22, 2020

On the other hand, I also enjoy simplicity, and there was a sweet simplicity to the early-evening cottony sky that I photographed from my house’s deck. We’ve all seen skies like this one mucho times before. But we never grow tired of them, because they are both calm and majestic. They give us pause.

My house (Willow Grove, Pennsylvania). May 24, 2020

And, speaking of my house, how could I resist the photo of the rhododendron bush that sits in my front yard? I tell you, that plant preened exuberantly this spring, something that it never had done before during the 15 years that my wife Sandy and I have lived here. To my mind, this was proof that flora can be unpredictable in their moods and actions, sometimes behaving wonderfully and sometimes not. Humans, take heart in that! Every entity on Planet Earth is complicated as hell, not just us.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts related to the selfie that I took a few weeks ago at the Michener Art Museum, a medium-sized and excellent museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It is named after the famous author James Michener, who, in the 1980s, donated tons of money to help establish the institution.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the museum closed its doors in March of this year. But the pandemic situation improved in Pennsylvania over time, allowing some cultural facilities to re-open. The Michener did so on July 20.

Sandy and I, who are museum lovers, were as happy as two masked people could hope to be, because we last had been at a museum in January. Being able to visit the Michener helped to create the illusion that the world was spinning towards normality. Anyway, we spent an hour looking over the exhibits. One of them, which displayed works that various artists created in recent years in reaction to climate change, kept us rapt.

But, as much as anything that day, I liked looking at oil paintings by Fern Coppedge (1883-1951), who lived much of her life not far from Doylestown. A number of her works are in the museum’s collections. Sandy and I have visited the Michener pretty frequently this century, and both of us have come to admire Coppedge’s art very much. Bold, tastefully-arranged colors. Strong brushstrokes. Depictions of scenic old towns and beautiful natural landscapes. I mean, what’s not to like?

Photo taken in Michener Art Museum (Doylestown, Pennsylvania). August 25, 2020

So, natch, it was in front of a Coppedge oil painting that Sandy and I positioned ourselves to grab the selfie, an art form whose mechanics I haven’t come close to mastering. Yeah, the painting appears to be drunkenly crooked in the photo, but that’s kind of charming, don’t you think?  Coppedge, who wasn’t a stickler for perfect balance, probably wouldn’t have minded a bit. And I bet that she’d have dug the contrasts and connections that our masks and tilted heads established with her painting. This photo will remain a fine reminder to Sandy and me of a very good day during the Pandemic Era.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Thanks.)

I Like ‘Em! (These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things)

One thing for certain about this little old world of ours is that it holds an overwhelming amount of content geared for human discovery and consumption. Travel destinations, food stuffs, movies, automobiles, political causes, you name it . . . there’s always something for us to get excited about and sink our teeth into, if we are so inclined. Which, no doubt, nearly every one of us is. Myself included.

This story, then, shall be a look at a few things that have rung my bell quite nicely as of late. In the upcoming paragraphs I’ll expend wordage upon this motley group: a television series (Ozark), cheddar cheese, and the song (Texas Sun) that has captivated me more than any other recording so far during pandemic-plagued 2020. And I’ll be glad to hear about what has been tickling your fancies recently. So, please don’t be shy about letting me know.

Let’s start with Ozark, the Netflix series whose third season was unleashed earlier this year. My wife and I watched all three seasons over the past few months, taking a two or three week breather between each arc. (The fourth and final season is on the drawing board, but who knows when filming will be able to begin.) We became hooked almost from the get-go, as have millions around the globe. Not so one of my cousins though. When I mentioned Ozark to her during a phone conversation not long ago, she said she’d seen a few minutes of the show but that’s about all. “I don’t want to watch all those sleazy people” was more or less how she summed up her feelings about Ozark.

Sleazy? Indeed! That word damn well fully applies to many of the show’s characters. It barely indicates, though, the depths of their polluted natures.

In Ozark we learn the tale of a married couple, Marty and Wendy Byrde (played, respectively, by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) that is ordered by a Mexican drug cartel to abandon their home in Chicago and relocate, with their two kids, to central Missouri’s Lake Of The Ozarks. LOTO, an enormous man-made lake and a popular vacation spot, is surrounded by rural territory populated with all sorts of unsavory individuals.

Why did the cartel so demand? Because Marty, a buttoned-down financial wizard who years before had agreed, foolishly, to become one of the cartel’s primary money launderers, through no fault of his own got on the cartel’s very wrong side. Via astonishingly quick thinking and quick talking, he avoided execution by convincing the cartel’s top brass that he could make and launder enormous monies for them in, of all places, the Lake Of The Ozarks. Turns out he was pretty right as rain, though establishing the mechanisms that enable that to happen send Marty and his family down hellish paths that in a million years they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined could emerge. And their ordeals gradually bring out the worst in Marty, and the scarily worst in Wendy.

I can see the show’s writers rubbing their hands gleefully as they came up with plot lines that continuously elevate the dangers and other mega-problems that Marty and Wendy must confront. What a series! Prominent cast members regularly meet their demise. Dirty-dealing and treachery reign supreme. Ozark isn’t for everybody, as my cousin demonstrates, but, if you’re not already a fan, it just might be for you.

Now on to cheese. I’ve been a cheese lover for many moons, and cheddar is one of my favorite types. But not the mild kind. I like cheddar that is bold, aggressive and memorable. Those are qualities, by the way, that yours truly sorely lacks.

But it never has been easy for picky me to find cheddars that I deem outstanding. Vermont, for instance, is famed for its cheddars, but I’ve yet to taste a Vermont cheddar that truly knocks my socks off. Thankfully, about four years ago I stumbled upon Old Croc cheddar, which is produced in Australia. The brand’s extra sharp version pleases me deeply. As does a very recent discovery of mine: Sartori’s aged and sharp cheddar. Heavy with elevated flavor, and salty, it is the first American-made cheddar to receive my seal of approval. Take a bow, state of Wisconsin! Pieces of Old Croc and/or Sartori have been my go-to lunch of late. They’re delicious as is, and even better when atop Triscuit crackers.

I wouldn’t dare eat those cheddars while listening to Texas Sun, however. That’s because the process of munching away would interfere with my ability to absorb this oh-so-fine song, which was released in February. A collaboration between vocalist Leon Bridges, who often makes soul music in the vein of Sam Cooke, and indie rock band Khruangbin, Texas Sun is a meditation on longing and lust. It is gently powered by a sweet and steady beat, and wafts upon the wings of dreamy guitar lines. I’ve heard this song many times on various radio stations, which indicates to me that it has found its way into the hearts of numerous music lovers and radio programmers. The best thing for me now to do is to get out of the way and allow you to listen. Here is Texas Sun:

This Is My 250th Story! (Thank You, Dr. R. U. Forereel, For Making It Happen)

As usual, you’re late!” my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, correctly and forcefully noted. “Neil, your chronic tardiness is a sign of, of, of . . . of what? Oh, who knows, who cares? Have a seat, Neil. Let’s get started. I’m waiting with baited breath to hear what comes out of your mouth during this session. Or not.”

Gingerly I settled into the large chair that, from a distance of ten feet, faced its twin, upon which Dr. Forereel sat. This being the Age Of Coronavirus, we both were masked. “Doctor, I’m sorry,” I said. “I try my hardest to arrive at your office on time, but something always seems to come up. Today it was a freak accident. Here’s what happened: When I got into my car to drive over here I very forcefully attempted to push the seatbelt buckle into place. But somehow I misjudged what I was doing and ended up stabbing my private parts real good. Holy crap, Doctor, that hurt! I managed to stagger out of the car and back into my house, holding the damaged goods as discreetly as I could. I hope none of the neighbors saw me. Anyway, the boys and the mighty sword are all bandaged up nicely now. I’m good to go! Actually, I lie. If I have sex before the year is out, it’ll be a miracle. In any event, it’s truly amazing that I’m only 20 minutes late.”

“Your privates will be in my prayers tonight,” said my psychiatrist almost sympathetically. “They deserve better, I’m sure. Now Neil, tell me what has been weighing on your mind since our last monthly session. Don’t tell me everything, of course. My eyes will have no trouble doing their glazing-over thing if you do. So, let’s stick to a highlight or two.”

You see? That’s why I like Dr. Forereel so much: she doesn’t feed me bullshit, she’s more or less honest with her feelings, and she cuts to the chase.

“Okay, Doctor. Yes, something has been bothering me quite a lot. It has to do with my blog. You know about my blog, right?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Of course I know about your blog. You bring it up in one context or another at almost every session! Neil, listen to me. Even though your blog is dear to your heart, I’ve tried to show you that you actually are in conflict with your writerly side. Writing puts tremendous strains upon you, and they are without a doubt unhealthy. I’m talking about the anxiety that you feel in trying to develop story ideas, and the mental and emotional exhaustion that leave you as limp as your once-mighty sword after you complete each article.”

“Neil, in my professional opinion you should change direction and not look back! Take up some other activities in writing’s place. Knitting would suit you just fine, for instance. It’s comforting, it’s creative, it’s a form of meditation, you know. And maybe it will improve your manual dexterity, so that you don’t stab yourself in your genitals ever again. What’s more, nobody in a million years would miss the trifling essays and attempts at humor that you fill your website with. Cyberspace is overflowing unmercifully with content. You should do your civic duty and help to declutter it. Stop writing, in other words!”

“Doctor, I tend to agree with you. I’m pretty well spent, but I can’t halt just yet,” I said. “You see, my next story will be my 250th. Shit, Doctor, I can’t not publish number 250. Pardon my French, by the way. Two hundred and fifty articles is a big milestone. I’d be tremendously disappointed in myself if I stopped at 249.”

“You’re kidding, Neil, right?” she asked. “There would be nothing for you to to be ashamed of were you to hang up your spurs right now. If you did, you would be demonstrating excellent sense and judgment. And 249 strikes me as such an ideally oddball number. In that sense it suits you perfectly!”

“Points taken, Doctor. But getting back to what’s been bothering me: I’ve been racking my brain to try and come up with a story idea for my 250th piece, but no luck. My mind has gone desert-like. What should I do, Doctor Forereel? Can you help?”

She looked at me long and hard, and took a few seconds before responding. Then she said this: “Neil, I doubt that I’m equipped to help you discover story ideas, unless you’re interested in writing about the deep underpinnings of your psyche that we’ve uncovered at our sessions. But they’re awfully boring, truthfully speaking, aren’t they? Nobody would want to read about them, I’m sure. Let me say, though, that part of your problem, without question, has to do with aging. Let’s face it, Neil, you’re an old f*ck — pardon my French — and writing doesn’t become easier as one’s hourglass empties and empties. That’s true for just about everything, right? Knitting excepted, of course.”

Those final comments brought me up short. Though I didn’t want to be, I was reminded that life is fleeting, no matter how long you live. My jaw sank. My eyes dropped. But my mind awakened. “Dr. Forereel,” I said, “believe it or not, you’ve just presented a fine idea to me. My 250th story will be about the preciousness of life, about how we should appreciate what we have, and that we should do our best to live joyfully. Thank you, Doctor, thank you.”

“Neil, I am delighted to have been of service. And a quick glance at the clock on the wall tells me that our time is up once again. Don’t bump your accessories into anything on your way out. They’ve suffered enough for one day. I’ll see you a month from now. And don’t be late next time!”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Dr. Forereel and I would appreciate it.)

In Search Of Yellows: A Walking Story

I’m nothing but amazed that I’ve sat myself down at a keyboard to begin the composition of this essay. It’s 11:31 AM on a weekday morn, a mere 27 minutes after I completed the walk around my neighborhood that I shortly will comment upon. I mean, I usually take forever to get enough thoughts together to write a story. What’s more, I usually take forever to come up with story ideas in the first place. So, I better keep pecking away before constipation sets in.

What, another walking story?” I hear a few of you crying in dismay. “Spare us, Neil! You’ve done dozens of them already. Can’t you think of anything else to write about?”

Believe me, I feel your pain, but what can I do? As I just indicated, I don’t exactly generate story ideas like Donald Trump generates lies. Anyway, I like to walk. Always have, because walking is the best way to see what’s going on around us. And the hodgepodge of ruminations and observations that I come up with after wandering around one locale or another is among this publication’s primary fuels.

But I can’t say that I especially love to walk in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighborhood is none too fascinating, as is true for suburbs in general. Although I regularly pound its pavements, I do so mostly for health reasons, exercise presumably being beneficial to one’s bodily systems. Once in a while, however, I have an additional motive, and today I put such into play. “Yellows, Neil, yellows,” I said to myself at the start of the walk. “You’ve had it in the back of your mind to look for shades of yellow during a neighborhood walk, probably because yellow was your favorite color when you were a kid, and to turn the experience into an article. Today you shall do so!”

Yes, sir!” I responded silently. “I hear you loud and clear. Yellows it will be!”

To begin, I want to tell you that there ain’t a lot of yellows in my neighborhood. In fact, there’s a paucity of many colors. The greens of nature are what rule here, as they do in much of the world, at least when trees are in leaf. But your faithful and determined correspondent wasn’t deterred. My eyes in constant motion, I spotted enough examples of yellows to illustrate this piece decently. And I did so in a mere 34 minutes. I could have extended the walk beyond that time, but was pretty sure that I’d exhausted the yellow possibilities. And it’s a good thing that I came home when I did. You see, as I entered my house after completing my rounds I thought that the blazing Sun and moist air hadn’t gotten to me very much. Wrong! My sweat glands, in a delayed reaction, suddenly erupted, causing my tee shirt, mostly dry only seconds before, to cling to me amorously. Man, I was shvitzing like a frigging pig! I’m happy to report that the A/C system, and the cool water that I washed off with, quickly set me right.

Okay, it’s time to mention the highlights of today’s trek. The first involves sunflowers. A year ago, on a neighborhood walk, I was delighted to find that a family two blocks away from my residence was a lover of sunflowers. They’d planted a load of the gangly, happy plants on a long narrow strip of their property. And a week or two ago I  noticed that sunflowers were strutting their stuff anew there. Needless to say, I strode down that block this morning to snap the yellow beings’ portraits. Of the various yellow objects in my neighborhood, they are my favorites by far. Indeed, I am a total sucker for sunflowers, thanks to Vincent van Gogh, their greatest immortalizer.

As for the second highlight: On various walks over the last couple of months I’d seen a yellow truck shining proudly and vividly. It always was in the same spot, five blocks from my house. It was there again today. This truck adds needed pizazz to a sleepy block, and makes me wonder why more people don’t buy vehicles of eye-popping color. Like I’m one to talk, though. My wife and I own two cars that are conservative as shit, one of them dark grey and the other dark blue. Next time we’ll go for cars aflame in . . . what? Neon yellow, that’s what!

Well, the blogosphere’s overseers are whispering to me that this article has gone as far in a yellow direction as it needs to go. And I know better than to cross them. But, as usual, I’ll let the piece marinate for a few days, and do plenty of tweaking, before depressing the Publish button. Take care, everybody. And please don’t be shy about adding your comments!