Getting Closer? Yes And No

Man, in the early days of coronavirus I wouldn’t have guessed that this microbial demon would find its way into as many of my essays as it has. Its omnipresence and dangers, though, have made it impossible for me to ignore, in my everyday life and as a writer. Alas, truer words than these rarely have been spoken: We need an effective vaccine sooner than ASAP!

It’s anything but new news when I observe that in a mere handful of months the virus has impaired our world in oh so many ways. Hundreds of thousands of people have died at the villain’s hands, and that count will rise and rise. Livelihoods have disappeared. Economies have been derailed. And that which is normal behavior for most of us — having a fair amount of close contact with fellow members of our embattled species — has become, for the most part, a big no-no. We can, of course, be physically near to those who we are confident are non-contagious, assuming that we are confident that we meet that criterion too. But to anyone else? Yo, it’s risky!

It’s natural to wonder about the extent to which close contact will return after our savior, a good vaccine, rides in from whatever lab ends up creating it. That’s assuming the savior is creatable. It better be. Anyway, will the general populace go back to their merry old ways? You know, crowding into elevators, sharing joints, rocking out shoulder-to-shoulder at concerts, spilling their guts to friends seated near them at bars and cafés, etc., etc. (As we know, some people, against expert advice and governmental guidelines, are doing these sorts of things already. Spikes in coronavirus have resulted. Those folks just don’t want to keep their distance from one another!)

I’m betting that a full return never will happen. Maybe we’ll level off at about 75% of where we were, but no more than that. I mean, coronavirus has brought home the fact that microbes don’t always play nice, that unfriendly bacteria and viruses could be anywhere, and that cutting back a little on your potential contact with same might be a wise way to live your life.

For example, as many already have noted, the handshake has an uncertain future. Shit, that’s no big deal. To a decent extent, pre-virus, handshakes already had been replaced by fist bumps, elbow taps and other far-less-germy forms of greeting. I’m cool with that. But some also are predicting that hugs won’t be as common as once they were. Hugs? That is a big deal, and I’m not cool with it. Me, once the pandemic is no more, I’m going to give a nice big hug, if they want me to, to every pal and relative that I get together with. That will be a damn good way to celebrate the nightmare’s demise.

Well, like all good boys and girls, I’ve been trying to keep at least six feet away from nearly all homo sapiens. (The one exception to this regimen is, of course, my wife Sandy.) Doing so is frustrating, for sure. So, when the idea hit me the other day to get real, real close to something — in this case, certain inhabitants of the non-human sphere — I jumped at it.

Thus, a couple of days later, while walking around my neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburbs, I gave flora, stone walls, traffic sign posts and other objects a good looking over from way within spitting distance. Then I snapped their portraits, some of which are plastered on this page. Photographically-speaking, I dug the close-up approach and probably will venture out on a similar mission in the foreseeable future.

But, during the trek and after, I couldn’t stop thinking about human physical closeness, and decided that it would be appropriate to illustrate this story with songs that touch upon aspects of that wide subject. No doubt there are thousands and thousands that fit the bill. I’m going to go with two that popped into my head pretty much right off the bat. These great recordings, which more or less represent opposite sides of the closeness coin, remind me, as if I need any reminding, that I’m anxious for the day when once again I’ll be able to talk with people from a normal distance. And to pass within a whisker or two of strangers on the sidewalk as I nonchalantly walk from here to there. I present to you, then, The Temptations singing I Can’t Get Next To You, and Ol’ Blue Eyes’ heart-melting rendition of The Nearness Of You.

Till next time, gals and guys. Stay safe, as the saying goes. And, by the way, please don’t be shy about adding your comments.

 

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.)

A Shadowy Walk In The Hood

Until recently, the only time I made a New Year’s resolution was during the waning days of 1976. My intent back then was to ditch the cigarette habit I’d been enjoying for a dozen years. Man, I did it, starting a few days later on the first of January, though I had a low-level relapse in 1982 that didn’t reach its conclusion till 1985.

Several weeks ago, the circumstances were right once again for the New Year’s resolution thing. That’s because an annual health checkup, in mid-December 2019, revealed that my glucose level had inched a bit over the top of the normal range. Crap! What was a very-aging boy to do if he wanted to try and prevent diabetes from setting in? Well, some dietary changes definitely were in order. As in, cutting back on the carbs. And the time also had arrived to up the hours that I spend in motion, as opposed to those spent while sitting on my wrinkly ass. The experts seem convinced, you see, that a decent amount of sustained movement each week can help many people drive their glucose numbers southward. Ergo, since early January, in addition to the energy I expend running errands and chasing my own tail, I’ve been taking four or five half-hour walks each week.

Most of the walks have been in my suburban neighborhood which, unlike the rest of the town, is hilly as hell (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA). Going uphill on the steep slopes is good, obviously, for my exercise regimen, though there’s no doubt I’ll be withdrawing that statement if the exertion precipitates a cardiac event. That’s assuming I survive said event, of course. So far, however, I haven’t needed the assistance of emergency medical personnel or of an undertaker, so I’ll stop that train of thought in its tracks. Let’s return to the walks.

While pounding the pavement on January 22, I noticed a couple of things that ordinarily wouldn’t have jumped out at me but, for reasons unknown, this time did. “Yeah, shadows!” I silently exclaimed to myself, at the end of the walk, when I saw some of them on the sidewalk near my house. “Shadows are cool. I’ll scour the neighborhood for shadows on the next walk. That’ll give me something to write about for the blog. The story won’t be amazingly interesting, but so what? Nobody expects anything all that interesting from old f*cks like me anyway.”

January 23 soon enough arrived. As I left my house that day at 11:30 AM, the temperature of about 42°F (6°C) was bracing but not all that bad. The skies were clear, so our pal The Sun was able to help cast shadows right and left. Ordinarily I listen to podcasts on my iPhone while walking in the hood, to avoid becoming bored shitless. But this time I was podcast-less, the better to focus on my mission. And so focused was I, an hour sped by before I knew it. I hadn’t expected to be out that long. At the end of the hour I arrived back home, having gotten plenty of exercise, and with a bunch of photos of shadows sitting within the phone.

I’ll say it again: Shadows are cool. They are shape-shifting, darkened, alternate images of what passes for reality. They have no substance at all, as far as I, a guy who nearly flunked high school physics, know. And yet, there they are. Not only that, they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere! Well, almost everywhere. I hope that my voyage through the hood the other day doesn’t cause me to become fixated on shadows, as that would be a turn of events not the least bit appreciated. But I sure enough dug them during the session in which I sought them out.

Shadow-wise, I didn’t come across anything particularly unexpected. But that was okay.  Tree shadows that spread mightily across fences and paved streets impressed me muchly, as did the dainty silhouettes of traffic signs. I envied the long fingers of the patterns created by play equipment in the kids’ section of the park two blocks from my abode. And everyday objects that I ordinarily wouldn’t give the time of day to, such as fire hydrants and recycling bins, received my blessings because of the endearingly goofy shapes that they produced.

Still, among all the pictures, how could I not most admire the one containing my own alter-image? I damn well have star appeal in that one, I’m certain everyone would agree. If any movie producers are reading this story (and why wouldn’t they be?) and are in need of a mysterious figure to lurk in the shadows of a movie scene or two or more (and why wouldn’t they be?), look no further. Lurking is my middle name. I am your man!

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and the like.)

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

Teeth And Gums And Music

“Yo, schmuck! Are you kidding me? You haven’t published a story in quite a while and the best idea that you can come up with now is a piece about dental health? Neil, you test my patience like no other of my writers. If you weren’t overpaying me for attending to your flimsy articles, I’d bounce you from my client list and send you into the deepest reaches of cyberspace, from which you’d never be heard from again!”

Those were the words that my editor, Edgar Reewright, flung at me over the phone three days ago when I told him about the essay I was planning to compose. Shit, I didn’t exactly appreciate his uncivil response. But what could I do? Fire him? No way. I mean, without his expert eye and guidance, my flimsy articles would be even worse: conceptually flawed, grammatically messy, stiff and awkward, etc., etc.

I need Edgar.

You know what though? I’m not going to let him critique this piece. I’ll mail him his weekly check, sure. But if he’s not interested in reading about a topic as important as dental health, he can shove his unreasonableness up his ever-widening ass. That’ll teach him!

My dental implements.

Dental health. For at least six months I’ve been tossing around the notion of writing a story about it. But I couldn’t quite figure out what angle to take, what points to make. Anyway, late night on October 30 I began to see the journalistic light while brushing and flossing, which are parts of the nightly ritual that I maintain to try and keep periodontal disease (which can lead to tooth loss and possibly worse, such as heart disease) and cavities away.

And I received the kick in the butt that I needed to set the story in motion when, on November 6, I read a real good essay about canine dental health (click here) by Cristina Crawford, a fellow blogger. “Hey!” I said to myself. “It’s not coincidental that Cristina’s article came on the heels of the light you saw last week. Sure, she wrote about her dog’s dental situations. But so what? Dental health is dental health, no matter what species is involved. The time is now, fella! Write your story!”

Okay, I shall.

My dental history was unremarkable until the mid-1990s. I’d been to various dentists somewhat regularly over the previous 40+ years and had had numerous cavities filled, but nobody ever had raised anything resembling a red flag. Circa 1995 though, my dentist-at-the-time (she is still my dentist) did. What she told me, basically, was that my gums and teeth were infected to an extent that she was unable to treat, that the gums had regressed significantly, that I’d had bone loss in the middle and lower sections of my teeth, and that I therefore needed the services — pronto! — of a periodontist. My conditions, I surmised, were the results of poor dental hygiene, because for many years I’d definitely not been the poster boy for proper oral care.

To a periodontist I went, and what resulted wasn’t a pretty scene. Osseous surgery sessions — scraping away of infected bone and gum tissue areas, and repositioning of my gums on tooth surfaces — took place over a number of months. The procedures hurt, and they made my mouth look like a bloody, sloppy mess. But everything in time healed. And the procedures worked, putting a halt to periodontal disease, which is fueled by bacterial buildups. Ever since then I’ve very diligently done my best to keep my gums and teeth clean: Brushing after meals with a regular toothbrush; inserting a small brush (a Proxabrush) between the teeth to push out food particles; flossing; and rinsing with mouthwash. I do all of this, in various permutations, several times each day.

There’s nothing unusual about my regimen. Pretty much everyone reading this article, I imagine, is more or less taking the same measures. In any case, I’ve been fortunate, because periodontal disease, knock on wood, has not returned.

So, how does the late night of October 30 figure into this story? Well, dental routines ain’t exactly emotionally or spiritually invigorating, right? To help while away the boredom as I work inside my mouth, I listen to music on an old portable radio.

I’m not the music geek that once I was, but a seeker of fine tunes I remain. In between brush strokes or floss movements I flip the radio’s dial, hoping to connect with one station or another’s offerings. Often I connect pleasantly, sometimes fabulously. On October 30 the latter took place, for three songs that I’m compelled to mention came at me during the first quarter of the eleven o’clock hour. As they played I couldn’t help but bust out my sad attempts at bopping and boogying, being careful of course not to trip and stab myself with my toothbrush as I shuffled around the bathroom.

In the order in which I heard them, the recordings were as follows: The Memphis Train, by Rufus Thomas. St. James Infirmary, by Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Pass The Gin, by The Meadowlarks. The tunes hit the market, respectively, in 1968, 1930 and 1954. Rufus and Cab were big stars in their lifetimes, I should note, and retain plenty of fame to this day. The Meadowlarks, though, were pretty obscure, and are beyond obscure in 2018. But little matter. Millions of top-notch recordings have faded away in music history’s scrapbook. I’m glad that Pass The Gin was resurrected while I had the radio on.

I totally dig The Memphis Train’s pounding drums, funky and kinky electric guitar, and Rufus’s wild whoops. Ditto for Cab’s dramatic singing in St. James Infirmary, and for the horn players who, with twinkles in their eyes, send out cascades of sashaying and strutting notes. As for Pass The Gin, how cool and tight are the vocals, and how nifty is the guitar solo halfway through the song? Very. Very. Very.

With that, the current proceedings are coming to a close. Sleep well tonight, readers. Treat your teeth and gums well, if you’re not already doing so. And, as Sly And The Family Stone advised, dance to the music!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias.)