How Glad Was I When The Kinks, The Byrds And Willie Nelson Visited Me Last Month? Very!

As everyone knows, billions of words are written each day about coronavirus, the f*cking demon that has done an excellent job of turning our world to shit. Among those words are repeated recommendations to be in touch with friends and relatives more often than usual. Most of those contacts, by necessity of course, must be via phone and internet rather than in person. We can thank the demon for that.

Good advice, right? Damn straight. After all, we have an innate need for human contact. And if ever there was a time for maintaining, strengthening and even expanding ties, this is it. Expanding? Sure. Now’s your golden opportunity, for instance, to pick up the phone and call that first cousin that you haven’t spoken to in eons because you’ve never particularly gotten along with him and because he absolutely pissed you off big-time by not inviting you to his son’s wedding 25 years ago.

“Guess who this is?” you should say before he has a chance to get a word out of his mouth. “It’s your favorite cuz, that’s who. The pandemic situation has convinced me that I should reach out to you, you loser. You better believe that I haven’t forgotten how you snubbed me all those years ago. Adios, baby. Nice talking to you!”

Okay, that attempt at communication possibly could have been handled more agreeably. But don’t sweat it! There are far more important things to worry about these days.

To continue: So far during the pandemic I’ve done nicely in the keeping-in-touch part of life, though expanding my ties has yet to become a part of the picture. I speak regularly with a good number of my friends and relatives, more regularly than I did in the pre-coronavirus era, and have enjoyed all of those conversations. But what I enjoyed even more were the occasions when old friends of the sonic variety unexpectedly visited me. For it was in late April, over a two-day period, that I heard on the radio three songs that I truly love but had forgotten all about.

Each recording brought a couple of tears to my eyes and made my grizzled heart go all soft and mushy. I sang along with them. I vowed never to let them disappear again, a pledge I plan to keep. No doubt, I’m a happier, more contented individual now that, after long absences, Sweet Lady Genevieve (by The Kinks), Have You Seen Her Face (by The Byrds), and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (by Willie Nelson) have reentered my life. And that, by the way, is the order in which I heard them last month.

The songs came out on albums in 1973, 1967 and 1975, respectively. The album titles, again respectively, are Preservation Act I, Younger Than Yesterday, and Red Headed Stranger. I own copies of those albums, for crying out loud. Don’t ask why I hadn’t given any of the platters a spin in a zillion years. Mea culpa.

Each song possesses a personality distinct from the other two, but they have something in common with 90% of all songs ever written. That is, in one way or another they address the prime human emotion. Love. Sweet Lady Genevieve, composed and sung by The Kinks leader, Ray Davies, is a plea for forgiveness and a promise to become faithful and true. Have You Seen Her Face presents a not overly clear-thinking guy who suspects he’d be wise to pursue a certain beguiling lady whom, perhaps, he is destined to bond with. As for Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, here we have the tale of someone who fully realizes that the love affair of his life has reached its end, and that he never will get over the breakup.

Yeah, to me each of the recordings is something special. Sweet Lady Genevieve’s melody, with its leaps and twists, is irresistible. And the lyrics? Well, the eloquence of the opening line — Once under a scarlet sky, I told you never-ending lies — makes it clear that you’re about to hear a cleverly-spun story. There are many, including me, who consider Ray Davies to be a songwriting giant.

Chris Hillman, who played electric bass in The Byrds, wrote both the music and lyrics for Have You Seen Her Face. Yes, the lyrics are messy, but little matter, considering how freely, almost giddily, the melody unfolds, and how the trippy guitar solos will lift you right out of your body.

And what about Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain? For one thing, Willie Nelson, an ace songwriter, didn’t compose the work. It was written in 1945 by the late Fred Rose, a musician, songwriter and music industry executive. The lyrics are direct and profound, the music likewise. Willie Nelson recognized all of this. His vocals, accompanied by spare instrumentation, will break your heart.

Little more do I need to add, except to mention that The Kinks and The Byrds, iconic rock bands, no longer are functioning units. Haven’t been for years. Many of their once-members, though, remain active musicians. As does Willie Nelson, a mere lad of 87.

And so, without further ado, here are the songs that resonated with me so well recently. Oh, just one more thing: I’d be happy to hear your comments about this article.

A Springtime Walk To Try And Take My Mind Off Of Things

I’ve been doing a little of this and a little of that of late, most of it nothing to write home about. You see, my routine has been thrown way off as a result of coronavirus. Yours probably has been too. Due to that health catastrophe, my volunteer jobs have been suspended and the places I like to hang out in — restaurants, movie theaters, music venues, to give some examples — have closed their doors, leaving me with shitloads more time on my hands than I’m used to. I’ve yet to use that time productively.

But my situation counts as absolutely nothing compared with the state of affairs worldwide. Tens of millions suddenly are without paychecks. Countless businesses and institutions very well might collapse. And people are succumbing in scary numbers to coronavirus. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap. I have a sinking feeling. And when I say sinking, I mean sinking.

What will become of us? To try and protect ourselves, and to try and contain the virus, we stay in our homes as much as possible, practice social distancing when we leave the house, wash our hands numerous times each day, and use antiseptic wipes on potentially-suspect objects and surfaces. But, looking at the big picture, will any of that make much difference ultimately if an effective vaccine and/or other effective medical treatment isn’t developed in the very foreseeable future? Or if coronavirus doesn’t peter out on its own? I’m normally a fairly optimistic guy, but my answer is no. After all, in the twinkling of an eye, life as we know it has been turned on end. And right now there’s no reason to think that things won’t disintegrate far more than they already have.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear at least a couple of you yelling, “you’re bumming us the f*ck out! That’s enough, partner. Knock it off!”

I hear you, believe me. I’ve been bumming myself the f*ck out too, and for quite a while, as you can tell. Which is why, when I went for a walk on March 21 to try and take my mind off the current state of affairs, I had a potentially uplifting purpose in mind. The night before, driving home after buying take-out food from a restaurant, I’d noticed that some flowering trees around the corner from my house had burst into color. Thus, my plan on the 21st was to check out the flora in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood and also in a neighborhood of a nearby, bordering township.

Now, walking is one part of what-had-been-my-routine that the coronavirus calamity hasn’t disrupted. Since early January, for personal health reasons, I’ve been hitting the pavement, in one locale or another, four or five times each week. Thirty minutes or more each session. That’s the most exercise I’ve gotten in years. And, knock on wood, so far I’ve enjoyed the regimen more than I’d have guessed I would.

Anyway, I embarked on the trek at about 1:30 PM. The skies gleamed, their blues a welcome sight for eyes in need of perking up. As I figured would be the case, green leaves hadn’t sprouted anywhere, though budding was in progress. Green’s domination over the browns of winter was another week or two away from taking place.

But, damn straight, some flowering trees were doing their thing, and that made a big difference. We’re talking magnolia and cherry trees, I think, and maybe a pear tree of one sort or another (I wouldn’t bet my life on those statements though, because I’m almost as dumb as dirt when it comes to identifying flora). Whatever, although the flowering tree performance normally doesn’t begin till early April or later, the milder-than-average temperatures that we’d had in the winter months pushed up the schedule. I let the trees’ pink, red and white petals grab me. The colors felt pretty good.

Other splashes of springtime colors were around. I spotted a few azaleas showing off their purple plumage. Forsythia bushes, which had opened in my region two weeks prior, looked damn fine in their mustard yellow. And the smattering of ground-level flowers on the properties brightened things up a bit too, especially the patch of small, yellow wildflowers in one yard.

What really struck me though, in this time of coronavirus precautions, was that I saw far more people than I’d expected to, which gave the afternoon a sense of normalcy. For instance: a father with his two young daughters, all on bikes; two middle-aged guys shooting hoops with a kid on a sidewalk basketball set-up; people sitting in their yards; four or five ambitious sorts hammering and sawing away, in their driveways or garages, at one project or another.

All told, at least 40 people crossed my field of vision during the hour I spent wandering around. I exchanged hellos with a bunch of them. None of them, or me, was doing anything that, virus-wise, might be problematic. That’s what medical people say, anyway. It’s okay to be outside, according to the experts, as long as you keep your distance from others.

And so, I recorded another entry in my Book Of Walks. The excursion was a good one. As spring progresses, the walks, I believe, will become even better. Lots more flowering trees and shrubs to gaze at. Lots more colors to absorb. Hats off to all of that.

(Comments are welcomed. Ditto for sharing this article.)

A Coronavirus And Philadelphia Flower Show Story

These are tough times. I’ll mention but three of many calamitous situations: War, raging in Syria and Yemen, has displaced millions of people from their homes and homelands. Ocean levels are on the rise as a result of melting Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves. And coronavirus, emerging like a demon from a dark, dark corner, is throwing mankind into a tailspin. The virus is the story, so far anyway, of 2020.

Most of us might be fortunate and not contract coronavirus. But how can we not pay attention to it and worry about it? We can’t. As I began to compose this essay on March 11, I relived the conversations I’d had with the ten relatives and friends that I’d spent time with in the six days before that date. Coronavirus was, and remains, heavy on their minds. And on mine too. How far will this renegade spread? Just how deadly might it become? Will an effective vaccine or other treatment be developed, and if so, when? Will coronavirus mutate into other strains that will raise the human condition’s havoc level to even higher heights?

Before March 11, the virus hadn’t infiltrated my region too much (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA), or so it was thought. How quickly things have changed since then, though. As of this article’s publication date (March 16), there are many confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania. And, as we all know, numerous national and local governments, worldwide, have increased restrictions on travel, and have ordered schools and certain businesses and other organizations to close until further notice (this is true for my region). Much of the same has occurred via voluntary restrictions and closures too.

As a result, over the last few days my wife Sandy and I have made big adjustments in regard to what we do and don’t do. So, it’s sobering to think that until recently pretty much everyone around here was living life fairly normally — the population was aware of the virus, but was only starting to act cautiously. Sandy and I certainly weren’t exercising a whole lot of caution when, on March 6, we boarded a train in our suburban town and rode it into the heart of central Philadelphia. A short walk away was the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a huge-as-hell structure that for nine days this month was home to the Philadelphia Flower Show. We bought tickets for the show at one of the Center’s box offices and entered the exhibition hall.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is an annual, world-famous event. It began modestly in 1829 as a project of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and has become, by far, PHS’s most noted endeavor. Millions of people have taken it in over the years. Now, I’ve lived in or near Philadelphia since the mid-1970s and have been aware of the Flower Show all of that time. But I didn’t give a shit about it, and never went. Until a few years ago, that is. “What the hell, let’s go to the Flower Show,” I said to Sandy in 2016, and we did. We liked it. We returned in 2018, took 2019 off, and decided two weeks ago not to extend that non-attendance streak to two consecutive years.

One of the reasons that I didn’t give a shit about the Flower Show is that I wasn’t keen on looking at exhibit after exhibit of flowers. If I had investigated what the show really is about, though, I’d have discovered that it features all sorts of flora, not just flowers, and often replicates natural and man-made landscapes and waterscapes too. Hell, I’m down with all of that, so I should have given the Flower Show a shot way before I eventually did. I don’t live and learn all that often, but in this case it happened.

Almost needless to say, I found the 2020 version of the show to be absolutely a-ok. As did Sandy. Each year the Flower Show is centered around a theme, and this year’s was Riviera Holiday. Meaning, displays inspired by Mediterranean life in Spain, France, Monaco and Italy took up much of the hall (horticultural-competition areas and booths selling this, that and the other thing grabbed the rest of the floor space).

The themed section, filled with movie-set-like constructions, was where I spent most of my time. The gardens, some formal, some not, were lovely. As was a villa, and a modest cottage beside which a motor scooter was stationed, and the whimsical, color-drenched representations of Italian fishermen’s houses.

I dug the recreation of the Princess Grace Rose Garden. The original garden is in Monaco, the itsy-bitsy nation where, in 1956, the actress Grace Kelly became a princess by marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier. A mannequin, clothed in a copy of Kelly’s wedding gown, stood in the garden. Grace, I’m sure, would have approved of the tribute.

Yes, the Flower Show had atmosphere. It brought me back to 1977, the only time I was on the Mediterranean coast. I spent six weeks in Europe in the spring of that year, travelling solo, before returning to a job in Philadelphia that I foolishly had quit two years before. One of those weeks was passed in southern France and in Monaco. A very good week it was. And the Flower Show gave me the urge to return, this time with Sandy. But the coronavirus situation will have to be under control before we step onto a plane. And who knows when that will be?

The crowds at the Flower Show on the day we attended were noticeably smaller than those we encountered in 2016 and 2018. One of our friends, a Flower Show aficionado, went twice this year. She told Sandy that attendance was less than usual on the days she visited too. Part of the shrinkage was due I’m sure to the hefty ticket price increases that PHS instituted in 2020. But the main factor, I’m also sure, was the threat of coronavirus posed by being in crowds.

That threat was understood on March 6 in my area, but nowhere near as well as it is understood today. That’s why the Philadelphia Flower Show was lucky, in a sense, that it was able to complete its run (last week, government mandates in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania banned large events such as the Flower Show.) On the other hand, it’s more than possible that some amount of virus transmission took place at the show. And that truly sucks.

Coronavirus ain’t playing. It already has killed thousands. And its course is unpredictable. Hang on tight as best you can, girls and boys.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. And if you’re in the mood for sharing this article, go for it! I thank you.)

(The photos, duh, are from the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open.)

My 100th Post: Donald Trump And Joyce Carol Oates Chime In

1001I was giddy with joy last week when I began designing the story that is now before your eyes. Why wouldn’t I have been? Incredibly to me, it is the 100th opus that I’ve published on this blog, though its finalized shape differs substantially from my original conception. Despite that, I am of the opinion that 100 stories is a true milestone for someone whose life has been light on milestones. Very light. The last time I did anything noteworthy was decades ago, in 1985, the year in which I set the Guinness World Record for the most Cheez-It crackers consumed in one sitting. The 8,271 Its that tumbled down my gullet on June 17 of that year remain a number yet to be topped. You can look it up.

One hundred stories. Wow, indeed, considering that when I started this blog 20 months ago I was uncertain as to its future. I began strongly, banging out articles every four or five days. And even though my pace soon slowed slightly, I held the old nose to the old grindstone and efficiently kept the stories rolling off the assembly line. So, I feel comfortable in saying that my blog isn’t going away anytime soon. Hey, I’ve discovered that I like to write. Who’d have thunk it? At last, something to hold on to!

Still, by nature less than wonderfully confident, I was in need last week of some reinforcement, some pats on the back that would keep my elevated mood elevated and provide uplifting quotes to incorporate into story #100. With that in mind, a few days ago I picked up the phone and made a series of calls to a variety of intermediaries, eventually directly reaching the persons I wanted to chat with. Persons whose votes of confidence I was hoping to win. Things didn’t end up the way I had envisioned, but WTF. I tried. And I did snare conversations with two individuals from my past whose thoughts, I’d venture to say, haven’t been included in the same story ever before. Namely, Donald Trump, “Donnie” to me, and the brilliant and incomprehensibly prolific novelist, essayist and memoirist Joyce Carol Oates.

Donnie Trump was the first of the two I was able to get on the line.

“Who’s this?” he said after I offered my greeting. “Hurry up, whoever you are. I’m busy. It’s not as easy as you’d think to unravel and unnerve a country.”

“Donnie, it’s Neil Scheinin. Remember me? We were not quite friends but were more than acquaintances during the one year we spent together at Mister Gruel’s High School For Future Winners. You were 15 and I was 14. We were on the debate team together. You were its star, natch. I was the fifth alternate. Remember?”

There was a pause. Then he spoke. “Neil, I have a vague memory of you. You’re the guy, I think, who couldn’t string two sentences together coherently. Am I right?”

“Yeah, Donnie. As always, you’re right. Here’s why I’m calling. You weren’t very nice to me all those years ago, mocking me, belittling my meager talents. That’s why I wanted to let you know that these many moons later I’ve gained success. I’ve become a blogger, a writer if you will, and I take the job seriously. I’m about to publish my 100th story soon, which to me is a momentous event, and I’d like the piece to include your comments about my achievement.”

“So you’re a writer, are you, Neil? I don’t like writers. They tend to be thinkers, and I don’t like thinkers either. What I like are doers, men who bulldoze their way through life. Men who bulldoze their way through nature, for that matter. Look at me. I’m a bulldozer, and everyone admires me. I’m so popular it’s ridiculous.”

All of a sudden I felt something weird starting to happen inside my mouth. My tongue, normally held well in place, was itching to flap wildly. I couldn’t control it. I’d come seeking a few words of support from the USA’s next leader, selfishly hoping to boost my blog’s readership as a result. But what I said next was guaranteed not to elicit kind responses.

I think he'd look better as a brunette. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
I think he’d look better as a brunette. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

“Donnie,” I said, “I guess you heard that Hillary is more popular than you, didn’t you? She won the popular vote, n’est pas? By a lot. You know, two months ago you were proclaiming that the election process was rigged in her favor. Seems like just the opposite was true. I mean, if it wasn’t for our demented Electoral College system you’d be spending your time right now deciding whether or not to change the color of your hair. Instead, you’re doing your best, like you have for months, to energize the haters who keep crawling out of the woodwork because of you.”

Donnie didn’t enjoy that. “Listen up, fifth alternate. You’re a loser. Did you hear me? I said loser. Me, I’m a winner.” He stopped talking. Someone was calling to him. “Stay right where you are, loser,” Donnie said a moment later. “I’ll be right back — ‘What’d you say, Rudy? That it’ll be a snap to obstruct poor peoples’ right to vote? And a snap to cancel environmental protection regulations? Keep it coming, Rudy. You’re the man!'”

Holy crap. The phone call wasn’t going well. It was bringing me down, not up. I decided to hang up on a future president. Which is what I did.

If kudos for my solid achievement weren’t to be found with Donnie, I was certain that they would be with Professor Oates, who for many years has taught at Princeton University, merely an hour’s drive from my suburban Philadelphia home. Three hours of trying to reach her via phone calls to university staff the other day finally paid off.

My phone rang. “Hello, this is Joyce Carol Oates. What may I do for you?”

“Professor, this is Neil Scheinin. Possibly you recall me from the marvelous class you taught six years ago, Faulkner, Bellow And Fitzgerald: As Novelists, Were They Really Any Good? I always sat in the first row in the seat nearest the exit, a bag of popcorn on my lap.”

“Ah yes, Mr. Scheinin. How could I forget? You are the gentleman who audited the course and managed never to add a perceptive or entertaining comment to the classroom discussions. What, sir, are you calling about?”

“Professor, as unexpected as this might be to you, believe it or not I have taken to writing like a duck to . . . well, maybe not to water, but to something. You see, last year I started blogging, and since then I’ve written up a storm. Right now I’m excited to be working on my 100th story. One hundred, Professor! A number that amazes me. Have you any comments about this?”

Joyce Carol Oates. (Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
Joyce Carol Oates. (Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

I almost could hear Professor Oates’ mind revving. It didn’t take long for her to respond. “Neil,” she said, “what you have done amounts to little. You say you’re about to complete your 100th story? And it took you months and months to do this? Why, I could write that many in a week. Possibly in four days if need be. But forget about stories . . . Do you have any idea how many books I’ve written, most of them long and detailed books? Over a hundred, Neil. Over a hundred. Call me back whenever your blog expands in size fiftyfold. Maybe then we’ll be able to have a satisfying and meaningful discussion.”

Well, here I am then with little more to say. I thought that this story might have had a chance to go viral had Donnie and Professor been more congenial interviewees. But such is life. Thanks for reading number 100. It’ll take some time for me to bounce back to my normal self, but I assure you that when that happens I’ll get to work on 101.

 

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