A Movie, Dinner, And A Walk On Darkened Streets

There we were last month (we being my wife Sandy and myself) in Ambler, Pennsylvania for a late-afternoon movie followed by an early-evening dinner. Ambler, a cute town in the Philadelphia burbs, suits us just fine. We’ve dropped in dozens and dozens of times over the years because its Ambler Theater, an art house cinema, books plenty of films that we want to see, and eateries galore are strung along its blocks. Yeah, Ambler is right up our artsy and gastronomical alleys.

A scene from The Alpinist

Well, the movie, a documentary about Marc-André LeClerc, a publicity-shy mountaineer, is damn good. It’s called The Alpinist (alpinists attack mountains with gusto, rather than using the more traditional methodical approach). Dinner, indoors at Gypsy Blu, a venue with enough variety on its menu to please the curmudgeons among us, hit the spot too. I had a beer and an eggplant parm sandwich, Sandy a glass of wine and a turkey burger. I bow down to the junk-food gods for the addictive house-made chips that came with each plate.

Butler Avenue, which is Ambler’s main drag

What awaited us after dinner was a walk around town in the dark, something I’d suggested doing before we’d departed for Ambler. When we exited Gypsy Blu, though, Sandy almost at once recognized that she wasn’t dressed warmly enough for the evening’s chilly, and falling, temperatures. So, she headed back to our car and waited there. I wasn’t exactly bundled up either. However, being a man’s man, in my dreams if nowhere else, I forged ahead.

Butler Avenue
A view from a side street

Now, it’s not as though I never go for walks at night. I ring up 20 or thereabouts nocturnal strolls each year, I suppose. That Friday night in Ambler, however, seemed on the special side to me. The town’s main drag, Butler Avenue, on which most of the restaurants and bistros are found, took on the aura of a movie set, the darkness atmospherically softened here and there by restaurant and store lighting, street lamps and headlights. The movie set extended into the couple of side streets that I visited, where the wattage was even lower than on Butler. Gliding upon Ambler’s sidewalks, I felt as if I were the star of the scenes, an unobtrusive observer of the evening’s goings-on.

Butler Avenue
Butler Avenue

Unlike the side streets, Butler Ave. was buzzing. A whole lot of people were seated at the tables that, as a result of the pandemic, the town’s authorities had allowed restaurants to set up on sidewalks and in alleys. And most of the establishments were doing good business at their indoor tables too. The outdoor-diners’ energy was palpable, impossible not to absorb. My strides increased as I drank it in. Man, after a while I almost was floating. For sure, starring in a movie agreed with me. Watch out Hollywood! This wrinkled, age-spotted f*cker has his mind set on conquering you.

Getting back to a movie that actually is in distribution, I’ll say a bit more about The Alpinist, but only a bit, as having too much advance information about this flick isn’t a good idea, in my opinion, for anyone thinking of watching it. Here’s my main thought about The Alpinist: successfully scaling the unimaginably daunting structures that Leclerc is photographed tackling, especially the snow-and-ice-wrapped bad boys, is completely beyond belief!

Yet, of course, Leclerc was born to pull off one superhuman feat after another. Is there anything to be learned from his exploits? One truth, I think, is that, throughout history, nerves that are stronger than steel, and focus and talents that are totally off the charts, have been distributed to only a relative few.

The Alpinist possibly is in a theater near you. And, undoubtedly, it will make its way to a TV network or streaming service one day fairly soon. This movie blew my mind. It likely would blow yours too.

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

A Pretty Scene, A Pawpaw, A Song

Man, for a number of days the thoughts and themes that I’d been considering for this essay were as uncongealed as undercooked oatmeal. Eventually and fortunately, though, things began to come together when the word comforting eased its way into my mind. This occurred while I was looking over the photos that I’d taken while exploring Glenside, a town in the Philadelphia suburbs, a couple of weeks ago. To my great surprise, one of them reached out to me far more than any of the others did. It made me say aah. It made whatever stress I was feeling at that moment go bye-bye. The bottom line is that I found the scene in the photo to be very comforting.

What is it about the image that pleases me so? For one thing its colors are happy to be with one another. They get along splendidly. And the quiet reflection from across the street, in the door glass, adds to the sense of comraderie. I hadn’t even noticed the reflection when I walked up to the door to snap a picture of the Est. 2003 sign inches above it, for it was signs of one sort or another that I was seeking out and photographing that day in Glenside.

All in all, the photo strikes me as a representation of peace, warmth and tolerance. And if there’s anything in our little ol’ world that I’m totally down with, it’s those three commodities. I suppose that I’m reading a whole lot more into this picture than I might, but so be it. I’ll take my comforting moments when and where I can.

Moving right along: three years ago I wrote about my fruitless search for a pawpaw (click here if you’d like to read it). Thrice in that article I posed a question that maybe is on the tip of your tongue right now. Namely, “so, what the f*ck is a pawpaw?”

Well, it’s the fruit of pawpaw trees, which grow in various parts of the USA. There was a time when pawpaws were eaten fairly commonly. But those days are in the distant past. Though the pawpaw does retain pockets of popularity, there ain’t exactly shitloads of trees producing them in the States.

One thing about the pawpaw is that it is tropical in appearance, papaya-ish, not at all what you’d expect from an indigenous North American tree. I can confirm this because, astonishingly, my long, long search for a pawpaw ended successfully earlier this month. I have my friend Dave to thank for that, as he clued me in to the fact that a food co-op in my area had pawpaws in stock.

To the co-op I soon made my way, arriving back home an hour later with a large pawpaw so soft that a moderate squeeze would have punctured it. I purchased this specimen when a produce department worker at the co-op assured me that it was at the peak of ripeness, rather than overripe.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

I damn well wasn’t disappointed when, shortly thereafter, the pawpaw’s innards entered my mouth. The fruit possessed a variety of flavors, all subtle in intensity, reminding me of banana, honeydew and cantaloupe. But what I was taken with more than anything was its texture. The pawpaw’s flesh was firm yet creamy, pretty close in consistency, and in appearance for that matter, to the vanilla pudding that my mother made for my family frequently when I was growing up. I always loved her vanilla pudding. Because of that connection, the pawpaw worked its way into my heart. Eating the pawpaw was a comforting experience for me. Very comforting.

Moving right along again: I heard a wonderful song by The Wallflowers recently. The tune, Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More, comes from their album Exit Wounds, which was released a few months ago. Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son), is The Wallflowers’ lead singer and leader, and composed every song on the album.

The lyrics of Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More ruminate about the loss of mojo and direction, a circumstance that many people grapple with at one time or another. But it’s not so much the words that get to me. Rather, it’s the recording’s feel. I mean, this song hit my sweetest of spots the moment I heard it. I fell for the guitar lines intermingling like the best of friends; the steady, strong drumming; the hypnotic melody; Jakob’s straightforward vocals that mean what they say.

Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More comforts me, takes me in its arms and sweeps me away. What more could I ask for?

An Ode To Orange

I shall begin the proceedings by stating that this story would not have come into existence were my wife Sandy and I not subscribers to The New Yorker magazine. Thus, if you read this opus and decide that it sucks, then sue The New Yorker, not me. As always, I’m blameless!

Back cover of The New Yorker magazine

For it was about six weeks ago that I noticed the colorful back cover of the aforementioned magazine’s March 1 issue. That cover was an ad for Sumo Citrus, a variety of fruit that I’d never heard of before. Grown in California, it’s a large version of a mandarin orange, and boasts what pretty much looks like a top knot on its head. Sumo wrestlers sport top knots. Hence, the fruit’s name.

Anyway, not many days later Sandy and I were filling up our shopping cart at a Whole Foods supermarket when a table piled sky high with bright orange produce caught my eye. Holy shit, it was a Sumo Citrus mountain! Were we enticed? Yo, is the pope Catholic? So, overpriced though the fellas were, we purchased one. And ate it the next day. Yeah, it was seedless and easy to peel, as advertised, points definitely in its favor. But how about the taste? That’s the main thing, right? Well, the flavor was good. Quite good. But hardly a revelation. I mean, it tasted like an orange!

Whether we buy or don’t buy another Sumo Citrus some day, the fruit made a real impression on me because, subconsciously, the color orange remained on my mind. I love colors, just about all of them, and have published many essays on this site that revolve around one color or another: odes to blue, green, red and yellow come to mind. But I haven’t waxed poetic very much about orange. On April 5, a Monday, I decided that the time had arrived to do something about that.

In mid-afternoon of that day, off I went to Willow Grove Park, a three-story indoor shopping mall near my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. From past experience, I knew that examples of just about every color under the sun can be found there, some on store merchandise and displays, some on signs, and some adorning the bodies of the mall’s employees and customers.

I spent an hour in the commercial wonderland, which, despite the pandemic, was as busy as I’ve ever seen it outside of the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. A diligent journalist, I kept my eyes focused on colors, rather than on cute girls, as I scoured the premises. Some hues definitely predominated: shades of white, black, blue, grey and red, I’d say. Orange wasn’t a member of the in crowd. In fact, only purple, by my estimation, was represented less at the mall than was orange. Nonetheless, I found a fair number of examples. They were hard to miss, so flamboyant is orange.

Macy’s department store carried some ladies’ clothes, shoes and accessories in knockout versions of orange, for example, and a small number of men’s shirts in same. A vendor in the mall’s food court had shelves filled with candy bars whose wrappers exploded in orange and in other hues. And a teenager, strolling the avenues with a young lady, shone like a star in his orange shirt. In fact, he was the only person I saw at the mall who wore any orange at all. Wait a minute . . . that ain’t true! Wandering around the mall was a f*cking weirdo whose orange, black and white mask covered half of his wrinkled face. It was good of him to stop and pose for a selfie for this story. If you surmise that the f*cking weirdo was yours truly, you possibly are correct.

Why isn’t orange more popular in the USA than seemingly it is? Good question. It should be a hit. Orange is snazzy, jazzy and full of good spirits, after all. But maybe the American personality leans a bit too much toward the repressed side for orange to get its due. Its day may come, though. You never know. I’m pretty sure of one thing, in any event. To wit, my eyes will stay open for orange. Once you start looking for that color, it’s hard to stop.

I’m going to leave you with two recordings that pay homage to orange — to skies of orange, specifically. The first (Orange Skies) is by Love, a trippy rock band that was popular in the hippie era. They recorded it in 1966. The second (Orange Colored Sky) was put on wax by the one-and-only Nat King Cole in 1950.

Thanks for reading, girls and boys. Please don’t be shy about entering any comments you might have. Till next time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomatoes, Beer And The Kominsky Method: A Sexy Story

Over the phone I could feel my editor Edgar Reewright’s blood pressure galloping towards very unhealthy levels. I could sense that the veins in his forehead were bulging more than his famously small pecker ever has. And, almost needless to say, I heard him roar loud and clear.

What the hell’s wrong with you, Neil?” Edgar screamed at me. “Why do you keep doing this? Is it so hard to come up with story ideas whose components go together like hats and gloves? It isn’t. In fact, it should be easy!”

“Neil, an essay about tomatoes, beer and The Kominsky Method just won’t cut it. They’ve got nothing in common, and I say that even though I don’t have a clue about who or what Kominsky is. If you want to write this story, then write it. But edit it yourself. Oh, where did I go wrong to end up with you as a client? If you weren’t a reliable source of income I’d drop you faster than my first three wives dumped me!”

“For crying out loud, Edgar, calm down,” I said. “What’s wrong with this story idea? The answer is nothing. I like writing about things that give me a buzz, and this story will be about the ones that have excited me the most lately. Not only that, somewhere in the piece I’ll ask the readers to let me know what’s been ringing their bells. They’re a discerning lot and will help to expand my horizons.”

“Horizons, huh?” Edgar snickered. “You’re old, Neil, remember? Your horizons are too stiff and achy to expand more than an inch.”

“Maybe so, Edgar,” I said, “but that inch is more than your famously small pecker is capable of expanding.” Edgar didn’t respond to that cutting remark.

“Hear me out, Edgar,” I continued a few moments later. “Let’s start with tomatoes. Have you ever tasted little yellow ones? I never paid any attention to them until a few months ago, when they caught my eye at the supermarket. Now I’m hooked on them. “Comets” is the brand name of the ones I buy, and they’re damn fine. Sweet as sugar, with just the right amount of tang. They make any salad better.”

Edgar didn’t say a word.

“And how about the beers that Magic Hat Brewing Company, in Vermont, turns out?” I continued. “Magic is right. The brewers there are magicians, Edgar. Magicians! I have two Magic Hat variety packs at home. And every one of the brews in those boxes is absolutely delicious. I’ve been drinking their beers for years, but didn’t know about the vastness of the Magic Hat repertoire until the variety packs entered my life not long ago. That brewery rules!”

Once again, Edgar remained silent. What was wrong?

“Edgar, this conversation isn’t going well, so I think we should say our goodbyes soon. Then I’ll start writing the story. But I can’t leave without recommending The Kominsky Method to you. It’s a television series, a comedy/drama done charmingly and with a sharp wit. Netflix carries it. Edgar, I don’t turn on the TV too often, so I’m glad I decided to give Kominsky a try. Do you like Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin? I do. They’re the leads in the show and are fabulous. So is everyone else in the cast. Watching Douglas and Arkin try to deal with the slings and arrows that life throws at them in their old age is a blast, and touching too.”

I paused. Then I said, “Edgar, you haven’t talked in three minutes. I don’t hear you breathing. Speak to me, Edgar. Speak to me! Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” Edgar, sounding sad, said ten seconds later. “I heard you talking all along, but nothing registered. I was deep in thought. Neil, how do you know about the size of my manhood? I thought that nobody knows except for my wife Loretta and my three exes.”

“Edgar, you’re kidding me, right? Everybody has heard about your short sword. Your third ex-wife went into all the details in a post on her Facebook page last week. She mocked you real good. In no time the article took off. You’re famous, Edgar. Maybe you don’t want to be, but you are.”

What? I’m going to sue her. I’ll have my day in court. I’ll tell the world that size isn’t everything. It’s quality that counts, Neil, not length! Quality is my middle name, in bed and, as you know, as an editor. I’ve got to go now. Good luck with your story. You’re on your own with it. Hopefully your next idea will be better than this one.”

Just before Edgar pressed the red button on his cell phone to end our call, I heard him yelling to his wife: “Loretta, I’ve been defamed! I need top-tier representation. What’s that lawyer’s name? You know who I mean. He used to star in porno films before he went to law school and became an attorney. Wait, I’ve got it. Big Dick Johnson! Please get him on the phone for me!”

(What’s been ringing your bells lately? Comments about that, and about Edgar or anything else, are welcomed. Ditto for sharing this story.)

Shopping, Black Friday, And Yours Truly

If the clothing and footwear industries depended on me for financial sustenance, they would be shit out of luck. I don’t buy their goods very often. I mean, most of my attire is between three and about 45 years old. Yeah, I said 45. That’s the approximate age (I wish I could pinpoint the year in which I bought it) of a sweater that I want to be buried in when my bucket-kicking time arrives. The deep blue garment, which I treasure dearly and wear pretty frequently, still looks damn good to my eyes. Any coffin worth its salt would be proud to encase it.

My favorite sweater

I definitely haven’t been nice to the aforementioned industries in 2019. The only clothes I’ve purchased so far are underwear, socks and a sweatshirt. And as for shoes, none. That’s because I’m not too interested in regularly updating or freshening my look. Also, I seem to have excellent luck on most of those rare occasions when I do go shopping for apparel or accessories, which makes it unnecessary to shop very often. For example, three or four winters ago, upon entering a Macy’s department store near my home, I immediately found two winter coats that fit me perfectly and looked terrific. I whipped out my credit card and made them mine.

And one day seven or eight years ago, at a Sears department store, I hit the jackpot, leaving with about eight pairs of jeans that I’m wearing to this day. I could cite several more examples of this kind, but you get the picture.

Yes, I’m satisfied with the clothes and shoes that I own. So, when Black Friday (an annual, mega-hyped shopping day in the USA that unofficially kicks off the Christmas buying season) rolled around last month on the day after Thanksgiving, as it always does, I ordinarily would have avoided like the plague the indoor shopping mall near my house. I had no desire to check out the wearables on sale. And the same went for the non-wearables. And yet, mall-ward I directed my car at 11:30 AM.

Why? Hell, basically I didn’t want to enter a coffin some day without ever having experienced Black Friday firsthand. Despite being nearly as old as dirt, there are times when I can prance around the altar of pop culture better than just about anyone from my old f*ckers demographic. And if Black Friday isn’t a major player in pop culture, I don’t know what is.

Black Friday at the mall near my house.

Yup, the mall was decently crowded. Yup, most stores had Black Friday sales going on. Nope, I didn’t feel even the slightest urge to examine any merchandise. Still, I liked being at the mall. I always do, though my visits are only occasional, because the mall strikes me as a wonderland. I like its three levels of winding avenues, its airiness, its colors and sounds. And the overabundance of merchandise in the stores, though easy to criticize as excesses of the capitalist system, amazes and captivates me. Mankind, though flawed as hell, sure can turn out products like nobody’s business.

Black Friday at the mall.
Black Friday at the mall.

One thing for certain is that I was the sole visitor whose purpose was not to spend cash, but to observe. And also to record scenes with his or her smart phone’s camera. After an hour and a half of doing exactly that, I got the hell out of there.

“I ain’t much of a shopper, that’s for sure,” I said to myself as I drove back home. But a few hours later I realized how imprecise that thought was. You see, when it comes to food markets (of which there are none in the mall), I love to shop, and spend two or more hours every week in that pursuit. This pattern began somewhere in the 1990s, when it became apparent to me that the variety and quality of food stuffs available in the USA were a whole lot better than they’d ever been.

Food nerd that I’ve become, I get a charge examining olives, relishes, juices, grains, yogurts, you name it, on store shelves. The numerous types of each blow the mind. Who in the USA ever heard of quinoa, farro or Kalamata olives until fairly recent years, for instance? Nobody that I personally know.

Whole Foods breads. Many loaves had already been sold.
Some of the cheeses at Whole Foods.

In my area, the store that excites me more than any other is a Whole Foods supermarket. (Whole Foods, by the way, is part of the Amazon/Jeff Bezos empire that is engulfing the world.) I can’t stay away from its coffee, cheese and bakery sections, each of which contains products that make my life better. Farm Loaf bread and other breads, all baked on the premises, are swell. So are any number of the cheeses from around the world that Whole Foods carries. And two varieties of Allegro coffee (Rainforest Blend and Extra Dark French) have found strong favor in my household.

Some of the coffees at Whole Foods.

I suppose that you could do far worse than having food shopping as one of your hobbies. It gets me off my ass, for one thing. And it has given me something to write about here. That’s all to the very good, considering that I’m chronically semi-constipated when it comes to coming up with story themes. Maybe prunes would help. Prunes are a staple of many old f*ckers’ diets, right?

(As I frequently mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on social media. Mucho gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

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!

An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

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

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

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

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

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

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

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

9:28 PM

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

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

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

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

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

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

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A Trip To Scotland, Part Two: Food And Beverage Time!

Soon after publishing A Trip To Scotland, Part One, I pretty well decided that Part Two of my wife Sandy’s and my recent adventures would be all about Edinburgh’s wonderfully beautiful Princes Street Gardens and the very astonishing Scottish Highlands. You know, nature stuff.

But things can change rapidly when least you expect them too. “Yo, Neil!” I said to myself when I sat down to begin composing this opus. “Many things got you stoked during your sojourn in Scotland. And, obviously, you can’t write about them all. I mean, this ain’t a memoir you’re creating here. But a few food and beverage items impressed the hell out of you and Sandy, and they’re practically begging you to devote a bit of wordage to them. Would it kill you to do that? Nope, it wouldn’t. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.”

Who am I to argue with myself? Princes Street Gardens and Scottish Highlands are now being rudely shoved aside by yours truly. Food and beverage have won out. But worry not, nature fans. The Gardens and the Highlands will be featured prominently, and possibly exclusively, in Part Three.

Sandy and I ate and drank awfully well while in Scotland. Plenty of salmon, plenty of beef, plenty of cheese. Not to mention plenty of beer and wine. Our meals often were hearty, and always were satisfying. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Haggis (Photograph credit: foodfolio/Alamy)

Yet I regret one thing, culinarily-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls. Haggis is maybe the quintessential Scottish dish, after all. In one or more of its various permutations, it was on the menu of nearly every eating establishment we settled into.

But I didn’t. Haggis, a fairly complicated preparation of minced, cooked ingredients, contains oats, which I like. It also usually contains lamb or calf lungs, hearts and livers, none of which I’m eager to ingest. One or two forkfuls of haggis, however, wouldn’t have killed me. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.

Here, then, are a few of the various dining experiences that made a deep impression on me. All took place in Edinburgh.

Let’s start with coffee, a beverage that I down every single morning without fail. Sans coffee, I’m no good. Never did I expect to, but I had the second-best coffee of my life at the Southern Cross Café, where Sandy and I ate breakfast five times during our eight day vacation (the best coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome). SCC offers several styles of coffee. What we drank were large cupfuls of their Americano, which is made with espresso. Rich, fragrant, slightly sweet, it was delicious.

Scones at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse

When it comes to scones, the one I ate at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse one afternoon wasn’t the second best I ever encountered. It was the best. Sandy had a scone there too, and she thought it the greatest. The scones I’d previously had in my life were squat, dry and crunchy. Teeth, watch out! And I liked them. Mimi’s scones, however, were tall and unlikely to chip the choppers. Nicely airy, yet proudly firm, our scones came to our table warmed. They were delicate in taste, and comforting as a warm blanket. We spread butter and raspberry preserves on them. My brother, after I sent him a picture of the scones, asked for my opinion about them. Perfection is what I told him.

Bowl at top contains stovies. Bottom plate contains steak and ale pie.

At Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for dinner, Sandy and I ordered traditional Scottish food. Stovies for her, steak and ale pie for me. Stovies is a stew that always contains potatoes. Pieces of beef often are in the mix, as was the case with Sandy’s order. My entrée, loaded with potatoes and beef and an ale-infused gravy, was encased in a nifty crust. Ah yes, we enjoyed our choices very much. Home-style cooking is hard to beat.

Still, the steak and ale pie wasn’t the top dinner that I had. That honor goes to the two dishes I consumed at the Whiski Bar & Restaurant. Sandy sampled them that night and was so impressed, she ordered them when we returned to Whiski several nights later.

A lousy photo of 1) a bowl with a few remaining drops of Cullen skink and 2) part of a smoked salmon platter

I’m talking about Cullen skink, and a smoked salmon platter. I was in an adventurous mood during the first visit to Whiski, because I sure as shit had never heard of Cullen skink before. Skink, I later learned, means soup. And Cullen is a Scottish village where this creamy chowder, made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, originated. Man, it was something else. And I mean that in a good way. Salty and alive with flavor, it went down the ol’ gullet smoothly and happily. As tasty a soup as I’ve ever eaten.

And the smoked salmon presentation? Superb. Scotland is known for its salmon, of course. Whiski took a large piece of fine, crusty bread and topped it with baby greens, capers and thick slices of smoked salmon, dressing the bread lightly with crème fraiche and a salty sauce. After eating the soup I figured that the next course would inevitably be a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t. In fact, I might have swooned over the salmon creation more than I did the Cullen skink.

Okay, that’s enough oohing and aahing. Still, before I bid you adieu I have to tell you that my mouth has been watering for the last 10 minutes as I relived the Whiski Bar experience. That makes me realize, though I really didn’t need any reminding, what an excellent trip Sandy and I had. Food and drink aren’t always standout occurrences on vacations. When they are, it’s a bonus. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Scotland. But if we plan another visit to that land, I’ll look forward to being very well fed.

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The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

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