Hippieish Notes From The Information Desk

Infamously lazy as I am, it’s a damn good thing that for eight hours a week — four hours each on Mondays and Tuesdays — I man my post at a medical office building a couple of miles from my house. If it weren’t for these assignments, long ago I’d have set a world record for hours spent on a living room sofa, and my bony ass would have bored even deeper into my sofa’s cushions than it already has. And it has bored deeply.

Anyway, the medical office building is across the street from a suburban Philadelphia hospital and is owned by an enormous health care organization of which the hospital is another component. I’m a volunteer in that organization. My job is to provide information to visitors (I’m the answer man for questions such as “What room do I go to for my colonoscopy?” and “Where’s the men’s room, pal?”) and to help out those who find themselves in one sort of pickle or another. The job takes me here and there within and outside the building, but most of the time I’m positioned behind a sturdy, unassuming black desk. The information desk.

The information desk

Tuesday the 24th of September was a busy morning for the guy standing behind that desk. Questions came at me left and right. More in-a-pickle people than usual appeared. But, despite that, there were a number of lulls in activity during my shift. Usually nothing to write home about goes on in my mind during lulls. But on the 24th, from absolutely out of nowhere, some words of note silently materialized: “I was more comfortable in the hippie era than in any other era,” I thought to myself.

Wow! The succinct, unexpected notion startled me. And immediately I recognized that it was true. I never was a full-fledged hippie, but during the hippie heyday (1965 to 1972, more or less) I felt at ease with hippie philosophies and lifestyles. And I still do.

Copyright Anna Vynohradova

A baby boomer, I came of age during the hippie era. I’m not mentioning anything you don’t already know when I say that war in Vietnam raged during those years. And that political and social turmoil gripped the USA and other parts of the globe. And that, maybe partly in reaction to those realities, an inquisitive, peaceful and kind mindset developed among many millions of youths worldwide.

Who could argue with hippie slogans such as “Make love not war” and “Flower power”? Not me. I didn’t drop acid, move to San Francisco (the hippie epicenter) or put flowers in my hair. But I did grow my hair long and smoked a lot of cannabis. And I felt nothing but admiration for and solidarity with those who were all about camaraderie, harmony with nature, and attempting to bring peace to the world. Still, I was too unsure of myself to take a full plunge. So, I stayed on the hippie movement’s periphery.

Yeah, those were the days. I miss them. And, later that Tuesday morning, I was reminded of them a number of times while standing behind the information desk. Now, a lot of visitors to the medical office building are friendly towards me, but on most of my shifts one or two are unusually friendly, acting as if seeing my drooping eyelids and wrinkled puss is the greatest thing that’s happened to them in ages. I’m amazed by this. I mean, without even trying did I develop a lofty form of personal magnetism in my over-the-hill years? It ain’t likely. Shit, only in my dreams might Emma Stone or Charlize Theron appear at my doorstep, looking me over with lust in her eyes.

On the Tuesday in question, though, not one or two, but six individuals walked past me with their friendliest instincts at the fore. “How are you, man?” one guy said to me, a big smile on his face. “Take care, brother,” said another, unquestionably meaning what he said. In all six instances it felt good to be greeted so warmly. Real good. This kind of thing happened fairly commonly among the population in the hippie era. That’s because hippies’ good will, thankfully, permeated the culture to a decent extent.

The hippie movement, of course, went way beyond friendliness. Concern for the environment and a pretty wide degree of open-mindedness are among its lasting effects. How cool would it be if a neo-hippie movement, a drug-free incarnation, were to germinate and flourish? And if its good vibes and progressive actions were to become major parts of the norms throughout the world? Man, it would be more than cool. It would be miraculous. Our troubled planet is waiting.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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You Don’t Find Memphis Slim And Ludwig van Beethoven In The Same Story Every Day

If I’ve had a true passion for nearly all of my life, it’s music. The high decibel kinds above all. I may be at least 20 years past my prime, but I still like to fill my body regularly with driving beats and pounding drums and merciless sonic assaults. Yeah, hard rock, wailing jazz and raucous blues are very alright with this boy.

Having said that, I now will wimp out by adding that, often when I’m listening to music, I don’t care to be blasted into outer space. My constitution ain’t that far from the delicate side, so there’s a limit to how many wham-bam vibrations I can healthfully deal with. That’s why I keep at hand a welcome mat for mellow music. Hell, mellow is like Jell-O, right? There’s always room for Jell-O.

And I don’t mean that in a slighting way. Not at all. Sure, aggressive music is what you turn to when you need to shimmy and shake, when you’ve got to let the lava flow.

But music on the calmer side of the spectrum can work wonders too. Everybody knows that. How many more shoulder knots and jaws half-frozen in the clenched position would there be in the world were it not for the likes of James Taylor, Alicia Keys and Willie Nelson? A lot.

But you know what? Music, whatever its intensity level will, if you’re lucky, do something far better than what I mention above. Namely, transport you to purer realms. For me, I find that it works in different ways, depending on the nature of what I’m listening to. When it comes to hard-driving music, long solos from electric guitars (and, less frequently, from other instruments) sometimes capture me. I’ll close my eyes, find the gentle currents underlying the musicians’ explorations, and in moments will be hopelessly at ease, happily drifting in the ethers. These are out-of-body experiences, natural highs.

Calmer music, on the other hand, doesn’t bring me outside myself. What it does at times, though, is open a space within me that I ordinarily am out of touch with. This is a peaceful place. The noise of the world isn’t there. I settle into it and then let beautiful sounds wash over me.

What’s the difference between the two types of phenomena? Well, the first involves awe, meaning that I can barely believe the sweep of the magic carpet ride, nor my good fortune in occupying lofty regions in the first place. When the ride ends I find it hard to decompress.

Awe, however, doesn’t enter the picture in scenario number two, a more down-to-earth experience. It’s similar to when I’m in a museum, checking out this and that work of art, and meet a piece that immediately captivates me. Scenario number two isn’t as astonishing as its sibling, but it’s damn well good enough. The more smitten we are by the world around us, the better.

Naturally, I would like to add specific musical examples of both forms of enchantment to this story. But in a sense that would be cheating. You see, when I first sat down to compose the present piece, I didn’t anticipate that it would squirm around, mutate and head in the directions that it has. Awe wasn’t part of the original story idea. Any further mention of magic carpet rides will therefore wait for another day. Instead, I will say a few words about the two numbers, both of them members of the calmer side of the musical spectrum, that originally were meant to center and anchor that which you’re now reading. They struck me just right when I heard them, stopping me in my tracks to bask in their fineness.

I haven’t been to any concerts in the past week, but at home and in the car I’ve imbibed plenty of music. Many genres, many levels of intensity. As good as much of the music was, only Mother Earth, by the American bluesman Memphis Slim, and Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, by Ludwig van Beethoven (as performed by André Watts), separated themselves from the pack.

I was in the bathroom late at night brushing my teeth when Mother Earth came over the airwaves. I’ll be damned if I didn’t put down the toothbrush and listen hard. The song, a commentary on mortality, possesses a deep soul and unaffected beauty that can’t be denied or resisted. Memphis Slim, who wrote Mother Earth, recorded more than one version of the song. The one that I heard was the first, from 1951. Here it is. That’s Slim on vocals and piano.

Memphis Slim (born 1915, died 1988) was a big talent. He had what it takes when it comes to singing, piano playing and composing. And Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770, died 1827) was no slouch either — What, you mean that’s common knowledge?

I’m making a heretical statement, however, when I say that Beethoven is not among my very favorite classical composers. For example, I’ll take Haydn, Bach and Sibelius over him. But Piano Sonata No. 13, which Ludwig wrote during 1800 and 1801? Man, its grace goes straight to the heart. I was sitting on the living room sofa when I heard it on the radio a few days after putting down my toothbrush for Memphis Slim. After the first three notes I was convinced that it is something special. Several listenings later, I still feel that way.

Goodbye till next time, gentle readers. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, here’s the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 13:

A Reflective Day In The City Of Brotherly Love

Howdy, girls and boys, and welcome to the website of he who just can’t seem to stop writing about Philadelphia. And why not after all, seeing that The City Of Brotherly Love has got what it takes. Yo, if it didn’t I wouldn’t have spent most of my adult life within or near its borders.

Anyway, it’s not as if I have something better to discuss right now. Well, I suppose that I could go into exacting details concerning how I gained entry in the Guinness World Records book last week by virtue of having tied some of my lengthiest nose hairs to a 50-pound dumbbell and then hoisting that f*cker two feet and eight inches off the ground without using my hands. Shit, that hurt! Fortunately my nose hairs are preternaturally strong and well-anchored, which allowed the feat to occur without major adverse effects. But nah, Philadelphia’s more interesting than that accomplishment. What now follows hopefully will validate the previous sentence.

The present story had its genesis last month in my piece on Philadelphia’s elevated parks. During my explorations for that essay I came across wonderful reflections on the surfaces of skyscrapers that flank one of the parks. And when my online friend Tanja Britton posted comments extolling those reflections, something inside of me clicked. Indeed, I then put it in mind to stroll around Philadelphia, checking out reflections in glass and metal on the faces of buildings. I tell you, Tanja’s got the power to inspire. Not only that, she’s a fine writer, one who is smitten by the grandeur of nature. You’ll be glad that you did when you click here to access her website.

Cira Centre, in West Philadelphia

On August’s final Thursday, then, a sunny and pleasantly-heated day, I hopped aboard a late-morning train in my suburban town and disembarked at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station an hour later. The station, located in the city’s gigantic West Philadelphia section, sits across the Schuylkill River from central Philly. And hovering above the station is Cira Centre, a sleekly monolithic skyscraper that I immediately fell in love with when it opened in 2005. No way was I going to gaze at reflections around town without including those on CC’s surface.

Cira Centre, sheathed in glass, is a testament to the glories of reflection. Because it is not boxed in by other tall buildings, it has an almost unlimited capacity to mirror the skies. I spent a couple of minutes admiring the ideal shade of medium blue that saturated its facade. Still, I was somewhat surprised that, other than the heavens, the only thing pictured on the side facing me was one single building.

There are other skyscrapers not far from Cira Centre, some of them belonging to or associated with the two educational behemoths (University Of Pennsylvania and Drexel University) that abut one another in West Philadelphia. But my walking tour didn’t lead me to any of those towers. Strolling through the university campuses and on the blocks that surround and transect them, I stayed on the lookout for nifty images presented in the windows of normal-height buildings. I kept getting distracted though, because it was an excellent day for girl-watching in West Philadelphia, as it also would be an hour and a half later when I made my way around a healthy number of central Philadelphia’s streets. But you know what? Not a single female watched me. What do they have against guys whose eye bags droop halfway to the ground? Man, being a geezer ain’t easy.

Ladies notwithstanding, I didn’t lose sight of why I’d gone into town. I’ve always liked to look at reflections, but I’m almost certain that this was the first time I ever devoted more than a few minutes to seeking them out. It wasn’t hard to find them. And obviously it rarely is, a fact that somehow hadn’t registered with me before. During my travels that day, West Philadelphia and central Philadelphia gave me many images to groove on.

Saxby’s, near Drexel University
Gothic building on University Of Pennsylvania’s campus
Dunkin’ Donuts, in central Philadelphia

The orange tables and chairs imbedded in the window of Saxby’s coffee bistro, inches from Drexel University, intrigued me. As did the tree and blue sky in the window panes of a Gothic building smack dab in the middle of the University Of Pennsylvania campus. Ditto for the street scenes, complicated yet quiet, playing out in the glasswork of a Dunkin’ Donuts store in central Philly.

Comcast Center, in central Philadelphia
Looking toward the top of Comcast Technology Center, in central Philadelphia

And what, other than ooh la la, can you say about the sky, clouds and buildings captured in the facade of Comcast Center, the city’s second-tallest structure? That soaring canvas was hard to beat. Comcast Center, in the center of town, reigned as Philadelphia’s highest building for 10 years until its sibling, Comcast Technology Center, opened a block away last year. CTC is a gorgeous creation too. The geometric reflections upon its mirrored surfaces were a minimalist’s delight.

The Graham Building, in central Philadelphia

I was in the midst of a varied show. Some images were perfect or near-perfect replicas of the physical world. Others, though as clear as day, had a distinct life of their own, such as the tables and chairs at Saxby’s. And as for fractured pictures, I was totally down with the few I encountered, especially the dizzying plays of light on The Graham Building’s revolving door, a few blocks from Comcast Center.

Iron Hill Brewery, in central Philadelphia
That’s yours truly with the camera in front of his face, in West Philadelphia
Two Liberty Place, in central Philadelphia

Reflections can mess with your head in a good way and might put you under a spell. What else would you expect from phenomena that, though weightless, in their mysterious ways are as substantial as solid matter? One thing for certain is that I, who came close to flunking high school physics, never will understand the mechanics and processes behind reflections. But who cares? Their call got me off my bony, lazy ass the other day. I needed that.

(As almost always noted: Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thank you.)

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It’s Old, And Now It’s Almost Gone: Goodbye, Honda Civic

If it had been up to me, the Honda Civic that my wife Sandy and I bought fresh from the factory in 2001 would still be parked in front of our house, ready for action. I’ve always liked that car. Even though its body paint eventually mimicked the appearance of my age-mottled skin, and the fabric on the underside of its roof has drooped like a cow’s udder for years, I didn’t care. Sure, a paint job and a fabric repair would have been just what the doctor ordered, but I’ve got a knack for putting things off. Ergo, I happily continued to drive the Honda in its unattractive condition, allowing it to take me around my immediate area. In its old age, no way was I going to test the car’s capabilities on a long-distance drive. For modest daily transportation needs, however, the Civic has performed its job damn well.

On the other hand, Sandy has disliked the Honda, which I fully admit is an eyesore, ever since its appearance went south. She wouldn’t be seen as a passenger in said eyesore. Nor, as follows, would she drive it. She therefore stuck exclusively with our other car, a much, much newer model that I also motor around in a lot. And, needless to say, she also wasn’t thrilled that the Honda was on full display, for everyone to see, in the neighborhood. Who could blame her?

That’s why I promised last year that I’d help to make the Honda disappear by replacing it with a modern vehicle, one that looks good and is equipped with far more safety features than the Honda possesses. One situation or another kept getting in the way of that happening. But finally a miracle occurred a few weeks ago. Hallelujah, a new Toyota has become part of the family!

So, now we possess two recent-vintage vehicles. Sandy and I share them. And the Honda has been relegated to the bottom of the driveway, behind our house, where it awaits its fate. In a matter of days it will be towed away, a donation to a worthy charitable organization. I suppose they’ll get a few hundred bucks for it. I’ll be sorry to see it go.

Dig the drooping fabric inside the car.

But why will I be sorry? It’s a good question, one I probably wouldn’t have thought about had I not decided to bless cyberspace with a Honda tale. Luckily, a few insights have popped into my head.

I’ve never been too much of a materialistic sort of guy. Partly that’s because I had only a small amount of funds during the first 12 or so years of my adult life. And even though I’ve done all right financially since then, I haven’t felt the need to make up for lost time, acquisition-wise. Fact is, most of my possessions mean little to me anyway. Except for my vinyl album collection. Vinyl is f*cking cool, after all. And for a few pieces of artwork that tug at my emotional core. And for the Honda Civic, which, it’s only now dawned on me, reminds me of some qualities that I like and admire in people.

The Civic, which I’m going to refer to in the past tense here, was easy to be with, unpretentious, and made its way through life in good spirits despite my neglect of the face that it presented to the world. It also was reliable, having had very few mechanical issues in its lifetime, and, by virtue of its reliability, demonstrated excellent loyalty towards me.

Is it any wonder then that I felt totally at home when I slipped behind the Honda’s steering wheel? Being inside that car was like spending time with a good friend. I was on the same wavelength as the Honda. I understood it. Our personalities melded admirably. We were a compatible pair that had grown old together very comfortably.

I enjoy but have yet to develop anything resembling a love affair with either of the vehicles that Sandy and I now drive. And I’m nearly positive that I never will, which is okay. As long as they get me from here to there and back, that’s all that really matters. But they are too high-tech for me to fall heavily for them, too full of buttons and knobs and adjustment options and display screens. All of that places them far from the warm and cuddly section of my spectrum that the Civic occupied. These two newer cars don’t remind me of the sorts of people that I want to be around.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll go out for a final spin in the Honda before it’s towed away. Haven’t decided yet. Whether I do or don’t, the deep green Honda Civic, once as handsome as hell, soon will be gone from my life forever. Shit, I’m going to miss that old boy.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

Up Is Where It’s At: Philadelphia’s Elevated Parks

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

As loyal readers of this publication know, I have a propensity to mention that not only am I getting old, I strongly dislike getting old. I mean, what’s to like? I’m at the point where even if I were to live another 25 years, an unlikely occurrence that would take me deep into my 90s, the end sure as shit is still a whole lot closer than the beginning. Depressing, man, depressing.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I get a kick out of wandering around in search of that which is new to me. I tend to believe that a steady diet of fresh experiences possibly has the ability to hold back Father F*cking Time. In any event, encountering the new sure helps to keep your brain cells firing, to bring at least the semblance of a smile to your face, and to make most days decently bright. And so, off I went recently to a couple of places that I’d never visited before and was more than curious to investigate.

The Rail Park

I live not far from Philadelphia and head into that interesting city, which contains an almost endless supply of things to do, three or more times each month. On August 8, I decided that I’d go there to check out The Rail Park, which began as an idea in the early 2000s and became a reality when its first, and to-date only, section opened in 2018. Three more sections are on the drawing board. (If plans for the creation of those sections interest you, then feel free to click here to learn about them.)

Luckily I did a bit of googling before leaving the house, otherwise I’d not have known that another elevated park, Cira Green, occupies space in Philadelphia. As far as I know, The Rail Park and Cira Green are Philly’s only places with greenery that are up in the open air.

Close to central Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, The Rail Park was created by a partnership of forward-thinking area residents and governmental and private entities, and is built on what were abandoned, elevated Reading Railroad tracks. Those tracks once brought freight and passengers into and out of The City Of Brotherly Love. They were last used for those purposes in 1984.

And Cira Green? Well, unlike The Rail Park it’s not under city government’s oversight. It’s an entirely private enterprise, but everyone is welcome there. Its home is the roof of a parking garage that sits between two modern towers. (The two towers, the parking garage and Cira Green collectively are known as Cira Centre South.) Cira Green opened three years before The Rail Park did and rubs shoulders with The University Of Pennsylvania and with Drexel University in the enormous part of town known as West Philadelphia.

Cira Green

I took in Cira Green first. I rode the parking garage elevator to the 11th floor and then walked up a staircase that leads to the roof. Voila! Cira Green spread out before my eyes, one and a quarter acres of walkways, terraced lawns, shrub and flower beds, and a sprinkling of trees. There’s a burger and beer joint on the grounds too, and a big tent where organized events are held. Lawn chairs and chaise lounges were scattered around.

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

Cira Green is a solid piece of work, and dozens of people were there enjoying the sunny day. But it ain’t knock-your-socks-off beautiful. If it were on ground level it would be considered fairly pedestrian. But it’s not on ground level. One hundred and fifty or more feet above the streets, it provides a motherlode of fab views. Damn right I didn’t plop my ass into a chair or chaise lounge. What I did was walk all over the place, checking out those views.

West Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.
Cira Green. Reflections too.

Skyscraper-loaded central Philadelphia, across the murky Schuylkill River, gave me a buzz, as did West Philadelphia’s kaleidoscopic patterns, dominated by tans, browns and greys. But what I also couldn’t keep my eyes off of were the reflections in the facades of the two giant buildings flanking Cira Green. A person, such as I, could get lost in those reflections.

One public transit ride later, not to mention blocks and blocks of walking, I found the stairs that lead to The Rail Park. The park is in a gritty neighborhood that goes by various names, including Callowhill. Much of Callowhill went up in the 1800s. The area has an industrial look, which figures, because many factories once produced goods there. A few still do. Others have been converted to residential use. Parking lots are part of the landscape too, as is a dense array, too dizzying for me to digest, of other structures. The Rail Park was needed. It’s the only park in Callowhill, the only green refuge.

That’s The Rail Park up there.
The Rail Park

I liked The Rail Park. A mere 20 or thereabouts feet above street level, it doesn’t command the types of views that Cira Green does. But that was alright with me. As I walked back and forth along the park’s quarter of a mile length of planks and gravel paths, I looked here and I looked there, admiring the otherworldliness of the electric company substation very near the park and enjoying the neighborhood’s overall no-nonsense ambience.

The Rail Park
The Rail Park

The park’s plantings are pretty. The oversized swings struck me as a delightful touch. Basically, The Rail Park, at least during the moments I spent within it, was very welcoming. I felt comfortable and at home. If I lived in its vicinity I’d head over there now and then, book in hand, and find a comfortable perch on which to read.

One guy was doing exactly that. One young lady walked her dog. Two couples huddled, exchanging sweet nothings or something of that order. And a few folks of various ages, including an old guy, one of my peers, relaxed on the swings. Yeah, I definitely liked The Rail Park. I hope that Callowhill’s and Chinatown’s residents have come to embrace it, or will.

In closing, I tip my metaphorical hat to Philadelphia, a city that always has inspired me. Without Philadelphia, this website would be hurting for content. For real.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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When Martin Scorsese Asked For My Help, I Obliged!: A Cinematic Story Of Sorts

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

“Neil! It’s Marty. Do you got a minute? I really need your help,” Martin Scorsese, the titanic film director, said to me a few days ago. He was calling from his production studios in Manhattan, where he’s putting the finishing touches on The Irishman, a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How can a schlub like me be friends with a luminary like Scorsese? Maybe I’ll go into the details in a future article. For now, let me merely say that Marty and I first met, a few years ago, in a dream (click here to access that dream). Our relationship evolved and deepened organically from there into a real-life friendship.

Leonardo DiCaprio (photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

“Listen, Neil,” Marty went on, “here’s why I’m calling. You know Leo, right? Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s been in a bunch of my films.”

“Sure, everybody knows who he is. But I never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (attributed to Francesco Melzi)

“Leo’s a great guy,” Marty went on. “Talented as hell. Smart as hell too, a genius in fact. That’s why, I suppose, I came up with this fabulous idea: DiCaprio should portray Leonardo da Vinci in a movie. One genius playing another genius. One Leonardo playing another Leonardo. Could anything be cooler than that? I love it, man! It can’t miss . . . except that I’m having trouble figuring out what angle the movie ought to take, what it should be about. A straight drama? Forget it. I’ve done enough of those. A comedy? Definitely could work. Picture this: Da Vinci would be a bumbler in the film, stumbling from one misadventure to another. The running gag would be da Vinci getting his humongous beard caught in a door wherever he goes. ‘Get me out of this hairy situation, I beg you! The f*cking door is stuck!’ would be his catchphrase.”

“Marty, that’s good. You can’t go wrong with a comedy. But you know what’s even better? A superhero movie, Marty, a superhero movie. Da Vinci was gifted as hell. He was a painter, an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, a you-name-it. Shit, there was nothing that old boy couldn’t do. He was the Renaissance man of all Renaissance men.”

Marty cut me off. “I’m listening, Neil. And I like where I think you’re going with this. Tell me more.”

“Well, only the greatest Renaissance man of them all has what it takes to save the hub of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy — from two potentially catastrophic invasions. The first assault is by aliens, the second by zombies.”

“When the aliens, looking for all the world like seven-foot tall ants, descend upon Florence from a distant galaxy, in 1505, the city’s residents are thrown into a panic,” I continued. “But Leonardo da Vinci, a Florentine, stays cool, immediately putting his scientific know-how into use. Within an hour he invents a chemical spray that anything resembling an ant will be powerless against. Then he disguises himself with a Mona Lisa mask, whose enigmatic smile stops the invaders in their tracks. They’ve never seen such a smile before, and are nearly hypnotized by it. Spray bottles in hand, da Vinci now advances on the creatures, systematically killing them one by one.”

David, by Michelangelo (photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unna)

“‘All we wanted to do was steal Michelangelo’s statue of David from your city and bring it back to our planet,’ the alien leader says to da Vinci with its final breaths. ‘David’s hung like a horse, after all. Most impressive! The statue would have sat majestically in our supreme ruler’s palace. He’d have gazed at it admiringly and enviously, sometimes bemoaning the less-than-daunting size of his own genitalia.'”

“You’re on a roll, Neil,” Marty said. “What’s next?”

“Well, only one week after da Vinci dispatches the aliens, Florence is confronted with an untold number of zombies. Those f*ckers seemingly came from out of nowhere. But they don’t stand a chance, not with our Renaissance man on the scene. He dons his signature mask, whose smile has the same effect on the zombies as it did on the aliens. That’s when da Vinci whips out the hammer and chisel that he’s borrowed from Michelangelo — the very same tools that Michelangelo used to carve the David statue — and bashes the living crap out of the baddies. Problem solved! Case closed!”

“Yes, this is the best!” Marty exclaimed. “Mega-sance Man, short for Mega Renaissance Man, is what we’ll call da Vinci’s alter ego. And that’ll be the name of the film too. Neil, I can tell that this will be the most popular movie I’ve ever made, an absolute blockbuster. I’m going to hang up now. I’ve got to call DiCaprio and tell him about your genius ideas. For years he’s been itching to play a guy who saves the world. Thank you, Neil, thank you. You’ll receive a screenwriter credit, of course, and hefty payments for your contributions.”

“Marty, in your hands Mega-sance Man will be stunning. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive, would be flattered and proud.”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media. Mucho gracias.)

The Flowers In My Neighborhood Weren’t Wilting, But I Was: A Walking Story

It’s been hotter than hell — well, maybe not quite that hot, but hot enough — in the Philadelphia region, where I live, during much of July. And it’s been similarly hot in countless other portions of Planet Earth. You don’t need me to tell you that global warming has had a strong grip on our orb’s metaphorical balls for many years now, and that the situation is only getting worse.

Anyway, the heat was especially nasty in my area on the 21st and 22nd of July, days during which the highs came this close to hitting the fabled 100°F (38°C) mark, ultimately falling a degree or two short. The humidity was impressive too. Nice weather, no? Like countless millions around the globe, though, I had little to complain about. That’s because I stayed inside my air-conditioned home most of the time. Sure, air conditioning is made possible largely by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, thus contributing significantly to the global warming crisis. But what’s a guy to do? Turn off the A/C and melt like a Popsicle? Shit, my balls, which aren’t metaphorical, wouldn’t appreciate becoming liquified.

That unfortunate possibility notwithstanding, at 11:45 AM on the 22nd I decided to throw caution to the wind by launching myself into the elements. I’d had enough of being an indoors wuss. The time had arrived to become an outdoors wuss! I smeared sunscreen lotion all over my wrinkled, age-spotted face and then drank about 20 ounces of water to up my hydration level. Those important tasks accomplished, at noon I stepped outside with one main idea in mind: I was going to walk on many blocks of my suburban neighborhood in search of pretty flowers. The many flowering trees and azalea bushes in my hood all had dropped their blossoms well over a month ago, but whatever other flowers were around (and I knew that there wouldn’t be a whole lot) would have little chance to escape my eagle eye. Off I went. The walk turned out to be a pretty good one, two miles in length and one hour in duration.

My wife and I moved to our abode 14 years ago. And somewhere in the middle of those years I came to realize that there ain’t an amazing quantity of summertime flowers on the two hundred or more properties surrounding us. There’s no explanation for this. It’s just one of those things. I mean, all of the residents keep their lawns and shrubbery trimmed nicely, so it’s not that they don’t care about appearances. But the zing factor from flowers could be far, far better. The color that dominates is green. Green lawns. Green tree leaves. Green bushes. These two photos show my neighborhood’s typical summertime looks:

Yet, of course, there are exceptions. And I dug them. Here and there were excellent flower beds. And here and there were A-OK flowering bushes, including Rose Of Sharon shrubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rose Of Sharon, there having been several of them on the front and back lawns of the house I grew up in decades ago. And they grow brilliantly in my current backyard. Theirs are the only flowers to make an appearance on my property this time of year. I’m glad that a previous owner of my house planted those bushes because I, one of the world’s most inept and lazy gardeners, wouldn’t have taken that step.

Rose Of Sharon shrub in my backyard. This is the only photo taken on my property.

If there’s one flower for which I have an even softer spot than Rose Of Sharon blossoms, it’s the sunflower. Is that because Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings elevated it to iconic status? Maybe. Or is it because of the neat, trim house, in Manhattan’s quaint West Village enclave, that I walked past sometime in the 1970s? Lofty sunflowers grew in front of that small structure, contrasting magnificently with its white exterior. It’s possible that flowers never had made an impression on me like those did. And maybe none have since then. After all, here I am, all these years later, remembering them most fondly. And writing about them.

Yes, I encountered sunflowers on my neighborhood trek the other day. I was two blocks from my house, heading home and sweating like crazy. Despite all the water I drank before leaving home, my lips were unpleasantly dry. I was wilting. Lo and behold, at a corner property I saw them, a long row of sunflowers grinning at me. I stopped to say hello. I took their picture. And I’m going to go back and look at them again after I finish writing this essay. The world needs a lot of things. Peace, compassion and tolerance, for instance. And vastly more sunflowers would be very good too.

Sunflowers

In closing, it should be noted that the blazing Sun and extreme temperature kept things uneventful and quiet in the hood during my walk. The streets were almost empty of people. I saw but one human other than myself. Few cars passed me. And for the first time ever on my strolls in my town, not only did I not encounter any dogs, I didn’t hear barking from inside or outside their houses either. Not until I was about to enter my home at 1:00 PM, that is, when the distinctive yaps of a next-door neighbor’s pet escaped through closed doors and windows. Inside my house I stepped. I checked my balls. They seemed not much the worse for wear. Hallelujah!

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, I thank you.)

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An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

Photo taken on July 9, 2019 at 8:26 PM, five minutes before the Sun set.

On Tuesday evening of last week a simple notion swam into my mind. When it made its presence felt I immediately became comfortable with it. And minutes later I answered its call. To wit, I gathered together a bottle of beer, a glass mug, a bottle opener, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a portable radio. Then I opened one of the two doors that lead to the deck attached to the rear of my house and stepped onto that planked structure with the just-mentioned items in hand. Atop the outdoor table I placed them. And upon one of the chairs surrounding the table I deposited my bony, lazy ass. I like the deck a lot, but for reasons associated with a mild-to-medium case of stupidity I don’t relax on it as often as I should. Tuesday evening of last week was only the second or third time I took advantage of the deck since outdoor-sitting weather arrived in April.

The trees on my lot and on surrounding properties have grown madly since my wife Sandy and I took ownership of our suburban-Philadelphia home in 2005. Back then you could see the Sun dip below the horizon from the deck, because our wooden friends were of manageable size. But that was then and now is now. On the night in question I stepped outside at 8:20 PM, eleven minutes before the big ball of fire was scheduled to bid adieu to the Philadelphia region. Not only did trees block out the horizon and the Sun from my perch, they did the same to much of the sky. Ergo, there wasn’t a whole lot of sunset to be seen.

But I didn’t let those realities bother me, as I was in a relaxed mood, a mood that inched closer to the “highly contented” end of the spectrum during the hour and 40 minutes I spent on the deck. And why not? That’s what drinking beer, munching on Cheez-Its and listening to music on the radio will do to you. As will nonchalantly paying a decent amount of attention to what’s going on around you as the sky gradually makes its way from plenty bright to awfully dark. The bottom line is that, after a while, I found myself lost in the evening’s slow flow, a gentle state of affairs the likes of which happen to me only every now and then.

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

Fifteen minutes or so after sunset I admired the pale pink and purple hues in the western part of the sky not obscured by leafy branches or by houses, including mine. And I took note of birds chirping and of insects’ buzzes and clicks. The insects continued to harmonize once dusk began to take hold, but the birds stopped their chatter at that point and hit the sack. And it was impossible not to steal glances at the Moon, which was a few rungs above eye level in the southern sky. It glowed proudly in the clear heavens both before and after darkness arrived, and noticeably moved westward during my stay outside.

Motorcycle roars, somewhere in the distance, filled the air on several occasions while I sat. Central air conditioner systems hummed in unison. I heard the tooting of a train passing through my little town, and the sirens of two or more police vehicles. You know, the man-made sounds seemed as natural as those of the birds and insects, even the jarring ones that usually bug the hell out of me. Yeah man, I was in a mellow groove.

9:28 PM

Music kept me company mighty finely, as I’d known it would. I heard 20 songs or thereabouts on the radio, and they all fit snugly into the evening. One of them especially pleased me, partly because it came over the airwaves (via WRDV, a station in a town close to mine) when darkness was comfortably settling in. That’s the time of day when dreaminess becomes part of the picture.

I’d never heard of Theola Kilgore (born 1925, died 2005) before. I don’t know why, because she had a strong career in the soul and gospel music worlds. Nor had I heard her recording or any other recording of This Is My Prayer, which came out in 1963 and is such a good love song. The late Ed Townsend, a singer and songwriter who fully penned “For Your Love” and co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, composed Prayer. I sighed happily when Theola began to sing. I knew that I was in good hands. Her pleading, honest vocals can shake you to your knees.

At about the time that Theola Kilgore was entering my heart, a quarter past nine o’clock, I couldn’t help but notice that fireflies were starting to kick their show into high gear. Tiny lights flashed to my left, to my right, in front of me, everywhere. The performance was wonderful, and was the main focus of my attention until I headed back into the house at ten after ten.

Is it possible to photograph fireflies? With high-end cameras in the hands of knowledgeable photographers I have no doubt that it is. But with an iPhone in the hands of an amateur? Well, I tried, snapping shot after shot, hoping that one or two little light bursts would appear at the moment that my finger pressed the camera button. I’m not going to bet my life on it, but I believe that one of my attempts might have paid off. It’s hard to say, of course, whether those pinpricks are from fireflies or are artificial lighting, peeking through dense foliage, from a house behind mine. But I’ve got my money on the former. Here’s the photo. The dots are firefly lights, right? Right?

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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An Old Guy’s Photography Story

Hallelujah! The creation of this story has allowed me to take it easier on myself, to give myself a bit of a breather from the more involved pieces that I normally launch into cyberspace. Two thumbs up for that! I’m an old guy, you see. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. My mind wanders into spaces that it barely can squeeze out of. And let’s not overlook the discomfort that two of my private parts (the globular ones) are currently causing me. Because of all of the above, yesterday I came this close to throwing in the writing towel for a while. Meaning, I was set to let lots of time go by, a month or more, before attempting to produce a fresh entry for this website.

Ambler, Pennsylvania. February 15, 2019
Philadelphia,, Pennsylvania. March 16, 2019

But no! In the end I couldn’t let that happen. For one thing, the CEO of the blogosphere, Tammy Whammy, wouldn’t stand for it. I’ve been on a short leash with Ms. Whammy for the last year and a half. Hell, she has made it perfectly clear to me that she is displeased about the decreasing frequency with which I’ve been posting articles during that period. And I’m not thrilled about it either. But I’m an old guy. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. Ah crap, I already said that, didn’t I? Let’s move on.

Philadelphia. April 11, 2019
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. April 13, 2019

When I press the Publish button for this story, nearly two weeks will have passed since my previous opus appeared. Fairly lengthy gaps like that now are not uncommon for me (in my peppier days I graced the ethers weekly with new material). Will the wait have been worth it? Maybe so, if you like to look at photographs. For that’s what this piece basically is: a collection of photos that I took during the first half of the current year. None of them have appeared previously. More important, I like them.

Philadelphia (near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art). May 1, 2019
Edinburgh, Scotland. May 23, 2019

Yeah, scrolling through my photos was about all I had to do to birth this article. Didn’t have to engage in much thinking or research. I’m down with that! But, I have to admit, during the writing sessions I did spend a few hours contemplating my navel, which, for reasons that my doctors are at a loss to understand, has drifted three inches southward since early 2018. “Don’t worry about it, though, Neil,” they’ve all said to me. “You’re old. It’s just one of those things.”

Edinburgh. May 28, 2019
Edinburgh. May 28, 2019

All right then, what we have here are ten photographs. I’ve placed them chronologically. Five were taken in daylight and five after the Sun set. I’m partial to those nighttime shots, especially the final four of them. The mysteries and moodiness that they contain are irresistible to me. Location-wise, four photos are from Philadelphia, two from the Philadelphia suburbs, and four from Edinburgh, Scotland. Those locales are where my ass has spent most of its time so far in 2019.

Edinburgh. May 29, 2019
Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. June 23, 2019

Speaking of Scotland, my wife and I were there in May, as some of you know. Miraculously, I was able to churn out three stories about our Scottish sojourn. They came out in June. That was a lot of writing. A lot of taxation on my senior citizen brain. I’ve heard about old dudes who, from out of the blue, become all Rambo-like, able to face life’s challenges powerfully and expertly. Maybe something like that is what happened to me, scribe-wise, with the Scotland pieces. But now I’m back to my regular old-guy self. And as it turns out, even though I didn’t have to work too hard to compose this essay, my battery is practically drained. I need a snooze. Nothing I can do about it. Repeat after me: “C’est la f*cking vie!”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)

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A Trip To Scotland, Part Three: Nature Time!

Ah yes, the big moment has arrived, by which I mean that the third and final episode of my wife Sandy’s and my recent doings in Scotland is now alive in cyberspace. And maybe it’s not only alive, but kicking too. If so, protect your private parts, boys and girls! You can’t be too careful these days.

Part One of the Scottish trilogy mentioned the beauty of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, and that of the enormous tract of lands and waters known as the Scottish Highlands. I am now going to devote some hundreds of words to those green areas, both of which impressed us mightily.

Let’s begin with the Gardens, which are, I suppose, one-zillionth the size of the Highlands and certainly not as spectacular. Nevertheless, they sure as hell are more than lovely. We spent only an hour in the Gardens, yet I consider them to be a highlight of the trip.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens sit smack dab in the middle of central Edinburgh, dividing Edinburgh’s Old Town section from its New Town. The Gardens are in two swaths, the western one being larger than the eastern and more impressive because of the views that it commands. Combined, the east and the west segments total about half a mile in length. Which is not a whole lot. I mean, you could walk from one end to the other of Princes Street Gardens in no time if you wanted to. It would be a mistake to hurry, however, to not stop and smell the roses, because the Gardens are alluring and welcoming. They are a testament to inspired horticultural design and maintenance.

Princes Street Gardens
Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh Castle looms above.

But the Gardens are not merely an urban oasis. They have healing powers too. I can attest to that because, often a fine example of disgruntlement and unease, I felt a sense of calm within my veins while I explored the Gardens. All of the flora there struck me as just right in terms of looks and placement . . . the flowers, the lawns, the trees and shrubbery. I was at home. As if that wasn’t enough, my jaw dropped when, while walking in the middle of the west segment, I looked southward and saw, looming nearby and powerfully, the Edinburgh Castle complex atop a rugged hill. What a view! Singular and unforgettable. You don’t get stunned like that in an urban park every day, you dig? I’m positive that I never had before.

The bus, in Edinburgh, that soon would take us to the Scottish Highlands

A few days after our submersion into nature at Princes Street Gardens, Sandy and I boarded the Wild & Sexy yellow tour bus, in Edinburgh, that was destined to take us on a long but whirlwind journey into a portion of the Scottish Highlands. Wild & Sexy, which is anything but, took off at 8:00 AM, arriving back in Edinburgh 12 hours later. In all, it and its 40 or so passengers traveled about 350 miles that day.

Ideally we’d have rented a car and spent at least four days in the Highlands. They deserve that much attention, so vast an area do they encompass, so worthy of intensive exploration are their landscapes, waterways and villages. But alas, neither of us dared to take the potential risks of driving on what for us is the wrong side of the road. A bus tour, then, squashed into one day, was our best option.

Am I glad we went? Definitely. But did I enjoy being on a bus for half a day? Not so much. And did I get a kick out of the flood of snide remarks tossed out by the asshole, seated behind me, to his travel mate? Nah. The f*cking guy was very annoying.

Crianlarich, in Highlands. Photo taken through bus window.
Bridge Of Orchy, in Highlands. Photo taken from bus window.

Now, the Highlands, a storied territory that abounds with tales and memories of Scottish clans and of long-ago rebellions against English rule, aren’t exactly around the corner from Edinburgh. So, it was two hours before we reached their lower boundaries. Mountains began to appear, mountains that became more and more amazing to my eyes the closer we got to them. Their bold shapes and vivid colorations, exaggerated by the bright Sun, were something else. To say nothing of the meadows, pastures and forests that intermingle with the mountains. And of the sheep, horses and cows that sat or wandered in some of the pastures. Though we encountered the Highlands mostly through bus windows, they didn’t disappoint.

Glen Coe, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.
Spean Bridge, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.

“If you think that this scenery is something, wait until we get to Glen Coe. It’s 10 times better there,” our bus driver, Charlie, said over the vehicle’s public address system as we passed through the Bridge Of Orchy area. I don’t know about 10 times better, but the mountains and lands in Glen Coe are special. I’d have liked to stride into the grasses leading up to the mountains and then do some climbing. But there was no time for that since the bus, on a tight schedule, parked for only 20 minutes at Glen Coe. Guided tours have their place, but ones such as ours are limiting and frustrating. The few stops that they make tend to be brief, which results in a pretty superficial experience. Of course, before signing up for the tour I knew that such would be the case. “Yo, genius, not everything in life is perfect. DUH!” I just reminded myself again for good measure.

Loch Ness

Two hours later the bus parked in Fort Augustus, a touristy Highlands town near the southern end of famed Loch Ness. There the bus stayed put for more than a bit, for the one and only time. Sandy and I had purchased tickets for a 50-minute boat ride on the loch (a loch is a lake, by the way), so aboard the boat we hopped. Somewhere in the vicinity of 150 other individuals hopped aboard with us. Somehow, despite the crowd sharing space with me, I managed to position myself on the open-air deck at the rear of the vessel. From the deck I admired the pines and other trees that adorn the sides of Loch Ness, and the hills upon which the trees grow. I watched, with fascination, the strong wake of the boat. And I couldn’t get enough of the wind that caressed my wrinkled visage, smoothing out a few of the deepest creases. Thank you, Highlands, for the magical facial. I haven’t looked this good in years!

After the boat docked, back to the bus we went. A bunch of hours later we were once again in Edinburgh, our nature-saturated day drawing to a close. And now, I’m obliged to say, my Scottish trilogy also is about to reach its conclusion. Everything, as we know, must end.

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