Snap, Snap, Snap: A Photography Story

Philadelphia (2017)

Starting in the late 1970s, and continuing for 10 or 12 years, I passed a good amount of time wandering around Philadelphia (where I lived), other parts of the States, Europe and elsewhere with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera in hand or in pocket. A non-techie all my life, the Instamatic was the perfect camera for me. Small and easy to load — you dropped a film cartridge into place and then closed the back cover over it, a process even I could handle — the camera provided photographic images that struck me as just fine. Bulky cameras, special lenses and filters, carrying cases? Man, I wanted no part of any of that. And still don’t. I like my life plain and simple, because I’m a plain sort of guy who some might describe as being simple too. Doesn’t offend me. I’m simple that way.

Philadelphia (2017)

And so, wander I would, snapping photos of things that caught my eye. Street scenes, decorated house doors, gnarly trees, cool-looking cars, mountains and forests . . . fairly avidly I documented all of those and more. Outdoor photography was fun, a hobby that made me think creatively and provided exercise in the process. What was not to like?

Manhattan (2017)

Alas, for reasons I haven’t tried to decipher, my photography excursions came to a halt. The photos I took, and they likely number in at least the high hundreds, lie within boxes shoved into attic and basement and closet niches. I haven’t looked at any of them in 10 years or more. And I probably didn’t label half of them. I swear, I’m going to hire a personal assistant one of these days to haul out those photos and put them into working order. And then I’ll donate the pictures to the Smithsonian Institution, which I hear has a program called We’ll Accept Anything, As These Photographs Taken By Extremely Ordinary Americans Clearly Prove.

Manhattan (2017)

Fortuitously, my wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, picked up the slack. On our vacations and at family gatherings she’s the one who for years took nearly all the photos. Sandy, kind of a photography buff, always has had cameras far more advanced than the Instamatic, and happily danced into digital camera ownership earlier this century. I had no problem with her handling the photographic duties. I didn’t miss them, whatever the reasons might have been. Needless to say, when I started this blog in April 2015 Sandy was the chief photographer.

Cleveland’s baseball stadium (2017)

And then came January 2016. During that fabled month, Sandy bought a new iPhone and donated to me the iPhone she’d been using till then. iPhonically-speaking, for me it almost was love at first sight and first usage. I mean, the phone is so cute, so compact, and not too hard for a technological imbecile like me to figure out.

Cape Cod (2017)

Before then I’d been a flip-phone person, basically ignorant of the wonders of smart phones. But within days I became an addict, surfing the web, watching videos, etc., etc. And my iPhone’s camera? Why, it called to me with a song that I was powerless to resist. Before I knew it I was snapping photos left and right, far more than I did in my Instamatic days. Twenty-six months later I’m still snapping. And, by the way, not long after the iPhone came into my possession Sandy lost her photography job with this blog.

Cape Cod (2017)

And why do I bring up all of this? Hold tight, Bunky, as I’m about to tell you. Not that you haven’t already guessed, seeing that photos are on display right from the start of this essay.

Cape Cod (2017)

A day or two before I sat down to begin the composition of that which you presently are reading, it dawned on me that not the worst idea in the world would be to write a story into which I might place a number of photos that I took in 2017. Dozens of them I’d already used in blog articles during that year. But many others were sitting all sad and lonesome, feeling unwanted, on the hard drive or whatever it is within my iPhone. “I’ll liberate some of you! And I accept your thanks in advance,” I said to the pictures.

Cape Cod (2017)

Yes, it’s as simple as that. As I’ve prominently noted above, I’m a simple guy, so what would you expect? In any case, the year 2017 found me in my suburban Philadelphia region, in the City Of Brotherly Love itself, in The Big Apple, in Cleveland and on Cape Cod. There were a few other locales too, but that’s enough. I selected about 30 photos from the previously-unused pile and studied them almost assiduously. I whittled down the pile to the eleven pix herein contained. Some are artsy shots, some are candid, some display the wonders of nature, some have sentimental value to me. My favorites are the two that follow: a selfie of me and Sandy taken on Cape Cod, and a spontaneous etching that I made in the sands of a Cape Cod beach.

Thanks for reading and gazing. Your humble reporter is now going to sign off, hopefully to return in the near future with an as-yet-undetermined commentary upon something or other.

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A Frigid Classical Music Story

Man, the weather in my region of Planet Earth (i.e., southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) not only sucks right now, it has sucked for the last several weeks. You like cold? We’ve got it up the frozen wazoo, and it’s going to get worse.

I’m typing the opening salvos of this pert essay on the 4th of January at 4:30 PM. Several inches of white stuff fell from the heavens earlier today, a minor amount to be sure. Much more to the point, complaint-wise for me, is that it’s a bone-unsettling 20°F (-7°C) outside, which is on the high side of what the numbers have been since Arctic air began its southward trek into wide portions of North America last month. In the wee small hours of Saturday the 6th, the vapors around here are predicted to tip the scales at 4°F (-16°C). And 24 hours after that we can look forward to a tantalizing reading of -2°F, which computes to -19 degrees in the Celsius realm.

Where’s my bathing suit? I’m heading to the nearest beach!

Well, I’m fairly sure that this is the first time I’ve groused about the weather on the pages of this humble blog. But hell, that’s what old guys do sometimes, right? And it’s not as though I have anything better to do, unless you count as a worthy activity the many hours I’ve recently spent compulsively tying the remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head into square knots. I’m a wiz when it comes to tying square knots. Thank the stars above that the training I got eons ago as a Boy Scout went not for naught.

Still, it’s not as though the present draping of cold air should come as a surprise to those who reside far from the equator. Such was the message, in fact, from the announcer who handles the mid-morning shift on WRTI, the Temple University radio station that plays classical music for half of each weekday (6:00 AM to 6:00 PM) and jazz for the other half.

“Buck up, buckeroos. It’s winter. You’ve heard of winter, haven’t you?” is what, in effect, the announcer said a few minutes before 9:00 AM on the aforementioned 4th of January. “We’ve dealt with below-average temperatures before, yes? So, don’t panic, don’t fret. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun, and everything will be all right.”

This wise man, Gregg Whiteside, then softened his message by adding that he realizes that the current undesirable situation is highly upsetting to more than a few members of the populace. And that’s why he then cued up a piece that he assured his audience would settle their nerves and ease their worried minds. And he was right. Sitting on my living room sofa, square knots in progress, I was taken by the great beauty of Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, as performed by pianist Antonin Kubalek. I think you’ll like it, too. Here it is:

Ah, it’s a gem. But Gregg must have felt that one heavy dose of soul satisfaction wasn’t enough. When the Chopin opus reached its conclusion he wasted no time in hitting the button to send Antonin Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major over the airwaves. The composition was played by the British orchestra that goes by the name of The Academy Of St Martin In The Fields. It’s a magnificent work, as you will discover by clicking on this YouTube video:

See? Mr. Whiteside provided a temporary panacea for emotions jangled by wintry onslaughts. But let’s fast-forward a bit. It is now 10:15 AM on January 5. More than 24 hours have elapsed since Gregg advised me to make the best of it. During that time I’ve shoveled my driveway and walkways clear of the four inches of snow that I mentioned earlier. I kind of enjoy shoveling snow. Been doing it all my life.

But I don’t like the deep freeze we’ve been in day after day after day. It’s intimidating and it’s a pain in the ass, not to mention unsafe. Gregg’s musical offerings of help and warmth notwithstanding, there’s no getting around the fact that cold is cold. After I’d been at it with the shovel for an hour, completing the job at hand, my poor ol’ nose, fingers and toes were waving the white flag. Thankfully, I have a lot to be thankful for this winter, and a nicely-heated home is at the top of the list. Into said abode I went.

Just as every essay must end, so must every weather pattern. Which is to say that relief from the meteorological conditions that I’ve been bemoaning is in sight. Soon after I publish this chilling story, my neck of the woods will be emerging from the woods, so to speak, as the weather forecasters are assuring us that the thermometer needle will creep ever so slightly above the freezing mark at some point on Monday the 8th.

I’m now going to remove my fingers from the keyboard upon which I’ve been tapping away. I will relocate to the living room sofa, tune in to WRTI and attempt to undo the square knots that decorate the crown of my head. I’m tired of that look.Wish me luck. The Boy Scouts taught me how to tie square knots. But not how to untie them.

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I Didn’t Expect To See THAT!

One of the things I like about writing stories for this here website is that the process sometimes leads me to examine the way I live my life, to notice my tendencies and to become more aware of my likes and dislikes. In other words, I’ve come to get a better, more organized sense of who I am since I began pecking away at my computer’s keyboard two and a half years ago, launching this blog into heavenly cyberspace.

And who am I, you ask? Holy crap, you think I’m nuts enough to lay myself bare in this article? Well, maybe I am that nuts, but I’m going to restrain myself. Instead, I plan to leave all of the juicy details for the blockbuster memoir that I’ve just now decided to begin work on soon. Do, Re, Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi will be its title. In it you will learn all there is to know about mi . . . I mean, me.

Gentle readers, I apologize for the detour. Where was I heading? Ah yes . . .

Surprises. Pulling my thoughts together while writing stories has made me fully realize that I like surprises. The good ones, that is. Not the bad, an example of which would be having Donnie Trump knock on my door on Halloween night and yell BOO! at me at the top of his lungs. That miserable motherf**ker wouldn’t even need to wear a devilish costume. In civilian garb he’s more than frightening enough.

Good surprises came my way quite a few times during the Cape Cod vacation that my wife Sandy and I indulged in last month. They weren’t of the knock-your-socks-off variety, but I found them hip in a modest sort of way. And here’s the thing: Sandy and I have explored Cape Cod’s territory so relentlessly over the 20 years that we’ve been vacationing there, I no longer expect to come upon something that I deem to be cool and that I also haven’t seen or experienced in ages, if ever. But as they say, you never know. Let’s take a look at the two incidents that startled my eyes the most.

Sandy and I were in Provincetown in mid-afternoon on the twelfth day of October, ambling along Commercial Street, one of the town’s two main drags. The air was warm and the Sun, though fairly low in the sky, was ridiculously bright. I must have been lost in a daydream, for it was only at the last minute that I became aware of a very large orange and black object, a school bus, taking up all kinds of space in fairly narrow Commercial Street and also in Law Street, the really narrow side street from which the vehicle’s driver was attempting to make a right turn.

The driver was in a tough situation. If he had continued to bear right he’d have delivered a mighty blow to the building occupied by kmoe, a high-class wares establishment. How would the driver, who had only inches of wriggle room, get out of his predicament? Would he get out of it? I was fascinated by the spectacle. It struck me as not only comical but bordering on the surreal, giddily out of place in quaint, artsy, cute-as-a-button Provincetown.

Well, if it had been me behind the wheel, I shudder to think what might have ensued. No doubt Provincetown soon would have been saying a eulogy for the picket fence across Commercial Street from kmoe and/or for the shrubbery a breath away from the bus’s rear. And kmoe itself would have had to close for extensive renovations.

In the end, thankfully, all was happily resolved. With assistance from a good Samaritan who took up position in the middle of Commercial Street and provided verbal and hand-gesture guidance, the bus eventually was freed. Hallelujah!

Why in the world, though, had the bus been on Law Street? Provincetown has more skinny streets than Imelda Marcos has pairs of shoes, and they ain’t welcoming to anything bigger than a pickup truck. The bus driver must have been zoning out or simply in the mood to add some dollops of excitement to an otherwise placid day. I’ll never know.

Sixteen days later I decided to go for a fairly long hike along some Atlantic Ocean sands. The rented house that Sandy and I called home, in the town of Orleans, is oh so close to the ocean, so I stuck my feet into a pair of sneakers and headed out the door.

By way of an ocean inlet I reached Nauset Beach in a handful of minutes. It was a lovely day, on the warm side, and the ocean waters, in the midst of low tide, were pretty calm. I strode southward with little in mind except to enjoy the views and to nod and smile like a good neighbor at whomever I crossed paths with. And I had my eyes open for seals, as they commonly cruise in the ocean on their way to the sand islets, just offshore Cape Cod’s southeastern coast, that serve as safe havens for them. I didn’t notice any of those creatures though. I did, however, dig the sight of a small group of seagulls that were in shallow water, a pebble’s throw beyond the mud flats left behind by the low tide. They seemed very cool, calm and collected.

After 30 or 40 minutes of all of this I made the command decision to reverse direction and find my way home.

It was during this return journey that I noticed a couple of folks sloshing around in the mud flats. Throwing aside all concerns about dirtying my bright white sneakers — hey, I’m nothing if not a manly man! — I began to slosh around too, enjoying the heck out of the day. I moseyed northward in the flats, and with each step my admiration for their soppy, primitive beauty grew. They needed to be documented, so I pulled out my iPhone and got its camera ready. I positioned myself just so, the Sun to my back, and was about to press the button. But what was that dark image that had entered the scene? I blinked twice before realizing that it was my shadow, a shadow of someone readying to snap a photograph.

Was it possible that I’d never noticed my own shadow on a beach before? If I had, I didn’t recall the prior occasion(s), which isn’t too unbelievable considering the sieve-like consistency of my cranium’s contents. In any case, I recognized the fact that the design, a most unexpected addition, enhanced the loveliness of the mud flats. I pressed the iPhone camera’s button. And it is with the resultant photograph that I now take my leave of you.

Till next time, amigos.

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Where To? The Beach, Of Course!

Well, here we are again. We being my wife Sandy and I, and here being that most fine 65-mile-long ribbon of Massachusetts territory, nearly all of which is lovingly surrounded by majestic waters, that goes by the name Cape Cod. I’ve rhapsodized any number of times before about The Cape, as a few glances in the right places of this blog’s archives clearly prove. And I’m all set to pen yet another paean to that which is one of my favorite locales on Planet Earth. I can feel the oohs and ahs welling up inside me.

To begin: On a recent Monday evening we arrived at our rented house in Orleans, one of Cape Cod’s 15 townships, as the Sun was dipping toward the horizon. Too bad, we each commented, that said house is 360 miles from our Pennsylvania home. We’d been on the road for eight hours and were bushed. We’ve been making this trek once a year for about 20 years, and the mileage, which to some might not seem like all that much, never agreed with us. Long-distance truck drivers neither Sandy nor I, at any time in our lives, could have been.

Nevertheless, we woke up Tuesday morning feeling decently energized. Which was a good thing because our daily Cape Cod pattern always has been to fit a lot of activities into our waking hours, albeit in a relaxed and appreciative manner. Why be on Cape Cod, after all, if we don’t take advantage of the gorgeous seascapes and landscapes, of the little museums and theater companies, of the pretty villages and of restaurants that serve up tasty foods? Hey, I do plenty of hanging around the house in Pennsylvania. But on The Cape I rev up my motor and act like a geezer in a candy store. It can be good being a geezer . . . except for the old-as-shit part.

Hmmm, I wondered. What would be a meaningful and proper way to inaugurate this latest visit to The Cape? The answer flew into my head like a lightening bolt. Holy crap, that frigging smarted! When I recovered a few moments later I revealed my brainstorm to Sandy.

“You know,” I said, “I think we should walk out to the beach and fly our kite there. And take a look at the sights along the way.” Sandy was with me on all of that.

And the sights along the way, as anyone would agree, are sublime. Not only is our rented house set back in a cozy wooded area, it’s a mere block and a half from an ocean inlet, as calm and picturesque an inlet as you could ever hope to see. I don’t know why Sandy and I lucked out as happily as we did with this Orleans house. To be merely a few hundred feet from true beauty is incredible to me. I often feel as if I don’t deserve to be here, and I probably don’t. But I’m stayin’!

Sandy and I strolled over to the inlet late on Tuesday morn. We looked at the scene and sighed. It’s a ten. Where we make our permanent home, the surroundings are a four. And that’s being generous. The sky was clean and clear, the waters hypnotically still. Lobster traps were piled on the sands and rocks. A few seagulls had taken up position on the shore and were staring out at who knows what. And in the semi-near distance to the east were low dunes, heavily decorated with tall grasses, that run along the back of what is known as Nauset Beach.

As we walked around the inlet, admiring the marsh vegetation on its perimeter, the dunes neared. Soon they were at hand. We strode along a narrow walking path that had been cleared through them, and two minutes later found ourselves gazing at the broad beach and Atlantic Ocean waters that we know well. Hooray! The Scheinins were back!

But here’s the thing. A bunch of vehicles were parked on the sands near waters’ edge. And their owners were lazing on chairs while reading books or contemplating their oversized navels. What the f**k? I’d been to this off-the-beaten-path stretch of sands plenty often before and never had seen more than one or two metal machines. Hell, if you ask me, they shouldn’t even be allowed on the beach. But nobody, as usual, has asked me.

Despite the monsters’ intrusions, Sandy and I smiled at the waters and the sky and the sands. They were and are beautiful. And they smiled back, indicating to us that the kite I held under my left arm would be warmly welcomed.

I say in total honesty that the kite, which we bought three years ago on Cape Cod, is one of the wisest investments we’ve ever made. For 20 bucks we came into possession of an object that has provided us with hours of fun and gladdened our hearts, so touching is it to see a sheet of thin, multi-colored plastic material soaring freely and giddily above us.

Prior to 2014 I hadn’t flown a kite in, what, five and a half decades? Sandy, for whatever reasons, never had in her life. So there we stood on Nauset Beach, undoubtedly about to become the oldest people to launch a kite at any time during 2017 anywhere on The Cape. It took a few attempts to get the old boy up there. But once our pal found wind streams that it admired, it rose and rose and begged us to never bring it down. Swirling and shimmying and loop-de-looping in the steady breezes, it set examples of  going for the gusto and shaking off the ol’ inhibitions that many of us might do well to follow.

But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Reluctantly we pulled in the kite and took off southward for a walk along the beach. Cape Cod’s Atlantic Ocean coastline, of which Nauset Beach is one segment, is around 40 miles in length, mostly undeveloped and a perfect combination of natural elements. And it always knocks my socks off, despite the occasional mini-bummer you sometimes encounter, such as vehicles parked on the sands.

Two hours after having left the house, we headed back across the dunes and along the inlet’s shores. The ideal start to our vacation was in the books.

(By the time I publish this piece, Sandy and I will have returned to our suburban Philadelphia abode. But at least one or two more Cape Cod 2017 stories are kicking around inside me and surely will be birthed)

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A Trip To Fallingwater

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling during the 69 years I’ve taken up space on Planet Earth. Been to Asia (Nepal). And to the Middle East (Israel). And to North Africa (Egypt). And to various countries in Europe any number of times. And I’ve been here and there in the States and Canada. How about Pennsylvania, then, the state I’ve lived in since my late 20s? Well, I’m nicely familiar with its greater Philadelphia region, which is my home territory, but outside of that orb I haven’t ventured all too much. And in the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I may have been missing. A trip to Ohio via the Pennsylvania Turnpike that my wife Sandy and I made a few weeks ago drove the point home pretty decisively. “Wow, look at all these mountains and farms. Who knew?” I said to Sandy more than once during that westward journey. “It’s time to explore Pennsylvania. Let’s do plenty of that before the sands of time run out on us.” Those weren’t my exact words, but they are close enough.

Smartly, we had already planned a day and a half of discovery in the Keystone State. On the way back from Ohio (you can read about the Ohio visit by clicking here) we drove to Uniontown, a less-than-flourishing community nestled in southwestern Pennsylvania, where we had booked a hotel room. The following day, Monday, would be our visit to Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that has become a tourist destination. Neither Sandy nor I had ever been in southwestern Pennsylvania before.

To be honest, I feel a little guilty writing about Fallingwater. It’s not as if the world needs any more mentions of the place, as the 2,400,000+ Google results for Fallingwater obviously prove. But what’s a blogger to do? I considered typing an opus about what I ate for breakfast this morning (strong coffee, and Wheaties with blueberries), but opted instead for Wright’s creation. Nobody wants to read about my breakfast, not even me, no matter how delicious it was. Fallingwater it is.

To summarize Fallingwater’s history: Edgar Kaufmann, a department store magnate who lived in Pittsburgh with his wife Lillian and son Edgar Jr., commissioned the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a weekend/vacation home for the family. The house was to be set within the enormous, heavily-forested swath of land that the Kaufmanns owned in the Allegheny Mountains. That plot was (and is) about 50 miles from Pittsburgh. Wright completed his design in 1935. Two years later the house was in place, and two years after that a guest house, uphill from the main residence and connected to it by a short cement span, went up. In 1963, some years after the death of his parents, Junior donated Fallingwater and the family’s mountain acreage to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land and water protection organization. The Conservancy opened the buildings and grounds to the public in 1964, and before long Fallingwater caught on. Really caught on. To date, upwards of 5,000,000 visitors have toured the facilities. For a place that some might describe as being in the middle of nowhere, that’s genuinely impressive.

Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

And here’s why they keep on coming: Fallingwater’s exterior looks better than just about any house that you’ll ever see. It is sleek, lovingly tiered, rustically handsome and highly imaginatively laid out. And the house’s placement is, as they say, unparalleled. It is built atop and alongside boulders, a few of which poke out into the living spaces. And, rather incredibly, it is perched above a descending stream at the point where the waters – you guessed it – fall over rocks. A waterfall! A modest waterall, to be sure, but beautiful nonetheless. Fallingwater, a looker in an admirable, peaceful way, communes righteously with the natural environment that surrounds it. Harmony definitely prevails.

After breakfast on Monday, Sandy and I jumped into our car and drove the 25 miles, half of them along winding country roads, that separate Uniontown from Fallingwater. Our tour, scheduled for 11:00 AM, began on time. Twenty or so folks were in our tour group. The guide, alas, informed us that photography wouldn’t be allowed within the house. Nor would touching of the objects. Bummer. The interior shots I’ve included in this humble essay, therefore, are photos that I’ve snatched off the Internet. By the way, Fallingwater’s room arrangements and furnishings have been left pretty much as they were when Junior turned over the keys to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Photo by Jeffrey Neal

Most of the tour took place inside, as opposed to outside, Fallingwater. My memory being duller than a butter knife, let me pass on a few recollections before they fade into oblivion. First, I dug Wright’s color scheme. Earth tones predominate. They make for a calming, comforting experience, which without doubt was his intention. And I was surprised to learn that Wright designed not only Fallingwater’s structure, but many of its objects – desks, cabinets, chairs and tables. And they are beautiful. The guy was something else. Was there anything he couldn’t do? Well, he couldn’t walk on the waters of the stream flowing beneath the house, right? Or maybe he could.

Photo by Brad Ford

I noticed a couple of broad wooden desks, wedged into corners, that have portions of their tops neatly cut away so as to allow windows to swing open. Brilliant idea! And I spent some time in Junior’s bedroom looking over the smallish but swell collection of books on his shelves. They reflect an open and bright mind. Among them are the 10-volume set of The World’s Best Essays, a long-forgotten collection published in 1900. I’d have loved to pull out one or two of the volumes to take a look at the wisdom contained therein. But that wouldn’t have been a wise move, as the tour guide might have dragged me off the premises by the few strands of hair remaining on my head had I attempted to satisfy my innocent desire.

The one-hour tour over, Sandy and I headed down a trail that paralleled the stream and led into deep forest country. Rhododendron bushes grew in numbers you’re unlikely to see elsewhere. Oak and maple trees flourished, as did a variety of evergreens. It felt good to get lost, metaphorically, in the woods for a while. Take more forest walks is something I’ve added to my to-do-soon list. Forests don’t exist in my paved-over home area, but a few are within reasonable driving distance.

The next morning we drove home, southwestern Pennsylvania before long disappearing from our rear view mirror. Now, I’m not going to say that this rural region of Pennsylvania is a must-see destination. For those who groove on mountain hiking or fishing or rafting, it’s absolutely A-OK. For those not of that persuasion but who are passing through the area or taking in the sights in Pittsburgh, here’s the thing: You could do a lot worse than make the drive to Fallingwater. Sandy and I agree that Fallingwater made our trip worthwhile. The place is a beaut.

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Here Comes The Night

When not at home I spend many hours erect, most of them devoted to walking around here and there or, occasionally, impersonating a cigar store Indian in front of Wawa and 7-Eleven food markets. At the home front, though, it’s a different story. There, when not sleeping, I sit. Mostly I rest my bony ass on the living room sofa, my assigned chair at the dining room table, or the chair I’m occupying at this moment while pecking away at a computer keyboard. And sometimes I move outdoors to a chair on the large wooden structure that is seven feet above ground and bolted to the rear of my house. The existence of said structure was a prime reason 12 years ago that my wife Sandy and I decided to buy our house. Shepherded around from home to home by our real estate agent, I took one look at the deck and kind of fell in love with it. I’d never before considered owning a deck, but instantly that became an idea I wasn’t going to discard. A month or two later the house with deck became ours.

Now, I’ve given lots of time to the deck since moving in, but in the last year I’ve fallen down on the job. Somehow I pretty well forgot that the deck was there. How is that possible? Sandy didn’t forget, but that’s because she isn’t an idiot, unlike me. She lolls on the deck many mornings. It’s such a lovely creation. And its aims are pure: to provide pleasant views for our eyes and what passes for fresh air for our lungs.

Thankfully, times have changed. So, brothers and sisters, gather around. I’m here to announce that those days of neglect have ended, as I’ve headed out to the deck, usually at night, a lot in the past couple of weeks. I’m hooked once again on deck usage. Hallelujah! My sinful ways shall be no more!

I slipped outside to the deck at about 8:40 PM on Monday last week. The Sun had dipped below the horizon 10 minutes earlier. Plenty of light, though, remained in the skies. I took my seat beside the glass and metal table that takes up much of the deck’s floor space and placed upon it my tools for the night: a portable radio, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a glass of iced tea. The afternoon had been killer hot, with temps reaching well into the 90s Fahrenheit. But the night, what with the Sun gone and a calm but steady breeze doing its thing, was comfortable.

I decided to pay attention to what was happening around me, something I often avoid doing for fear of discovering more than my nearly-filled-to-capacity brain can handle. I looked up. Wow! The clouds were beautiful, set against a sky that quickly was turning from baby blue to deeper shades. And the trees filling and surrounding my backyard appeared more solid and wise than normal. The scene was quiet for the most part because, for reasons unknown, humans were not to be heard, nor were barking dogs. Maybe the canines and their masters were all indoors watching must-see TV shows such as The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills and Chrisley Knows Best. Whatever the reasons, I wasn’t complaining.

There were noises though. I astonished myself by noticing four different patterns of birdsong. Needless to say, however, there was no way I knew which species were involved. I have a hard enough time trying to visually identify a bird, let alone its tune. Hell, I’d barely recognize a cardinal if one were to fly up beside me and give me a loving peck on the cheek. “Ouch, you bright red motherf**ker, that hurts!”

Odd thing is that at about 9:00 PM, when darkness was filling the air, the birds stopped chirping away. Do they go to sleep when light has faded? That’s something I never thought about before. And, once again, it’s something I do not have any answers to. I hope that somebody out there will clue me in.

The small white dot is Jupiter

A few minutes after nine o’clock I spotted a bright light finding its way into open space from behind a neighbor’s enormous tree. It sat in the sky all alone and seemed to be slightly larger than a star. Therefore, I brilliantly concluded, it was a planet! And, as I learned the following day by speaking with astronomer Derrick Pitts at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the orb was Jupiter, which is very visible at night this time of year in my region of the globe. I went inside to get my binoculars. Back on the deck I pulled them from their pouch and took a look at the gleaming spot. That view didn’t much improve anything. I did, nonetheless, admire the bold whiteness a bit more than I had with my naked eye. I’m going to ask Santa Claus to bring me a telescope later this year. I could use one.

The dimmer dot is Arcturus. The brighter one is Jupiter.

And the nighttime show continued. The Moon hadn’t yet risen, but another bright object, dimmer than Jupiter, was higher in the sky and east of that bad boy planet. It was the star Arcturus, Mr. Pitts told me the following day. Arcturus is one of the brightest stars in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky. Natch, I’d never heard of it before.

Well, I had had a fine time staring into space and letting my mind wander the celestial pathways. Dozens of Cheez-Its had gone down my gullet very admirably, the iced tea had refreshed, as it’s supposed to do, and the songs on the radio had provided excellent company. And so I picked up my belongings one hour after entering the deck and returned to the bosom of my home. I was in better form emotionally and mentally than before my outdoors adventure began.

This article now is nearing its end. I’ve said just about everything I wanted to say. Which, admittedly, isn’t all that much. Nobody is going to confuse me with Henry David Thoreau, clearly. Such is life. What’s more, I hear the call of the wild. I can’t resist. It is quite dark outside at this moment. I will stop typing. To the deck I’m going to go.

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Across The Bridge And Back

When you’re comparing physical challenges, walking across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, in both directions, ain’t exactly on a par with scaling Mount Everest. Or bungee jumping off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Or even playing a round of golf, for crying out loud, assuming you’re walking (instead of riding) the course and hauling around your bag of clubs on your very own shoulders. But in my little world, tackling the BFB is challenging enough. Well, maybe it’s not all that challenging. But it’s certainly different. And I knocked it off my do-it-already list last week. That list now has only 897 items on it. If I am reincarnated enough times I’ll get to most of them. Unless, that is, I come back over and over again as a sloth. Which, if it happens, wouldn’t surprise me.

Walking the bridge was an idea that appealed to me the moment I heard about it, which was a few months ago on a late-night local television show. “Yeah,” I thought to myself, “that’s right up my alley. I’ll get some fresh air. I’ll see some sights from a new perspective. And it’s something, I suppose, that not all that many people do. I’m ready to go!” But I ended up waiting till winter said goodbye and pleasing temperatures arrived. When the 3rd of May rolled around, with its expected high of 65°F, I hopped aboard a train that took me from my suburban town into downtown Philadelphia. I arrived in the city in the early afternoon.

The Ben Franklin Bridge, a massive and profoundly complex structure, as suspension bridges by nature are, opened for business in 1926. It spans the Delaware River,  in effect eliminating that watery divide between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The bridge’s bases are in Philadelphia and Camden, cities occupying territory in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively. To reach the bridge’s pedestrian walkway (the bridge has walkways along its northern and southern lengths, but only the southern one currently is open), I passed Christ Church Burial Ground, at the corner of 5th and Arch Streets, where none other than Mr. Franklin himself is laid to rest. And then, 100 feet later, I strolled past the hulking United States Mint. Philadelphia is full of unexpected, wacky juxtapositions like that, which is one reason I like the city so much.

Half a block north of the mint I began my bridge adventure, for it is there that elevated lanes, for humans with motorized vehicles and for those without, start their ascent. Those lanes are segregated, though the walk sure would be highly intriguing, not to mention truly challenging, if they weren’t. I might run that notion past Philadelphia’s and Camden’s mayors. I’d never noticed the walkway before, despite having been in its vicinity half a million times over the years. It is there plain as day.

First thing I realized was that I should have worn more than a light shirt beneath my light jacket, because the winds were blowing pretty damn good, chilling my semi-ancient bones to a degree I wasn’t thrilled with. The second thing I realized was that within a matter of seconds I was 15 or more feet above ground. I looked to my right and watched a construction crew clearing the ground for what will eventually hold a fancy condo or rental complex. Who’d want to live beside a bridge’s entrance ramps is beyond me, but lots of things are beyond me.

At this point I had the equivalent of eight or so blocks-worth of walkway to navigate before reaching the Delaware River’s western shoreline. The views were wonderful. I looked down upon 3rd Street, 2nd Street, Front Street and others, all of which I’m very familiar with and which were part of Philadelphia’s heart in its colonial days. Those are beautiful and quaint arteries, as many colonial era buildings remain there. But from high up I wasn’t paying attention to any specific structures. What grabbed me were the wild patterns, the crazy quilt formed by building sides and rooftops and signage in this non-high-rise section of the city.

By the time I reached the water’s edge I was 140 or thereabouts feet above both ground and water. The Delaware is about half a mile wide here. I watched a ship heading south on the river and, if I had been wearing one, would have held onto my hat as the winds did their thing. And I looked out at Camden, a depressed city that is trying to bounce back. It’ll be years, maybe never, before Camden is invited to any C-list, let alone A-list, parties.

On I trod, crossing the river and entering the area above Camden’s lands. Despite the winds I was enjoying the trek. Patches of blue played peekaboo with the clouds and it felt good to give my legs a very good stretch.

I stopped to admire the sights many times during the journey, to smell the roses as those wiser than me say, but between those moments of quasi-bliss I maintained a pretty brisk walking pace. Cars and trucks by the shitloads whizzed by in their delegated lanes 20 feet below the pedestrian walkway, but not a lot of humans shared space with me on the avenue I’d chosen. During the hour and a half that I spent on the bridge I encountered no more than 30 people. Like me, most of them were lone wolves out for a stroll or perhaps on their way to work or to home. A few cyclists passed me, as did half a dozen joggers. And I saw two couples enjoying the day with their leashed dogs. For the most part, though, I had the bridge to myself. It was a fine place in which to space out a bit, to tune into good frequencies, to haul out that sense of adventure that I don’t want lying dormant for extended periods of time.

That’s Philadelphia

On the eastward leg of the journey I stopped just a bit short of the stairway that brings one down to Camden’s soils and asphalt. There I turned around and started back to where I had entered the walkway in Philadelphia, a mile and a half away. Much to my amazement, a bicyclist surprised me on the middle of the bridge. He was a scraggly-haired, middle-aged guy. He slowed down beside me. “Can you help me out?” he asked. “I need some money to get the train to Doylestown.” Doylestown? Was he really planning to board a train, with his bike, going to Doylestown, which is 30 miles from where we were? It hardly mattered. I figured it wasn’t a great idea to piss off someone on the middle of a bridge, what with nobody else within eyesight or earshot. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my coins. “Here’s all the change I have,” I said. “It’ll help you a little.” He thanked me and went on his way.

Can’t say I’ve been hit up before by a panhandler on a bridge. Then again, I haven’t walked upon many bridges in my life. Maybe panhandlers are common sights on spans with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Anyway, before too long I reached the BFB’s western terminus. I’d had a fine time. On to the train station I headed to catch a ride back home.

 

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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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