Spring 2017 Revisited

What were the odds that I’d be writing about spring for the second time in three weeks? Well, if you had asked me that question even one week ago I’d have said “slim, very slim.” But it turns out the odds were 100%, because here I am penning another paean to the greenest of seasons.

To begin, there I was on the afternoon of April 24, denting, as usual, my favorite of the living room sofa’s three cushions. Such a comfortable spot it is. In fact, when I expire I’d like a memorial plaque to be placed on that cushion. It should read as follows: Neil Scheinin certainly made quite an impression. Here’s proof: He sat for so many hours on this sofa, the sensuous shape of his buttocks is forever recorded directly below. May Neil’s rear end, and his other parts, rest in peace.

Once in a while, however, I do rise from my throne to meet and greet the outside world. And once in a while said excursions involve taking a pretty good look at what passes for nature in my home territory. To wit, the wondrously paved-over, built-upon lands of suburban Philadelphia. My first investigation of Spring 2017’s unfolding, which took place on April 11 (click here to read it), was less than a smash. Few maples and oaks and their brethren had sprouted much, if any, new greenery. And blossoms on flowering trees and bushes were in short supply too. Two days later, though, driving around my region, I’d noticed that things were getting better, that spring was starting to look more like spring. It was a call to action.

But I’m not a man of action. I waited a week and a half, until April 24 rolled around, before once again making my way into the wilderness. As with my previous springtime stroll I would be a seeker of colors other than green. Hell, I’m cool with green, but there’s just so damn much of it out there. Enough’s enough, don’t you think? What’s more, variety’s the spice of life. And I’d throw in another cliché if I could think of one. No, it was pale whites and pinks and soothing shades of violet and rocking reds and yellows that I was charged up to smile at. Hey, by now those hues would be popping out riotously, wouldn’t they?

Hopping off the couch and into my car, I headed to a neighborhood I was slightly familiar with in a nearby township. I parked on a leafy street studded with good-looking houses and began my walk. It was 3:00 PM.

Eureka! I struck pay dirt! I strolled along many blocks admiring the views. Dogwood trees and azalea and lilac bushes, all aflower, glowed serenely on nearly every property. Beautiful flower beds — hey man, dig those snazzy, crazy tulips! — wowed like flashy jewels. I was in heaven. Or thereabouts.

What’s more, the air was cool and comfortable, a light breeze tousling my Apollo-like tresses. And it was okay by me that the sky was overcast, as the clouds were not unhappy nor threatening. In other words I was amidst perfect walking conditions. No need to have slathered on sunscreen (I hadn’t). No chance I’d be shvitzing like a pig by the time my travels ended.

Clearly, I was in a very good mood. Things were going my way. Although I was a mere mile and a half from my home, the sights were far better than those in my own township. These homeowners not only were with it, they were into it, putting a whole lot of time, effort and bucks into creating fine outdoor canvases. Now I know where to head to decompress, other than the emergency room, when my blood pressure starts pushing 230/130.

My journey was a quiet one, decibel-wise, except for the manic dog barking its head off in a yard. Of course, that’s one too many, especially if you’re an unfortunate soul living within 150 feet of that animal and its owner(s). Other than that, everything was peaceful. None of the cars passing by hit their horns. And the only other sounds of note that I met, besides the voices of the people walking on the streets, were those of something I hadn’t encountered in a pretty long time — the whirs of a bicycle bearing down on me from behind. Deftly I stepped off the sidewalk, moving onto a front lawn, and watched a nine-or-so-year-old whiz by on his two-wheeler. “Thank you!” he yelled to me. Holy crap, I really must have been in heaven, that place of the heart and mind where I’m certain it’s a prerequisite for children to have the finest of manners. “You’re welcome!” I shouted in return.

At 4:00 PM I returned to my car. I hadn’t felt so chipper in weeks. I’ve got to get out more in the suburban version of the great outdoors.

 

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Spring Is In The Air: A Search For Colors

For the last seven years I’ve had a Tuesday morning volunteer gig at a suburban Philadelphia hospital’s medical office building. There, I man the information desk from eight o’clock till noon, helping people locate their doctors’ offices, the cleverly hidden restrooms, and ATMs so that they can pay to get out of the cash-only parking garage behind the building. Incredible to me, it seems to be de rigueur for lots of folks these days to carry nary a dollar on their persons. Plastic rules, except at the parking garage. Wouldn’t you know it, though? . . . there isn’t an ATM in the garage or the medical building. So, off on a two-block trek to the closest ATM the short-on-cash folks depart.

I was at my post last Tuesday, the 11th of April. Looking through the lobby windows I could tell that the Sun was blazing away deliriously. My iPhone said that the high for the day would be 83°F. Yeah man, that sounded fine to me, a non-Sun-worshipping guy who normally isn’t thrilled when the thermometer climbs above 74 degrees. But after all the rains we’d had in recent weeks I was psyched for a bright, overly-warm spring day.

I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Inside the medical building two humans of the male variety were taking their cues from our winged friends that undoubtedly were chirping away merrily outside. I heard one of the patients singing freely and loudly as he entered the elevator, on his way to get checked out in an upper-level doctor’s office. And I heard another whistling a happy tune as he exited the building through the main door 20 feet from the information desk. His doctor must have given him a good report. Good golly, Miss Molly, there and then I decided to have a look that afternoon at how spring was shaping up in my neck of the woods. I would be in search of colors.

I was possibly, even probably, wrong, but for a couple of weeks I’d been thinking that spring was taking its good old time unfolding in the Philadelphia region. I could have sworn that in most years, for instance, masses of forsythia were showing off their yellows by early April and that flowering trees were ablaze aplenty. But I’d noticed not too much activity so far in 2017 during my drives through the burbs, though I hadn’t really been paying strict attention to the situation for the last four or five days. “Let’s see if things are starting to get more colorful out there,” I said to myself. “I’m ready to be impressed.”

And so I spent an hour and a half in early afternoon wandering, on foot, in three of my town’s neighborhoods, including my own. These are modest areas filled with no-nonsense homes from the last century’s early and middle sections. Things are neat and tidy here, but usually not exactly eye-grabbing. But when cherry and dogwood trees and azaleas and rhododendrons and all the rest open their floodgates, watch out! The streets then, for me anyway, rise above snooziness. Charm and loveliness take over.

Alas, I’m here to report that not much out of the ordinary was happening color-wise on April 11. Bummer, indeed. In fact, many streets hadn’t escaped from their leafless winter doldrums, though here and there some trees were beginning to sprout delicate, new leafage. As expected, there were plenty of greens to be seen — lawn grasses and evergreen trees. And there was no shortage of browns, obviously, what with tree trunks all over the place. But soft colors that make you ooh and ah, and vivid colors that go pow? Well, some cherry trees were in bloom, and a smallish number of  azalea bushes were festooned with flowers tinted in strong lavender, and a far-less-than-I-expected quantity of forsythia were unfurling their yellows, and . . . that was about it. There even was a shortage of revved-up flower beds.

And yet I strolled in a contented mood. I don’t go out for walks anywhere near often enough, so the excursion put some purpose into my footsteps. I investigated block after block, taking pictures, neck craned and eyes darting everywhere in quest of color. I was surprised by how few people I passed, other than four dog walkers. Where was everybody? “Yo, genius,” a little voice inside my head muttered, “half the people are either at work or in school. And most of the others probably are at the mall, at Macy’s. Macy’s is having an incredible two-hour sale on underwear: Buy one and get six free. Genius, you’ve been wearing the same briefs for the last 15 years. Raggedy doesn’t begin to describe them. Do your balls a favor and head to Macy’s now.”

Thus, I hurried to my car, snapping the last of my photos. Macy’s, not Nature’s hues, called! Maybe in a future article I’ll report on the degree of shopping success I encountered at the mall. The world, I know, anxiously awaits that information. In any case, I’ll wind up these proceedings by saying that I hope you have enjoyed the photographs that I’ve placed on this page. Though my springtime adventure wasn’t a 10 (hell, it was more like a 4), I managed to document some decently lovely and colorful vegetative sights. Next year, perhaps, I’ll improve my timing and write a piece about spring in all its glory.

 

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The Meadow And I

In some ways I envy those who live in or near undeveloped locales. Those parts of Montana or Utah, say, that Man hasn’t messed around with too much. Places whose terrains have been shaped over the eons by seismic events and by the unaltered flow of waters, without the added oomph provided by bulldozers, dynamite and chain saws. Where the growth and spread, or not, of vegetation follow elemental rhythms. And where, if you decide to venture out on a nice, long walk, you’re probably not going to bump into other members of our wondrously meddlesome species. Yes, that would be superb.

On the other hand, I’m a suburban/city boy at heart, ensconced in a comfortable house a handful of miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. As such, I like living close to supermarkets and shopping malls and movie theaters and art museums and a lot of the other man-made stuff that this sort of environment contains. But there are times when I’ve had enough. “Let me outta here!” I then cry inwardly. “I hear the call of the wild! I require the presence of forests and/or sands and/or seas. Oh, wait for me, my fair landscapes and coastlines. Soon I shall be among you.”

Cape Cod Bay.
Cape Cod Bay (in the distance) at low tide.

That’s when my wife Sandy and I start making plans, rent a house for a decent spell, and a month or so later drive 360 miles in a northwesterly direction to said house on Cape Cod where, miraculously, substantial expanses of Nature in its mostly-undisturbed glory indeed exist. Cape Cod soothes my soul. And has for a long time. But, going to Cape Cod is a schlep and a half. What’s a guy to do on those mornings or afternoons, at home  in the Philadelphia burbs, when a quick fix is in order?

Good question. For picky me there aren’t too many pleasing answers. I mean, there isn’t a lot of natural  scenery around here, in any format, to begin with. Much of what passes for natural are fields and woodlands that have been daintified and picnic-benched. But a few pockets of goodness somehow have escaped humankind’s conquering hands, and one of them, pathetically small as it may be, is where I headed one morning late last month when my inner being began slapping me hard upside the head to let me know it was time to try and commune with Mother Earth.

img_1306img_1304Thus, off I headed on a solo expedition to Awbury Arboretum, formerly a private estate now run by a non-profit group, half an hour from my house. This was my third time there. The first two were with my wife Sandy. She and I first heard of and went to Awbury three years ago. It’s in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, a congested residential area with roots that reach back to the late 1600s, and about seven miles from downtown. Little-known and little-visited, that’s Awbury. Which is A-OK with me, not being the world’s biggest people person. We enjoyed that Awbury visit very much, checking out the trees and shrubbery and well-kept lawns, and admiring the mansion that once housed the Cope family (click here to learn more about the arboretum), even though we didn’t set foot on Awbury’s best feature. A few months ago, on our second trip, we discovered that feature, a compact and alluring meadow. Wowza! I was smitten.

What’s the big deal about a meadow? Well, incredibly, this simple form of natural landscape is harder to find in the Philadelphia area than a winning Powerball ticket. Where did we go wrong? Unfettered meadows, where grasses and wildflowers grow freely to their hearts’ content, used to be fairly commonplace around here not all that many decades ago, weren’t they? Bye, baby, bye. What a world.

img_1313img_1319Yeah, the Awbury meadow is pint-sized, three or four acres at best. Not exactly the meadow of my dreams. But not only did it have to do last month when the earth goddesses beckoned me to find green space, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I tell you, 20 minutes in the meadow grasses did me a world of good. That’s the thing about meadows: they’re just so cute and inviting. Why, within seconds I dropped 60 years from my age and began doing cartwheels magnificently from one edge of the field to another. Too bad that Simone Biles wasn’t there to witness my athletic triumphs. She’d have been way envious.

img_1315img_1314But, getting back to reality, let me say this: You better believe it’s the simple things in life — like, strutting through tall grasses and admiring the muted shades of green and tan and sepia that the blades take on in winter — that can help to put your head back on straight. Not that mine remained in proper position for all that long. Though I embraced the Zenlike moments that happily blossomed within me at Awbury, they faded fast. I ain’t a Buddhist monk — not a bad thing to be, come to think of it — so I was almost back to my usual grumbly self by the time I arrived home. No doubt, however, that something sweet yet short-lived is better than nothing at all.

 

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Sunrise In Suburbia

In most parts of the world the Sun is consistent in its rhythms. Each day it goes up. And then it goes down. Sunrise, sunset. Right, duh. Now, I’ve written about sunsets at least two or three times before on this publication’s pages. But not, until this moment, about sunrises. And I’m pretty sure that, like me, scribes and photographers (and just about everybody else) over the years generally have spent a lot more time gazing at and thinking about our star’s settings rather than its risings. Probably has something to do, in many cases, with their not wanting to freeze their asses off at six or seven o’clock in the morning. I can dig it.

A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.
A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.

I’m definitely a sunset guy. I especially like to witness them when I’m in beautiful locales with wide open vistas and visible horizons. As this blog’s regular readers know by now, various sections of Cape Cod meet those criteria for me sweetly and perfectly. You’d think, then, that when I’m on Cape Cod I’d also be a sunrise guy. I mean, I get up early enough in the morning to watch our stellar friend ascend. But nope, never once have I seen a Cape sunrise. And I feel guilty about that. Catching a sunrise has been on my Cape to-do list for at least 15 years. And I mean to scratch it off that list before Mr. Reaper (first name Grim) comes to take me away. I don’t know, I suppose I’ve just been too lazy on The Cape to rev up my motor in darkness, which is what it takes to do the sunrise thing.

6:53 AM, Dec. 3, 2016. (Thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)
6:53 AM on Dec. 3, 2016 in suburban Philadelphia (thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)

Recently I was thinking about the above. And also thinking about the pathetic fact that, as far as I could recollect, I’d never seen a sunrise anywhere. “Yo, schmuck! You’re pushing 70,” I said to myself. “It’s time you remedied this situation.” And I did. On the first Saturday of the present month. On the outfield grasses of a baseball field within a public park located two blocks from my house in the Philadelphia suburbs. I’d like to say that it was a world-class experience, but I can’t. And that’s mostly because it took place in a less than jaw-droppingly beautiful spot. Gorgeous undeveloped areas are not to be found in my neck of the leveled woods. And, seeing that I wasn’t in the mood for driving miles and miles, the park was as good as or better than any location I could think of that wasn’t a hefty distance away.

7:05 AM
7:05 AM
7:11 AM
7:11 AM

Yes, I might sound like one, but I’m not totally an ungrateful fool. Only partly. Truth be told, I was glad to be out on the baseball field watching the sky get brighter and brighter and more and more colorful as the Sun pushed upward, breaking the horizon at 7:06 AM and continuing on its red-hot journey. There were lots of clouds in the sky and, as with sunsets, they enhanced the picture by adding malleable patterns and by enveloping and reflecting hues stylishly. I was into it, silently oohing and aahing a little bit while documenting the très cool event with my phone’s camera. And in between doing that, during the half hour that I spent in the park, I kind of rejoiced that the swarms of people who live all around where I was standing were, for the most part, nowhere to be seen or heard. That’s usually not true in my little corner of the world. I didn’t complain. You happily take your moments of peace when you can find them. All I saw was one fellow Baby Boomer striding along at a leisurely pace, a morning walker whom I’ve noticed in the neighborhood a few times before. He kept to the park’s walking paths, not once turning his head toward the fireworks taking place in the eastern heavens. And I heard one person, a someone who stepped outside his or her house to dump some trash into its not quite final resting place, a garbage can.

As my visit to the park approached the 30-minute mark I noticed that my fingers, though not my ass, were freezing.  It was about 38°F outside. I hadn’t brought along a pair of gloves. “Enough!” I almost shouted. “Sunrise, you’ve been great. You’ve been beautiful. I’m honored to have been in your presence. But we’re done for now. And so I bid you a melancholy goodbye.”

Hands thrust inside my coat pockets, in bright light I walked the short distance back to my house to drink some coffee and pop some (vitamin) pills. It had been a good start to the day.

Panoramic view from where I was standing.
Panoramic view from where I was standing.

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The Deck And I (A Sunset Story)

When my wife Sandy and I were house-hunting 11 years ago, looking to make the daunting leap from a Philadelphia row house to a slightly bigger spread in the burbs, our real estate agent took us to towns all over the place. Sandy and I examined a lot of homes. We wanted something middle-aged and attractive. And being a lazy guy who wasn’t up to taking on anything remotely resembling a major project, whatever dwelling I ended up in also needed to meet the definitions of renovated, clean and comfortable.

img_1056After a few months of searching we came upon the house we now call our own. And one of the big reasons we said “yes” to it was a feature I’d hardly ever in my life thought about, let alone thought I’d want. But when I took my first look at the house’s deck that sat eight feet above and overlooked the backyard I said to myself: “Holy sh*t, this is da bomb! I want it!” And since then I’ve had it.

But, dumbass that I am, I haven’t put the deck to extensive use. I’ve spent plenty of hours upon it, for sure, but erratically. This year hardly at all. When I want to laze I tend to do that indoors on the living room sofa where I practice spilling beer and dropping Cheez-It crumbs by the hundreds all over the cushions. I’ve gotten real good at those sports. I’ll note, though, that Sandy loves the deck. She’s thinking of moving onto it permanently, leaving her spouse to his own devices.

About 7 PM one evening last month, however, the deck called to me. I was on my way into the kitchen from the dining room. And, through the dining room’s glass door that leads to the deck, noticed the sky. It was fabulous, streaked with pinks, oranges and yellows. Our friend the Sun had dropped below the horizon minutes earlier. A grand sunset was on!

Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.
Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.

Me, I’m a sunset guy, though you wouldn’t know it when I’m occupying space in my manically overdeveloped suburban region. Here, it’s kind of hard appreciating sunsets displayed above a landscape crammed with strip malls and gas stations and office buildings. So, here I’m not in the habit of seeking out sunsets. But I get into them in a major way when in beautiful open areas. Sandy and I are fans of Cape Cod, for instance. At many Cape locales the vistas are something else: endless waters, sands and, sometimes, marshes. When I’m surrounded with ooh la la scenery like that I get jazzed watching the Sun drop and the sky drip with colors. And it’s not just me. Lots of people are into sunset-gazing on Cape Cod. No matter which beach area Sandy and I have stood on to take in the event, a bunch of other folk usually are there too with the same thing in mind. Sunset-gazing on Cape Cod, and no doubt in many spots all over the world, is almost a tribal ceremony, a quiet one that comes together seemingly spontaneously out of primal needs.

Cape Cod aside, I should but almost never remember to look at sunsets from my deck, the perspectives from which aren’t disturbed by strip malls et al. Sure, that perch isn’t the perfect one to take in the sky, what with the trees out back obscuring views profoundly. But, hell, it’s still awfully nice. What’s more, things seem pretty peaceful on the deck, since there are no cars going by. Peaceful, that is, till one of the multitude of nearby canines starts barking its fu*king head off. But I digress.

img_1052img_1044Yes, the sky was fabulous. I grabbed my iPhone, turned on its camera and went out onto the deck. To the south only half of the sky was visible, due to several big boy trees. Within the tree branches, though, bits and pieces of sunset hues played a cloak and dagger game, which I thought was awfully cool. And above the trees? Man, the painting was great, with swaths of pastel tones floating in darkening blue.

img_1047-2img_1049-2To the west was a somewhat different type of story. A few trees condensed the just-above-the-horizon view to a fairly narrow opening, but the gap was enough. Gorgeous colors drenched that section, the yellows falling lower and glowing brighter by the second. What can I say? I got drawn in. I dug it all, to the west and to the south. And I snapped pictures, as if the 500 billion sunset photos already taken by humankind since the invention of photography weren’t enough. Yup, there’s something about sunset pix. I’m not embarrassed to toss a few more into cyberspace.

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I Was Late For The Springtime Party

“You’re shvitzing like a pig,” my wife Sandy observed last week when I strode into the house after one of my highly infrequent walks around the neighborhood. Incredibly, I hadn’t realized how excellently the sweat was pouring off of me. Call me Mr. Observant. As I unbuttoned and took off my sopping shirt I thought to myself that I’d have inserted the word f**king before the word pig if it had been me commenting in Sandy’s place. She’s a lot more refined than I am.

The only flowering tree that I came across.
The only flowering tree that I came across.

Amazingly, the stroll around my little corner of the Philadelphia burbs was my first since last December, a nighttime excursion I undertook to gaze upon Christmas lights. I wrote a story about that adventure, and if you’re interested in reading it you should click right here. Last week’s stroll was different. With my trusty iPhone in hand I hit the streets for an hour in late morning, looking for pretty flowers to admire and photograph. Particularly those on trees and shrubbery. The sun was beating down rippingly as I left the house, the temperature already about 85° F, and the humidity was formidable. But I was late for the party. Turns out that virtually all of the flowering trees, and most of the flowering bushes, already had dropped their glitter.

Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.

What, then, did I see?  Greens, man, greens. I walked past hundreds of houses, all with nicely-trimmed lawns, and past thousands of trees, and the expanses of shades of greens made my eyes stand at attention. But I was on a quest for colors other than those, and needless to say they were there to be spotted. True, I didn’t find a single azalea still in glorious bloom. But rhododendrons, yes, and quite a few other bushes I won’t go out on a limb and try to identify, as I ain’t exactly John Bartram or John Muir. And though 99.999% of dogwoods and other flowering varieties of tall barky objects had not a remaining petal hanging on their branches, I discovered one cute tree still dressed in white.

“Yo, Nature Boy,” I heard someone shout at me two seconds ago. “What about planted flowers? Or was Nature Boy not seeking them?” Well, I’ve got an answer: I sought and I found. But something I never had realized before about my neighborhood is that there is no glut of those beauties. I saw a lot of nice ones, sure — roses and don’t ask me what else, because, as I already mentioned, I ain’t exactly . . . Yet many homes had no flowers in beds or windowboxes at all. Maybe I should report my area to The Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Or to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Yeah, that’s what I should do.

Still, my walk was a good one. As I said in my Christmas lights story, I need to get out into my neighborhood, beyond my block, more than I do. There’s plenty to look at, if you force yourself to really look, even though my suburban development, like all suburban developments, isn’t on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit. And, importantly, there’s no dog crap to step on, as the dog owners around here are well-trained in picking up after. One thing for certain is that next spring I’m going to wander a few weeks earlier in the season. The neighborhood’s flowering trees and bushes fully were ablaze from mid-April through mid-May. Regrettably, my views of them mostly were from a moving car, and that’s no way to experience the world if foot power is an option. I’ve set myself a reminder.

In conclusion, I’m going to give a big shoutout, as the half-assed expression goes, to my newest best friend: my iPhone. It took some pretty nice pictures the other day. I offer up a selection of the colorful sights. By the way, if you click on any photo, a larger image will open. And one last thing: Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others.

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Ruthie Foster, Soulful Singer: Frigid Weather Couldn’t Keep Us Away

It was a dark and stormy night . . . hold on, that line sounds familiar. I think I may have lifted it from someone inadvertently. Wouldn’t want to do that. I’m going to put it into Google and see what gives. I’ll be right back.

Yes, indeed. The sentence was penned about 185 years ago by an English novelist whom nobody alive today ever heard of. In that sense he’s just like me. Let’s start over.

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact the sky was quite clear. But it was a bitterly cold Saturday night, no doubt about that. As in 12° F. My wife Sandy and I had just eaten dinner in a tavern we like in the Philly burbs. As we soldiered through the parking lot to our car, the night air laughed in my ear. “Man, you sure are a nitwit for going out in weather like this,” it mockingly said, keeping its voice low so that Sandy wouldn’t overhear. “Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s cold outside?” It’s surprising the things you learn as you get older — before that frigid evening a couple of weeks ago I never knew that the night air could talk, let alone be a sarcastic jerk. I kept my mouth shut, but next time I’ll be prepared with a snappy retort.

Ten minutes later Sandy and I arrived at our post-dinner destination, Montgomery County Community College. It’s located in the once-bucolic town of Blue Bell. Modest in size and scope, MCCC isn’t where one would expect to find a world-class performing arts series, but such is the case. Many times over the years, Sandy and I have seen top-of-the-line musicians and modern dance troupes in the series’ 400-seat auditorium.

It was good getting out of the cold. We settled into our seats at 7:45 PM and awaited the singer whom I’ve known about for a few years but never had seen in person. Ruthie Foster, she who drinks from the wells of blues, gospel, soul and folk music, and who is one of the prides of musically-rich Texas, USA. Ruthie, in her early 50s, is an in-demand artist. She regularly plays in the States, Canada, Europe and sometimes Australia. Let me mention one important point before I forget: Ruthie is a gifted vocalist with a gracious and likeable stage presence. If she passes through your area, and if you enjoy music of the sorts I mentioned above, you would do well to attend her concert.

Ruthie1 IMG_0175
Showtime arrived. Ruthie Foster walked onstage with three musical compadres: Samantha Banks (drums and other percussion), Scottie Miller (piano and organ) and Larry Fulcher (electric bass). Electric guitar was not in the house. Ruthie strummed an amplified acoustic guitar, but she knew her limitations on the instrument and ventured not a solo during the show, leaving most of them to Scottie and a couple to Samantha and Larry. Would the band have gained from having an additional member, to wit a high-flying electric guitarist? No way. His or her absence kept things lean and uncluttered, and placed Ruthie’s vocals at the center of center stage.

The show began with a rendition of Patty Griffin’s When It Don’t Come Easy, a tune about love’s elusiveness. The tight machine that was Ruthie’s band set a perfect rhythm and constructed elastic boundaries over which Ruthie spoke the truth. Bap-bap-bap-bap went Samantha Banks, sure-footed and steady on the drums, as she was all evening long. Larry Fulcher’s bass lines floated here and then there but never lost their way. Scottie Miller pushed and probed on the piano, at the appropriate times sending out blasts of emotions. The band was aware, focused and nimble on this and every song that followed.

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A few words about Ruthie Foster’s singing voice. It is wonderful, as is the way she uses it. She sings cleanly and clearly, unstrained and vibrato-less, always in control. And she can move easily to a hush or to a soulful barrage of notes. The timbre of Ruthie’s voice often reminded me of Bonnie Raitt’s, but Ruthie’s is fuller and better — Bonnie I’m certain would agree. At concert’s end, 90 minutes from the starting gun, I was convinced that Ruthie is one of the big talents in her field. What’s more, she sings songs that contain real meaning. Songs about tolerance, equality and hope. Such as the concert’s hope-centric third tune, a recent Foster original titled Brand New Day. It dripped with gospel fervor. “Love heals and love lives/And time will reveal a brand new day,” Ruthie proclaimed as her three pals, playing their instruments all church-like, vocally urged her along with harmonized “uh-huh, hoo” after “uh-huh, hoo.” Uh-huh, I loved it.

Let me say a few more things before I hit the “publish” button to post this article. Ruthie has written quite a few songs over the years, but kept her set list heavy with compositions penned by others. She chose numbers, for instance, by June Carter Cash (Ring Of Fire) and Lucinda Williams (Fruits Of My Labor). And she closed the show with  Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna, an American chestnut from 1848. (Click here to watch her perform Oh! Susanna two years ago). For that final tune she was alone on stage for the only time during the show. She sang slowly, picking comfortable notes on the guitar. As the song progressed her voice soared effortlessly, poignantly. Oh! Susanna took on meanings that I’d never thought about before. She made a great song greater.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

I Saw The Lights: A Belated Christmas Story

Colors. Patterns. I love ’em. Which is why I’ve spent much time over the years in museums and art galleries. And gazing at fireworks displays and at sunsets. Another example of epic and colorful exhibitions in which I’ve immersed myself takes place each year in neighborhoods throughout much of the Christian world. I’m talking about the Christmas lights that untold millions drape on the exteriors of their houses and on their greenery. For most of these millions, yuletide is the one time annually when their inner artists emerge, the one time when they express their creative bents in a big way. As an art admirer I appreciate the hard work that they put forth. And I consider many of their efforts to be at a high aesthetic level. Christmas lights displays, when done right, are gorgeous and admirable and, to me, no different really than so-called fine art.

For many years my wife Sandy and I went out four or more nights each Christmas season to look at the lights. We’d drive through our neighborhood and through many others in Philadelphia and the burbs. My father lived with us for the last six years of his life and he’d often accompany us on these excursions. He loved looking at the lights as much as we did. Slowly we’d proceed along blocks, saying “look at that house” over and over as we made our way. We’d often pull to the curb and stop in front of particularly well-conceived arrangements. Some of those were elegant in white only. Others were complicated and ablaze with color. And we’d always spend a long time ogling the mind-blowing and whacky assemblages of lights, kinetic whatnots and inflatable objects that covered every square inch, including roofs, of a few folks’ houses and grounds. Not every neighborhood has one of those. They sometimes become tourist draws, not a good thing if you’re the next-door neighbor.

During the last few years Sandy and I haven’t explored the lights as much as we used to. Not sure why. Up until Christmas week itself this year, we hadn’t at all. But you know, I got the itch at 5 PM a few days before Christmas. I placed my newly acquired smart phone in my pocket and did something I’d never done before. Namely, look at the lights not through a car window but on foot. Sandy decided to stay home. Her loss.

It was neat-o walking around my suburban neighborhood at night. That’s something I rarely do. Funny thing . . . people and houses don’t disappear after the sky turns black. I passed a couple of joggers, a couple of walkers and a couple more walkers holding leashes. Dogs were attached to the leashes. I saw kids running around their houses, people pulling into and out of their driveways. Wow, I’ve got to get outside more. Life’s a-buzzing aplenty.

And I also saw the lights. My neighborhood largely consists of modest wood-shingled and brick houses, nine or so on each side of each block and spaced about 15 feet apart. In other words, the blocks have a tidy layout and are crowded with homes, conditions that are ripe for a mighty fine dose of Christmas lights. Assuming, of course, that plenty of the houses are occupied by Christians who don’t mind climbing ladders and who have a sense for colors and patterns that work well together. Happily, all of this was the case. Many of the homeowners in my community did a lovely job decorating their properties. I walked for blocks and blocks and had a good ol’ time taking in beauty and snapping photos with my phone. This non-Christian thanks those homeowners for bestowing such presents upon him. Here are some examples of their artistic work. Before I forget though, let me mention two things. First, a larger image will open if you click on any photo. Second, please don’t be shy about sharing this article (sharing buttons are below the photographs).

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Stuff And More Stuff (Part Two)

So here I am, about to attempt a Part Two rumination on the time that my wife Sandy and I spent recently with our friends from France, Alan and Martine (click here to read the first installment). Part Two? Man, it’s hard enough for me to write about any topic, let alone something that requires follow-up thought and analysis. In the future I’m going to stick strictly to Part Ones.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the weather was ungodly hot while Alan and Martine stayed with us in the Philly burbs. We all decided to take outdoor activities off the table. On the first full day of the visit, we beat the Sun by looking at 150-year-old American artifacts inside the Mercer Museum, in Doylestown, PA. Where to on the second full day? Hey, we’d had enough history and culture at the Mercer. Why not aim lower and head to a locale whose charms are undeniable and, for some, irresistible? Namely, Willow Grove Park Mall, a gigantic and enclosed shopping mecca a mere half mile from Sandy’s and my abode. Alan and Martine, non-fussy sorts, readily agreed.

At the mall, we split up into pairs, females banding together, ditto for the lesser gender. Alan and I said goodbye to our wives within Macy’s, the establishment we all first had entered from the parking lot. “Call us when you’re done,” he and I said, and off we went. As Alan and I made our way past Macy’s cosmetics counters, heading towards an exit that would bring many of the rest of the mall’s retailers into view, I mentioned something I’ve thought about over the years. “This place,” I said, referring to Macy’s, “is like a museum.” The same could be said for the mall in toto.

Partial view of the Mercer Museum's central court.
Partial view of the Mercer Museum’s central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall's central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall’s central court.

The Mercer Museum displays 30,000 or more everyday implements and goods from America’s olden days. It’s a fascinating place. The Willow Grove Mall is no less fascinating, when you think about it. You want artifacts? The mall has 1,500,000 of them, I bet, putting the Mercer’s count to shame. Not only are the Mercer and the mall both repositories, they’re laid out kind of the same too, with large open courts (really large at the mall) ringed by several levels of rooms. At the Mercer the rooms (i.e. galleries) are small, each displaying tools and wares from a specific occupation or other category. At the mall the rooms (i.e. shops) may be bigger, but, excepting the department stores, each is narrow in its focus, just like at the Mercer. Shoe stores display only shoes. Electronics stores display only electronics. See, what’d I tell you? . . .  The Mercer Museum and the Willow Grove Mall are pretty similar. Except, of course, that the stuff inside the Mercer Museum ain’t going anywhere. At the mall, a museum in constant flux, the faster the stuff makes its way out the doors, the better the store owners and managers like it.

Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.

Department stores aside, the variety of items at the Mercer is, I think, a lot greater than at the mall. But there is definitely some overlap. No, you won’t find smart phones at the Mercer, or a whaling boat at the mall. But how about hats, for one example? Mercer has a room devoted to them and their manufacture. And Willow Grove Mall contains Lids, a sharp little shop stocked from floor to ceiling with caps, mostly of the baseball type.

While Sandy and Martine (as Alan and I later learned) happily wandered through Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Uniqlo and other wondrous spots, Alan and I strolled around the second and third level walkways overlooking the great court. We passed one emporium after another, but entered not a one. Neither of us were in need of any new duds (I mean, we’re talking here about two of the already-sharpest-dressed guys on the planet!), nor of much anything else. And thus to the food court we finally headed, where we sat and chatted about this and that, coming close to solving a couple of the world’s problems, though not quite close enough.

Eventually, Sandy and Martine rang us up. And came to join us at the food area. They’d had a grand time. So had Alan and I, in our own way. Sandy and Martine had made a few small purchases. And, before heading back to the Scheinin hacienda, Martine dropped a few dollars more, taking away some old timey candies and roasted nuts from a colorful and alluring sweets stand at the food court. These were gifts for relatives whom she and Alan would be visiting in Massachusetts in a couple of days.

Thank you, Willow Grove Mall, provider of fun, enlightenment and relief from the Sun’s punishing rays. I bow in praise.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

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Stuff And More Stuff (A Visit To The Mercer Museum)

One of my closest friends, Alan, lives in Paris, France, so we don’t get to see each other too often. My wife Sandy and I are crazy about him and his wife Martine. Wonderful people. Smart, gracious and, if the conditions are right, up for pretty much anything. Alan and I have been buddies for 50 years. We met at college in Vermont lo those many years ago. He and Martine were in the USA for a couple of weeks recently for family gatherings and to tour New England a bit, and they also visited Sandy and me for a few days. We all had a terrific time together.

The weather was hot while they were with us. By 10 AM each day the sun was kicking ass. Sandy and I had hoped to show Alan and Martine some beautiful outdoor sights in Philadelphia or its environs. Maybe Morris Arboretum. Maybe Longwood Gardens. Maybe Philly’s Old City section and its nearby Penn’s Landing waterfront. But we scratched all of those ideas off our list. None of us felt like dealing with the heat. Where to, then?

Doylestown's Mercer Museum.
Doylestown’s Mercer Museum.

I’ve written a number of times about Doylestown, PA, a fine village in Bucks County about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Doylestown was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a talented and brilliant chap with eclectic interests who lived from 1856 to 1930. He designed and constructed three large and unusual buildings in Doylestown, one of which, the Mercer Museum, fit the bill as an indoor destination for Sandy, me and our friends. On the first full day of Alan’s and Martine’s visit, that’s where we headed.

Henry Mercer was a traveler, an archaeologist, an outside-the-box thinker and a collector of myriad objects. He also was well-heeled, a circumstance that allowed him to indulge his passions and to live pretty much as he chose. The collecting bug bit him early in life and took hold very strongly in the 1890s when he saw the effects that industrialization was having on the American way. Before they would be entirely phased out and disappear, he decided to amass examples of the handmade objects that once were, and in some cases still were used in typical homes, in everyday trades, on farms and in workshops. The tools and household and recreational goods, in other words, that defined how folks lived in the 1700s through roughly 1850.

Mercer spent much time at junk dealers, auctions and country sales, and often for little money purchased an astonishing array of items, thousand and thousands of them. But where would he keep all of this stuff? No problem. The amazing Mercer designed a sprawling idiosyncratic castle of sorts to house his Americana collection. A small team of workers built the structure in just a few years. The Mercer Museum opened in 1916, and Henry immediately donated it and the stuff to the Bucks County Historical Society, which to this day owns and runs the operation.

I was pretty certain that Alan and Martine would like the Mercer Museum. It’s not well-known, why I don’t understand. But it is fascinating and maybe one of a kind. The building alone is worthy of examination, a concrete behemoth awash with windows and topped with a dizzying display of towers and chimneys and who-knows-whats. Mercer selected concrete as his primary construction material because he desired a fireproof enclosure for his collection, and it certainly seems as though he made the correct choice. To date, no flames.

A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.
A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.

And the collection? “Incredible” is an understatement. Thirty thousand or more things to eyeball, many of which you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. A well sweep (it drew water from wells in pre-pump days), a stagecoach, a hay rake with 24-inch-long teeth, components of a water power saw mill . . . not to mention smaller items such as tools used in hat making, tinsmithing, coopering, the healing arts, you get the idea. Mercer suspended some of the big boys (a dory and a whaleboat, for instance) and also some of the little guys from the ceiling and arches of the museum’s large central atrium, where the effect is hallucinatory. It takes long looks to figure out just what it is you’re looking at, despite the quite good signage. And Mercer apparently had a real sense of the whimsical, as chairs, chests, baby cribs and other artifacts I couldn’t easily identify dangle from the ceiling, often upside down.

The Hat Making room.
The Hat Making room.
High Wheeler bicycles "floating" above a stagecoach.
High Wheeler bicycles “floating” above a stagecoach.

Most of the tools and results of America’s myriad trades, thankfully I suppose, are much more neatly displayed. They are divided up, by occupational use or other categories, in rooms, alcoves and niches that surround the atrium on six different floor levels.

Brown is the color of the day at the Mercer Museum, since so many of the objects on display, especially the hefty ones, are made of wood. Alan and Martine and Sandy and I took our time in the Mercer forest, but after two hours started to run out of gas. Alan said the museum is one of the best he has ever been in, and I concur. This trip to Mercer was my third or fourth. A fellow visitor, whom I chatted up slightly while we both gazed at eight-foot-tall High Wheeler bicycles hanging from the ceiling above a western Concord stagecoach, got it right when she said that “[Henry Mercer] makes hoarders look good.”

A few suggestions to the interested. Go, definitely go to the Mercer Museum. But make the voyage on a sunny day, as there is a paucity of artificial light there. And skip the dead of winter. The museum is unheated.

As mentioned hundreds of words above, the day following the Mercer experience featured temperatures just as disagreeable as its predecessor’s. Once again, an indoor attraction it would have to be. Where? (To be continued)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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