Aaah, The Early Morning: Coffee, A Puzzle, And A Fine Song

Hello one and all. It is afternoon as I begin to write this story on the fourth day of October of 2018, the year that is rapidly disappearing in our collective rearview mirror. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up! Get your eyes off of that mirror! Even though it ain’t a wonderful thing that our expiration dates are getting closer with each passing second, there’s no point dwelling on that. If it had been up to me, I’ll note nonetheless, the design and nature of the cosmic game we’re parts of would be a whole lot different, a whole lot more user-friendly, than they are. But, par for the course, I wasn’t consulted.

Still, despite my dissatisfaction with how the world and universe turn, there’s one time of day that I am almost always glad to greet: The first hour after I arise at 6:30 AM, when the potential troubles of the day normally haven’t yet reared their f*cking heads, and there’s nary a peep coming from within my house.

“What, do I disturb Your Majesty when I come downstairs in the morning?” my wife Sandy, who snuck up on me to take a look at the mighty words that I’m typing, just snarled at me.

“No, no, not at all. You are the sunshine of my life. You are the apple of my eye. You . . . ”

Oooh! Sandy has unloaded three big, fat kisses upon the crown of my head, one for each of its remaining strands of hair. See? It pays to be complimentary. And it pays to have three strands of hair. Now, there’s a couple of life lessons for ya!

Where was I? Oh yeah, the first hour after I jump, or should I say stagger, out of bed, leaving Sandy to her dreams.

This is my general routine: After visiting the bathroom I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of joe. The coffee always is waiting for me, for I fill our Mr. Coffee machine with ground coffee and H2O an hour before hitting the sack, and then set Mr. C’s timer to begin the brewing process at 6:25 AM. The coffee without fail tastes vibrant and strong, because I use a lot of ground coffee in proportion to water, and have discovered over time a number of java brands that really make the grade.

Being a guy who’s happy to provide public service, I’m now going to impart what might be useful information to some: Try combining two or three coffees to create your own personal blend. The flavors and intensities most likely will be very complimentary. If they’re not, then experiment till you find a blend that suits your taste. Me, I use three coffees, one of them decaf, in equal proportions. The current choices are Melitta’s Classic Decaf, Melitta’s Columbian Supreme and Lavazza’s Intenso. I tell you, just writing about my morning beverage is setting me all aquiver. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s jolt!

Okay, getting back to October 4: Filled cup in hand, I relocated to the living room sofa at 6:45 AM, as usual. And also as usual I opened my laptop and signed onto the BrainBashers website to bring up its selection of sudoku puzzles. Man, how did I live for so many years with no awareness of sudoku, a captivating numbers puzzle that I first attempted seven years ago? It didn’t take long for me to become an addict.

I felt content and subtly happy as I filled in numbers on a BrainBashers sudoku grid, giving my flabby brain its daily dose of exercise. And I became even happier when I flipped on my portable radio, something that I rarely do, silence-seeker that I ordinarily am at that time of morning. Lo and behold, at 6:59 a terrific, endearing song (Homesick) by The Marcus King Band burst forth from WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I think that Homesick helped speed my way through the puzzle’s nooks and crannies. At my discouragingly advanced age I need all the help I can get. Here’s Homesick:

So, the time has arrived for my second public service announcement: If ever you have the chance to see The Marcus King Band in concert, don’t toss it away. I plan to catch them when they pass through Philadelphia next month. They are tremendous, a young Southern rock/soul group whose leader (Marcus) plays electric guitar, well, electrifyingly. They knocked me out when I watched them on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show in August. And they knocked out Conan too, leaving him kind of gaga. These guys, I firmly predict, are going to become big. Here’s the band’s performance on Conan’s program:

I’ve now performed two good deeds in one day. Who knew that writing could be so fulfilling? Without a doubt I’ve earned myself a reward! And I know who will be delighted to bestow it upon me.

“Oh, Sandy! I think I discovered a fourth strand of hair. The crown of my head sure could use another kiss.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sandy from 60 feet away. “I’ve already blessed your scalp three times today. That’s my limit. I’m done.”

Shit! Life ain’t fair! I need a nap. Over and out, till next time.

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

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My Favorite Season Is Nigh: An Autumnal Story

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.

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

The End

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.

Hyundai on the repair shop’s grounds

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.

Our Toyota

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.)

There’s No Getting Around It: Old Is Old

Holy crap, or more to the point, holy shit, I’m getting old. Old, as in old. I mean, how is this possible? I used to think that the rules didn’t apply to me. I don’t like this game!

Not until my most recent birthday, though, did I ever feel the least bit depressed about the advancing years. But when I spun the dial six months ago and it landed on the big 7-0, I gulped. Then I gulped again. Then I said to myself, “Neil, you’ve been around a looong time. In your head you might feel no different than you did when you were 45. But times have changed. The wrinkles on your face are multiplying faster than amoebae. Not to mention that your ass is starting to look as grainy as a minute steak. And the hairs on your head? Cowboy, there are fewer of those than there are fingers on your hands.”

“Man, the days when the occasional girl would give you the eye are gone, gone, gone,” I continued. “At this point, if a girl ever looks you over it’s gonna be because she has a case of myopia so severe she would mistake a McDonald’s sign for a rainbow. Neil, your glory days, as sadly placid as they were, are so far in the rear view mirror they in effect predate the Old Testament. You’re in the home stretch, fella, even if that stretch lasts another 25 years.”

Seconds after that cheery monologue ended I was on the verge of emitting a multitude of tears. Fortunately, I remembered that crying isn’t manly, so I merely wept very gingerly and very quietly. When the drippage came to its conclusion I shrunk off to a corner and stayed there until, my bladder near-exploding, I had to answer nature’s call. I haven’t returned to that corner since then, though I’ve been tempted to do so.

Fast cut to the present day. Gentle readers, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen the light. Moonlight, specifically, because on the evening of March 31 my phone rang. My childhood pal Mike was on the line. (We grew up in a town outside of New York City, and now reside 20 miles apart in suburban Philadelphia. Yeah, we’re stalking one another).

Mike, an astronomy buff of sorts, was calling to inform me that a Blue Moon was making its appearance, that it was the second Blue Moon of the year (the first having been in January), and that I should go out and look at it because a Blue Moon in each of two months within the same calendar year wouldn’t happen again until 2037. That’s a lot of info, especially for someone whose brain is as old as mine. I barely knew what he was talking about, but I did what Mike suggested.

The Moon was a beautiful sight. Of course, it wasn’t blue at all, Blue Moon being a phenomenon that refers not to hue. Instead it denotes the second full moon that occurs within a given month (a somewhat rare event, though not freakishly so). “Hey, if you’ve seen one full moon, you’ve seen ’em all,” I hear you saying? Uh-uh, not if you’re someone like me who 90% of the time forgets to look up when he’s out at night.

From my front lawn on March 31 I gazed hard and fairly long at the rock in the sky. It was not far above the horizon and it was huge and bright. I asked it to smile and say cheese before I took its picture, to no avail. “I don’t smile,” it said to me. “That’s not the way I roll.” I couldn’t argue with that, of course, and proceeded to document the moment. My phone’s camera doesn’t capture nighttime images too sharply, but I’m shoving that moon photo into this article nonetheless. I kind of like it despite its graininess. It reminds me of my aforementioned ass.

What does admiring the Moon have to do with feeling less than chipper about entering the stratosphere, age-wise? Well, a lot, actually. Yeah, I’ve traveled plenty farther down life’s highway than I wish was the case, but there probably are — what? — three billion members of humanity who feel the same way. All that any of us can do is keep on keepin’ on, with our heads held high and our hearts and five senses open to greet the good people and good stuff around us. No point getting too down about the nature of the cosmic set-up. We come and we go, just like everything else, even stars so large they make our Sun appear puny. I don’t particularly like that set-up, but what can you say?  It is what it is, as the truest of truisms goes.

I’m not the sort who ever will attain a relentlessly positive attitude about life. Never have been. But I get a charge out of more than a few things on a pretty regular basis. Not long after the day of my 70th I stuck the Unhappy Birthday card that I’d delivered to myself into my back pocket. I’ve been doing what I can to keep it there, out of sight and mind. As I’m typing this essay right now, picking up from where I left off the night before, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out a window at a gloriously foggy morning. I’m going to step outside for a few minutes to admire the fog. And I’ll take its picture. Onward we go.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media or via email. Gracias.)

(If you click on the photos, larger images will open in separate windows.)

One More Look At 2017 Before It’s Gone

It’s now 7:20 on a Wednesday morning as I sit my ass down to type this little opus. It will be my final post for the year during which Donnie Trump first sat his ass down behind the desk in the Oval Office. His ass, unlike mine, is fat. And he, unlike me, is nasty, intolerant and a pathological liar. Just sayin’.

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy, who is staring over my shoulders at the computer screen as I peck away, said two seconds ago, “I thought you weren’t going to talk about Trump in this essay.”

Well, she’s right. He’s depressing. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to other topics, such as Yemen and Myanmar (the former Burma). Wait — am I nuts? The horrors going on in those regions are immense. Talk about depressing. I tell you, I’ll never understand what the story is with the human race. Actually, I do understand. Bottom line is that scads of people just don’t like scads of their fellow women and men. Never have. Never will.

“What are you doing, Neil?” Sandy just asked. “You told me 15 minutes ago that you were going to keep this story light. You know, like all the other disposable, puffy pieces that you’re known for churning out. Get back on track, boy! You’re out of your realm right now.”

Thank goodness I’m married. Okay, Sandy, let me see what I can do. Enough about Trump and hatred. Hmmm, an end-of-year story should offer some words of wisdom, shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t hurt. And though I’ve always been more than a bit low in the wisdom department, I did have a good thought or two in a recent article. Here’s what I said: “ . . . if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told.” Imagine that — me quoting me! There’s a first time for everything. Or so I’m told.

Moving right along, folks, I might do well to mention a whole lot of things that satisfactorily filled my well during 2017, excluding those I’ve previously oohed and aahed about on these pages. But to avoid being at my keyboard for the next three days I’m going to forget about a whole lot of things and limit myself to only two. Which two shall it be? Ah, yes . . .

Number one: If you want to dive into a better than average novel, may I suggest you glue your eyes to Perfume River, which came out in 2016. Robert Olen Butler, an acclaimed author whom I basically knew nothing about before almost randomly pulling Perfume River off a local library’s shelf a few weeks ago, penned the graceful volume. The book’s narrative floats easily between the near-present and the Vietnam War eras. That war impacted the lives of the Quinlan family in mega-blast ways. The book examines their plights, the decisions that brought them to where they are, and the secrets they hold from one another and, in truth, from themselves. What insights into their own makeups and into those of others are people able to gain as the years elapse? Perfume River is where to look to find a number of delicately-threaded answers to that question.

Mbongwana Star at Abington Art Center

Number two: Do you enjoy exuberant, scarily good music? Then go to see Mbongwana Star, the band from the Democratic Republic Of The Congo that melds African melodies and rhythms with blazing rock and roll. Your chances of ever catching them, though, aren’t large. The band does tour, but not all that much. That I was in their presence over the summer is, to me, rather miraculous. And their performance was, by a reeeeally wide margin, the best I took in during this expiring year.

I’d never have been at their concert were it not for Later . . . With Jools Holland, probably the best music show on television. In the early months of 2017 I caught a repeat episode (from 2015) of Later, which is taped in Great Britain, and was floored by one of the bands appearing on it. Mbongwana Star, needless to say. Their name stayed with me as the months passed. And that is why I nearly fell off my living room sofa when, in June, I saw on Abington Art Center’s website that Star was scheduled to perform on the center’s lush, rolling lawn the following month. How was this possible? How had the center even known about this band? Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. I was exalting. Abington Art Center, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is only three miles from my house.

This show was to be among Star’s final on foreign shores for 2017. Sandy and I arrived early, grabbed a good spot on the lawn for our folding chairs, and waited for the group to come on.

Well, unstoppable, roaring power blasted from the stage from the opening notes. No ballads for Mbongwana Star. Rarely do I rise from my chair at concerts to boogie, but boogie I did, heading down to within 15 feet of the stage and kicking out the jams in my inimitably nerdy, old-guy manner. It was fun of the highest order. Here’s a video of the band playing in Europe in 2015:

Besides Star’s incredible musicianship, the astounding thing to me was that two of the performers, both of whom are vocalists, are in wheelchairs, victims of childhood polio. And yet these gentlemen, dealing with profound problems, are able to celebrate magnificently through their music. Some remarkable people are on our planet, and Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambali are among them.

Like I said, I’m limiting myself to only two items. And (sometimes) I’m a man of my word. Thankfully, this article has manifested itself fairly fluidly, rather than in the fits and starts that are common for most of the pieces that I write. I take that as a good sign. And so, I now shall conclude the proceedings by wishing one and all a safe, happy and healthy 2018. A relative smattering of hours after I hit the Publish button for this story, Sandy and I possibly will be at Penn’s Landing, part of Philadelphia’s waterfront. If we’re there, we’ll gape at the fireworks being launched in the middle of the Delaware River. We’ve ushered in many previous New Years precisely like that. Let there be light.

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing it)

Before, During And After Lunch: Slices Of Life And Of Pizza

I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of this blog. Not a whole lot, but enough to see that my stories — when you look at their sometimes straight, sometimes wavering and sometimes loopy as hell strokes — paint a pretty good picture of what I’m about. I’m not one to reveal all. I’ll never write a word, for instance, about the time, 40 years ago, when I went undercover in Nepal to help bring down the notorious Himalayan gang of bank robbers that dressed themselves in highly-convincing yeti costumes. Or about my space-boot shopping spree with Neil Armstrong a few days before he blasted off for the Moon. But I reveal plenty, I think.

Basically I’m a simple guy who does simple things. Well, simple cum lopsided things often might be a more accurate description. And for the last two and a half years I’ve been writing about them. My articles peer at, for the most part, typical days for yours truly, show what my interests are and have been, and show who has accompanied me (and whom I’ve accompanied) on this journey through what we affectionately call life.

Slices of life. Yeah, that’s what I usually find myself describing. And now that I’ve expended nearly 200 words in trying to establish a degree of context for this current opus, I’ll turn my attention in that direction. “Yo, you better, pal,” I hear a few voices saying. “Our time is limited. We’re this close to closing out your article and checking out some YouTube videos of skateboarding kangaroos.”

Right, right, ye whose attention span is shorter than Donnie Trump’s fuse (but not shorter than his dick). Here we go.

Last Friday I found myself heading north from my suburban Philadelphia abode. My car, having a mind of its own, drove itself two and a half miles to an establishment that ranks high on my ladder of places where I like to grab a bite for lunch. In fact, it probably is my favorite lunchtime eatery in my neck of the woods. And that’s because, speaking of slices, I believe that the slices of pie that one purchases at Nino’s Pizzarama are damn good. A card-carrying fool for pizza, I down them there two or three times a month (and I go to other pizza joints throughout each month too).

I ordered a slice of regular pie and one of Sicilian. They hit the spot regally, though I was slightly disappointed in the regular’s crust. Too chewy. The pie needed to have been left in the oven for another 20 or 30 seconds to become as crispy as it itself was hoping to become. Such is the life of pie.

While munching away, I couldn’t get out of my head a song I’d heard on the radio during my northward trek. It’s a very beautiful recording, one that I instantly became attached to soon after its release in 1968: Hickory Wind, by The Byrds. As always, it sounded wonderful.

Hickory Wind comes from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a magnificent country-rock album. The Byrds, famed for earlier numbers such as the psychedelic nugget Eight Miles High and the folk-rock staple Turn, Turn, Turn, had undergone some significant stylistic and personnel shifts by the time it was waxed. Three of the five original members were gone and new guys, most notably the space cowboy Gram Parsons, who helped push the band partly into country-music territory, were on board. Parsons is one of rock and roll’s legendary names, not only for his big musical talents, but for his wild and wooly and troubled life. He died of a drug overdose in 1973.

Gram Parsons is credited with having written Hickory Wind in 1968 with his musical compadre Bob Buchanan. (There is a dispute over the song’s authorship, by the way. Some claim that a little-known folksinger named Sylvia Sammons composed it, and that Parsons stole it from her. The truth never will be known, it seems.) It has been recorded by many since then, but The Byrds put it out first.

What a song. Wistful and melancholy, it stands you up straight and makes you think about the times when loneliness and an aching heart might have ruled your days. That’s Gram singing lead. In the car I melted as I listened to his yearning voice and to the sad, sad notes coming from Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar. Man, you want to be in a happy mood when you’re eating pizza. But me, I sat at one of Nino’s tables in a contemplative frame of mind, not fully able to concentrate on the powers of sweet tomato sauce, excellent melted cheese and could-be-better crust.

There’s much to be said for contemplative, though. It’s a state that can be good for the inner being, helping us to put things in perspective and, if we’re lucky, softening our defenses. On the way home from Nino’s I turned on the radio and found myself on the receiving end of another helping of such as Horace Silver‘s Lonely Woman filled the car. Silver, whose rich 60-year career in the jazz world ended with his passing in 2014, composed and recorded Lonely Woman in 1963. It came out in 1965 on his most famous album, Song For My Father.

There’s little I need to say about the song. It is subdued and righteous and should be better known than it is. A trio (Horace on piano, Roy Brooks on drums, and Gene Taylor on bass) perform Lonely Woman, Horace having decided that the tune would benefit if saxophone and trumpet, which appear on the majority of his recordings, sat this one out. Less sometimes is more. What’s more, Horace plays straight through Lonely Woman’s seven-minute length, having further decided that neither a bass solo nor drum solo were appropriate. Hats off to that.

Slices of life. Slices of pizza. I’m sure a spot-on connection could be drawn between them, and that slice-y metaphors are out there ripe for the picking. Those with bulbs brighter than mine would have no trouble drawing and picking. Which is why I now shall quietly exit the stage, before long to return with another tale of the sublimely simple. Till then, amigos . . .

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Sue Miller The Novelist Got Me Thinking: Uh-Oh!

Who am I? Deep inside, I mean. For that matter, who are any of us? Man, those are questions I don’t think about too much. They make my head spin. You wouldn’t think they would, though, considering that my college major was psychology, some of whose branches attempt to help humans find answers to such concerns. I liked my psychology courses, and did pretty well grade-wise in them, but I guess that psychology and I never clicked meaningfully enough. We didn’t waltz together as a loving couple. At no time, then, did I see a psychology-based future for myself in my crystal ball. In fact, sad to say, when I gazed deeply into that glass hunk I didn’t notice any future career at all. Alas, with college degree in hand following graduation in 1969, I trod a long and winding road halfway to nowheresville, scrambling with little sense of direction to find steady employment and a decent-paying job.  Oy vey summed up my situation and prospects nicely.

Thank the baccalaureate gods above, the ship began to right itself a number of years later, the proverbial pieces starting to fit together. And in the end pretty much everything worked out quite attractively for me. But looking back on it all from five decades later, maybe I’d have found steady employment and a decent-paying job a whole lot sooner had I been more attuned to examining and answering the foreboding question, “Who am I?”. Not to mention another question, to which we’ll turn our attention shortly, that wasn’t at all on my radar screen in those days of yore.

In any event, here I am today, rolling “Who am I?” and its like around in my brain because of a novel I snatched off the shelf in a local library a few Fridays ago. Not paying attention to the hour of the day, I arrived at the library only 10 minutes before closing time. I realized this when the lights began to flicker, a signal to pack up and get out of Dodge.

Determined not to leave empty-handed I moved quickly down the fiction section’s M aisle, which is where I was standing when the lights started doing their thing. My eyes darted here and there and landed on books by various Millers. Should I try something by Andrew Miller, whom I never heard of but whose volumes were emitting vibes that appeared to be meshing happily with my own? Or one of Henry Miller’s opuses, HM being a hip and bawdy cat I’ve plenty dug over the years? Nah, I wanted a female author. In the intellectual, not the carnal sense. Which is why I grabbed a few of the novels by Sue Miller off the shelf and scanned the synopses on their inside covers. I knew of Sue, she of the bestselling The Good Mother and The Senator’s Wife, and made my decision pronto. Home I went with The Lake Shore Limited sitting beside me in the car.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. In this case I won, because The Lake Shore Limited is a fine, fine book. If you are in search of a handsomely-wrought creation whose characters act and talk and think believably, it might be for you.

The Lake Shore Limited not only is the name of Sue Miller’s novel, it also is the title of a play set within the novel. What’s more, it is a real-life passenger train that connects Chicago with several cities in the northeastern United States. The play, which is seen through the eyes of various characters in the book, is the novel’s fulcrum. Its powers cause them, including the play’s author, to take good, hard looks at themselves and in some cases at those in their immediate orbits. All find within the play circumstances that resonate with or parallel their own lives.

Wilhelmina “Billy” Gertz, the novel’s main character, is a playwright living in Boston when the book opens. The year is 2007. Her latest product, The Lake Shore Limited, is in performance at a small Boston theater. And gaining strong reviews. Billy felt compelled to write the play, which she battled with for years trying to discover what she really wanted to say, because her once-boyfriend Gus had perished in one of the planes that demolished the World Trade Center on 9/11. Billy’s play tells a tale of an emotionally-numb man, Gabriel, waiting for Elizabeth, his wife, to return from a trip. She is travelling on The Lake Shore Limited. For many a moon, he and Elizabeth have not exactly been the happy couple. In no real sense are they together.

But life can change fast. The Limited has been targeted by terrorists, bombs ripping through it as it reaches Chicago’s Union Station. Gabriel’s soul-plumbing, while he waits to learn of his wife’s fate, reveal him to be more alive than he or the play’s audience expected.

Moving back and forth in time, Miller lays out the lives, past and present, of Billy, Leslie (Gus’s sister), Rafe (who portrays Gabriel in the play), and Sam (Leslie’s friend and Billy’s pursuer). We view events and encounters through their differing perspectives. And we learn that each character often isn’t too certain of the solidity of his or her perspective to begin with.

Which, to me, sounds like the way things are in real life. That’s one reason I enjoyed The Lake Shore Limited as much as I did. Its players come across as true flesh and blood. Miller’s novel also is layered delicately and precisely, which makes it rich. And ripe for discussion. Care and concern, unbridled love, grief, selfishness, infidelity, deception . . . these primo examples of the human stew are on full display in the novel. Maestro-like, Miller elegantly weaves these themes and emotions through her pages.

Not to downplay those just-mentioned examples, two of the things that have stuck in my mind like glue about The Lake Shore Limited even more are the “Who am I?” question and another question with which it goes hand-in-hand. Miller doesn’t dwell on them, but I felt them running as undercurrents in her novel. Billy, for instance, thinks of herself as a semi-loner. And, I believe, she knows that not only is it her insecurities that lead her in the loner direction, but that trying to overcome them by adopting a less-defensive approach to life might result in a jump in her happiness quotient.

And Sam, a successful architect, can only feel bad about how he failed pretty considerably as a parent when his children were young. They, now well into adulthood, and he don’t have world-class relationships. “Who the heck am I?” I can envision Sam asking. “What do I need to do to change my course?”

Billy and Sam . . . I can relate. We homo sapiens are emotional and malleable creatures, open to improvement and expansion, and vulnerable to blows. Yes, “Who am I?” is a biggie as questions go. But even if you find the answers to it, you’re not going to bloom enough if you don’t get around to examining, and acting upon, “What sort of person do I want to be?” too.

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Love, The Lovers, And The Race Street Pier

There are coincidences, and then there are coincidences.  The latter type are so weird and unexpected even a fervent skeptic such as myself might be led to murmur a mighty “Mmmmm, I wonder . . .

The most potent examples of unusual coincidences that I’ve personally come across began making their appearances not long after my wife Sandy and I moved into our suburban Philadelphia home. We set down stakes here in 2005 and soon met quite a few of the occupants of other houses on the block. Some of the adults lived alone, but most were couples of the heterosexual variety, with children. Proverbially happy couples, I believed. That’s why you could have knocked me over with a sturdy feather when next-door neighbor Tony [his and all other neighborly names have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty] told me in 2006 that his wife Diane had moved out and that they were divorcing. Huh? Well, you rarely really know what’s going on behind closed doors, right? I was sorry to see Diane go.

A few years later things went south fast for the next-door folks on the other side of our house. Tom and Nicole each let me know that they had decided to divorce, but that in the interim they would remain within the same abode. That arrangement went on for a while. Then Nicole moved away. The finalized divorce followed. Sandy and I scratched our heads, amazed that a second couple had gone down for the count.

Well, four years ago love disintegrated once again on my street. The victims were Bob and Yvonne, the pair living directly opposite from Sandy’s and my front door. They too remained within their abode, how I don’t know, while the wheels of divorce spun. A year later they sold their house, each moving elsewhere. Their divorce became legal soon after that.

Holy crap, what was going on? Had Sandy and I moved into Divorce Epicenter? Well, maybe, because the pattern continued. The new occupants of the house directly across the street saw to that. A year and a half after moving in, Horace moved out. Joan is still there. But there’s little chance of the two getting back together. They have divorced.

Incredible, no? But what can you say? Love is a complicated emotion. It ain’t easy to manage. It can be strong as granite. Or not.

A new movie, The Lovers, is a shining example of all of that, except for the granite part. Sandy and I watched it on the big screen a few weeks ago. It isn’t playing in many theaters anymore, but if it hasn’t yet made its way to Netflix and the like, undoubtedly it will before long.

Azazel Jacobs, who has had a nice cinematic career but has yet to hit it big, wrote and directed The Lovers. In the movie, Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are a very confused, long-married couple that has grown apart. They have tired of one another   Yet they live together. And, strangely, they sleep together, though on opposite sides of the bed, never touching for most of the movie. Each has found romance outside the home — Michael with Lucy (Melora Walters), and Mary with Robert (Aiden Gillen). Both Michael and Mary have promised to their flames that they will move in with them. But first they will have to spill the beans to their legal mates. That process is slow. Painfully slow. And it becomes complicated by the fact that far along the way Mary and Michael rediscover some smidgeons of the feelings that ages ago had brought them together.

Now, I liked The Lovers. But it sure paints a cynical picture of the human heart. Love comes. Love goes. Love can’t make up its mind. Love roils and muddies the waters. Is this the way it is out there for a hefty percentage of people in the real world, or merely a broad and comic exaggeration? I’m not someone with good answers to those questions. But I will say this: Twelve years ago I sure as hell wouldn’t have believed it possible for four couples living within spitting distance of me to call it quits.

That’s enough about love partly or fully on the rocks. It’s time to turn our attention to that which might have the power to keep love whole. And in Philadelphia I know of no better medicine for such than a visit, at night after the stars have come out, to the Race Street Pier. It’s a former commercial dock that has been repurposed and transformed, an example of tax dollars well-spent. Now it’s a public park, full of trees and lawn areas and wide walkways. It opened six years ago. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey, towers above the park. When darkness has fallen the bridge looks magnificent, glowing with thousand of lights that decorate its length. What a sight.

Race Street Pier and Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Sandy and I were on the pier a few weeks ago with our pals Cindy and Gene. The skies were clear, a perfect breeze tousled our Sassoon-worthy hairdos, and the bridge presented a commanding presence. For an hour we chatted while looking at the bridge, the boat traffic on the Delaware River and the lights in Philadelphia and Camden.

Race Street Pier is mutedly lit at night, and it’s not overrun with visitors. A more atmospheric and romantic urban place in which to spend some moments you’d be hard-pressed to find. The four of us fell under the evening’s spell, that’s for certain. And the spell was powerful, irresistible. Eventually, though,  we had to leave, what with early morning hours fast approaching and our internal gas tanks running a bit low. We said goodbye to Race Street Pier, till next time. The two couples then bid one another adieu and made their ways to their respective homes.

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

Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

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Donnie Trump Doesn’t Like Me

Ah, it’s a comfortable day. Inside my house, that is. Outside, the temperature is an ass-nipping 23° F, too frigging cold for my refined tastes, as I begin to type yet another woozy sort of essay. Tight and controlled, not woozy, would be preferable, seeing that my membership status in The American Association Of Pseudo Writers has been on very shaky ground for awhile now, courtesy of Donnie Trump. If TAAOPW boots me out I’ll be required, per the organization’s guidelines, to put my blog in the deep freeze. And then what will I do with all of the time and energy I devote to blogging? Plea over and over with Cheez-Its’ parent company (Kellogg’s) to hire me as national spokesperson for the crispy, orange wonders that are my fave snack food? Go after the world record for consecutive minutes spent compulsively cleaning a clothes dryer’s lint filter (the current record is 368 minutes)? Well, I’d come up with something. No doubt about that. But I’d rather continue blogging.

AP photo/Nam Y. Huh
AP photo/Nam Y. Huh

As I mentioned, Donnie Trump, another orange wonder, is the cause of my current worries. Talk about a thin-skinned guy. I mean, did I say anything all that bad about him in the story I wrote in November (click here to read it)? How’d he even find out about that piece in the first place, considering that mine is one of the least-read publications on our globe? It must have been his private intelligence network that uncovered me. Man, they’re good. After all, it took them only — what? — six years to determine that Obama’s American birth certificate is legit? Impressive. Donnie sure knows how to surround himself with the best of the best.

Donnie’s discovering my November story is one thing. But his going after its virtually unknown author is another. How’d you like your incoming president throwing lightning bolts at you? No more than I do, I guarantee you. Totally predictably he complained about me on Twitter (“Neil Scheinin lies. And when he’s done lying he lies some more. Not fair. Unworthy of an American journalist.”). He forced my alma mater, The University of South Hoboken, to reduce my grade point average by 25 percent retroactively, nearly five decades after my graduation. And, worst of all, he put the heavy shoulder to TAAOPW, ordering them, if they know what’s good for them, to monitor my every blog story meticulously. I haven’t fared too well in that review process, TAAOPW so informed me. Where, then, will my second Trump opus land me?

That question is a heavy one. In hopes of lightening its answers I have decided to reach out to Donnie Trump, whom, as my November article explains, I knew many moons ago on a high school debate team for which he starred and for which I sat in the wings as the fifth alternate. I spoke with Donnie in writing that piece, our first conversation in eons. Bear with me as I look up his phone number and try to reach him again. Dum dum duh dum dum . . .  the phone is ringing. And still ringing. And, yes! I have him on the line.

“This is Donald. Make this fast, whoever you are. The toilet in the master bedroom is leaking. I’m expecting a plumber to get here any minute now.”

“It’s Neil Scheinin, Donnie. The fifth alternate. The guy whose life you’re wrecking. What’s the deal, dude? Where’s your heart, man?”

“What, you again? Don’t you have lawyers? If you’ve got a gripe with me, they should be the ones handling the situation. Not a loser like you.”

“Donnie, I’m here to appeal to your better side, the one you show to Putin. Listen, I can handle your delusional tweet. And I don’t care about my GPA. It was embarrassingly low to begin with. But trying to kick me out of blogging? That’s going too far, man. I dig writing, Donnie, and my blog is where I deposit the written word, where I express myself creatively. Without my blog my life will be an even emptier shell than it already is.”

Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr
Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr

“Fifth alternate, I could care less about your happiness or your sense of fulfillment. You wronged me, fifth alternate. You wronged me. Maybe you forgot that I’m a firm believer in retribution. That’s why Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino are my favorite directors. Fifth alternate, one of my administration’s goals is to take down your blog within the first 100 days that I’m in office. Without a doubt I can do it. Those nitwits who run The Pseudo Writers Association, or whatever they call it, are playing ball. Once the plumber fixes the toilet and leaves I’m going to get in touch with them again and hammer the nail home. Loser, your blog is history. What’s that rat-a-tat-a-tatting that I hear in the background, by the way?”

“That’s my fingers typing away, Donnie. I’m transcribing this conversation as we speak. Anything else you’d like to add?”

“Shove it, you piece of  sh . . . ”

Readers, before he could finish that thought I hung up on our president-elect. For the second time in recent months I might add. My fingers continue to type. This story, I’d say, is now complete. In seconds I will hit the Publish button. After you have read the article, I ask you to petition TAAOPW on my behalf. In the end your efforts might outweigh Donnie’s influence, allowing this humble, woozy blog to continue its run. It’s never too late to try and stop Trump. Thank you very much.