Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

Hey, you in the back row! I see you rolling your eyes! I know what you’re thinking: “What’s wrong with this guy? Enough already about New Mexico. It’s time to move on, fella! Give us an article about your lifelong quest for the perfect jockstrap, or about your failed attempts to launch yourself to the Moon by using a mile-long rubber band. Anything except New Mexico, Part Three!”

Well, cowpoke, you’re plum out of luck. The conservation-minded Boy Scouts organization, in the early 1960s, taught me to waste not. And so I’m plowing ahead, about to squeeze New Mexico like a boa constrictor until a few ideas pop into my head. Take some deep breaths, Neil, and squeeze! Squeeze!

Oh man, it’s working. Something’s happening! I don’t know where this is going to lead but we might as well find out. Part Three, here I come!

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Okay then. As I indicated in Part Two, the grandeur of wondrous landscapes and seascapes is hard to appreciate fully, at least for me, when legions of your closest total strangers are practically breathing down your neck. That was the situation at Frijoles Canyon last month when I visited its gloriously pockmarked cliffs with my wife Sandy and brother Richie. Part of Bandelier National Monument, Frijoles for centuries was home to many indigenous peoples, who now are referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo. Due to a variety of circumstances they left Frijoles Canyon around 400 years ago, moving to other locales.

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Sure, I thought the cliffs were magnificent. Heavy erosion over almost countless millennia has turned them into rutted works of glory. But their beauty never fully sank in because I kept getting distracted by people sharing the trail with me. “Get a move on, asshole. You’re holding up progress,” I could swear one of them had to restrain himself from saying to me.

And things became really crowded near and at Frijoles Canyon’s most famous site, Alcove House. It’s a large opening in a cliff wall, 140 feet above ground. According to the literature I read, about 25 Ancestral Pueblo used to live in the cave at any one time. Others lived in smaller elevated holes in the cliffs, though the vast majority of Ancestral Pueblo occupied tidy housing built at ground level, Frijoles Canyon and nearby lands having been home to several settlements.

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

Bandelier National Monument’s personnel have made it possible to climb up to Alcove House. They’ve done this by bolting four wooden ladders into the cliff wall. Rock steps separate one ladder from the next. Climb a ladder, climb some rock steps, repeat, repeat, repeat. Voila! You now are inside the alcove, looking out at, and down upon, the various landscapes.

The views from up there were great. And I got a kick from the ascent that had brought me to the aerie, and later from the descent. But not as much as I should have, because both directions involved a lot of waiting — there were at least 20 people in front of me. What the f*ck was this? Disneyland?

A paucity of people: That’s one reason why I liked Plaza Blanca, my focus in Part Two, a whole lot better than Bandelier. There are times in life when I just don’t want to be around many members of our species. They can spoil the picture.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

And speaking of pictures, I’ve studded this story with some photographs that please my eye. Shots of the Frijoles Canyon cliffs, as you’ve seen. And one of a home in Santa Fe so intriguingly constructed that its exterior seems to be on the verge of turning to gel. The house is one of several in that same pliant condition that I noticed during my walks around New Mexico’s capitol city.

I couldn’t resist adding the photograph of a bright yellow newspaper box in Santa Fe. It was the first of about 180 pictures that I snapped during the eight days spent in New Mexico. Nor could I resist the allure of a snazzy blue newspaper box in the town of Taos. Sandy, Richie, my sister-in-law Sara and your humble reporter visited Taos during a day trip from Santa Fe, where Richie and Sara live. Hell, newspapers have been having a hard time of it for the last 25 years. The day may come when newspaper boxes will be found only in antique stores.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

As for the remaining photos, something about their colors or off-kilter arrangements or juxtaposition of objects convinced me to immortalize them in cyberspace. They’ll thank me some day. They better.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gentle (or not) readers, I am going to conclude my New Mexico trilogy with these notes: I did virtually no research in advance of or during this trip. I’ve become a lazier and lazier son of a bitch as the years have elapsed, so my dearth of research wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, I believe that the trip was a smashing success. Sandy concurs with that judgment. I thought, correctly, that Richie and Sara would have a fine stash of ideas as to how we all might spend our time together. And everybody left plenty of room for wandering, whimsy and improvisation.

Chimayo, New Mexico

I’m not suggesting that anybody reading this story should skip doing research for their future journeys. You’ll need to do plenty of it, unless your tour guides are as good as Richie and Sara. But I am saying that there’s a lot to be said for frequently allowing gentle breezes to carry you here and there.

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Plaza Blanca Knocked Our Socks Off: New Mexico, Part Two

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about what I should include in the second installment about my recent adventures in sun-drenched New Mexico. Climbing up ladders attached to the sides of cliffs in Frijoles Canyon (part of Bandelier National Monument) — to reach niches within which indigenous peoples lived centuries ago — seemed a natural, as did viewing the deep and dangerous Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos village. But you know what? No more will I now say about those experiences, as excellent as they were, because wafts of inspiration caressed my face a little while ago. And, as I’ve learned over the last few years, one shouldn’t argue with inspiration. This story, therefore, shall be about Plaza Blanca.

Plaza Blanca

May 29, the last full day of my wife Sandy’s and my visit to New Mexico, found the two of us inside a Honda Accord being driven by my brother Richard. We were on our way from Santa Fe, where Richie lives with his wife Sara, to Abiquiu, an area famously known as the one-time home of the late, great painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Richie had printed out some information about the sights in the Abiquiu region and, 10 minutes into the journey, asked me to take a look. Scanning the pages I noticed a paragraph about Plaza Blanca (The White Place), described as unusually beautiful. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said. Nobody objected.

Luckily I found a website that provides precise driving directions to Plaza Blanca, because it’s not the easiest locale in the world to find. The final leg of the motorized segment of the journey was upon a dirt road. Expecting numerous ruts and holes, we were relieved to see almost none. Richie parked the car in Plaza Blanca’s small parking section. Then the three of us got out and looked around. From first glance we knew that we were in a special place.

We spent an hour hiking through Plaza Blanca, a masterful collection of rock formations not far from forested mountains. The sun was high in the sky, clouds were few, and the views, to employ a cliché, were awe-inspiring. I’ve gone limp now and then over the years from the beauty of what was in front of my eyes, but that hadn’t happened in a good long while. And, now that I think about it, I hadn’t been as stunned by a natural landscape or seascape since 1982. That was the year of my trek through the high Himalayas in Nepal, the one truly astonishing adventure of my life.

And I wasn’t the only one to gaze in wonder at Plaza Blanca’s cliffs and columns, or at its other wildly surreal sculptures. Sandy and Richie were as spellbound as me. We were in a stark fairyland where strange, beguiling shapes reigned supreme. The formations sat stoically, yet pleased with themselves. They knew that they are remarkable creations. I caught Richie staring unbelievingly at one vista, imperceptibly shaking his head and not quite knowing what to say except for the obvious: “This is incredible” were his words.


As for Sandy, she agreed when I suggested that Plaza Blanca likely was the most beautiful and fantastic landscape she’d ever set foot in. A compact expanse of desert, Plaza Blanca is where one might go to let the problems circulating within one’s head fade away for a bit of time. It’s where you likely will be able to engage undisturbedly with the powers of nature, since Plaza Blanca is off the beaten track compared to many other spectacular sites. Only two other souls crossed our paths as we made our way around. That was two too many, but it was far better than the hundreds you’d encounter at the Grand Canyon or at Yosemite.

A geologist I’m not, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, Plaza Blanca is the result of volcanic activity that took place roughly 20,000,000 million years ago, and of the subsequent effects of heavy erosion. Its cliffs and other structures are composed of varieties of sandstone and of other types of rocks. The place was drier than the driest bone the day that my trio was there. But I’ve read that flash floods sometimes develop during heavy rains, racing mightily between the giant pieces and with the potential to sweep incautious visitors away.

Georgie O’Keeffe, From The White Place. Image copyright: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe was smitten with Plaza Blanca (as she was with much of New Mexico). She wandered around and painted in The White Place many times. Her desert homestead was about 15 miles away. I wouldn’t mind owning one of her renderings, From The White Place, pictured above, which she painted in 1940. It would look smashing on a wall beside my living room sofa. I doubt if the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where the painting is housed, plans to put it up for auction anytime soon. If they do, however, I’m ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $20,000,000 or more that will be required to make it mine.

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

As I mentioned in my previous essay, staying very hydrated in New Mexico is the thing to do. The Sun there can be brutal. I’d been downing water conscientiously before arriving at Plaza Blanca and continued to do so during my hike on site, but there was no point in taking any unnecessary risks. My companions must have felt the same way. Without discussion we took our last looks at Plaza Blanca, immersing ourselves in its glory. And then we made our way out from between the art works and headed back to the car.

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(All photos are by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin, with three exceptions: Richard Scheinin took the photo of Sandy and me. I took the photo of Rio Grande Gorge and the one of Sandy and Richie.)

Flowering Trees Were Calling Me: A Stroll Through Chestnut Hill

On April 9 of this our present year, I went out in search of signs of spring, which was damn well taking its time in arriving. Though I didn’t come up empty-handed, the cupboard indeed was awfully bare. Naturally, having donned the hat of writer a few years ago, I wrote about the expedition, publishing the story six days later.

In the interim, however, nature began bubbling halfway decently in my region. To wit, two or three days after the 9th I began to spot some flowering trees in bloom. Finally! Spring was coming out from behind the curtains.

Now, I had no particular plans to place a second springtime-related opus into the ethers of cyberspace in 2018. Believe me, more than enough of those bad boys are already up there. But it turns out that I couldn’t resist. Last week’s Monday clinched the decision for me. Conditions-wise the day was ideal. The skies were so blue, my knees went weak looking at them. The temperature was 68°F (20°C), one of my favorite numbers on the dial because it meant that if a stroll around town would cause me to break a sweat, the sweat would flow only minimally. Ergo, a stroll was in order. But where to? I hadn’t been in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia for a while. It’s a large, beautiful area, countrified and quaint and pretty hip. A village unto itself in effect, Chestnut Hill is almost always a good place to pass your time in.

Callery pear tree

At about 2:00 PM I jumped into my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. Eight miles later I was in Chestnut Hill. I was psyched for the impending walk. And I knew what my focus would be, photographically anyway. While enjoying the pleasures of the day I, for no brilliant reason, would take pictures mostly of flowering trees.

Saucer magnolia tree

I spent an hour and a half in Chestnut Hill, walking along all nice and relaxed. Everything was quite peaceful. I heard but one barking dog, unlike in my suburban nook where barks are as common as dandelions. And though lots of cars were on the roads, not a one of their drivers honked within my range of hearing during my excursion. I don’t know, maybe Chestnut Hill is a magnet for good quality canines and humans.

Getting back to spring, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that it had a long way to go. I mean, 90% of the non-flowering deciduous trees (maples, oaks, whatever) had no leaves on them whatsoever, though the budding process was under way.

But the flowering trees were another story. Though there weren’t as many of them as I’d have liked to see (and I assume that all members of the flowering varieties were in fact blooming), there were enough. And I took a good look at every one I passed. Who can resist gentle creations aglow in creamy whites, pretty pinks and other reddish shades? Not me.

Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking west
Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking east

One block in particular was a wonderland of sorts. I speak of W. Southampton Avenue. I was heading downhill on Germantown Avenue, the steeply sloped main drag filled with clothing boutiques and restaurants and other shops, when a marvelous mass of white blossoms caught my eye. They were attached to a series of cherry trees that occupy a good bit of W. Southampton, a residential block. I crossed Germantown Avenue and dove into the milky white scene. From Germantown Avenue I hadn’t noticed it, what with my strong case of myopia, but a petal storm was going on. Dropping from the trees in big numbers, petals were floating through the air rhapsodically. Man, it was beautiful. I was all set to lay myself down on the sidewalk and go blissful. But then I remembered that I’m not so good at going blissful. Shit, I knew I should have enrolled in a Zen Buddhism program years ago! You live and you learn. Sometimes.

Well, I snapped some pictures of W. Southampton, hoping like crazy that I’d capture some mid-air petals. If you look closely at the photos that I’ve included you’ll see a few. They and their siblings were a sight.

Saucer magnolia tree

Ah, the mystery of petals. Towards the end of my walk I found myself ambling along a stretch of sidewalk covered with pink ones. They had fallen from a saucer magnolia tree, which nevertheless was still grandly laden with flowers. The next day, at home, I gave a bit of thought to those and the other petals that I’d encountered in Chestnut Hill. So many already were off their trees, even though the trees had been in blossom for less, probably, than two weeks. Seems a shame that the great flowering-tree show comes and goes as quickly as it does. If its design had been left up to me, I’d have commanded that it last for two months or more. A magnificent extravaganza, it’s worthy of that, without question.

Not long after stepping through the carpet of magnolia petals, I found myself back on the block where I’d parked my old Civic. I liked the way my car looked, demure and cute despite the large blotches on its trunk and roof, as it waited patiently for me in front of a small, adorable cherry tree. The tree’s bone-white blossoms contrasted righteously with the Honda’s deep green paint. A photograph of the scene cried out to be taken. A few minutes later I got into the Honda and made my way back to the burbs. A flowery excursion had come to its end.

P.S. I’m indebted to Karen Flick, landscape manager at Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to flora. I sent some of my photos to her, and she identified the trees for me.

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A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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He Whose Thumbs Are Anything But Green Visits The Philadelphia Flower Show

I’ve a close friend who oohs and aahs and maybe even finds her reason for being when she goes to the Philadelphia Flower Show, a massive and annual event that attracts numerous gardeners and other assorted nature lovers. Yeah, the Flower Show means a lot to her. She attends every year with her sisters, excitedly looking at exhibits both grand and small and sniffing out ideas that might be applicable to her garden. Basically, she loves to get her horticultural groove on. She was there with her female siblings two Mondays ago, devoting five hours of her life to the enterprise. And, I’m sure, had a remarkable time.

As for me, on the other hand, I never entertained the idea of going to the PFS until two years ago. It’s not that I don’t like to look at flowers and other plants  — I do! — but I guess the notion of seeing them indoors in artificial settings never rang my bell sufficiently. What’s more, I’m not in the market for floral or other gardening hints that undoubtedly would aid the small patch of land upon which my suburban abode sits. Hell, the subject just doesn’t interest me. And, I’m not embarrassed to admit, my thumbs are so far from being green, flowers and shrubs sprint down the block faster than Usain Bolt when they see me coming.

But in 2016, after having dwelled in or near Philadelphia, my adopted city, for about 40 years, I had a change of heart. Why not go, indeed? The Philadelphia Flower Show is enormously popular (200,000 or more bodies take it in each year) and known around the world. The time had come to check it out. Which my wife Sandy and I did. We had a pretty good time.

One thing I learned at the show in 2016 is that flowers hardly are the only focus. Maybe it once was strictly a floral endeavor, but those days are in the far away past. Now pretty much all of nature is fair game. In the interests of accuracy it wouldn’t be a bad idea, I’d therefore say, if the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, which has been putting on the extravaganza since 1829,  changed the event’s name. How about Flowers N More R Us? No? Well, I’ll give it some more thought.

Anyway, for many years now the Flower Show has had a theme, a different one each go-round, to which about a third of the floor space is devoted. The displays within the themed section are the event’s biggest draw. The rest of the square footage is taken up by that to which the theme does not apply: small-to-medium scale floral and other plant displays, flora competitions, horticultural product vendors, and by refreshment stands. Two years ago the exhibits in the themed section had nothing to do with cultivated flowers at all, or with any other examples of horticulture for that matter. That’s because the topic at hand was the USA’s national parks, which, duh, are wilderness or near-wilderness regions.

This year, though, cultivated flora was a part of the story in the themed district, which was dubbed “Wonders Of Water.” Still, the untamed substantially ruled, as a recreation of a tropical rainforest — rainforests, duh, being environments in which human hands play little part (except when man is leveling them, which is what our blighted species loves to do) — held 2018’s center stage position.

I’m not complaining, by the way. It’s all to the good that the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has expansive viewpoints that encompass much of nature, not just the human-tailored parts of the picture.

Admirably, I’ve now attended the Flower Show twice. Because on March 6 of the present year, the fourth day of the show’s nine-day run, Sandy and I entered the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is in downtown Philly and only inches away from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Flower Show took up a whole lot of the enormous structure’s acreage. I’ll say this about the quarters in which the PFS was staged: If you’ve seen one airplane hangar, you’ve seen ’em all! If I owned a hat I’d tip it to the Horticultural Society for having given it all they’ve got to transform an antiseptic mega-space into something more than decently attractive.

Getting back to that rainforest, it was a beautiful, sprawling installation. Colorful, fragrant and dense, complete with misty rains dropping from on-high in one (or was it two?) spots, and a not-bad facsimile of a waterfall, it dominated the Wonders Of Water area in nothing but good ways. Truckloads of show-attendees clogged the pathways that wound within and around the rainforest. The Flower Show clearly is not the place to go for anyone seeking to get away from it all. Not that the crowds were unpleasant. They weren’t. Everyone seemed relaxed and respectful of their fellow tribe members, whose numbers included high quantities of young children and individuals who needed canes, walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

Of the sizeable number of displays other than the rainforest in the Wonders Of Water zone, three grabbed me more than the rest. How cool was the Spring Thaw exhibit, its pretty flowers abloom in a meadow being fed by melting waters from mountain peaks. And how aridly spot-on was the desert mock-up in which cacti and other life forms thrived in their own stark way, making do with very little of the wet stuff.

Plenty of water (in an irrigation ditch), however, was present in the tulips field display. Those flowers jolted the eye in washes of yellow, purple, red and other members of the spectrum. I’m a sucker for splashy swaths of color, so I spent quite a lot of time letting them raise my spirits. There, more than anywhere in Wonders Of Water, the name Philadelphia Flower Show truly applied.

Sandy and I passed many minutes together in the themed section. Then we separated for a while, she investigating the sections of the show outside the Wonders Of Water boundaries. I however stayed within those boundaries. The creations there satisfied me very well, and I felt little desire to stray.

Before we knew it, two hours had passed. Sandy by then had rejoined me and we decided to call it a day. Our visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show had been a good one.

But that’s not the end of the story. I’ve given the visit some thought in the process of composing that which you now are reading. And I’ve come to realize that what the show had to offer me, beyond its immediate delights, was the impetus to get out into, and explore, nature. I imagine that such is one of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s main aims in mounting the exhibition each year.

I have plans to head west to New Mexico in 2018, where my brother and sister-in-law recently moved. There I’ll mosey around the deserts, remembering, of course, to lather on sunscreen beforehand, as all good little boys and girls should do. And, closer to home, in fact only seven or so miles away, I’ll hike the trails inside Pennypack Park, a nine-mile long forest, bordered by residential streets, that runs through Philadelphia’s northeast section. Call me crazy, but I plan to try and hike the park’s entire length in one session. The last time I walked that far in one day was when I was in my 30s. I’ve recently tiptoed into my 70s, so who knows if nine miles is within my engine’s capabilities. If I make it all the way, and even if I don’t, you can bet your sweet bippy that I’ll be writing about the expedition on this blog’s pages.

Thanks, Philadelphia Flower Show. I enjoyed you quite a lot this year. If I remain above ground for a good while longer, then I’ll see you again.

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(All photos are from March 6, 2018. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

A Long Walk In Philadelphia On A Warm Winter’s Day

Cira Centre

There I was two Wednesday mornings ago, unfruitfully occupying space on my living room sofa. My shoulders were tense, my mind was neither here nor there. In other words, it was business as usual.

“Yo, schmuck! Snap out of it!” I silently yelled to myself. “Somebody ought to paint your portrait right now and call it Here Sits A Schlump. Life’s for living, boyo. Get with it already.”

And so I did. Gathering myself together, I decided to go for a walk. A nice long walk. But where? Not in my suburban area, whose charms are incredibly limited. Philadelphia it would be then. Philly’s the metropolis that never bores me. Soon I was at my little town’s train station. A late-morning ride arrived and I climbed into the second of its three cars. Fifty minutes later I exited said metal box at 30th Street Station, in the city’s West Philadelphia section, all set to explore a nearby area that I was barely familiar with. Ferdinand Magellan I’m not, but I’ve always liked to poke around.

It’s amazing though, being someone who likes to poke around, that I’d never done so among the blocks only a hop, skip and a jump northwest of 30th Street Station. Those streets, part of West Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood, contain a good bit of Drexel University’s sprawling campus. From the mid-1970s until 1991 I lived in West Philadelphia, only a mile and a half from Powelton Village, but I didn’t venture to the Drexel enclave there, despite Drexel’s rise during that time to major-player status in the academic world. And in the ensuing years, which have seen me visit West Philadelphia who knows how many dozens of times, the pattern continued.

Hallelujah, now the deed is done! I came and I saw. I’ll leave conquering for another day.

Powelton Village
Powelton Village

Now, let me say that my stroll through Powelton Village, checking out not only the Drexel facilities but the sturdy, soon-to-be-leafy residential blocks, wasn’t a walk for the ages. I mean, not too many urban campuses are going to knock your socks off. And Philadelphia’s older housing — rowhouses, twins and stand-alones — are so much with us in Powelton Village and in many other Philadelphia neighborhoods, I’ve come to think of them as comfort food.

Still, stretching my literally old legs felt great. Especially since the day was sunny and warm, as in 74°F, an insanely high number for mid-February winter. I worked up a good, pungent sweat hauling my ass and my bones around. And my eyes did plenty of darting, admiring the college girls who were dressed for summer. Skimpily, shall we say.

In addition to the girls, certain sights during my travels did make quite the impression on me. For instance, before I reached Powelton Village — in fact, when I was only 150 feet from 30th Street Station — I remembered to take a look at the Cira Centre, a majestically sleek office tower that smiles down upon the station. But I didn’t see it. Was the station somehow obscuring my view? Turns out, of course, that Cira was there in plain sight. Sort of. A glass wonder, the reflections of the sky on its surface were camouflaging the building, as the photo at the beginning of this article reveals. Man, that was something, clouds seeming to float everywhere on the glass along with the reflected image of a tower under construction several blocks away.

Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field
Vue32 apartment building

And in Powelton Village, just up the block from Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field, I was most surprised to see a tall, modern apartment building (Vue32) being erected on North 32nd Street. Some might say that Vue32, a non-Drexel project, is totally out of place in a quiet two-and-three-story-high neighborhood, and if I lived nearby I’d probably agree. But it looked cool to me.

SEPTA rail yard

Speaking of North 32nd Street, if I hadn’t been there I would have missed being near-stunned by the sight of oceans of commuter railroad cars — just like the one I took into the city — a smattering of feet east of where Vue32 stands. As I later learned, I was looking at a rail yard used by SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transit agency, to house and do maintenance work on trains. I’ve lived in Philadelphia or its suburbs for most of my adult life and I’d only vaguely noticed that enormous yard before, though it is glimpsable from numerous vantage points in the city. Call me Mr. Observant.

An open square on Drexel campus

Well, the early afternoon passed pleasurably. I ambled along block after block in Powelton Village. Many streets contained a mixture of private homes and Drexel buildings. Everything was peaceful and quiet, just the way you’d wish that all the world would be. I saw many students, some on their way to or from classes and residences, some munching away or doing work at tables in a campus open square, some lolling on the grass in pocket parks. I enjoyed being a college student, but you’ll never find me enrolling once again in an institution of higher learning. There would be just too much work. In these latter stages of my life I prefer things that are way on the easier side.

By the time I made my way back to 30th Street Station I’d racked up four miles of ambulation. My shoulders were a lot looser than they’d been five hours earlier. My mind was no longer neither here nor there. And I was happy to be heading home. A few minutes before the train pulled in to whisk me back to my sleepy town, for no particular reason I took a photo of the “Watch The Gap” warning painted on the platform. It refers to the open space of an inch or two between the platform and each train car. Looking at that picture the next day it occurred to me that watching the gaps elsewhere in life is good advice too. Relationship gaps can be painful. Equality gaps are unfair and often hideous. But, with effort, gaps can be closed or dealt with productively, though not always.

With those words of wisdom I’ll now take my leave. But (hopefully) I’ll be back! Till next time.

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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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