Short Books And Lots of TV: That’s Entertainment!

Well, good ol’ 2021, part of the ongoing COVID era, found me doing this, that and the other thing to fill up the 17.5 hours during which I’m more or less conscious each day. None of those hours were spent at a workplace outside my home, because COVID deep-sixed the volunteer jobs that I had engaged in happily for years. I’m still working, however, because I spend a fair amount of time writing pieces for the shaky, suspect publication titled Yeah, Another Blogger. Yo, you take your part-time jobs where you can find them!

Writing aside, I’m left with shitloads of hours on my hands each week. Many of them are spent on my living room sofa, where I’ve mastered the art of staring into space as I twist the six strands of hair remaining on the crown of my head into fascinating shapes. Then I untwist them and start all over again.

Fortunately, I engage in a variety of more fruitful activities too. If I didn’t, my wife Sandy would have had me committed long ago.

For instance, I read books. Not an extraordinary number — hell, I know of some fellow WordPress denizens who tear through three or more books per week — but enough to keep my mind percolating a bit.

I’m picky, though. Any book that I contemplate tackling must be short, as in no more than 260 pages. And fewer than 200 as often as possible. I began taking this approach because my attention span and stamina, when it came to book-reading, began to fall off the table in 2015. I found my way to the ends of a mere two books that year. 2016 proved to be even worse, as I recorded a big fat goose egg.

Ergo, to kickstart my dormant love of books I devised the short-book strategy in 2017. And it has worked. Last year, for instance, I polished off 17 books, fewer than in my glory days of book-reading, but a number I feel good about.

All are members of the fiction category, including two mysteries (Sleeping Murder; And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie that are as breezy and enjoyable as they can be. My list of conquests also includes Cathedral, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. Carver’s world is populated by people who have never figured out, or been encouraged to figure out, how to lead productive, happy lives. Matter-of-factly, but not depressingly, he lays out their plights in language that grabs hold of you from the opening paragraphs.

As it turns out, though, the first book I read in 2021 was the one I thought was the best: Flight, by Sherman Alexie (I expounded upon it here). It’s the tale, as vivid as daylight on a cloudless afternoon, of a 21st century Native American teen trying to come to terms with himself and with the country — the USA — that conquered and subjugated his peoples.

Yes, books entertained me mightily in the year that just entered our rearview mirrors.  The jollies that I got from them, though, paled in comparison to those provided by the magical medium known as television. Yeah, I spent quite a few hours in front of the home screen last year, continuing the practice I’d adopted at the start of the pandemic. Sandy used to watch the tube alone in the evening. But lack of outside-the-house entertainment options caused me to join her when coronavirus reared its f*cking head. We quickly developed into an adorable TV-viewing couple, settling in for an hour or two of laughs, gasps and whatever, five or six nights each week.

During 2021, Sandy and I watched around 20 movies on the tube and many more series than that. Almost every one was on commercial-free platforms and networks, mainly Netflix and HBO, both of which have become two of my closest friends. I’ve turned into a series addict, limited series particularly. Some of the limited ones that I especially liked last year are The Chestnut Man and Giri/Haji (tense crime dramas), Chernobyl (a dramatization of the nuclear disaster), and Maid (where relationships go very bad and where pure love is on display).

In closing, I give a hearty tip of the hat to Godless, a Western that, as is common to its genre, portrays a battle between decency and wickedness. This limited series is set in late-1800s Colorado. Jeff Daniels (Is there a better actor anywhere?) stars as Frank Griffin, an eerie bad guy who bosses around his band of associate baddies and takes his amputated left arm with him, like a good luck charm, everywhere he goes. (A bad wound necessitated the amputation.) In the end, does good triumph over evil? You’ll have to tune in to find out, because I ain’t one for dropping spoilers.

Thanks for reading, boys and girls. What activities/books/TV/music/etc. rang your bell in 2021? Feel free to comment.

Happy New Year!

Woman’s And Man’s Best Friend

Some may say that I never really had a pet, but that isn’t true. I mean, when I was a lad, many decades ago, I owned small turtles and fish. They’re pets, right? I liked them and took care of them. And maybe they liked me, though that of course is something I wasn’t able to determine. Still, despite my diligent efforts to make their lives healthy and comfortable, the wee f*ckers bit the dust left and right. It was disappointing to know that the turtles preferred riding the train bound for reptile heaven more than hanging out in a shoe box in my bedroom, but what can you do? In regard to the fish, all I can say is that their main talent was jumping out of their tank and landing on the floor when nobody was around. I guess you’ve heard that fish don’t do well when not in water.

As for significant pets — cats and dogs — well, I’ve never lived with one, not when growing up nor during the many years since I left my parents’ home. I believe that this places me in a tiny minority. And I doubt if I’ll ever join the majority. At this point I’m way too old, most likely, ever to take the plunge.

Here’s the thing, however: Though cats aren’t my favorite creatures, I dig dogs. Certain dogs anyway — those that are smart, playful and able to size up situations. When you look deep into the eyes of the ones that meet said description, you realize that their essence isn’t much more than a stone’s or a stick’s throw away from yours. Yeah, dogs without a doubt can be cool.

That fact was driven home to me last month when I read a book that I think would hit the sweet spots of anyone who owns or otherwise admires woman’s and man’s best friend. Its title is A Dog’s Life. Supposedly written by the late Peter Mayle, I adored it. (Mayle was a Brit who, when middle-aged, moved to a small town in France. There he penned A Year In Provence, a best-selling memoir released in 1989. It made him famous. You can read more about him by clicking here.)

A Dog’s Life, which entered the marketplace in 1995, was my first encounter with Mayle. To create this book, he placed a pen and pad before his treasured dog Boy, instructing Boy to tell it like it is and was. Somehow Boy was able to manipulate the writing implement, producing an autobiography that goes down as easily as a glass of iced tea on a sweltering summer day. Man, it ain’t right that Mayle took credit for Boy’s work!

Boy, whose high opinion of himself permeates A Dog’s Life, is a fount of slippery wisdom and of cutting remarks. Here is a paragraph, one of dozens I could cite, that displays his self-assurance and brain power. And, yes, his coolness.

If, like me, you have a logical turn of mind, a self-indulgent nature, and a frequently dormant conscience, there is a certain aspect of human behavior that can put an immense strain on the patience. It’s spoken of, always in sanctimonious tones, as moderation — not too much of this, not too much of that, diet and abstinence and restraint, colonic irrigation, cold baths before breakfast, and regular readings of morally uplifting tracts. You must have come across all this and worse if you have any friends from California. Personally, I’m a great believer in the philosophy of live and let live, as long as you keep your proclivities to yourself. Follow the road of denial if that’s what you want, and all I’ll say is more fool you and spare me the details.

Boy and I, had we known one another, would have become pals. Of that I’m certain. In any case, I thank him for writing one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years.

Girls and boys, it’s time for me to go. Somewhat fittingly, I shall leave you with two musical numbers of the canine variety. The first, a song called Dog, played on the radio, totally appropriately, on a day during which I was reading A Dog’s Life. Damn good, it was written and recorded a few years ago by Charlie Parr, a not-at-all-famous singer-songwriter and guitar picker. Another singer-songwriter and guitar picker, the mega-famous Neil Young, also composed an ode to a dog. Dating from 1992, his Old King is an excellent companion to Parr’s work. Here they are. Thanks for your attention. Goodbye till next time!

Beautiful Indeed

Well, I’ve been real tempted lately to pen an essay about the repressive, heads-up-their-asses people in my country who continue to believe in demagogic, riot-inciting Donald Trump and embrace his outrageous lies about the 2020 election having been stolen from him.

On the other hand, I haven’t been real tempted lately to have my blood pressure head into the stratosphere. So, I’ll stay calm by moving in my semi-natural direction. Towards the light, you dig. What follows, therefore, are a few words about beauty, a quality I found a couple of weeks ago in, among other things, a book, a song and some flowers. Away we go!

First up, the book: Local Girls is a collection of stories, by Alice Hoffman, about Gretel Samuelson and her small circle of relatives and friends. The stories are presented chronologically, and appeared in various publications before being gathered and published in one volume in 1999.

Not exactly a novel (some stories are narrated by Gretel, the others are in the third-person), but close enough, Local Girls follows Gretel from age 11 or 12 into her mid-20s. It’s set in suburban Long Island (which is near New York City), and is not the happiest of tales. Drug addiction and serious illness are among the book’s prime themes.

Nevertheless, drollness permeates the proceedings, partly by way of the sharp observations and bon mots of Gretel, her best friend Jill, Gretel’s mother Franny, and Gretel’s adult cousin Margot. Overall, Local Girls struck me as hard-as-nails realistic, despite the inclusion, unnecessary in my opinion, of some mystical occurrences. (Hoffman, I gather, is known for doing this in her works.) The book took me by the arm and then spoke intimately to me. It is damn well alive.

What got to me more than anything about Local Girls is the absolute beauty of much of its language. Time after time Hoffman took my breath away. Before ending this short discussion of Local Girls, I’ll leave you with three examples of Hoffman’s way with words.

It was a bad summer, and we all knew it. We liked to phrase it that way, as if what was happening was an aberrationa single season of pain and doubtinstead of all-out informing people that our lives were falling apart, plain and simple as pie.

She had been thinking about sorrow for so long she was amazed to hear the sound of love. What a foreign language it was. How odd to an ear unused to such things.

The streetlamps cast a heavy glow, the light of a dream you’re not quite finished waking from.

Yes, Hoffman has more than got the touch.

Now for the song: I’ve seen Brandi Carlile on a couple of TV shows and heard her music pretty often on the radio. I think she’s good but certainly not great. However, her recording Save A Part Of Yourself, is another matter. To me, it’s fab. The song, which Carlile co-wrote and sings lead on, was released in 2012.

Save Part Of Yourself concerns a love relationship that, though ended, has not been forgotten by one of its two parties. She hopes that her ex will not throw away memories of her. Such a lovely composition, so tender and imbued with longing. Yet, it also sparkles. That mandolin riff that enters five seconds into the tune, those handclaps, the joyful whoo-hoo-hoos. I for one cannot resist them.

Save Part Of Yourself’s main message, I think, is that remembrance can help us heal and make us better individuals. Who would argue with that? Here it is, following which we’ll turn our attention to flowers.

The day in which I am described as a knowledgeable identifier of flora isn’t about to arrive any time soon. Yeah, on a good day I’m able to look at a tulip and say, “Yup, that’s a tulip.” Ditto for a pine tree and a maple tree. But my scope doesn’t extend all too far beyond that. Still, that doesn’t stop me from going out to admire nature’s wonders. Hell, I’d be heartbroken if I couldn’t.

And I’m glad when my botanical expertise expands. Such as when I learned last month that a flowering plant I was gazing at during a visit to New Hope, Pennsylvania, a funky, former artists colony to which visitors often throng, was an example of a hydrangea bush. The plant impressed me. Thus, while walking and driving around my town a few days later I kept my eyes open for hydrangeas. And I found some, photographing two of them. Hydrangeas, I believe, were at the height of their flowering powers in my region (greater Philadelphia) at the time that I took these portraits. The flowers are sincerely beautiful.

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

A Book, A Sunset and A Pair Of Slippers: Good Things From January

Actually, the title to this essay is incomplete, because the best thing of all from January was the departure from the presidency of lying-through-his-teeth, seditious Donald Trump. Faithful readers of this publication are aware that I despise Trump. He’s a poisoner of minds. I’m far, far from alone in being able to breathe normally now that he’s not in the White House.

But that’s enough about Trump. Let’s move on to a book I read in January that I think is awfully close to being great. It’s a slim volume too, a proper length for a reader whose attention span these days often is measured in nanoseconds. Namely, me. Flight is the novel’s name and Sherman Alexie is its creator. It follows the doings of a teen who calls himself Zits, a painful nod to the pimples that cover his face unmercifully. Zits has been dealt a pitiful hand. His American Indian father abandoned the family when he was born. And his mother, a white woman, died when Zits, an only child, was six. His life since then has been a revolving door of foster homes and youth facilities. Opening in the early 2000s in Seattle, Washington, and narrated by Zits, Flight drew me in from the get-go.

Zits is smart and funny, but exceedingly anti-social too. Basically, he’s lost. Love doesn’t factor into his life. He has no friends. A career path isn’t in sight. And he feels the pull of, but is disconnected from, his indigenous roots. He knows all of this, and possibly is open to his plight taking upward directions. However, how might such ever occur?

One day, strange business begins happening to Zits. From out of the blue he becomes a time traveler, tossed by forces unknown and unseen into the bodies of others whose circumstances make Zits examine his American Indian heritage and the ways in which American Indians have interacted with, and been treated by, the USA’s white population. On one of his journeys into the past, for instance, Zits uneasily faces complicated moral issues at the Battle Of The Little Big Horn, a gruesome confrontation, in 1876, between Native Americans and the U.S. military.

Loneliness and anger have defined Zits for many of his days. But his surreal experiences, affecting him deeply, widen his perspectives and loosen his emotions. Those experiences affected me deeply too. As did the book’s entirety. Flight felt authentic to me, including the time-travelling episodes. The dialog sparkles throughout Flight, and Zits’ thoughts and observations are sharp and alive, not wobbling for even a moment. Alexie can write. Alexie, by the way, grew up on an Indian reservation in the state of Washington. He left the reservation years ago, and has become a well-known author. The position of  American Indians in society is an ongoing theme in his works.

Is there a way to segue gracefully from Sherman Alexie to a sunset? Shit, I ain’t even going to try. Sunsets . . . man, I hardly can believe how often I’ve written about them on these pages. And I think it will be a while before I’m sunset-ed out.

My previous opus contains a few words about a magnificent sunset that I caught in December 2020. I viewed it while walking around my neighborhood. During that walk I realized that the finest spot to gaze at the setting Sun in my hood is from a corner half a block from my house. That corner provides as open a view of the western horizon as you can get in my town (I live near Philadelphia). It had taken me a mere 15 and three-quarters years of home ownership to make that discovery!

Anyway, since the eureka moment arrived I’ve moseyed to that corner a number of times to watch the Sun do its thing. And on the second of January I hit the jackpot. Most sunsets in my locale are good but not great. But as the skies darkened on the date in question, what had been a pleasant sunset transformed miraculously. Fiery oranges exploded beneath blues and greys that were not to be played with. Pale yellow shards seethed. I knew without a doubt that I was in the right place at the right time.

From sunsets to slippers? Sure, why not? For the past five or so years I was the owner of a navy blue pair of slippers that did their job just fine. Until 2019, that is, when they decided that they enjoyed sliding off my feet when I strode up and down stairs. I began to dislike them at that point, and got really sick of the f*ckers when the sole of the right-foot slipper opted to decompose, in no time developing a hole big enough to stick a corn cob through. But, lazy as I am, I hung on to the siblings rather than purchase replacements.

Finally, though, enough became enough. Last month I scouted out slippers on the internet, and bought a pair that appeared to meet my modest requirements. When they arrived at my front door I deposited the crappy ones in the trash. I adore my new slippers so far. They are comfortable, fit nice and snugly, and look damn good too. Yeah, I’m in slippers heaven. Out with the old and in with the new! Hey, that’s not always a top-notch idea, but this time it was.

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

We Deserve To Be Rocked!

The late Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, which came out in 1987 and which I read a few weeks ago, isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever pulled off a shelf. I mean, the plot is not particularly compelling. And whatever points Vonnegut was trying to make don’t congeal. But sometimes I’m a forgiving soul! And this was one of those times. Meaning, I enjoyed Bluebeard (though there’s no arguing that The Sirens Of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, among others, are better Vonnegut creations). It’s a breezy read. Its witticisms and absurdist underpinnings kept me flipping the pages. And eventually the book found its way into my heart when it helped to spur the production of this essay. See? It can pay to read a mediocre book!

Bluebeard is the supposed autobiography of septuagenarian Rabo Karabekian, a once-acclaimed but now-forgotten abstract painter who, through no real efforts of his own, has become ridiculously wealthy. But his riches mean little to Rabo. Hell, just about everything means little to him. He isn’t a basket case, but he passes through his “golden years” with emotions that rarely jump above a flatline pattern. Rabo would do well to allow joy to enter his life a whole lot more often.

I’ve incorporated Bluebeard into this opus as a result of my attention having been turned to one of the first pieces I wrote for this website. That occurred when I noticed, on my WordPress statistics page, that somebody in our big, old world recently had taken a look at said story, upon which I had bestowed an incredibly ungainly title:  Are We Just Boring As We Get Older? Jackson Browne, And I, Say It Ain’t Necessarily So (click here if you’d like to read it).

Well, last week I read that Browne essay to relearn what it’s all about. Shit, like I should have been able to recall something I penned almost five years ago? I’m lucky when I remember which drawer I keep my underpants in. Turns out that the piece is about the power of music to improve your life. Browne, a primo singer-songwriter who has been going strong in the music biz for over 50 years, has clear thoughts on the subject. Here are his words from my story. They are what he had to say, back in 2014, to interviewer David Dye when asked if people become boring in later life: “As you age, you look for ways in which to sustain yourself . . . Music is restorative, the act of doing it, the act of listening to it. Man, it’s good for you. It can really make the difference in how the rest of your life goes, and especially how you feel physically.”

Right on, Jackson! I couldn’t agree more. Music can calm you down. It can take your mind off your troubles and woes. And, way better from my perspective, music might lead you to inner regions that are so pure and enchanting, you can’t believe your good fortune in being there. Jackson’s quote put me in mind of Rabo Karabekian. Music seems to be absent from Rabo’s life, and he’s all the poorer for it.

Rabo aside, I’d guess that music plays anywhere from a reasonably big to a real big part in most peoples’ lives. Speaking personally, which I sure do a hell of a lot of in this publication, I’d be one sorry f*cker were music to be taken away from me. Listening to music sometimes makes my day. At the least, it helps to get me through each day. Unlike in my youth and middle age, I don’t need to hear tons and tons of music (like Rabo and Jackson, I’m into my 70s), but not a day goes by without a healthy dose, at minimum, of tunes greeting my ears.

And most genres of music suit me just fine. Jazz, blues, reggae, soul, classical, you name it. But more than anything, I like to be rocked. Rocked, that is, by loud, pulsating rock music, the varieties of same that prominently employ electric guitars. This doesn’t happen too much in my house, where my wife Sandy prefers music to be on the more sedate side of the spectrum. But I’ve made it a point over the past 12 months to attend concerts that rock me to the bones. I hadn’t done enough of that in the previous 10 or so years. Paradoxically, Sandy often accompanies me to these shows.

Rocked I was, and mightily, on January 11 when my much-better half and I went to a four-hour, five-band rock concert at City Winery, in Philadelphia. The bands took no prisoners. Nothing resembling a ballad was played that night. I liked each act, but one was head and shoulders above the rest. Namely, Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe is from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, has been rocking and rolling forever, and is pals with Bruce Springsteen). During long passages on each of their songs, the singing stopped and the group’s three-guitar attack took to the skies. Closing my eyes, I let the dense, rushing waves of sound bring me as close to “heaven” as I’ll ever get.

Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe has the red guitar. Some band members wouldn’t fit in the photo.)

Yes, music, whether you’re a listener or performer, can be a nourishing force that opens hidden doors. And it’s not the only one, of course, though I have to think that it reigns supreme. For some people, painting or sculpting might take them to magical places. Or skiing. Or playing basketball. Who knows how long the list is. I believe that, consciously or not, we all crave more than the everyday, no matter what our age. And that, at least now and then, we want to soar. Man, we deserve to be rocked, in a good way of course, musically or otherwise. Damn straight about that. Our time on Planet Earth is limited, after all.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. And if you’re thinking about sharing this story on social media, go for it! I thank you.)

I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!

Gutsy People: Thoughts About A Movie, A Book, And The Wider World

When I comment about movies on these pages, I try to be a good guy by not revealing all, especially endings. I mean, for anyone with an itch to see a certain flick, that itch might damn near disappear if they become privy to too much telling information.

But a spoiler alert ain’t needed for Free Solo, a documentary profiling the great rock climber Alex Honnold that was released in September and is still in some theaters. That’s because the beans already have been spilled in every review and article that has been written about this movie. In other words, hell yeah, he made it to the top! To the top of El Capitan, that is, the monster, vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he reached the top, about 3,000 feet above ground, by climbing El Cap without ropes, a harness or safety equipment of any sort. And without a climbing partner or partners. That’s what free solo means. The only item, other than clothing, that Honnold wore while becoming the first (and, so far, only) person to accomplish this superhuman feat on El Cap was a small bag on his back that contained chalk, a substance he’d periodically coat his hands with, the better to grip the rock. (Others had scaled El Cap over the years, but always with ropes and additional equipment.)

What any rock climber does seems pretty well off the charts to me. Shit, I would make it about two feet off the ground on El Capitan’s face, maybe three. Which isn’t bad actually. Only 2,998 or 2,997 feet to go. But what Honnold did on June 3, 2017 was so far off the charts as to be laughable, in a magnificent way, and nearly inconceivable. The film crew that captured his exploits agree. Skilled rock climbers themselves, they are shown in the documentary, nervous as can be and totally awed by what was taking place in front of their eyes.

For anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense, this is a movie not to be missed. If possible, watch it in a theater rather than at home. Whatever the venue, the bigger the screen the better. My wife, brother and I went to see Free Solo in early November. We sat in the sixth or seventh row of a cinema, nice and close to the action. We were captivated. You will be too.

By the way, when I mentioned for anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense a few sentences ago, I meant to include and an appreciation of guts. As modest and unflappable as Alex appears in Free Solo’s interview segments, there’s no denying that he is in possession of an oceanic amount of guts, and I for one find his courage to be very inspiring, And although not too many people are going to try and scale giant rocks, it’s of course true that in less dramatic ways many or most of us display courage throughout parts or all of our lives. And that’s inspiring too. Hell, for much of humanity, simply getting out of bed and facing the day is a brave act, considering the nasty, even horrific, realities facing them.

I read the late novelist Kent Haruf’s final book, Our Souls At Night (it was published in 2015, the year after Haruf died), a few days after watching Alex climb. There are a variety of ways in which to look at Our Souls At Night, as there are with Free Solo. It’s about love and the lack thereof. It’s about emotional pains that do not fully heal. And it’s also about the guts shown by a man and a woman, each around 70 years old, who throw aside their normal inhibitions and begin a relationship with one another.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed, are longtime neighbors who are acquainted only slightly. They live in Holt, Colorado, the fictional town that is the setting for all six of Haruf’s novels. But, as becomes apparent, Addie has had Louis on her mind for some time. One day she pays Louis a visit. Here’s some of what Haruf writes on Our Souls At Night’s second and third pages:

You probably wonder what I’m doing here, she said.
Well, I didn’t think you came over to tell me my house looks nice.
No, I want to suggest something to you.
Oh?
Yes. A kind of proposal.
Okay.
Not marriage, she said.
I didn’t think that either.
But it’s kind of a marriage-like question. But I don’t know if I can now. I’m getting cold feet. She laughed a little. That’s sort of like marriage, isn’t it.
What is?
Cold feet.
It can be.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Wow! Addie has guts. An abundance of it. Don’t know how many folks in her age bracket would do what she does. Couldn’t be a lot. In any event, Louis accepts Addie’s offer. They begin their affair — a platonic one at the start — cautiously. And, finding that they are getting along just fine, take it to higher levels. They become a strong and true couple, telling each other their life stories, opening up more than they did to their deceased spouses.

Addie and Louis do not go unnoticed in Holt. Snide and angry comments and actions come their way from the small-minded, which includes Addie’s adult son Gene. How do Addie and Louis end up? Hey, unlike with Free Solo, I’m not revealing the conclusion, a conclusion that I found to be wanting in relation to what had preceeded it. Still, I give Our Souls At Night a thumbs-up. Haruf, as is clear from his words above, writes beautifully. His style is direct and unflowery, and the book’s characters feel real.

Alex Honnold doesn’t boast about courage in Free Solo. Neither do Addie Moore or Louis Waters in Our Souls At Night. In fact, the three barely talk about it. But they each own courage and use it for their personal betterment, and in manners that bring no harm to others or to the natural world.

(As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks.)

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.)

Books That Are Short And Good

Fourteen months ago I wrote a piece (click here) about my successful attempt to re-enter the world of book-reading after a two-year hiatus from same. I’d taken baby steps, no doubt about it, but the two books I’d read at that point during 2017 (Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means Of Escape) had me bursting with pride at my accomplishment. I was back in the saddle!

One major reason for my choosing to read those two works was that they were très compact. As were nearly all of the five subsequent volumes that passed before my eyes in 2017. I don’t know, my attention span has shrunk like an icy dick in somewhat recent years. So, any book I’m apt to tackle is going to be on the easily consumed side in terms of page count and likely blessed with nice, big print. The days of possibly giving Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov a shot are gone, baby, gone. And I can live with that! Happily.

Well, I’m here to report that consistency continues to reign in my book selection process. So far this year I’ve etched three notches on my literary belt, and the books for which the notches were created average around 200 pages in length. Short, in other words.

Good books they are, too. And although dubbed novels, two of them come awfully damn close to being memoirs pure and simple. As for the third, also a novel, it’s a memoir at its core despite its many flights of fancy.

The first one that I took on, Big Sur (by Jack Kerouac), is a mass of jagged and breathless energy. It recounts Kerouac’s efforts, three years after 1957’s publication of On The Road made him famous, to get away from the fans and from the media attention that he felt were dragging him down. To a cabin in California’s idyllic Big Sur he retreated, soon to discover that he couldn’t escape his alcoholic and highly unsettled self. In Big Sur’s pages, Kerouac tears into himself pitilessly. The public might have thought of him as a cool guy, a free-flying bird. But in reality, uh-uh. The so-called and supposed King Of The Beatniks, Kerouac wasn’t destined for many more years on our orb. He passed in 1969 at age 47.

Next up was Portrait Of The Artist, As An Old Man. Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, completed it shortly before his demise, at age 76, in 1999. Catch-22, which entered the world in 1960, was Heller’s first and most popular book. I’d say that Portrait, of whose existence I was unaware until noticing it sitting all lonesome on a library shelf in March, deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This is the book that I mentioned above wherein flights of fancy flourish.

I tell you, this book made me squirm, not because it’s creepy or weird in any way. No, this is Heller’s account of a novelist (himself with a fictitious name) whose muse has bolted south. But needing to write (“He had nothing better to do with his leisure than to try writing another novel . . . ” Heller notes in one of many permutations on the notion throughout the book), our hero keeps coming up with one lame or unworkable story idea after another. Man, I can relate! Funny, human, almost adorable, Portrait is a satiric picture of a man determined not to give up, for lack of anything better to do, come what may.

I’ve known of Charles Bukowski for eons, but never read a word of the zillions he put to paper until I decided to give Post Office a spin. It’s Bukowski’s telling of his career during the 1950s and 60s as a mail carrier and letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, and of his life during the hours when he wasn’t on the job. Crazy anecdotes and bushels of nastily humorous lines fly from Bukowski’s pen. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Bukowski wasn’t cut out to work within a bureaucracy. A model employee he never was nor ever wanted to be. A hard-liver, a heavy drinker, a denizen of society’s underside, a street poet and a true character, it’s amazing that he hung onto his job for as long as he did.

Bukowski was and remains a cult literary figure, primarily known for his poems. I get the feeling, though, that quite a few millions of folks are into his work. That’s a big cult. I might relax with another of his “fictional” novels one of these days, because rapid-paced Post Office pleased me. Apparently totally at ease with his drinking, race-track frequenting and disheveled lifestyle, Bukowski comes across as a guy I’d probably have enjoyed talking to, but maybe for not too long. His energy would have swallowed me whole. Despite holding the antithesis of a holistic orientation, Bukowski hung around for a decent amount of time, his tenure ending at age 73 in 1994.

Okay, that’s enough about those three guys. It’s time to get back to what this publication mainly is all about. Me. Hell, if I don’t write about myself, who the f*ck will?

But, appropriately, I’ll keep it short. Getting back to my short attention span, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly when and how it developed. Maybe it settled upon me as a result of societal osmosis, since cultural analysts and pundits have been saying for 20 or so years that most peoples’ attention spans are skimpy. Whatever the reasons may be for the state of mine, I’m not sure if I can or want to elongate it, to bring it back to where it once was during the decades I spent in the academic and paid-employment worlds.

But hey, maybe I just stumbled upon the key. It could be that when I hung up my career spikes in 2009, when additional hours each day became mine to deal with as I chose, my ability to stay focused began to slip. Now I kind of flit from one thing to another. Not that I mind flitting, to tell you the truth. I’ve gotten used to it and maybe even like it. In fact, in a day or two I’m going to flit over to a local library and scour its racks for a shorty. It’s time to etch another notch on my literary belt.

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One More Look At 2017 Before It’s Gone

It’s now 7:20 on a Wednesday morning as I sit my ass down to type this little opus. It will be my final post for the year during which Donnie Trump first sat his ass down behind the desk in the Oval Office. His ass, unlike mine, is fat. And he, unlike me, is nasty, intolerant and a pathological liar. Just sayin’.

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy, who is staring over my shoulders at the computer screen as I peck away, said two seconds ago, “I thought you weren’t going to talk about Trump in this essay.”

Well, she’s right. He’s depressing. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to other topics, such as Yemen and Myanmar (the former Burma). Wait — am I nuts? The horrors going on in those regions are immense. Talk about depressing. I tell you, I’ll never understand what the story is with the human race. Actually, I do understand. Bottom line is that scads of people just don’t like scads of their fellow women and men. Never have. Never will.

“What are you doing, Neil?” Sandy just asked. “You told me 15 minutes ago that you were going to keep this story light. You know, like all the other disposable, puffy pieces that you’re known for churning out. Get back on track, boy! You’re out of your realm right now.”

Thank goodness I’m married. Okay, Sandy, let me see what I can do. Enough about Trump and hatred. Hmmm, an end-of-year story should offer some words of wisdom, shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t hurt. And though I’ve always been more than a bit low in the wisdom department, I did have a good thought or two in a recent article. Here’s what I said: “ . . . if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told.” Imagine that — me quoting me! There’s a first time for everything. Or so I’m told.

Moving right along, folks, I might do well to mention a whole lot of things that satisfactorily filled my well during 2017, excluding those I’ve previously oohed and aahed about on these pages. But to avoid being at my keyboard for the next three days I’m going to forget about a whole lot of things and limit myself to only two. Which two shall it be? Ah, yes . . .

Number one: If you want to dive into a better than average novel, may I suggest you glue your eyes to Perfume River, which came out in 2016. Robert Olen Butler, an acclaimed author whom I basically knew nothing about before almost randomly pulling Perfume River off a local library’s shelf a few weeks ago, penned the graceful volume. The book’s narrative floats easily between the near-present and the Vietnam War eras. That war impacted the lives of the Quinlan family in mega-blast ways. The book examines their plights, the decisions that brought them to where they are, and the secrets they hold from one another and, in truth, from themselves. What insights into their own makeups and into those of others are people able to gain as the years elapse? Perfume River is where to look to find a number of delicately-threaded answers to that question.

Mbongwana Star at Abington Art Center

Number two: Do you enjoy exuberant, scarily good music? Then go to see Mbongwana Star, the band from the Democratic Republic Of The Congo that melds African melodies and rhythms with blazing rock and roll. Your chances of ever catching them, though, aren’t large. The band does tour, but not all that much. That I was in their presence over the summer is, to me, rather miraculous. And their performance was, by a reeeeally wide margin, the best I took in during this expiring year.

I’d never have been at their concert were it not for Later . . . With Jools Holland, probably the best music show on television. In the early months of 2017 I caught a repeat episode (from 2015) of Later, which is taped in Great Britain, and was floored by one of the bands appearing on it. Mbongwana Star, needless to say. Their name stayed with me as the months passed. And that is why I nearly fell off my living room sofa when, in June, I saw on Abington Art Center’s website that Star was scheduled to perform on the center’s lush, rolling lawn the following month. How was this possible? How had the center even known about this band? Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. I was exalting. Abington Art Center, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is only three miles from my house.

This show was to be among Star’s final on foreign shores for 2017. Sandy and I arrived early, grabbed a good spot on the lawn for our folding chairs, and waited for the group to come on.

Well, unstoppable, roaring power blasted from the stage from the opening notes. No ballads for Mbongwana Star. Rarely do I rise from my chair at concerts to boogie, but boogie I did, heading down to within 15 feet of the stage and kicking out the jams in my inimitably nerdy, old-guy manner. It was fun of the highest order. Here’s a video of the band playing in Europe in 2015:

Besides Star’s incredible musicianship, the astounding thing to me was that two of the performers, both of whom are vocalists, are in wheelchairs, victims of childhood polio. And yet these gentlemen, dealing with profound problems, are able to celebrate magnificently through their music. Some remarkable people are on our planet, and Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambali are among them.

Like I said, I’m limiting myself to only two items. And (sometimes) I’m a man of my word. Thankfully, this article has manifested itself fairly fluidly, rather than in the fits and starts that are common for most of the pieces that I write. I take that as a good sign. And so, I now shall conclude the proceedings by wishing one and all a safe, happy and healthy 2018. A relative smattering of hours after I hit the Publish button for this story, Sandy and I possibly will be at Penn’s Landing, part of Philadelphia’s waterfront. If we’re there, we’ll gape at the fireworks being launched in the middle of the Delaware River. We’ve ushered in many previous New Years precisely like that. Let there be light.

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