A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and their ilk. I thank you.)

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Carol, Goodbye

There we were – my wife Sandy and I – zooming westward along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two Fridays ago. We were on our way to Ohio, its Cleveland area, for a reunion of some members of Sandy’s side of the family. We see a few folks from her clan regularly, but not so for the others. The occasion promised to be a somewhat reflective one, in that it was a gathering in honor of Carol, one of Sandy’s and my cousins who, in her mid-60s, died several months ago in Arkansas. There, for decades, she had made her home with her husband Mike. Carol’s brother lives with his wife near Cleveland, and it was said brother and his spouse, Steve and Carolyn, who organized the celebration of Carol’s life.

The gathering turned out to be wonderful. Thirteen folks, including Sandy and I, made up the group. Everyone was glad to be with one another. Lots of hugs and kisses were exchanged during the three days we were together. Lots of good food was consumed. Happy chitchat glided effortlessly through the air. And on Saturday, in memory of Carol, we all piled into our motor vehicles and drove to downtown Cleveland to attend a Cleveland Indians baseball game, the signature event of the family members’ weekend.

When it comes to Carol, only one thing could have been more appropriate than our visiting the Indians, and that would have been our attendance at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Carol, as big a baseball fan as I’ve ever known, grew up in the Philadelphia region and at an early age became infatuated with the Phillies. That infatuation gripped her for the rest of her life. But through her brother, another baseball aficionado, she came to love the Indians too. During visits to Steve and Carolyn over the years she went to a good number of Indians games. If only she could have been with all of us that recent Saturday. In her element, she’d have had a blast.

45 minutes before game time
45 minutes before game time

I was pretty well stunned by the beauty of Cleveland’s  stadium, Progressive Field, when it came into view moments after I walked out of the parking garage. Intimate, with narrow outfield foul territory areas, it was modestly populated at 3:30 PM, forty-five minutes before game time. Hordes of fans soon would arrive. The outfield grasses, green as can be and meticulously groomed, looked magnificent. The enormous scoreboard flashed excitedly with bright-colored messages. With no rain in sight, the day held much promise.

Steve and Carolyn had gone whole hog by renting a suite for the family. I’d never been in a baseball suite before, and, you know, I have to say that it ain’t a bad way to go. A guy could get used to it. There was a buffet area within the room, a frig stocked with beer and a big screen TV for those who chose to watch the game artificially. And, best of all, a clean bathroom.

Photo taken from within the suite

And there was a door that led out to the open air, to a balcony of sorts that held a dozen chairs. The suite was halfway down the third baseline, and from the balcony the view of the game was fine. As were its sounds. I was amazed by the high decibel level of pitched balls crashing into catchers’ mitts. Man, pitchers these days throw hard. Harder, I think, than ever before. Boom, boom, boom, indeed.

Shadows enter the infield!
Shadows dominate the infield!

Well, the game passed pleasantly, though the final outcome wasn’t favored by Cleveland rooters, the Minnesota Twins winning the battle by the score of four runs to two. Like most of the family members I paid only half-attention to the game, spending much of the time wandering into the suite for food and beverage or talking about this or that with one person or another. Or fixating on the heavy, menacing shadows that began to cover the infield midway through the proceedings. How a batter can see a ball well enough to hit it under those shadowy conditions is way beyond myopic me. Carol, though, would have watched the action on the field with an eagle eye. You have to if you’re going to document the step-by-step developments throughout a game on a scorecard, something that few people know how or would want to do. Carol, though, knew how, and did. She was a true lover of the game.

Now, there was much more to Carol’s life than baseball. She was someone of wide mind and interests. But baseball is what many of us who knew her think of when we think of Carol. I mean, in Arkansas she subscribed to a special major league baseball television channel so that she could watch Phillies games. And at family gatherings it wasn’t unusual for her to be wearing a Phillies jersey.

It was fitting, therefore, that a few hours after the game ended, back at Carolyn’s and Steve’s home, everyone adjourned to a large room in which a piano resided. Steve and Carolyn possess excellent musical talent. And Mike, though not in their class music-wise, is a free-spirited singer, liable to burst into song at any given moment. Carolyn sat down at the piano and Steve placed his violin on his shoulder. Their young-adult son, also in possession of musical gifts, picked up a violin too. Next thing you knew a most rousing version of Take Me Out To The Ball game was under way, Carolyn hitting the keys hard and exuberantly, Mike singing with startling gusto and the two violinists fiddling away like their lives depended on it. Everyone else in the room was singing or humming along, and when the song reached its conclusion they burst into loud applause. It was by far the best rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game that I’ve ever heard.

Another good person has left the planet. Carol, goodbye. We miss you.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this article or about adding your comments)

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

My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.