This Is My 250th Story! (Thank You, Dr. R. U. Forereel, For Making It Happen)

As usual, you’re late!” my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, correctly and forcefully noted. “Neil, your chronic tardiness is a sign of, of, of . . . of what? Oh, who knows, who cares? Have a seat, Neil. Let’s get started. I’m waiting with baited breath to hear what comes out of your mouth during this session. Or not.”

Gingerly I settled into the large chair that, from a distance of ten feet, faced its twin, upon which Dr. Forereel sat. This being the Age Of Coronavirus, we both were masked. “Doctor, I’m sorry,” I said. “I try my hardest to arrive at your office on time, but something always seems to come up. Today it was a freak accident. Here’s what happened: When I got into my car to drive over here I very forcefully attempted to push the seatbelt buckle into place. But somehow I misjudged what I was doing and ended up stabbing my private parts real good. Holy crap, Doctor, that hurt! I managed to stagger out of the car and back into my house, holding the damaged goods as discreetly as I could. I hope none of the neighbors saw me. Anyway, the boys and the mighty sword are all bandaged up nicely now. I’m good to go! Actually, I lie. If I have sex before the year is out, it’ll be a miracle. In any event, it’s truly amazing that I’m only 20 minutes late.”

“Your privates will be in my prayers tonight,” said my psychiatrist almost sympathetically. “They deserve better, I’m sure. Now Neil, tell me what has been weighing on your mind since our last monthly session. Don’t tell me everything, of course. My eyes will have no trouble doing their glazing-over thing if you do. So, let’s stick to a highlight or two.”

You see? That’s why I like Dr. Forereel so much: she doesn’t feed me bullshit, she’s more or less honest with her feelings, and she cuts to the chase.

“Okay, Doctor. Yes, something has been bothering me quite a lot. It has to do with my blog. You know about my blog, right?”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Of course I know about your blog. You bring it up in one context or another at almost every session! Neil, listen to me. Even though your blog is dear to your heart, I’ve tried to show you that you actually are in conflict with your writerly side. Writing puts tremendous strains upon you, and they are without a doubt unhealthy. I’m talking about the anxiety that you feel in trying to develop story ideas, and the mental and emotional exhaustion that leave you as limp as your once-mighty sword after you complete each article.”

“Neil, in my professional opinion you should change direction and not look back! Take up some other activities in writing’s place. Knitting would suit you just fine, for instance. It’s comforting, it’s creative, it’s a form of meditation, you know. And maybe it will improve your manual dexterity, so that you don’t stab yourself in your genitals ever again. What’s more, nobody in a million years would miss the trifling essays and attempts at humor that you fill your website with. Cyberspace is overflowing unmercifully with content. You should do your civic duty and help to declutter it. Stop writing, in other words!”

“Doctor, I tend to agree with you. I’m pretty well spent, but I can’t halt just yet,” I said. “You see, my next story will be my 250th. Shit, Doctor, I can’t not publish number 250. Pardon my French, by the way. Two hundred and fifty articles is a big milestone. I’d be tremendously disappointed in myself if I stopped at 249.”

“You’re kidding, Neil, right?” she asked. “There would be nothing for you to to be ashamed of were you to hang up your spurs right now. If you did, you would be demonstrating excellent sense and judgment. And 249 strikes me as such an ideally oddball number. In that sense it suits you perfectly!”

“Points taken, Doctor. But getting back to what’s been bothering me: I’ve been racking my brain to try and come up with a story idea for my 250th piece, but no luck. My mind has gone desert-like. What should I do, Doctor Forereel? Can you help?”

She looked at me long and hard, and took a few seconds before responding. Then she said this: “Neil, I doubt that I’m equipped to help you discover story ideas, unless you’re interested in writing about the deep underpinnings of your psyche that we’ve uncovered at our sessions. But they’re awfully boring, truthfully speaking, aren’t they? Nobody would want to read about them, I’m sure. Let me say, though, that part of your problem, without question, has to do with aging. Let’s face it, Neil, you’re an old f*ck — pardon my French — and writing doesn’t become easier as one’s hourglass empties and empties. That’s true for just about everything, right? Knitting excepted, of course.”

Those final comments brought me up short. Though I didn’t want to be, I was reminded that life is fleeting, no matter how long you live. My jaw sank. My eyes dropped. But my mind awakened. “Dr. Forereel,” I said, “believe it or not, you’ve just presented a fine idea to me. My 250th story will be about the preciousness of life, about how we should appreciate what we have, and that we should do our best to live joyfully. Thank you, Doctor, thank you.”

“Neil, I am delighted to have been of service. And a quick glance at the clock on the wall tells me that our time is up once again. Don’t bump your accessories into anything on your way out. They’ve suffered enough for one day. I’ll see you a month from now. And don’t be late next time!”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Dr. Forereel and I would appreciate it.)

Who You Calling “Retired”?

A week ago I paid a visit to my long-time barber, Paul. His mission? To make presentable the three strands of hair remaining on the crown of my head. Or is it five? Hang on, I’m going to take a look in the bathroom mirror. I’ll be back in a sec.

Here I am again. It’s five. And those motherf*ckers are lookin’ good!

Where was I? Ah yes, my barber, Paul.

Now, this guy is something else. Paul’s smart. He’s goofy, approaching the world from twisted angles. He cuts hair really well. And, despite being deep into his 70s, puts in nine or more hours at the job, six days a week. Paul’s got energy up the wazoo, and makes hordes of the world’s workers, no matter what their age, look like slackers. If he hangs up his scissors one day, the town in which his barber shop is located ought to erect a statue in his honor. And the inscription on the statue should include words such as these: “Paul’s work ethic was superb. You think you work hard? Think again, homie. Compared to Paul, you probably don’t.”

During that recent visit to Paul’s establishment, he posed a question. “How long have you been retired, Neil?” he asked while contemplating how to handle those five strands of hair.

I tensed up a bit at Paul’s inquiry. Retired? I’ve got to tell you that I don’t like the sound of that word when it’s directed at me. Sure, I left my government-work career in 2009. And sure, I’m in the early stage of my septuagenarian era. But I’m not retired, at least not by my way of looking at things. I mean, I do a decent amount of volunteer work every week. And I sweat bullets turning out the stories that I launch into cyberspace, such as the one you’re reading right now. Between volunteering and writing, I’m clocking up an average of about 20 hours of work weekly. That isn’t in Paul’s league, but it ain’t bad.

Anyway, I explained to Paul that I’m still a part of the workforce, though unpaid, and then let him have a go at the strands.

Indeed, I like to work. I need the structure that working provides, and I value the physical and mental energies that work requires. And, happily, I’m a recipient of job satisfaction: My volunteer gigs — for two shifts each week I man the information desk in a medical office building — agree with me. As does writing, though in a masochistic sort of way. The bottom line is that I have no plans to ditch my occupations.

What would occur if I put my work aside? Nothing to write home about, that’s for sure. I’d have way too many additional hours to fill comfortably. I already regularly indulge in good stuff such as concert-going, museum-visiting and traveling here and there, and don’t have the urge to devote more hours to those pursuits. No, if I stopped working I’d probably spend more time than ever on my living room sofa, where I’ve become expert at idly surfing the Web, snacking, and scratching my balls to make sure they haven’t shrunk. Working’s a better alternative.

Yes, there’s a lot to be said for working. And substantial numbers of folks in my age bracket, and older, are still heavily in the game. Some of my relatives and friends who are card-carrying seniors, for example, rival or surpass Paul in the number of hours they expend on their jobs. A few of them wouldn’t have it otherwise, being in love with their chosen fields. And then there’s the childhood pal of mine who continues to work full-time as a lawyer. I was at lunch with him last month. Unlike the people I just mentioned, he’s not fully enthralled by his occupation, but he knows himself well enough not to leave it behind. “What else am I going to do?” he asked me. “Mow my lawn all day?” He thinks like me. And he likes his place in life.

On the other hand, I also have relatives and friends in the seniors camp who no longer work and are as happy as clams. They lead fulfilling lives and have no regrets about occupying the post-employment category. You can’t do much better than that. After all, whether we’re employed or not, achieving happiness and feeling fulfilled are among our top goals, right? And by our, I’m referring, I figure, to about 75% of dear Planet Earth’s human residents, not just to seniors.

Family life, social life, work, hobbies, studying, spirituality, creative endeavors . . . these and other avenues, usually taken in one combination or another, can make our goals reality, whatever our age. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. Life’s cool that way.

Okay, sermon over. Amen. Class dismissed.

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A Trip To Scotland, Part One: An Overview

Thousands of moons ago, in the spring of 1977 to be exact, I backpacked around England, Scotland, France and Italy for six weeks. I had little money at the time, lots of hair on my 29-year-old head, and enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

In ensuing years I returned to England, France and Italy. And entertained the idea of visiting lovely Scotland once again too. You know what? It finally happened, because my wife Sandy and I spent eight days there in late May. This time I had a decent amount of money to my name, but distressingly less hair on my head. And, as before, I enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

Sandy and I were based in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. We took day trips to other parts of the land (the county of Fife, which is north of Edinburgh; and the Scottish Highlands, a majestic territory of mountains, forests, meadows, lochs and charming villages), but otherwise spent our moments in that hilly, fine city. Which was our game plan. When traveling nowadays, you see, we prefer to linger in whatever locales we’re visiting, rather than race from one town or city to another. You can’t see and do everything anyway, so why put pressure on yourself trying to?

Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh doesn’t have the knock-your-socks-off looks and attractions of, say, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s got plenty going for it. For one thing, it’s very walkable. Most of what anyone might want to see is no more than two miles apart. Its buildings, solid and stoic and constructed from stone far more than from steel, create a comforting sense of permanence and often one of mystery. It boasts Princes Street Gardens, an enormous park that is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. And not only does the city ooze history and culture, it is filled with pubs, bistros and restaurants where hungry and thirsty souls may find nourishment and refreshment. A low-level beer geek, I was anxious to check out the brew scene in town. Success! Each night I quaffed an ale from a brewery that I’d never heard of before.

Old Town
Old Town
Warriston’s Close, in Old Town

The sections of Edinburgh that visitors spend the most time in are Old Town and New Town. Old Town was the first part of the city to be inhabited, and though few ancient structures remain, much of what stands in Old Town is old enough, dating from around 1600 to the late 1800s. Old Town, built on a ridge, is heavily cobblestoned. It is peppered with winding streets and with alleys (known as closes) that often are steep and that connect one street with another. Ergo, Old Town is highly atmospheric. I preferred it to New Town, which actually is pretty old, but flatter, more open and far less funky than Old Town. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Old Town was mobbed with tourists and locals while I was in Edinburgh. New Town was busy with people too, but less so.

Street performer in Old Town
Old Town

Sandy and I went on two walking tours of Old Town, accompanied by our Parisian friends Martine and Alan. That handsome couple was with us for the first two and a half days of our Scottish experience. The four of us also wandered here and there on our own for hours, both in the Old and the New. It was good to hang with folks with whom we’re very comfortable and on the same wavelengths. Life’s better that way.

Left to right: Sandy, Martine, Alan, Neil
New Town

I could write loads and loads of words here about all that the four of us saw and did, and loads more about the experiences that Sandy and I had after Alan and Martine returned to Gay Paree. But that would be too much information for this humble essay. After all, A Trip To Scotland, Part Two will follow fairly soon to fill in some gaps. And who knows? Maybe Part Three also will emerge.

Exterior view of Edinburgh Castle

For now, then, I’ll toss out a few comments about Edinburgh Castle, which sits high on a hill at the western end of Old Town and looms over the city. Its history is long and complicated, too much so for the mostly-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other likes of me to understand and retain, though the leaders of both walking tours went into great detail. But let me say this: The castle complex is a maze-like assortment of buildings. There’s a palace, prisons, barracks, a chapel and many other structures, only a few of which have present-day usage.

I dug the palace, which holds the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, a scepter and a sword) and also the Stone Of Destiny, a slab of sandstone that was the coronation seat of Scottish queens and kings during long-ago centuries. The Stone Of Destiny was last used by a Scottish monarch in 1292. (Damn right I’d like to include photos of the Jewels and of the Stone, but taking their pictures is forbidden.) Within the palace I also saw the tiny room in which Mary Queen Of Scots gave birth in 1566 to a son, James, who in 1603 unified the Scottish and English crowns. See, somehow I retained a few iotas of historical information!

St. Margaret’s Chapel
A window in St. Margaret’s Chapel

And I especially admired the castle complex’s St. Margaret’s Chapel. Built in the 1100s, it is the oldest-surviving building in Edinburgh. The chapel is small and plain-looking. That was its main appeal for me, as those two adjectives describe yours truly very accurately. And I thought that its stained glass windows were beautiful.

The proper way for me to close out Part One is to note the most intriguing event that happened during the vacation. Namely, I met in person the one and only Andrew Ferguson, who lives not far from Edinburgh. Andrew is a multi-talented guy, being a lawyer, a writer, a musician, a wine lover and who knows what else. One of the places upon which he places his written words is his WordPress blog (click here to reach it).

Somewhere in the misty past, Andrew and I discovered each other’s WordPress sites and quickly developed an online friendship. When Sandy and I made our plans to visit Scotland, I contacted Andrew. He and I then arranged a meeting date. It’s amazing that WordPress brought the two of us together, in the flesh.

Left to right: Alison, Neil, Sandy, Andrew

I’m here to tell you that Andrew and his wife Alison are swell. They drove Sandy and me around Fife, where we stopped at a couple of fishing villages. And, before returning us to our hotel, they gave us a mini-tour of some of Edinburgh. In all, they took out a day from their lives to show Sandy and me a good time. They couldn’t have done more. Wait, that’s an overstatement. Shit, they should have picked up the tab for Sandy’s and my hotel stay!

Anstruther, a fishing village in Fife

I have a couple of other online Scottish buddies via WordPress. Alyson and Anabel, I’d have liked to have met you. But the trip was too short to allow for any additional socializing. I hope you understand. (Click here and here to read, respectively, Alyson’s and Anabel’s blogs.)

Readers, thanks for joining me on this journey. Goodbye till next time.

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This Is My 200th Story! Will It Be My Last?

Image by Karma Willow Designs

It’s amazing! They said it couldn’t be done! I’m going to throw a party to which you all will be invited. I’m going to hire a sky-writing plane to fly over Manhattan and cover the heavens with this announcement: Neil Scheinin, a grand slacker, somehow has written 200 stories for his blog. A miracle has occurred!

And after all of that I might just hang up my writing boots forever. Why? Because writing mentally exhausts me. I mean, after I finish a piece I’m so limp you’d have no trouble folding me up and squeezing me into a goldfish bowl. I’ve gone through this 200 times now. Maybe that’s enough.

And if it is enough, that wouldn’t be so bad. With writing no longer on the menu, I’d devote the extra time on my hands to my living room sofa, where I’m already spending an average of 10 hours a day. The sofa is where I do my best kind of work anyway, you know. By which I mean that I am a master at twirling the handful of hairs remaining on the crown of my head while stuffing my maw with boxfuls of Cheez-It crackers. I love my sofa. My gratitude for having the comfiest place in the world to rest my ancient ass is eternal.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Making the decision isn’t easy. Which is why I’ve recently sought guidance from three individuals. The first conversation took place a week ago. It was with my esteemed editor, Edgar Reewright.

“Neil, the exorbitant fees that you pay me for my services are crucial to my financial stability,” Edgar screamed over the phone after I laid out my thoughts. “Do you hear me? Crucial, I say. My stable of writers has been shrinking like a Greenland glacier. Without you on board I don’t know what I’d do! Oh, why was I born? Why was I born? I should have listened to my parents and majored in philosophy in college. If I had, then I’d know the answer to ‘why was I born?’ Shit, maybe it’s not too late. Where are those volumes of the collected works of Plato and Aristotle that I occasionally glanced at years ago? Ah, I remember. They’re under my dog’s mattress, firming it up. Spot! Spot! Get off your bed! Daddy needs to get something.”

“Later, Edgar,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

Edgar’s situation is no joke. Though not many people depend on me, he definitely does. Conversely, my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, is someone upon whom many people depend. Including me. The day after I spoke with Edgar I attended my bi-weekly session with Dr. Forereel.

“Doctor,” I said to her after seating myself in her patients’ chair, “I know that we normally discuss issues that have their roots in my misspent childhood, such as why in my 71 years of existence I’ve never once bonded with a cat. If I weren’t so sphinxlike, maybe by now we’d have uncovered an answer or two to that one. My bad! But today I need your opinions about my creative outlet. I’ve been writing steadily for almost four years, as you know. My next story will be my 200th, a true milestone. But I’m weary, doctor. Writing has taken its toll on me. I’m thinking of ending my career.”

Career?” Dr. Forereel immediately exclaimed. “What career? Neil, the essays and other pieces that you produce are trifles, no? And you receive how much in payment for them? Wait, let me guess. The answer begins with a z and ends with an o and has an e and an r in the middle. Am I right? Neil, what you do with words amounts to nothing more than a hobby, a way to pass the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s important to look at things realistically. I have no couch in my office for my patients, only a chair. But you, Neil, have a wonderful couch at home, as you’ve told me many times over the years. Take further advantage of that sofa. It’s one of your very best friends. Writing means little in comparison to the peace of mind that your sofa brings.”

At the end of the session I thanked the good doctor and then went to my car. Her advice echoed through my mind continuously during the drive back home.

Later that day I poured out my heart to my wife Sandy. Edgar Reewright had implored me to continue writing. Dr. Forereel had said, basically, “why bother?” What were Sandy’s feelings?

“Listen,” she began, “it’s entirely up to you. But I’ll say this: At least you’re not getting Cheez-It crumbs all over the couch when you’re at your writing desk. So that’s a good reason, in my opinion, for you to keep turning out your stories. However, there are how many projects around the house that you’ve never gotten to? Twenty? Thirty? Seems to me that starting a blog might be what you came up with to avoid doing what needs to be done around here.”

Valued readers, I’m in a quandary. I’m going to have to look deep within myself over the next several days. There’s plenty for me to ponder. Maybe I’ll be back on these pages. Maybe I won’t. Time, as always, will tell.

(Yo! Despite the uncertainties presented above, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Mucho gracias.)

Signs In The Windows

Last Friday I could feel a story idea calling me from far, far away. I cupped my hands behind my ears and did what anyone would have done: “What?” I yelled into the wilderness of my soul. “You have to speak louder, for crying out loud. Give an old guy a break!”

I waited for a response for a while. When none was forthcoming I waited a little longer. Finally I gave up on the idea of waiting. I’m a man of action, right? Well, not exactly, as proven by the impressive and permanent dents in the cushions of my living room sofa. Still, I rose anyway, put on my coat, stuck my iPhone into one of the coat’s pockets and explained quickly to my wife Sandy what my amorphous game plan was. Then I headed for the door, on my way to the three-level mall minutes away from my suburban Philadelphia house.

“You’re not going to do any shopping?” Sandy said to me as I exited. “Anyone else would go shopping.”

Shopping? Hmmm, not a bad idea. I could use a pair of slipper socks to replace the ones joyfully embroidered with Daffy Duck images that I’ve been wearing for the last 60 years. But whatever it was that was trying to reach me from the wilderness of my soul, shopping wasn’t part of it.

I pulled out of the driveway at 10:15 AM and pulled into one of the mall’s gargantuan parking areas at 10:20. Few cars were around. I entered the wonderland through a door that deposited me in Bloomingdale’s, a classy department store whose goods and displays I always marvel at during my infrequent visits. I felt at home, pretty confident that something somewhere in the mall ultimately would result in yet another blog essay being catapulted into cyberspace.

A poster in Bloomingdale’s cosmetics section caught my eye. “Everyone’s Invited!” it partly read. At once a bell rang in my head. Ouch, that smarted! I shook off the twangs of pain and went with the flow. If I wander around the mall, maybe I’ll spot all kinds of signage that share a sentiment similar to that poster’s, I thought. “C’mon in!” and “Don’t be a stranger!” would be good ones to come across, for example. But, nah . . . after I made my way out of Bloomingdale’s and into the main arteries of the mall’s lower level, I walked past store after store and came up with zippo. Nix that story idea.

All was not lost, however. Far from it. For what I realized is that beautiful signs, primo examples of artful composition, grace the windows of many of the shops. There was my story, I concluded. I would navigate all the avenues of each mall level, photographing the window signs that struck me as worthy of immortalization. I breathed a sigh of relief. The wilderness of my soul, at least for the moment, became a less scary place.

I went at it for an hour, 16 signs making my grade. The majority of them are on display in this essay. At the moment, examining the photos from the comfort of my home, it’s hard to say which of the signs I like best. Who can choose? Why choose? Isn’t it better just to appreciate each sign’s worthy aspects? Okay, you’re right. Choosing isn’t all that difficult. Let me think for a few seconds. I’ll be right back.

You know, I like the one picturing a pink Adidas cap, which fills a big section of glass at the Lids hat store. I’m one with its simplicity and admirable balance.

And I can’t deny the power of the seductive image of Selena Gomez balancing a black and pink handbag on her right leg. I had to restrain myself from marching into the Coach store and buying one of those bags, so helplessly jelly-like am I in the presence of gorgeous girls.

And let’s not overlook the black and white flag that stares out at potential customers from the mall’s Gap store. Maybe it’s a political statement of some kind, I don’t know. But it’s clean and taut and hard to take your eyes off of, from an aesthetic point of view.

There was more to my mall escapade than art appreciation, as it turns out. As I made my way around the mall’s highways and byways it dawned on me that I was getting some needed exercise. And that it felt really good to be stretching my legs. I tried to remember the last time I’d gone for a long walk. I think it was in October, on Cape Cod, upon whose open and natural areas I’ve racked up the miles in a major way.

But when I’m home? The landscape in the burbs, an homage to concrete and asphalt, doesn’t thrill me. And I sometimes forget that areas worth walking in, such as the olden streets of Philadelphia, aren’t much more than a hop, skip and a jump away.

But walk now and then in the mall? Hey, I never really thought about that before. We’ll see. I’ve read that plenty of folks do it regularly, placing one foot after the other upon the mall’s interior corridors as if those paths were athletic field ovals. I saw some of the hardy souls during my rounds. One of them, a millennial of the female variety who was attired in black workout clothes, passed me twice. I watched her do her thing. Her ears were home to earbuds and her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone as she relentlessly pushed ahead. You go, girl! Maybe I’ll join you some day. In my dreams.

An hour and change had passed by the time I got back in my car. I felt refreshed. My head was clear. My mood was up. And the remainder of the day, I was certain, would unfold attractively. That’s what good art and a two-mile stroll will do for you.

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An Important Announcement From Neil’s Editor: Neil’s Missing!

Greetings, Earthlings. My name is Edgar Reewright. I’m an editor. And I’m writing to you on bended knee, as I will explain a few paragraphs down the line.

Over the years I’ve worked at The New Yorker, The New York Times and, most recently, Playboy. Prestigious jobs they were, not to mention excellent distributors of cash and benefits to yours truly. But as we know, life can throw curveballs and spitballs at any of us at any time. And come my way they did.

I won’t go into too much detail. Let’s just say that I didn’t do myself any favors when, after having devoured two bottles of Jack Daniels at a dazzling party at the Playboy Mansion in 2014, I made a pass — actually, more like 15 passes — at Hugh Hefner’s wife. When I came to a few hours later I discovered myself to be robed in a Playboy Bunny outfit and draped over a traffic light, 20 feet above ground, on Sunset Boulevard. Hef’s boys don’t mess around. Needless to say, my career in big-time journalism was over.

Thanks are due, therefore, to the blogging gods of small-time journalism. A prime example of which is Neil Scheinin’s blog. The one you’re staring at right now. Neil fancies himself to be a writer. What the hell, I always say, let him believe what he wishes. He’s hardly the only delusional collection of skin and bones traipsing around among us.

Anyway, the flimsy quality of Neil’s opuses doesn’t mean a fig to me. What does matter is the paycheck that Neil sends my way weekly. Seven hundred and fifty dollars ain’t bad dough to someone in my situation. Damn good thing I answered Neil’s ad (“Help! Dork desperately in need of editorial assistance,” it read) in the January 2015 issue of All Praises To The Blogosphere. The rest is history. Or something along that line.

Here’s why I’m writing this article: I’m very, very worried. Neil has disappeared. Foul play? Nah, there’s no evidence of that. By his own volition? You can bet the house on it. The louse didn’t even have a story-in-waiting to be published this week. Who does he think he is, skipping a week of writing? His audience probably could care less, but me? I care like crazy. And that’s because Neil not only put down his story-writing pen, he also put down his check-writing pen. I have $236 dollars to my name. If Neil doesn’t come out of hiding, or wherever he is, and pay me my weekly allowance . . . hell, I don’t even want to think about it.

Readers of Neil’s blog, I’m pleading with you to try and find him. His wife Sandy has looked high and low for him and has reported Neil’s absence to the authorities, but so far they’ve come up with nothing.

Me, I think there’s a chance that, in search of inspiration and beneficial aura fields, he’s gone to visit one of his blogging buddies, people who, unlike him, truly fall into the category of writer. And who not only churn out essays with regularity but have penned books. K E Garland, for instance, whose The Unhappy Wife is a strong look at marriage and relationships. And Andrew Ferguson. He wrote The Wrong Box, a romp of a murder mystery filled with sex, laughs and a twisty plot. Neil has told me more than once that he too would like to create a book one of these days. Yeah, right. Believe me, holding your breath waiting for that to happen would be a mistake of the highest order.

Send out the search parties! Spread the word on Twitter and Facebook! Neil is out there somewhere and he needs to return home. His wife will do just fine without him, sure. But not me. My bank account is staring at me with pitiful eyes. He better come back! And pronto. Here’s a photo of Neil. It’s the only one I have. It’s from a recent New Year’s Eve, and maybe will be an aid in finding him. Say what you will about Neil, you’ve got to admire his taste in leis.

Thanks for your help.

(Photo by Max Scheinin)

Time For A Checkup

Soon after I hit the Publish button last week in the very wee hours of Wednesday morning, sending yet another of my numerous music-related narratives into the ethers, I also hit something else. Namely, the sack. Not a grand number of hours later I arose, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, which to tell you the truth isn’t a pretty sight. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my tail hasn’t been looking too good for the last 30 years.

Anyway, an hour later, over breakfast, I began thinking about what I might write for the following week’s article, which is the one you are reading right now. I let my mind wander. And when nothing came of that I focused on a few specific story ideas that I’d been contemplating for a while. But the time seemed not quite right for any of those to flower. Uh-oh, the clock was ticking. If I failed to produce, who knows what ghastly consequences might result?

Dr. Mel Ifluous (in a playful mood)

Beginning to panic a bit, sensing sweat beads making their way onto the palms of my hands, I suddenly realized that a more pressing concern than story writing was attempting to stare me in the face. Somehow I’d forgotten that this blog’s two-year anniversary had arrived. Which meant, of course, that a two-year checkup was highly in order. Dashing to the phone I dialed the number of my internist, Dr. Mel Ifluous. His office manager answered. After I explained the situation to her, stressing its urgency, she squeezed me in for an appointment the following day. Dr. Ifluous is a wonderful physician, perceptive and sharp. I knew I’d be in good hands.

At 11:00 AM Thursday I was ushered into Dr. I’s examining room. A few minutes later he entered. We shook hands.

“Neil, it’s good to see you. How are you feeling?” Dr. Ifluous asked while thumbing through my medical records. “Hmmm, you were here three months ago complaining about sunburnt ear lobes, an inability to look at any and all green vegetables, and pains in your fingers from prying off the caps, using only your digits, of the 20 or so bottles of beer you drink each day. I take it that my prescriptions and suggestions didn’t solve the problems. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Dr. Ifluous, to the contrary. I’ve followed your advice and, for the first time in decades, I’m feeling fit as a fiddle. My ear lobes, as you can see, are as pale white as the rest of my body. I now eat arugula and its kin and green beans like they’re going out of style. And I’m down to 12 bottles of beer per day, which has made all the difference in the world to my fingers. Doctor, I thank you.”

“This is good news, Neil. Why then, though, are you here?”

“Doctor, I made this appointment not for me, but for my blog. You see, I began the blog almost exactly two years ago, and I’ve written quite a few articles for it during that time. Two years is a long stretch, Doctor. Things can go wrong. Basically, I’m worried about the blog. I’m uncertain about its health. It needs a checkup.”

“I understand, Neil. I understand. What exactly are your concerns? I look at your stories now and then and I have to tell you that they seem alright to me.”

“It’s very nice of you to say that, Dr. Ifluous. But I’m not so sure. What’s bothering me more than anything are the topics I write about and the tone I take. Wouldn’t you say that my stories seem kind of light and fluffy? That too many of them are just plain loopy? And that my impressionistic ruminations about music, art and nature really aren’t making any kind of difference? Doctor, I’ve been thinking that I should move in headier directions and start writing about politics, science, religion, philosophy, not to mention the complexities of human relationships. The blog might be far superior if I did.”

Dr. Ifluous gave his chin a thoughtful rub, adjusted his eyeglasses and then laid my medical records on his desk. Looking deep into my eyes he said, “Neil, I’ve known you for a long time and, to be honest, you’ve never struck me as a PhD sort of guy. What do you know about philosophy, for instance? Tell me a thing or two about Kierkegaard and Sartre.”

“Well, Doctor, they both lived in Europe, right? I’m fairly sure about that. And Sartre, I think, smoked cigarettes by the truckload. Anything more I’d have to take a look at Wikipedia — that’s what it’s there for, you know.”

“Very deep, Neil, very deep. And please expound upon human dynamics.”

“Uh, that’s a complicated area. One thing I’m confident in saying is that life is like a checkout counter . . . you’re usually on line in one way or another.”

“Huh? I have no idea what that means. Neil, sit back and take a deep breath. Good. Now, listen to me. Go home, take two aspirin and don’t call me in the morning. Your blog is healthy. It is what it is meant to be. So, tell me . . . what’s your next story going to be about?”

“Doctor Ifluous, I wish I knew. Once I sit down to write a piece the writing process goes pretty smoothly. But before that, trying to come up with something to write about — that’s the tricky part.”

“Neil, keep on truckin’. That’s all I can say.” With those words of wisdom, Doctor Ifluous got up from his chair and left the room, with me on his heels. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

 

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Keeping It Short (A Story About Books)

Man, I don’t how they do it. They being the book bloggers I’ve come across who not only read an incredible number of books — three and up per week — but somehow also find the time, and have the brain power, to write sharp and detailed reviews about them. My little ol’ head spins madly just thinking about those folks’ accomplishments. Even in the days of yore when I read books aplenty I’d never have been able to follow them up quickly with well-plotted, good quality commentaries. Uh-uh. That kind of mental grandeur and endurance I do not possess, and never did. To put it a related way, my thoughts do not exactly flow in structured torrents along my neural pathways to my typing fingers. Hell, I’m lucky if a writing session produces 150 words that fit together in a useable manner. All I can say is that I stand in awe of those book bloggers. To repeat, I don’t know how they do it. (Lynne LeGrow, whose blog is called Fictionophile, is an example of what I’m talking about. Click here to find her blog.)

I bring up all of this partly because this is the first opus I’ve written that touches upon my book-reading activities. As I alluded to moments ago, I used to consume more than my share of books, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Leafing through a list that I’ve been keeping since 1970, I see that I knocked off 45 volumes in 1971, for instance, and 59 in 1983. The latter is my highest-ever yearly total.

Alas, my bookish endeavors came to a grinding halt in February 2015 when I reached the final page of Birds Of America, a collection of cool short stories by Lorrie Moore. That’s when the dark months set in, months marked by so much fretting about my place in the universe and in the kitchen, I became a cowering wreck. Books could wait. Oh well, it might have been worse. Like, if Trump had been elected president. What? You mean he is president? Holy crap! Let me outta here!

But the dark times didn’t last forever. Quite amazingly, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up a book that had been hanging around the house for a pretty long while. I ran through it in five or six days. And one day after finishing it I headed to a local library and took out a work that I almost immediately set upon. Two days later I reached its end. Bravo, Neil, bravo! Back in the book-reading saddle I am, and probably will remain there for a decent spell.

Book number one, The Outermost House, by Henry Beston, was right up my alley. In fact, it is surprising that I hadn’t turned its pages ages ago, as it is set on Cape Cod, a locale I’ve gotten to know and crazily love over the last 20 years. The Outermost House describes the months (autumn 1926 till autumn 1927) that Beston spent living in semi-solitude, housing himself in a two room cabin in the dunes of Cape Cod’s raw and wild Atlantic Ocean coastline. Many times I’ve trod on the very sands and wetlands that grabbed hold of Beston’s heart and spirit.

Beston’s book has become one of the so-called classics, remaining in print since hitting the marketplace in 1928, and apparently still selling pretty nicely. I loved it. Beston writes gracefully and has an eye for subject matter that you don’t frequently cross paths with, such as his lengthy descriptions of the differing types of sounds made by the ocean waves and surf. Next time I’m on The Cape I’m going to have his book in hand as I investigate some of the observations that his keen senses and abstract mind came up with. I won’t be able to check out his cabin, though. A violent storm in 1978 destroyed it.

Now that I think about it, I believe I had the notion in the back of my head for a while to reacquaint myself with books, and that I knew I’d have book-reading success only by taking baby steps. By which I mean I wasn’t about to tackle monsters like Dickens’ David Copperfield or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, both of which ain’t that far from the 1,000 page mark. No, whatever I was to read would have to be short, and The Outermost House fit the bill just fine. Its 218 pages are endowed with a large typeface and spacious margins. Perfect. So, I seized the moment and gave the dark months a hardy wave goodbye.

As with The Outermost House, short also needed to apply to the next book I opened if I were to have any hope of establishing a bit of book-reading momentum. Which is why I bow to the memory of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, whose remarkably slim The Means Of Escape, an okay-but-could-be-better short story collection, became the second title I conquered this month. I tell you, a more ideal specimen for length-phobic and trepidatious book readers would be hard to find. You want short? Hey, The Means Of Escape numbers only 117 pages, and a bunch of them are blanks that separate one story from another. The pages that actually contain printed words total a very genial and genteel 96. My kind of book, for sure!

On the living room sofa I began to gloat about my accomplishments to my wife Sandy as the final pages of The Means Of Escape drew within sight. “Can you believe it?” I said. “I’m about to finish my second book in a nine or ten day period.”

Sandy gave me one of those looks. And then she gave Penelope Fitzgerald’s micro-tome one of those looks. “That’s not a book,” she said. “That doesn’t count as a book.”

Oh yeah? I beg to differ. Was it sitting on a library shelf? You bet it was. Does it have a front and a back cover? Damn straight.

It counts!

 

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Donnie Trump Doesn’t Like Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shove it, you piece of  sh . . . ”

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

I Was There For Santa Claus When He Needed My Help

“Yo! I mean, ho! As in ho-ho-ho. Can’t you see that I’m stuck, you idiot? Give a guy a hand.”

santa_claus_png9972Indeed he was, he being Santa Claus. The one and only. To say I was surprised to find the jolly gent dangling head-downward from within my living room fireplace would have been the understatement of 2016 were it not for Donald Trump. Needless to say, the understatement of 2016 is that Trump is way bad news. Hell, he’s way bad news times fifty! But, I digress.

It was 9:00 PM on the eve of Christmas Eve when the rotund one unexpectedly appeared. I was sitting on the sofa, ruminating about this and that, as usual arriving at no satisfactory conclusions. Also as usual, the sofa cushions were profusely dotted with Cheez-It cracker crumbs. I already had put away 500 or more Its and, prior to Mr. Claus’ arrival, had no plans to stop the ingestion process.

“Santa, is this a joke? What are you doing here? Your delivery rounds don’t start for another 24 hours. And you’re in the wrong household, anyway. I mean, me and my wife are Jewish!”

I put aside the Its, reluctantly, and walked to the fireplace where, with only a bit of exertion, I helped Santa out of his predicament. Standing upright, he brushed himself off.

“Yo, brother. I know that you and your wife are Jews. And I also know your name. Neil, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended his pudgy right hand, which I clasped warmly, and smiled at me in the friendliest of manners. Santa gave off such good vibes. I liked him a lot. Immediately.

“Santa, likewise, I’m sure. Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat? To drink?”

“A toasted sesame seed bagel with a schmear would be nice,” Santa said. “And some schnapps to wash it all down would be outstanding. You don’t happen to have those around, do you?”

“Santa, this is more than your lucky day. My household overflows with bagels. And with schnapps in its many varieties. Come on, sit down at the dining room table and I’ll fix you up.” I assembled the simple meal and watched Santa happily eat and drink.

“Ah, this is delicious,” Santa said, alternating between bites and sips. Then, when his plate and glass were empty he got down to business. “I’ve had my eyes on you for awhile, Neil, and I’m certain I made the correct choice in visiting you. You see, I like Jews very much. Just like me, they know about good food and drink, and they rock the color red. Well, maybe I’m wrong about the second half of that statement. Anyway, speaking selfishly, what’s very important to me is that they boost my spirits. And once a year, believe me, I need that boost. You think it’s easy bringing toys to billions of children each year? Sure, if you only had to do it once or twice it wouldn’t be hard.  But year after year after year? Come on . . . talk about job burnout.”

“Many years ago I was schmoozing with a Jewish friend of mine, Morty Finkelstein, about this very problem,” Santa continued. “Morty listened carefully and let me pour my heart out. Then he proved himself to be a real mensch, saying all the right things to sooth my malaise. Since then, each year I seek out a Jew to help get me back on track. You were recommended to me a few months ago by the League Of Jewish Bloggers. That’s when I started reading your blog stories. I have to tell you that they give off the weird and optimistic sorts off auras that I’m partial to. Which is why I’m confident that you’re the person I need. Neil, tomorrow is my big day. I’m feeling down and tired, and I’m asking you to turn me around. I know you can do it.”

Holy man-o-Manischewitz. Was this really happening? Was I dreaming? I pinched myself on the right forearm real hard. Yikes, that hurt like crazy! No doubt, Santa truly was in the house. “Sir, I’m at your service,” I said. “And I think I know just what to do.” I motioned to Santa to rise.

“C’mon, guy. Follow me. I’m going to give you a powerful dose of lights. Christmas lights. Beautiful ones are all over this neighborhood, and some of the best are only two blocks away from here. I’m bummed out a little, too, right now. So, let’s take a walk, Santa. The lights will do both of us a lot of good.” I grabbed Santa by the arm and off we went. Thirty seconds later we hit pay dirt.

“Look at that house, Santa. Great, no? What artwork!”

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“And look at over there!” I yelled in his ear. “I ask you, who needs lavish, over-the-top Christmas light displays? Modest lights on cute, small houses often are where it’s at.”

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I could tell that Santa was impressed, even though for a while he didn’t say anything. But then he did. “You know, Neil, when I’m flying over houses all over the world on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, I never get a true head-on view of the decorations. I haven’t seen Christmas lights from this perspective in ages. I’d forgotten how sweet and heartwarming they can be. Why, that house right there is magnificent.” He pointed across the street.

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“And here’s another lovely one,” he said, as we continued a short distance down the block.

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I certainly couldn’t disagree. My suburban region, not known for its esthetic charms, becomes grand this time of year. And only at night.

I felt a powerful pinch on my right forearm, directly on the spot where I’d pinched myself only 10 minutes earlier. As if I required proof a second time that Santa was real. “Ouch, Santa! What’s the deal, dude?”

“Sorry, mate. But let’s turn back. I’m all energized once again, so I got to go. Mrs. Claus will start worrying if I don’t get back to the North Pole soon. It’s a miracle that nobody spotted me on the street, or I’d be here signing autographs till who knows when. I’ll need to borrow your cell phone, by the way. I’ll return it tomorrow night when I’m back this way. Mine broke into pieces when I was sliding down your frigging chimney. Once I’m in the air heading home tonight the missus will expect me to call her every half hour. She might want me to stop to pick up a quart of milk somewhere. Or maybe some Slim Jims,. My old lady, you never know what she’ll want.”

Santa embraced me in a thank-you hug. Minutes later I watched him nimbly scale the front of my house, its low side, and climb into his sleigh which, complete with reindeer and unnoticed by me, had been sitting atop the roof. “Bye, Santa,” I shouted. “Till next time. And keep those calls to the Pole short. International phone rates are a bitch.”

 

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