The End

Magnificent and valued readers, do not be alarmed by the title of this opus. It is not being published posthumously. Yours truly, a vaguely trustworthy septuagenarian, thankfully has not yet reached his expiration date, and hopefully that date won’t arrive for at least 20 years. But, as with pretty much everything in life, who the f*ck knows?

Almost inconsequentially though, the title does pertain to an opened box of pasta that had been sitting in one of my kitchen cabinets since 2006, give or take a year. My wife Sandy and I finally got around to tossing it a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that we hadn’t paid any attention to the box, which is what it deserved, as lousy-tasting as the pasta was the one and only time we prepared it back then.

We’d purchased the pasta, known as Barilla Plus, because Sandy was somewhat down on regular wheat products and was all for multi-this-and-that concoctions. Barilla Plus was the latter, what with lentils, chick peas, oats, spelt (what the hell is spelt?), barley and flaxseed comprising major parts of the dough. One night we cooked and ate the stuff, probably covering it with a good tomato sauce. It bit the big one, to resurrect a phrase that was popular on my Vermont college campus during the hippie era. Or, to put it another way, the pasta sucked, its flavor remarkably strange and unappealing.

As far as expiration dates are concerned, Barilla Plus’s was long ago. The box said the pasta would be best if used by September 2007. Being generous by adding two or three years to that, I estimate that the true expiration date (the date on which the product in effect died) took place no later than in 2010. Well, our box of Barilla Plus at last has been buried, with no mourners present, in wherever it is that my township dumps its residents’ garbage.

However, there is more to this essay than a frigging box of pasta. A lot more. Because when it comes to mourners, Sandy and I came close to tears when we bid goodbye last month to our 2012 Hyundai Elantra. The vehicle, cute and comfortable and totally to our liking, had only 45,000 or so miles on it when, in early August, it was rear-ended two miles from our home by a careless driver. I wasn’t in the car when the collision took place. Only Sandy was, and the extremely good news is that she was unhurt.

Hyundai on the repair shop’s grounds

Not so for the Hyundai, whose rear sections crumpled like tissue paper. Man, the car looked bad, but it was drivable. And fixable, we assumed. We drove it home, and there the victim sat for a day or two in our driveway till arrangements were made, via our insurance company, to have it towed to a collision repair shop.

Well, no point going into all the details. The bottom line is that the insurance company ultimately decided that the cost of repairs was more than the car was worth. We’d be sent a check, for the car’s value as if it were undamaged, said the claim handler. And that’s why, two weeks after the accident, Sandy and I went to the collision shop to clear out our belongings from the Elantra.

Pitiful baby . . . that car had been awfully good to us. I found it hard to believe that I’d never again sit behind its steering wheel while its motor was running. On the shop’s grounds, Sandy and I emptied the car and hung around for longer than we’d expected. We patted the car, looked at it longingly, and silently remembered the many good times we’d had in places to which our Hyundai had taken us. Shit, that big hunk of metals and plastics and fabrics was dear to our hearts. I hadn’t realized that before. But in saying goodbye, I did.

Our Toyota

We’ve replaced the Hyundai with a new car, a Toyota Corolla, whose fate, with luck, will be far better than its predecessor’s. And the Hyundai is now in its graveyard, having been towed, two days after Sandy and I paid our respects, to a facility whose mission was to take it apart, salvaging as much as possible. Graveyard I guess is the wrong word, seeing that much of the Hyundai will find new life in other man-made bodies. Which doesn’t change the reality of the Elantra being dead and gone. Obviously.

There is an uncountable number of things in life that are worse than losing a car. Still, I’m damn pissed at the person who whammed and bammed my former wheels. “Up yours, dear,” is what I’d say to her if I were to pay her an unannounced visit, a visit that is possible because her address is listed on the police report that the accident generated. “You have caused me and my wife a lot of problems and expense. Did I forget to say up yours? I didn’t forget? That’s okay. I’ll say it again anyway. Up yours!”

Hey, typing up yours three times, and now a fourth, has made me feel better. I knew that blogging would pay unexpected dividends one day! Didn’t think, though, that it would take over three years (I launched this website in April 2015) for a dividend to manifest itself.

On that note, boys and girls, I shall ease this essay into its conclusion. Please drive safely, as most of our roads are congested and crammed with potential dangers. And stay away from my new Toyota, or else!

(As I say at the end of nearly each and every one of my pieces, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing. It’s good to share, or so we have been told.)

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When Opportunity Knocks: A Book (Falconer), A Movie (Leave No Trace), And Me

Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.

And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!

In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.

Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.

In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.

Yes, Cheever could write.

Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.

And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.

Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.

The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.


In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.

But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?

Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.

Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.

I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.

Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

Walking Away From A Cold

Where the f*ck have I been that I wasn’t aware that a summer cold is a thing, a topic of active discussion, and probably has been a member of the thing category for a good long while? Had I ever heard the term before? Possibly. But if I had it didn’t stick like glue to my brain cells. Anyway, a week or so ago two people mentioned the words when they learned of my ailment. In sympathy, one of them said that “summer colds are the worst.” The other said that he knew of someone else who was suffering from the symptoms of this dastardly condition.

Summer colds. Are they different from colds that you might pick up at any other time of the year? Beats me. In any event, I was down and partly out for the count during the first week of August. The cold was heavy. It was a summer cold, you dig?

I went through Kleenex tissues as if they were salted peanuts, so full of amazingly robust mucus was my respiratory system. I moaned and groaned like a wuss. I had less energy than a used flashlight battery. But eventually my body pulled itself together and I began to feel pretty damn good.

Yeah, pretty damn good indeed. And so, on August 8 I decided that I needed to stretch my legs in a meaningful way in environs that might inspire and intrigue me. Looking forward to a mini-adventure, off I headed to Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town that looks like a town (Hatboro has two long strings of stores and businesses along a main street, which is crisscrossed by tidy residential blocks). In other words, it’s not a hodgepodge collection of housing developments and strip malls. I’ve been to Hatboro many times, what with it being only three miles from my home, but never had gone on more than a 15-minute ramble there. At 10:30 AM I parked my car on Hatboro’s shopping drag (York Road), fed the parking meter and set off.

York Road’s shopping section is lengthy, extending for half a mile. The stores are mostly of the mom and pop variety. I’ve often wondered how most of them stay in business, as I’ve never seen Hatboro’s sidewalks even remotely crowded. But stay in business they somehow do. You have a hardware store, several barber shops, bakeries, delis, diners, a big furniture store . . . and I’ll end the list now to avoid this becoming a 2,000-word essay. None of the shops are glitzy. Glitziness has little place in Hatboro, a blue collar area and proud of it.

Not unusual for me, I took a lot of photos during the walk. At first I concentrated on bouncily-decorated storefronts and nifty store signs. Who would turn a thumbs-down on the Hatboro Barber Shop’s facade, a parade of red, white and blue? Or on Village Hardware’s “We Fix Stuff” sign, which succinctly (and hopefully accurately) tells a story. Nobody, I’m sure.

And when I wandered off York Road into the neighborhoods, I was surprised by the goodly number of old, beautiful homes. Had to snap some of their images, of course, one of which is directly above.

But halfway through the stroll my focus changed unexpectedly, as I became enchanted with the idea of looking for bright yellows. I guess it was a riveting yellow (and red and black) traffic sign on a residential block, meant to announce that a stop sign was ahead, that put the notion into my head.  That and the fact that I was getting some exercise on a supremely sunny day, the Sun being the finest yellow friend that any of us ever will have. Ergo, a patch of yellow flowers aside a house became fodder for my phone’s camera. As did the golden arches of Hatboro’s McDonald’s franchise.

But enough about yellows. Let’s face it, in most regards, the walk ultimately wasn’t very different from nearly any neighborhood walk that one might take. It lasted one and a quarter hours and encompassed two miles. Nothing special about those figures. But here’s what I’m getting at: I enjoyed the heck out of the walk. I was glad to have recovered from my illness, glad once again to be outside breathing freely and taking in the sights.

Which is why it would have been very, very cool if the lyrics to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah had been playing in my mind as I walked around. You know them:

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

Alas, they weren’t. Still, I’m in tune with the song’s message. Meaning, I know enough not to take things for granted. Hopefully many walks lie ahead. Onward!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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I’ve Got My Faves. Which Are Yours? (Art On Wheels, Part Three)

8:51 AM

Last Friday, the first day without rain in what seemed like forever for southeast Pennsylvania, I decided pretty early in the morning to scour the grounds of local businesses in pursuit of colorful designs and nifty patterns. I’d gone on such journeys twice before, penning the recaps for the publication that you’re currently staring at. And speaking of which, if you are interested in reading about Art On Wheels, parts one and two, then click here and here. Okay, with that matter out of the way, let’s now move on to my latest effort to spot and photograph good-looking trucks and vans.

8:55 AM

I left my suburban Philadelphia home at 8:45 AM. Six minutes later, near the delivery bays of my town’s supermarket, I parked my car and got out to snap a picture of a Maier’s truck that was filled with breads and rolls. Hey, not only did I like the looks of the truck, I also liked the feeling that immediately swelled up within me: Namely, that this was going to be a productive morning. I mean, the supermarket was the first place I visited, and right off the bat I’d hit pay dirt.

9:02 AM

Pay dirt. I knew from past experience that it wasn’t necessarily lurking everywhere. Hardly. For every truck and van worthy of attention there are 15 or more that are real plain Janes. Not only that, it ain’t possible to photograph the lookers, vehicularly-speaking, that are on the move. If I attempted to do so while I too was cruising along the road, then I’d now be writing this opus from six feet under.

9:11 AM

I’m here to report that things panned out. After immortalizing the Maier’s truck, I spent an additional, and fruitful, hour and 45 minutes on my project. In parking and delivery areas during that time I met plenty of trucks and vans, of which nine (including Maier’s) made the grade. And — bonus! — later in the day, while coming home from an ordinary shopping mission, I lucked out by crossing paths with a long, long trailer that was making a delivery to a Dunkin’ Donuts store about half a mile from my house. That bad boy was a slam f*cking dunk for me. And it brought the total up to 10.

9:30 AM

Ten excellent vehicles! That’s success in my oddball book. After all, this was a mission of serendipity. It was impossible for me to know what trucks, if any, would be at the locales I visited. Yeah, for some reason truck drivers don’t give me their delivery schedules. And one beauty, a Lehigh Valley dairy products truck, wasn’t where I’d have expected it to be. Instead of being in the delivery section of the Walmart mega-store on whose property it was parked, it was on the outskirts of Walmart’s enormous parking lot. Its driver was not in sight. Maybe she or he was reclining amidst the cargo, grabbing some ZZZs. Whatever, I was more than glad to find that truck.

9:36 AM

Well, I’ve placed the photographs of the 10 head-turners in the order that I encountered them, noting the time that I snapped each picture. And I’ve studiously gazed at the photographs, trying to come up with my top three. It wasn’t easy. For instance, I dig the Utz truck, which carried potato chips and other snacks. Its black, white and red design reminds me of the era, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, when those three colors, in conjunction, were de rigeur in the fashion world. But ultimately Utz didn’t make my cut. I guess that these days I’m more in tune with splashy lines and a palette that dips broadly into the color spectrum.

10:13 AM

Here then are my top three, in ascending order: Edible Arrangements, Lehigh Valley and Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, that Dunkin’ truck drives me wild. “I’m Number One! I’m Number One!” I can hear it yelling.

10:25 AM

And how about you? Which of these 10 exhibits particularly ring your bells? If you let me know in the comments section, indicating the ranking you give each of your top three choices, then I’ll compile the results. And once that’s done I’ll spend however many it takes of my remaining Earthly days to track down the winning vehicle. And when that mission is accomplished I’ll pin a big gold ribbon somewhere on its glorious body.

10:57 AM

One final note: Yes, I agree, it’s on the odd side for a geezer, let alone anyone, to get his jollies from trolling the parking and delivery areas of shopping centers, strip malls and stand-alone businesses, with art as his prey. What can I say? I like to wander. I like to look at pretty things. When it comes to jollies, my philosophy is to try and grab ’em where and when I can. Amen.

1:52 PM

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The Night I Was Serenaded By Space Aliens!

The other day I was gearing up to republish one of my early stories, those poor neglected souls that are buried in the WordPress catacombs, though I hadn’t chosen my victim yet. After all, I thought, wouldn’t it be right to give new life to an essay that almost nobody read when it came out in 2015? Why, back then my blog had fewer readers than Donald Trump has good qualities.

But then I pondered the situation a bit more and said to myself, “nah!” I mean, I don’t really want to read any of that moldering stuff either, so I’m going to spare you. Therefore it is time for me to regroup and write another chunk of new material. But what? Oh well, I’ve been putting it off long enough. I’ve always figured that nobody would believe me (not even my wife Sandy), and that I’d be labeled a kook (just like the other people who’ve gone public with stories almost identical to the one I’m about to tell). But I’m pretty sure I don’t care about that anymore. Sandy and everyone else, hold onto your hats or whatever the hell you want to hold onto. I swear upon my dead goldfish’s body that every word I’m about to type is true. What follows are my recollections of the night I was serenaded by space aliens!

Photo credit: The Virgin Group

It was a dark and stormy night. Damn straight it was. Exhausted, I crept into bed at 12:45 AM, about half an hour earlier than usual, and within seconds was sound asleep. Sandy, even more pooped than me, had conked out at 12:15. That’s what dark and stormy nights will do to you. October 25, 2012, my 65th birthday, was off to a very inauspicious start.

I’d been in dreamland for no more than 40 minutes when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. “What’s wrong, Sandy?” I yelled, shocked out of my deep slumber. But nothing was wrong with Sandy, who continued to sleep the sleep of babies. That’s when I saw a hazy ball of pale green light hovering one foot above me. A thick and long projection, aglow in muted yellow, extended from the ball’s core. The projection, a finger to end all fingers, jabbed me in the shoulder good and hard.

“Yo, nitwit, don’t fall back asleep unless you’d like me to slap you real profoundly upside your head. I’ve come a long way to meet with you, so get out of bed, put some clothes on, grab your house keys and follow me. A surprise awaits you,” the aura said. It’s true that I’m pretty much a nitwit, but despite that I know that in certain circumstances it behooves one to follow orders.

“How’d you get in here?” I managed to ask the aura as we went down the stairs, summoning up an iota of courage from I know not where. “And how come you speak English? Are you of Anglo-Saxon descent?”

The aura stopped moving and looked at me, so to speak, straight in the eyes. “Listen,” it said, “I’d have found a way into your house under any circumstances. But you made it easy for me. You left your front door unlocked, genius! And why do I speak English? I am fluent in every language spoken throughout the universe, of which there are millions. I am not your average Joe. And speaking of Joe, my true name would be unpronounceable for you, so Joe is what I want you to call me. Kapeesh?”

“Yes sir, I mean Joe,” I said.

“Okay, Neil, let’s get going again.” Naturally, Joe knew my name.

Moments later we were outside. I locked the front door and followed Joe, who floated through the air very purposefully, to my backyard. Plunk in its middle sat a sleek round vehicle, maybe 20 feet in diameter and gleaming in what little light penetrated the sky’s turbulent clouds. I was getting pounded by rain. With his sturdy finger Joe opened the spacecraft’s door and waited for me to enter. He then floated inside and closed the door. Joe’s dim glow wasn’t enough for me to make out distinct details of the interior, but I recognized the shapes of a table and several chairs. Even an aura needs to sit, or shall we say rest upon something now and then, I surmised. And a table comes in handy almost anywhere, don’t you think?

In any event, the main things going on involved my heart, which was beating at a faster pace than it ever had, and the state of my bowels, which were poised to soil my pants. What was in store for me? Was this the end?

“Joe,” I said, “give me a break. I’m not too bad a guy. After all, I’m doing my bit to keep print publications alive by subscribing to half a dozen of them. And I helped an old lady cross the street not too long ago. Well, come to think of it, that was last year. But you get the idea.”

Joe ignored my comments. “Sit down, Neil,” he said brusquely. He then reduced the volume of his illumination, lowering it more and more till he was invisible to me. The end, I was certain, was only seconds away. Probably Joe’s versatile finger would be involved in my demise.

Next thing I knew, though, the ship’s interior began to brighten. Within moments Joe was shining like a 150-watt bulb. And Joe wasn’t alone. No, beside him another aura had appeared, and its luminance was the equal of his.

“Neil, I would like you to meet . . . wait, pronouncing her name is beyond human capabilities. You shall call her Jane.” From Jane’s mauve core a baby blue projection, as firm and lengthy as Joe’s, emerged. It reached out to me, gently brushing my forehead. I liked that.

“Hello, Neil,” Jane said.

“Jane, I’m honored,” I gulped.

Jane continued to rub my forehead as she settled into a chair next to mine. Joe sat opposite me, waiting for Jane to speak again.

“Neil, it is for a very good reason that Joe and I have traveled the spaceways to make your acquaintance,” Jane began. “We are cosmic ambassadors of good will and visit your small planet every day, quietly and efficiently, from our home many light years away. Back and forth, back and forth. That’s what we do. And each visit is on the occasion of a special someone’s 65th birthday, a day on which many humans need some cheering up. I say special only in an affectionate sense, of course. I’m not implying that there is anything particularly special about you. And here’s why we are crossing paths: On December 31, 2011 Joe and I threw into a humongous hat the names of every person on Earth who would turn 65 in 2012. We drew names until we had one for each date of the year. Neil, you are the selectee for October 25.”

“Yes, you now are officially old, Neil, but we are here to tell you that you shouldn’t feel blue about that,” Jane continued. “Countless millions of humans are on the same rung of the age ladder as you, or above, so take comfort in their company. What’s more, there might be many more years of good life ahead of you. And if not, well, your journey will have been a fulfilling one when it reaches its conclusion, n’est-ce pas?”

And with that Jane and Joe shoved their remarkable fingers beneath the table and lifted up a chocolate birthday cake. Happy Birthday, Big Guy! it read. Sixty-six unlit candles, one of them for good luck, covered the cake’s surface. Jane aimed her finger at the candles and they instantly ignited, just as I knew they would. As I blew the candles out, Joe and Jane serenaded me with the Happy Birthday song. And I soon joined in. Our three-part harmonies were majestic, reaching the ethers.

“Neil, I want to apologize for the way I acted towards you before,” Joe said after the song was sung, shoveling chocolate cake into his core. “I’m kind of testy, on edge. This Earthly assignment is getting to me. Jane and I have been doing this gig for, what, 100 years? I can’t begin to tell you how f*cking sick I am of the Happy Birthday song. Shit, if my planet had a retirement system I’d be first in line to sign up. Ah, what’s the use? It’s been a pleasure, pardner. Adios.” He opened his ship’s door and out I went.

A few minutes later, stuffed with cake, I was back in bed. Joe and Jane silently had lifted off from my backyard, their ship disappearing from sight in less than a nanosecond. Never again, I’m certain, will I see them.

Nearly six years have elapsed since my 65th spin around the Sun. I think about Joe and Jane every day. And I take delight in the knowledge that studied opinions and from-the-heart outpourings, uplifting or not, can arrive from outer space.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Better-Than-Usual Walk Around My Hood

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

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

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

Stumps I, II And III

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

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

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

Suburban jungle

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

Tiger Lillies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

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

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

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

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

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

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

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

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

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

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

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

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

Chimayo, New Mexico

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

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

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

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

Plaza Blanca

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

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

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