Not many days go by when I don’t think of my mother, Elaine Scheinin. This has been true since her passing in 1994. She lives on in my mind because she was an exceptionally fine person. Honest, warm and unpretentious. And blessed with an openness that few could resist. Pretty much everyone that knew her was crazy about her.
If I remember my output correctly, I’ve written about her only once before. That was in an article about the late, famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (click here if you’d like to read it). My mom, a jazz fan, became part of that article because she once spoke with Monk on the phone in 1976. Drawing up her courage, she took the initiative to obtain and dial his number (Monk, a Manhattanite, somewhat surprisingly did not have an unlisted phone number). She hoped to ask him if he knew that WKCR, a New York City radio station, was in the midst of airing a multi-day tribute to him and his music.
Monk answered the phone. Yes, he was very aware of the tribute. And he thanked my mother for calling him. I was sitting with her when she reached out to the great musician, and the incident left me awe-struck. Hers was a spontaneous and innocent act of good-heartedness and caring. She would have been disappointed if Monk somehow missed out on the love being shown to him on the radio.
Now, here’s the thing. I think of my mother often not only because of her enviable natural state of being, but also because of what happened to her in her middle age and how she responded to that tragedy. In 1969, when she was 49, her retinas hemorrhaged badly, a consequence of diabetes. She lost her sight, living the remaining 25 years of her life in total darkness. The pain I felt was intense. And it hasn’t lessened. Her blindness was, and in memory remains, heartbreaking to me.
For nearly all of those 25 years she didn’t complain, didn’t bemoan her fate. She suffered, but she almost always kept it to herself. At a party once, though, I overheard one of her sisters-in-law say this to her: “It’s a shame about your vision.” To which my mother responded, “You have no idea.” Those few words pretty much said it all.
Basically, my mom soldiered on, remaining the person she always had been, bright and optimistic, fully continuing her household work and community involvement. In the early 1990s, though, diabetes struck again, ravaging her body and ultimately her mind. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been asked by countless folks. The answer is that good people are not immune to the slings and arrows, and lightening bolts, of life. If only they were.
Ideally, I’d have liked to have published this remembrance on Mother’s Day. But I didn’t complete it in time. Better late than never, as the saying goes. Many of us are fortunate to have been raised by loving, good people. I surely was. My father was ace too. And so, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day, belatedly, to the fine ladies who give their heart and soul, selflessly, to their children. And I accompany that wish with a major tip of the hat.
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.
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It was appropriate that my pal Mike and I, with my wife Sandy, recently went together to a cinema in the Philadelphia suburbs to see the excellent documentary Apollo 11. I mean, a few months short of 50 years ago Mike and I took a road trip through parts of New England and Canada soon after our college graduations, a trip during which the Apollo 11 mission was very much on our minds and before our eyes.
Mike suggested the journey to me in Roslyn, the Long Island town where we grew up and still lived (Long Island is near New York City). There, in a pizzeria, we bumped into each other after being out of touch during our college days. “Sure, let’s do it,” I said, because, clueless and planless when it came to life’s bigger pictures, there was nothing on my agenda, socially or work-wise, to interfere.
And so, a couple of weeks later off we went in Mike’s bright red Ford Mustang convertible. We had a blast, happily taking in the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes that we encountered. And, as the Mustang racked up the miles, time after time we sang along to Bad Moon Rising, The Israelite, and Spinning Wheel, songs that were glued into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere that summer.
When July 16, 1969 arrived, somewhere in the province of Quebec we watched Apollo 11 begin its journey. Five days later, at another Quebec location that’s faded from memory, we, along with just about everyone else in the world, saw Neil Armstrong and, some minutes later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin step out of their lunar module, becoming the first homo sapiens to set foot on the lunar surface. While they did their thing, Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in a command module, awaiting his mates’ return.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool that, half a century later, those two former Long Island boys live a mere 15 miles apart from one another in the Philadelphia burbs, are still tight, and in one another’s company got to think about and talk about their glorious Moon-enhanced road trip from the distant past.
Apollo 11 isn’t your typical documentary. There are no reminiscences by Aldrin and Collins, the mission’s surviving astronauts, nor commentary by other talking heads. What we have here, aside from a few newly-made graphics that demonstrate some of the expedition’s technical aspects, are video and film clips and photographs shot during the mission’s duration by earthbound NASA camera operators (NASA is the American space agency), by cameras attached to the command module and to the lunar module, and by the astronauts themselves. And there’s earlier footage, from 1962, of a speech by John F. Kennedy in which he explains why he thinks that the USA must, and will, go to the Moon.
Todd Douglas Miller, the film’s editor and director, did a hell of a job selecting and piecing together the oceanic amount of material at his disposal. Want to feel as though you’re climbing aboard a rocket, then blasting off, and then cruising along on your way to our cousin in the sky? Not to mention inching around gingerly on the Moon’s granular top layer? Right, who doesn’t? Which is why catching Apollo 11 is a good idea.
I thought that one sequence alone was worth the price of admission. The footage, filmed from the command module, shows the lunar module on its way back from the Moon. The LM’s aim was to dock with the command module which, after jettisoning the LM, would transport the three space travelers the rest of the way back home. A softie, watching the Armstrong-and-Aldrin-inhabited craft draw nearer and nearer to Collins’ vehicle made me go limp with wonder. With the stark and stoic Moon as its backdrop, those hard-to-believe images are more dramatic and beautiful than any ever created for a sci-fi flick.
In all, six space missions placed men on the Moon, the last one in 1972. After a while, I think that people became kind of blasé about them though. Lunar overkill, if you will. Still, the accomplishments were undeniably remarkable. But were they necessary? I lean toward the nay side on that. We’re an inquisitive species, and our brains are big, so we always need to push the envelope, investigating and exploring our asses off. It’s what we do and always have done. Hey, it’s human nature.
And I guess that’s fine where Planet Earth is concerned. But is there really any point to traipsing around elsewhere? Hell, it’s not as if we learned the secrets of the universe by going to the Moon. And we sure as shit won’t learn them by visiting or establishing colonies on Mars, goals that are on the drawing boards for several nations and at least one private company. What’s more, people are people. Meaning, we’re highly emotional creatures with more than our share of less-than-stellar instincts. If Mars were colonized by earthlings, it wouldn’t take long before frustrations, hurt feelings and greediness morphed into feuds and armed conflicts (“Hasta la vista, motherf*cker!” I can hear one good ol’ boy saying to another, 100 years from now. “There ain’t enough room on this miserable red planet for the two of us. Which of these roomy craters do you want to be buried in?”). Can there be any doubt?
None of which is to say that I’m not an admirer of the heavens near and far. I am, and in a pretty big way. I love sitting outside on a clear night, staring up at the Moon, the stars, the planets. A little while ago, taking a break from writing this story, I grabbed a look at the night sky (it’s 10:30 PM on March 27 as I type. Publication date remains up in the air, however). It was magnificent. But, wouldn’t you know? The Moon wasn’t in sight. A tad of googling revealed that it won’t rise till almost 2 AM, by which time I’ll have been snoring away for over an hour. As usual, the universe didn’t consult with me when drawing up its schedule.
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One night in the foggy past, circa 1983 I suppose, I was at the Cherry Tree Music Co-op, a long-deceased and seriously-missed folk music venue in Philadelphia. A Cherry Tree devotee, I took in at least 150 shows there. Anyway, on the night in question the band that commanded the stage played a song that has stayed with me all these years. I have no recollection of who the band was. But the song? It was Waltz Across Texas, which I’d never heard before. It is as sweet and pure a number as you ever will encounter.
I recall that the band’s lead singer mentioned that Waltz Across Texas is a tune by Ernest Tubb (1914-1984), a country music legend. And indeed his fans craved his version of it. However, as I discovered on the day that I began to compose this essay, the song was written not by Ernest but by his nephew Talmadge Tubb, a country music semi-obscurity. Hell, Talmadge Tubb deserves to be as famous as Ernest on the basis of this one song alone.
When we dance together my world’s in disguise, it’s a fairyland tale that’s come true. And when you look at me with those stars in your eyes, I could waltz across Texas with you. Waltz across Texas with you in my arms, waltz across Texas with you. Like a storybook ending I’m lost in your charms, And I could waltz across Texas with you.
Ah, beautiful. And let’s add some music to the fine words. Here’s Ernest Tubb performing the song:
Now, I like music that rocks and roars. But I also enjoy the slow and uncomplicated, such as Waltz Across Texas. And ever since that fateful Cherry Tree evening I’ve held a soft spot in my heart for songs written in waltz time, of which Waltz Across Texas, almost needless to say, is an example. Waltz time’s one-two-three, one-two-three rhythmic pattern seems to perfectly mesh with my emotional makeup. When I hear a worthy waltz-time number, such as Bob Dylan’s Winterlude or the Eagles’ Take It To The Limit, I start to soften and melt . . . and then I dreamily drift within a higher realm.
All of which leads us to the morning of February 23, 2019, a Saturday. The living room radio was tuned to WXPN, a Philadelphia station that I’ve mentioned so many times on these pages, its general manager should make me an honorary DJ. I was communing with the living room sofa when my ears perked up at about 9:45, caught by a soft, alluring song issuing through the speakers. One-two-three, one-two-three it flowed. The repetitiveness of the beat induced that softening, melting and drifting syndrome. The song was Johnny’s Blues, written and recorded by little-known Denny Brown in 2008. A pared-down look at insecurity, at the difficulty so many people have in feeling at home with themselves and with the world, Johnny’s Blues is a country waltz lifted, as many country waltzes are, by fiddle playing that bores deep into your heart.
For the rest of the day I couldn’t get Johnny’s Blues out of my head. And it became the spark for the story that you now are reading. Yeah, for a long time I’d had it in mind, amorphously, to write something or other about pop music waltzes. At last the story began to become clearer to me. And the story’s biggest point emerged after dinner on the following day.
Truer words never were written than these: I can’t dance worth a shit. Man, I sucked at dancing even when I was fairly nimble and agile. But nimble and agile are not words that have applied to me, a septuagenarian, for the last 10 years. Awkward as a motherf*cker is more like it. Yet there I was, following dinner on Sunday the 24th, waltzing around the living room with my wife Sandy, in search of story-writing inspiration. We glided to the accompaniment of Johnny’s Blues, courtesy of YouTube.
We didn’t set the world on fire with our performance, but we weren’t bad. That’s one of the beauties of waltzes: Even an oaf like me can move to a waltz pretty well, since it doesn’t require any amazing techniques. All you have to do is become one with the music, hold onto your partner, and ease yourself from here to there to there.
It was fun. We got into it. Hey, we hadn’t danced in years, so we were overdue. And you know what? I believe that we’re going to dance again, occasionally, in our living room. To songs in waltz time more likely than not. Dancing, I realized, is very freeing. It’s a natural thing to do. But I ain’t about to enroll in a dance class to learn, after all these years, how to shake my boney booty to hip-hop or swing music. I’m too inhibited for that. Nor shall I invade a local mosh pit and become the oldest nitwit ever to jump and spin spasmodically at a punk rock concert. Yo, not only am I inhibited, I’m also fragile! Better that I stick to my living room and to waltzes with Sandy.
At long last you have the opportunity to listen to the song that I’ve been making a fuss about. Perhaps it will inspire you to dance inside your house. Here then is Johnny’s Blues, by Denny Brown. Before I remove my fingers from the keyboard, though, I’ll say what I always seem to say at the ends of my pieces: Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.
Hey there! This piece is partly a commentary about growing old, a subject and a sad reality that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. And, consequently, writing about. I don’t obsess over it by any means, but as I mentioned in an article a month or two ago, I am very aware of the grains of sand that steadily and relentlessly are falling to the bottom of my hourglass. Man, I’m 71, at least 20 years older than I’d like to be. But hopefully I’ll be around for many more years, hitting the Publish button for scads more stories on this website. And if not, well, c’est la f*cking vie, as they say in Gay Paree.
Doom and gloom, however, will not dominate the present proceedings. Nah, that’s not me. Age-wise, I may be nearing lofty heights. (Nearing? Shit, I’m already there.) At heart, though, I’m still kind of a rabid 20-something.
Which is why I was bouncing like a rabbit on amphetamines a week and a half ago, on the way back home from the supermarket. I was in my trusty, humble, beat-up Honda Civic, model year 2001. This car is well-known in my neighborhood for its pitted paint and for the fabric langorously sagging from the roof’s underside. Hell, I’m pitted and sagging too. Naturally, then, the Honda and I get along real well.
I listen to music a lot when I’m in the car, but it’s pretty rare for my body to react like it did on the short drive home. My hips, my shoulders, my head were jumping around excellently, fueled by the energy coming through the speakers. I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t believe that not one, not two, but three catchy-as-hell, blistering rock tunes in a row accompanied me on the drive. I hadn’t been blasted like that in quite a while. It was good to be reminded that hard, driving rock and roll is hard to beat, and that, old as I am, I love potent rock as much as I ever did.
The music came over 88.5 FM, the frequency of WXPN, a Philadelphia station. More important, these are the songs that I heard: Feels Alright, a brand new number by the young band The Nude Party; Do Anything You Wanna Do, a classic by Eddie And The Hot Rods that came out in 1977; Silver, from 2017, by the group Waxahatchee. You can listen to them now, if you wish, via YouTube. My epic tale continues below the YouTube offerings.
Yeah, ever since my late teens I’ve been under the power of snarling, soaring electric guitars, throbbing electric basses, and pounding drums. Not that I don’t like the less-wild forms of rock or other styles of music. I do. A lot. In fact, I’m into almost everything, except for rap, opera and Madonna-style pop. And I even get along with those genres at times.
But if I had to pick the one type of music that perfectly meshes with the hidden recesses of my inner self, there would be little contest. It would be vigorous, tuneful, guitar-driven rock. Were I a musician, that’s what I’d be playing. I’d man the electric bass, helping to hold the rest of the band together, and getting my rocks off stratospherically.
Alas, I have zero talent as a musician. Like most of the rest of humanity, I’m a listener, not a player. But there’s a lot to be said for listening when you have the capacity to go higher, higher, higher. What a rush! What a gas!
Why, then, don’t I listen to the recordings of powerful bands (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Patti Smith Group, etc.) at home as much as I did when I was single? Well, my wife Sandy usually prefers that things be on the calmer side in the house, so that’s the main reason. And yes, I know I could listen through earphones, but I’ve always found them to be uncomfortable.
As for hearing the strong stuff in person, there’s not much of it in the burbs, where I live. Most of it is concentrated in clubs and theaters in The City Of Brotherly Love, an hour’s drive away. It’s tough to find a parking spot near those Philly venues, and the shows start late and aren’t over till after midnight. Which means that I’d arrive back home well into the wee small hours. Thus, when I attend concerts these days (I go to quite a few), they tend to be of non-hard-rock varieties in places within comfortable driving distance of my home.
But you know what? Those excuses in the above paragraph are lame. I know for a fact that a smattering of people in my age bracket go to the music venues that I’ve been avoiding. They’re not embarrassed to shake and groove among music lovers 40 or more years younger than them. And neither am I. That’s why, a few days into our new year, I’m making one resolution: I am going to start visiting some of Philadelphia’s rock meccas now and then. Johnny Brenda’s, Boot And Saddle, and Union Transfer, here I come! It will be fun. It will be soul-satisfying. And I’d better do it while I can, because those frigging grains of sand have no plans to take a break.
(As I always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
There I was the other afternoon, walking with my friend Gene along the streets of central Philadelphia, both before and after we ate lunch at Black Sheep, a cozy, wood-paneled pub. The skies were massed with clouds pre-lunch, but no rain was falling. After our repast, however, water began to enter the picture.
A few minutes after we left Black Sheep, as a couple of raindrops clunked us on the head, I decided that I’d try to turn the post-lunch segment of our stroll around town into a blog piece. I’d covered Philadelphia from all sorts of angles for the publication that you’re now gazing at, but never from a rainy one. It was a natural! Visions of an impressionistic, watery essay began to float in my head.
The couple of raindrops soon turned into a drizzle. And then the rain’s pace picked up, so that 20 minutes later we were getting noticeably wet. Tough, dauntless guys that we are, though, we smirked at the meteorological conditions, refusing to protect ourselves (Gene didn’t open his umbrella, and I, who was sans umbrella, didn’t raise my coat’s hood). We continued what we’ve always enjoyed doing together: wandering around, casually looking at this and that, and talking about a mishmash of things.
On Chestnut Street we admired the Dolce Carini pizza parlor and Maxamillion’s barber shop, and were about to extend our westward journey along Chestnut when I noticed a bus approaching. It was heading north on 20th Street. “Does that bus go to your neighborhood?” I asked Gene, a Philadelphian. He answered in the affirmative. “Listen,” I then said, “I know that we’re tough and dauntless, but possibly it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you climbed aboard.” He did.
My gloves were waterlogged by this time and my hair had become a soggy mess. Yet, I persevered. Strolling around, I snapped a few more pictures with my iPhone and dodged a few puddles. But when my phone’s battery conked out a minute later, I said the following to myself: “F*ck it, this f*cking story will have to wait for another rainy day.” Nicely drenched, I pulled the hood over my head and strode to Suburban Station, from which I caught a train back to the sleepy town in the burbs that I call home.
If you’ve made it this far with me, I’ll now test your patience by changing the subject almost entirely. That’s because, later that night, I decided that a story about friends, not one built around a rainy day, should have been my aim from the start. I came to that conclusion when I realized that the afternoon in Philadelphia with Gene had been my fifth social engagement in December. For me, that’s a lot. Those get-togethers quietly had pushed friendship to the front of my mind. And friendship, as we know, is an important topic, one that — my bad! — I’ve barely if ever written about before. But, let me add, some of my photographic efforts from rainy Philadelphia adorn this story nonetheless. I’m a believer in waste not!
Friends, pals, chums, amigos . . . Whatever term you employ, they are valuable assets, ones to appreciate and cultivate. Gene and I had had a fine time together earlier in the day, as always has been the case in the 10 years that we’ve known each other. I’m fortunate to have him as a friend. And fortunate because there is a medium-size bunch of others, both female and male, with whom I get along swimmingly and meet on a pretty regular basis, sometimes with my wife Sandy, sometimes by myself. And fortunate because of the several more individuals that I see only very occasionally, due to the thousands of miles separating us, but with whom I’m oh so tight.
It wasn’t always this way. A social butterfly in elementary school, friendships somehow became harder and harder for me to maintain and establish when I hit the age of 12 or so. And high school? Fuhgeddaboudit. I had about 100 times more pimples than good friends during the four years I spent in high school, an institution that I detested.
Fortunately, my friendship situation took a nice upswing while in college, and stayed almost at that level over the next 40 years. I wasn’t awash in friends, but I was doing okay. And during the last 12 years, an era that last year saw me enter the Holy Shit, Am I Really This Old? septuagenarian club, much to my amazement several new friends have come my way. Not exactly a miracle, but pretty damn close to one.
I’m not someone from whose mouth pearls of wisdom flow like a mountain stream. But occasionally I’m able to offer up good advice or insights. Here then is what I’ll say about friends: “You can’t have too many of them.” They help make our lives better, those folks we are on similar wavelengths with, can rely on, and whom we also respect. In fact, having plenty of friends — true friends — is a crucial key to a fulfilling, well-balanced life. (And yes, relatives absolutely can be true friends. But, for the purposes of this article, I’m sticking to the non-relative variety.)
“Hey,” I hear one or two smartasses say, “all of that is a big DUH. It’s obvious!”
And so it is. Still, I for one never really began thinking about the importance of friendships until fairly recent years. I wish that someone had taken me aside decades ago, when I was in my early 20s, say, and laid out the friendship gospel for me. Maybe I’d have paid attention. Maybe I’d have made an effort to learn how to make friends more easily and to add even a few more of them to my little world. More is better.
I’ve heard Baby Boomers, of which I of course am one, say that making new friends at their age is kind of difficult. But I tend to think that this is true for millions upon millions at any age. Hell, life’s a challenge, and forging good friendships is part of the challenge. It takes effort. It takes discipline. And it decidedly might take big strokes of luck. When the mission is accomplished though, the payoff is sweet. Friends, along with some other key ingredients (strong family ties; open-mindedness; a charitable heart), are where it’s at.
(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay.)
(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)
I don’t know about you, but shvitzing like a pig isn’t high on my list of things I get a kick out of doing. But shvitz like a pig I did on more than one occasion during the annoyingly hot and humid summer of 2018 that sneered at my section of the northern hemisphere. That’s because the grass on my lawn didn’t stop growing these past few months, nor did the bushes that border the lawn, nor did the God-knows-what-kinds-of-plants they were that sprouted up riotously wherever they could gain a foothold.
Somebody had to attend to all that vegetation, which meant that shitloads of mowing, pruning and weeding were in order. And that somebody was me. But, what with the steamy heat, I wasn’t eager to take on those tasks. Thus I let things slide as much as I could. Several times I had no choice though, as my neighbors were threatening to report me to my township’s Messy Motherf*ckers Aren’t Welcome Here department. And so, outside I would head to do the yard work thing.
Bottom line: Within 15 minutes each time, sweat was pouring off me in buckets, and my pale, white-boy face was pale no more. Into the house I’d have to repair to cool down. And then back outside to induce another round of sweating and reddening. Then back inside after 15 minutes, etc., etc.
Eventually the job would be completed.
Well, that’s a fairly long introduction, one that has only a tenuous connection to what I intended to write about when I sat down at my writing station. I need to get on track, as this essay is to be about the time of year that I like the best. Which is autumn. Of the four distinct seasons that my region (northeast USA) experiences, why autumn? Well, summer, as is obvious from the complaints above, ain’t my fave. And winter is too damn cold. But what about spring? Everybody loves spring. It is, of course, terrific, a time of new birth and all that. But I pick autumn over spring, new birth notwithstanding.
Autumn will officially begin the day after I hit the Publish button for this story. Yet I hadn’t given autumn, fall if you will, much thought until recent days, days in which I downed two bottles of beer that set visions of my favorite season dancing in my head. The first to warm my innards was Smuttynose brewery’s Pumpkin Ale. Man, it was so rich and malty, and kissed with goodness by the pumpkin puree, cinnamon and other Thanksgiving-y spices that were tossed into the brewing vats.
Two nights later I finished off a bottle of Festbier, which came all the way from Germany’s Weihenstephaner brewery. Festbier goes hand in hand with Oktoberfest, a time for fun and getting soused that began in Germany in the early 1800s and has since spread to other parts of the globe. Festbier is one of many strong, tasty lagers that reach some of the world’s marketplaces a bit before the Oktoberfest season begins.
Those beers reminded me that the time of turning leaves and Thanksgiving dinners is approaching. And I felt mighty good about that. Not only do I love the colors of turning leaves, I love the whole idea that oceans of green morph into something very different, something very spectacular. What a show! It’s astonishing to me that the extravaganza takes place at all, and it undeniably is something to look forward to again, once it’s over.
And I’ve always been into Thanksgiving, a holiday of simplicity and, for those of us who are fortunate, one of being with people you want to be with. Not to mention Thanksgiving dinner’s crown jewel, pumpkin pie, which, when prepared correctly, is even better than pumpkin ale.
But that’s only part of the picture for me. I’m also drawn to fall because my birthday is in late October, the heart of the season. And though I no longer get thrilled when my birthday comes around, I don’t get depressed either, despite my hourglass becoming awfully damn low in the grains of sand department. That’s because I’ve built a psychic connection to my youth, when October was the greatest month of all. That link softens the blows of frigging Father Time.
More than anything though, I think my attraction to autumn is a reflection of my emotional structure. There’s something wistful about autumn in the falling leaves that follow the color explosions. And the sense of slowing down that comes with the season, as the amounts of daylight noticeably shorten, is comforting. As are the cooler temperatures that pretty well guarantee that shvitzing like a pig won’t be happening again anytime soon, unless I move to Florida in a couple of months.
Wistful . . . that’s a side of me that’s always been there, one I’m very much at ease with. And taking things somewhat slow . . . rarely a bad idea. Yes, fall is an extended occasion in which to flow soothingly, to get my oh-wow groove on, to smile internally.
Next month my wife Sandy and I will spend some days on Cape Cod. Going there in autumn has become a ritual for us. The Cape’s summer crowds will be long gone. The incredible Atlantic Ocean coastline will be ours to hike with relatively few members of our species around to break the spell of water, sand and sky. As always, I’ll feel happy, decently centered, wistful and relaxed all at the same time while on the Cape. The sunsets will be lovely and the nighttime air will be crisp. And, oh yeah, the lobster rolls will taste great. I can’t wait.
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Magnificent and valued readers, do not be alarmed by the title of this opus. It is not being published posthumously. Yours truly, a vaguely trustworthy septuagenarian, thankfully has not yet reached his expiration date, and hopefully that date won’t arrive for at least 20 years. But, as with pretty much everything in life, who the f*ck knows?
Almost inconsequentially though, the title does pertain to an opened box of pasta that had been sitting in one of my kitchen cabinets since 2006, give or take a year. My wife Sandy and I finally got around to tossing it a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that we hadn’t paid any attention to the box, which is what it deserved, as lousy-tasting as the pasta was the one and only time we prepared it back then.
We’d purchased the pasta, known as Barilla Plus, because Sandy was somewhat down on regular wheat products and was all for multi-this-and-that concoctions. Barilla Plus was the latter, what with lentils, chick peas, oats, spelt (what the hell is spelt?), barley and flaxseed comprising major parts of the dough. One night we cooked and ate the stuff, probably covering it with a good tomato sauce. It bit the big one, to resurrect a phrase that was popular on my Vermont college campus during the hippie era. Or, to put it another way, the pasta sucked, its flavor remarkably strange and unappealing.
As far as expiration dates are concerned, Barilla Plus’s was long ago. The box said the pasta would be best if used by September 2007. Being generous by adding two or three years to that, I estimate that the true expiration date (the date on which the product in effect died) took place no later than in 2010. Well, our box of Barilla Plus at last has been buried, with no mourners present, in wherever it is that my township dumps its residents’ garbage.
However, there is more to this essay than a frigging box of pasta. A lot more. Because when it comes to mourners, Sandy and I came close to tears when we bid goodbye last month to our 2012 Hyundai Elantra. The vehicle, cute and comfortable and totally to our liking, had only 45,000 or so miles on it when, in early August, it was rear-ended two miles from our home by a careless driver. I wasn’t in the car when the collision took place. Only Sandy was, and the extremely good news is that she was unhurt.
Not so for the Hyundai, whose rear sections crumpled like tissue paper. Man, the car looked bad, but it was drivable. And fixable, we assumed. We drove it home, and there the victim sat for a day or two in our driveway till arrangements were made, via our insurance company, to have it towed to a collision repair shop.
Well, no point going into all the details. The bottom line is that the insurance company ultimately decided that the cost of repairs was more than the car was worth. We’d be sent a check, for the car’s value as if it were undamaged, said the claim handler. And that’s why, two weeks after the accident, Sandy and I went to the collision shop to clear out our belongings from the Elantra.
Pitiful baby . . . that car had been awfully good to us. I found it hard to believe that I’d never again sit behind its steering wheel while its motor was running. On the shop’s grounds, Sandy and I emptied the car and hung around for longer than we’d expected. We patted the car, looked at it longingly, and silently remembered the many good times we’d had in places to which our Hyundai had taken us. Shit, that big hunk of metals and plastics and fabrics was dear to our hearts. I hadn’t realized that before. But in saying goodbye, I did.
We’ve replaced the Hyundai with a new car, a Toyota Corolla, whose fate, with luck, will be far better than its predecessor’s. And the Hyundai is now in its graveyard, having been towed, two days after Sandy and I paid our respects, to a facility whose mission was to take it apart, salvaging as much as possible. Graveyard I guess is the wrong word, seeing that much of the Hyundai will find new life in other man-made bodies. Which doesn’t change the reality of the Elantra being dead and gone. Obviously.
There is an uncountable number of things in life that are worse than losing a car. Still, I’m damn pissed at the person who whammed and bammed my former wheels. “Up yours, dear,” is what I’d say to her if I were to pay her an unannounced visit, a visit that is possible because her address is listed on the police report that the accident generated. “You have caused me and my wife a lot of problems and expense. Did I forget to say up yours? I didn’t forget? That’s okay. I’ll say it again anyway. Up yours!”
Hey, typing up yours three times, and now a fourth, has made me feel better. I knew that blogging would pay unexpected dividends one day! Didn’t think, though, that it would take over three years (I launched this website in April 2015) for a dividend to manifest itself.
On that note, boys and girls, I shall ease this essay into its conclusion. Please drive safely, as most of our roads are congested and crammed with potential dangers. And stay away from my new Toyota, or else!
(As I say at the end of nearly each and every one of my pieces, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing. It’s good to share, or so we have been told.)
Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.
And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!
In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.
Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.
Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.
In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.
Yes, Cheever could write.
Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.
And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.
Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.
The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.
In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.
But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?
Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.
Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.
I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.
Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?
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My wife Sandy and I had been itching for a good while to stretch our traveling legs, to go somewhere we’d never been that’s far from our suburban Philadelphia environs. But where? “How about here? How about there?” we pondered.
Well, in the end we left here and there for another day, as the answer was right at hand. My brother (Richard) and sister-in-law (Sara) moved to New Mexico several months ago, after occupying space in California for 30 years. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol, was their new home. Sandy and I wanted to see them and also were more than happy with the idea of poking around Santa Fe and other parts of NM, a state full of deserts, soft-colored hills, mountains and mind-boggling rock formations. New Mexico it would be.
Ergo, late last month we spent eight days in the Land Of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called by some, unpacking our bags chez Richie and Sara and doing our best to be good houseguests. I think we succeeded in the latter, but, as with much of life, who really knows? Anyway, we passed mucho hours wandering around Santa Fe with them, occasionally without them, taking in a good deal of sights and the general swing of things. I’ll leave New Mexico’s natural landscapes, which we also visited, for a future story or two. My typing fingers are all set to concentrate solely on Santa Fe right now. Away we go.
Turns out that Santa Fe, a sweet place whose buildings primarily are adobe-style and low to the ground, is high as hell. By which I mean that this city of 80,000 humans lies in the high desert, 7,200 feet above sea level. That’s up there. The air is dry and fairly thin and, when a drought is on, as is currently the case, the sun is unrelenting. Drinking lots of water throughout the day, therefore, is pretty much a must even if you’re the indoors type, unless you enjoy the effects of dehydration. As is slathering on lots of sunscreen and donning a hat if you plan to spend more than 20 minutes outdoors.
I took to Santa Fe from the get-go. I liked its look, an amalgam of the influences of indigenous peoples and of the Spanish, who conquered and colonized enormous chunks of the Americas starting in the 1500s. Adobe, adobe everywhere. The earth colors made for a soothing experience. As did Santa Fe’s overall quietness, the lack of a mad rush of residents and tourists. Motor traffic gets fairly rough on certain avenues at certain times of day, but for the most part cars and trucks don’t interfere with the easy-going feel of the city’s central sections.
A number of my walks through town were in the company of two individuals: my brother and Zella, who is Richie and Sara’s large dog. Zella is a Bouvier, a breed I’d never heard of till making Zella’s acquaintance several years ago in California. Zella doesn’t use sunscreen or wear a hat in Santa Fe, though I urged her to. She took offense at my suggestion, indicating that she doesn’t look good in hats and, in no uncertain terms, that I should go f*ck myself. Naughty doggie. However, Zella does imbibe a sensible amount of H2O throughout the day. Smart doggie.
Zella received a good deal of attention from pedestrians during these walks, far more than I did. And she was made right at home at a shop we passed one morning, a dog-loving establishment that has a Dog Bar, just outside its front door, where water and treats are at the ready.
One afternoon, Sandy, Richie and I were plopped on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, a park in the center of downtown. Zella wasn’t with us. We were eating chicken fajitas that we bought from a food stand at the park’s southeast corner and were watching the world go by. You never know what you might see in parks, which is part of the fun of hanging out in them. That afternoon a bubble-blower, probably a Plaza regular, showed up. With a net-like bubble-making device he filled the air with soap bubbles, some of them really big. The fajitas were tasty, the soap bubbles were captivating. Sandy and I agreed that we were feeling fine.
Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, crafts galleries, museums . . . Santa Fe has them in quantities far beyond what you’d expect in a small city. It’s one of the major art centers in the USA, which was fine with me, as I’ve been popping into galleries and museums for nearly all of my life.
Appropriately enough, Sara and Richie took us to Museum Hill, a part of town that, also appropriately enough, is home to several museums, including the Museum Of International Folk Art. Our group of four headed to the Hill one afternoon for lunch at a café. We then entered MOIFA, an astonishing place. Sara had been there before and decided to go back to the café to read a book. Richie wasn’t a first-timer either, but he was in the mood to see the collection again.
And what a collection! I spent time mainly in the Girard wing, which houses folk art from all over the globe that one couple (Susan and Alexander Girard) accumulated during the mid-1900s. They donated their collection to the museum in 1978.
The Girard wing contains dozens of exhibits that are recreations of village scenes and of everyday life, all populated with miniature renditions of people, houses and appropriate accoutrements. The two exhibits that rang my gong the most were Mexican-themed, one of a village in all its colorful glory, the other of musicians having the times of their lives in a crowded three-level performance area.
You can’t go wrong in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum either. It’s one of the many museums in Santa Fe that are not part of the Museum Hill complex. I’m a fan of O’Keeffe’s paintings and had a tip-top time looking them over. On her canvases, O’Keeffe captured the essence of the landscapes and objects before her — be they mountain scenes, vast deserts, or flowers only inches away — with bold shapes and intense colors.
O’Keeffe lived in New Mexico for part or all of every year starting around 1930 until her death in 1986. For much of that period she made her home on a property in the desert about 60 miles from Santa Fe. She attained huge fame in her lifetime, and her reputation since then hasn’t waned. Deservedly.
Nor can you go wrong in Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, one of the many shops that I entered. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an indoor space of any kind whose every item struck me as beautiful. But that’s what happened at Fisher, which carries Native American ceramics both old and new. Magnificent stuff, beautifully proportioned, colored and decorated, in styles that date back numerous centuries. I should have made a purchase. Man, I can be dumb as shit.
Okay, I can’t leave without talking a little more about food. Sara is an excellent cook. She and my brother fed us deliciously. And on a couple of nights the four of us ventured out for dinner, hitting the jackpot on one of those excursions when we had terrific pizzas at Pranzo Italian Grill. Sandy’s and my Margherita pie, with added olives, is pictured above in the forefront. Its extremely thin and charred crust was a model for how pizza crusts should taste and look.
Good trips are good for the soul. Sandy and I had a very good trip, spending quality time with family, gathering new experiences, seeing sights worth seeing and dining well. We’re fortunate folks.
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