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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A Monumental Provincetown Story

Let no one declare that I don’t follow up on my threats, for here I am at my writing desk penning another story about Cape Cod, just as I intimated I might do in my previous essay (click here). For those of you who have read more than enough about the Cape on these pages over the last two years, now’s a good time to turn your attention to a different sort of activity, such as sending one of Hallmark’s What The Hell Is Wrong With You? cards to Donnie Trump. But please promise to return to check out what I have to say next time around . . . unless it too turns out to be a Cape opus. In which case I give you my permission to send one of those cards to me.

Provincetown’s village section (as opposed to Provincetown’s enormous and mostly uninhabited areas of beaches, woods, marshes, sand dunes and sand valleys that separate the village from the Atlantic Ocean) — that’s what I had in mind to write about after strolling along many of its streets for several hours a couple of weeks ago. I was in P-Town, as those in the know call it, during my wife Sandy’s and my annual Cape Cod vacation. Our home base was Orleans, about 25 miles away.

I meandered very contentedly, snapping a bushel or two of photos and figuring I probably would have little problem turning the excursion into a blog-worthy piece. But as one and then two and then three days following the jaunt went by, no satisfactory story slant entered my mind.

Remarkably, panic-prone me didn’t panic. Instead I took a few deep breaths, dropped to my knees and prayed to the blogging gods for assistance. “Get up, you schmuck, before you hurt yourself! Did you forget that you’re about as flexible as a baseball bat?” they immediately shouted at me. I rose slowly, creaking like an ancient wooden chair. “Okay, that’s better. Listen, you definitely should write about your Provincetown amble. But put the Pilgrim Monument near the center of the story, because you’ve always loved the Monument more than anything else in Provincetown. That’s the best advice we can give you.”

Hey, they were right. The Pilgrim Monument, located just two blocks from Provincetown village’s central area, is a stunner. And when I’m Cape-side it’s in my thoughts or pleasing my eyes a fair amount of time. That’s because I admire its enormous size and equally enormous aura. I mean, it’s got presence up the wazoo and seems almost supernatural to me, so unlikely is it in appearance compared to all that surrounds it. The Pilgrim Monument is the stolid, solid and protective alien creature that Provincetown and the rest of Cape Cod didn’t know they needed until it was erected in the early 1900s.

Provincetown village is charm personified. And it was made for strolling. Lovely, sea-sidey houses abound. As do more-polished abodes with beautiful gardens, and art galleries and food venues ranging from grab-a-bite to haute-cuisine. Not to mention funky stores of one kind or another that, with the galleries and eateries, run along Commercial Street, P-Town’s main shopping drag, and to a lesser extent along the village’s other lengthy artery, Bradford Street. And you’d have to possess a heart made of granite not to be beguiled by Provincetown Harbor, whose waters are fed by gargantuan Cape Cod Bay. The harbor is but a stone’s throw from Commercial Street.

The small and smaller streets in Provincetown, which occupies the far tip of Cape Cod, never cease to amaze me. Some are half-hidden, some little more than cubby holes — good luck ever finding those again if you fail to jot down exactly where they’re located. All of that suits me just fine, as I’m a fan of the whimsical. I’m also a fan of  peace and quiet, and things were real tranquil during the day in question. Artsy, open-minded and gay-friendly Provincetown, population around 3,000, is overrun with visitors and vacationers during the summer, but not so in autumn, which is when Sandy and I plant our temporary roots on the Cape.

Fifty minutes into my exploratory venture, I caught a glimpse of that which the blogging gods suggested I focus on. Despite its being 252 feet from toe to head (it’s by far the tallest structure on vertically-challenged Cape Cod), and perched on a hill to boot, you can’t see the Monument from everywhere in town. Trees and buildings, though nowhere near as tall as the Monument, commonly obscure the view. But as I got closer to the old soul, I sought out perspectives that partly or fully brought it into my field of vision. I especially liked the way the Monument, three or four blocks away at that point, stretched its torso above a Gulf gas station’s sign on Bradford Street.

Funny thing about the Pilgrim Monument. It was created to honor the Pilgrims who voyaged in 1620 from England aboard the good ship Mayflower and helped colonize these here United States. They made their first landfall in what would later be known as Provincetown, before moving on soon after to a permanent home, across Cape Cod Bay, in Plymouth.

You’d think, then, that the Monument’s basic design or at least its adornments would acknowledge the Pilgrims or the Mayflower or the European settlement of the States. A plaque near the Monument takes care of those matters, but not the Monument itself. The decision was made to pattern the Monument after a bell tower that was built in the 1300s in the hilly, landlocked Italian town of Siena. Huh? Wha? An Italian tower in a bohemian New England fishing village? But as it turns out, for me anyway, the Monument’s fish-out-of-water aspect, not to overlook its stateliness, makes it the brightest star in town.

There are other reasons why I enjoy the Monument as much as I do. I find it more than cool that the tower is visible from miles away along certain sections of Cape Cod Bay. Though it’s only twig-sized from those vantage points, I feel good knowing that it’s there. And more than once I was gassed to see the big guy poking up its head while I was scampering in the aforementioned Provincetown sands just outside the village.

But more than anything, I get kind of weak in the knees when I’m near the Monument at night. When the Sun goes down, lights illuminate the giant. I don’t know, I guess I’d have to say that the nighttime Monument is one of the finest sights I know of, not only beautiful but curiously otherworldly. As my afternoon in Provincetown segued into night, I stared more than once at the Monument. And took a couple of pictures. One of them is the money shot.

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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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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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The Book Within Me

Some people think big. Big hopes, big dreams and big efforts to make those hopes and dreams come true. Me, not so much. I think modest at best, small more often than not. It’s just my basic nature, and always has been.

dulcolax-imagesMy great pal Alan, though, has a different opinion about my abilities. For example, he has urged me a few times to write a book. He, one of the handful of faithful who to my amazement truly seem to enjoy at least some of the stories I’ve been lobbing into cyberspace via this blog, believes I have it in me to design and bring forth a thriller. He has suggested that the plot be set on Cape Cod, a region I know well. Alan is a dreamer. Does he have any idea how I often strain and sweat like the King Of Constipation to squeeze out a blog entry of a mere 1,000 or so words? Alan, if you’re reading this, believe me when I say that daily doses of Dulcolax wouldn’t make those articles emerge any easier. So, a book, you say? Hey, man, are you joking? My inner strength and energies would have to quadruple before I’d be able even to begin entertaining the notion. Basically, fuhgeddaboudit.

Hmmm, on the other hand maybe I speaketh too hastily. I often do. No doubt writing a book is an alluring idea. Could it be that Alan is on to something? Has he peered deep into my core, à la Superman, and spotted an alternative me? As in the bestselling me. The me whose tightly wrought and pulsating fictional offering projects me into television and radio studios presided over by the likes of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross and Jimmy Fallon. Yeah man, I can dig it! Who wouldn’t? I mean, the royalty checks will be pouring in. The invitations to swank A-list parties will arrive by the dozens. Gorgeous girls will mob me on the streets. Yeah, I definitely can dig it.

OK, Alan, you’ve convinced me. The book is within me. Somewhere. I think. All I have to do is birth it. What should the first step be? Oh right, there needs to be a plot. Well, in that regard I’ll try not to think about what another of my great pals Dave once said. He and I went to high school with Arthur Agatston, who years later became famous as the author of The South Beach Diet books. Dave was wowed by Arthur’s success. “Neil, I’d write a book too,” Dave said to me back then, “except for one thing: I’ve got nothing to say.”

img_0370Ouch! Like I mentioned I’ll try not to think about Dave’s insightful comments. I’ve got plenty to say, don’t I? And placing the action on Cape Cod, a 70-mile-long spit of land filled with villages, sands, marshes and trees, surrounded on three sides by majestic, endless waters, is certain to inspire my writing. Think, Neil, think. What’s the most unusual and intriguing aspect of The Cape you’ve come upon over the years? I know — the dune shacks, those 20 or so primitive structures scattered among the ridiculously huge dunes of The Cape’s outer regions. Folks like Eugene O’Neill and Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock used to squirrel away in the shacks, seeking their Muses and churning out product. These days the shacks are in governmental hands, and are rented to modern-day hardy and artistic types (click here to read about the dune shacks). The shacks are isolated, not easy to find. The perfect scene of a crime.

Ah, the crime. What shall the crime be? Who will be the perpetrator, and who the victim? And what will be the reason that the crime occurred? You know, I believe it’s all coming together for me. Suddenly I’ve been zapped with a giant squirt of inspiration. Here goes:

img_0383I’m going to model the narrator/possible victim upon myself. Why not? I’ve gotten up close and pretty personal with several of the dune shacks over the years, walking around them, peering inside through their windows and admiring their no-facilities ambience. And for years I’ve been dreaming of the day when I’ll be spending substantial time in one of the shacks and its surrounding desert-like wilderness. Oh, the joy of peeing and dumping in sand pits or in the Atlantic Ocean! My life needs a major dose of that kind of back-to-nature reality.

Anyway, getting back to the plot. The time is autumn 2016, a Monday at 9 PM. The narrator, who goes by the nickname Cod Man, has been living for seven weeks in a shack located close to where the dunes peter out and meadows of beach grasses take over. A hop, skip and a jump beyond the grasses is the roiling Atlantic. Cod Man’s stay, per the rental agreement, is slated to end in one week. That situation is making Cod Man very nervous, because he had been confident that his shack experience would result in the creation of the book he’d put on the back burner for the past 10 years. Instead, the book, a novel about a Pennsylvania man whose world falls apart when his dog abandons him to take a job as chief mascot in Moscow’s Grand Hotel Trump, simply isn’t coming together. The reams of paper upon which Cod Man has been writing are, he fully knows, filled with dreck. “Holy crap!” Cod Man yells from his wobbly writing desk. “I’ve been out here for two months and have zilch to show for it. I’m bummed. Totally bummed.”

Moments later comes a pounding on the shack’s door. Standing outside in the moonlit night, a loaded pistol in his right hand, is Dick Hedd, Cod Man’s next door neighbor in Pennsylvania. Dick has tracked down Cod Man and is out for revenge. You see, three years earlier a friendly two-man game of Scrabble at Cod Man’s house had gone highly sour when Cod Man, upon throwing down two seven-letter words (halfwit and jackass) in the course of the evening, began to gloat. His gloating grew louder and wilder, reaching insane heights. Dick Hedd, certain that the seven-letter words were meant as commentaries on his personality, fumed. He stormed out the door before game’s end. And he never forgot or forgave Cod Man’s arrogance. The gents hadn’t talked since then. All the while, Dick waited patiently for his moment to avenge the foul deed. Among Cape Cod’s dunes that moment had arrived.

Little more need I say at this point. I have the book’s remaining plot lines worked out quite well. Everything fits. Everything is meaningful and believable.

Now all I have to do is write the entire story. Soon I shall begin.

 

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(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

The Meadow And I

In some ways I envy those who live in or near undeveloped locales. Those parts of Montana or Utah, say, that Man hasn’t messed around with too much. Places whose terrains have been shaped over the eons by seismic events and by the unaltered flow of waters, without the added oomph provided by bulldozers, dynamite and chain saws. Where the growth and spread, or not, of vegetation follow elemental rhythms. And where, if you decide to venture out on a nice, long walk, you’re probably not going to bump into other members of our wondrously meddlesome species. Yes, that would be superb.

On the other hand, I’m a suburban/city boy at heart, ensconced in a comfortable house a handful of miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. As such, I like living close to supermarkets and shopping malls and movie theaters and art museums and a lot of the other man-made stuff that this sort of environment contains. But there are times when I’ve had enough. “Let me outta here!” I then cry inwardly. “I hear the call of the wild! I require the presence of forests and/or sands and/or seas. Oh, wait for me, my fair landscapes and coastlines. Soon I shall be among you.”

Cape Cod Bay.
Cape Cod Bay (in the distance) at low tide.

That’s when my wife Sandy and I start making plans, rent a house for a decent spell, and a month or so later drive 360 miles in a northwesterly direction to said house on Cape Cod where, miraculously, substantial expanses of Nature in its mostly-undisturbed glory indeed exist. Cape Cod soothes my soul. And has for a long time. But, going to Cape Cod is a schlep and a half. What’s a guy to do on those mornings or afternoons, at home  in the Philadelphia burbs, when a quick fix is in order?

Good question. For picky me there aren’t too many pleasing answers. I mean, there isn’t a lot of natural  scenery around here, in any format, to begin with. Much of what passes for natural are fields and woodlands that have been daintified and picnic-benched. But a few pockets of goodness somehow have escaped humankind’s conquering hands, and one of them, pathetically small as it may be, is where I headed one morning late last month when my inner being began slapping me hard upside the head to let me know it was time to try and commune with Mother Earth.

img_1306img_1304Thus, off I headed on a solo expedition to Awbury Arboretum, formerly a private estate now run by a non-profit group, half an hour from my house. This was my third time there. The first two were with my wife Sandy. She and I first heard of and went to Awbury three years ago. It’s in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, a congested residential area with roots that reach back to the late 1600s, and about seven miles from downtown. Little-known and little-visited, that’s Awbury. Which is A-OK with me, not being the world’s biggest people person. We enjoyed that Awbury visit very much, checking out the trees and shrubbery and well-kept lawns, and admiring the mansion that once housed the Cope family (click here to learn more about the arboretum), even though we didn’t set foot on Awbury’s best feature. A few months ago, on our second trip, we discovered that feature, a compact and alluring meadow. Wowza! I was smitten.

What’s the big deal about a meadow? Well, incredibly, this simple form of natural landscape is harder to find in the Philadelphia area than a winning Powerball ticket. Where did we go wrong? Unfettered meadows, where grasses and wildflowers grow freely to their hearts’ content, used to be fairly commonplace around here not all that many decades ago, weren’t they? Bye, baby, bye. What a world.

img_1313img_1319Yeah, the Awbury meadow is pint-sized, three or four acres at best. Not exactly the meadow of my dreams. But not only did it have to do last month when the earth goddesses beckoned me to find green space, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I tell you, 20 minutes in the meadow grasses did me a world of good. That’s the thing about meadows: they’re just so cute and inviting. Why, within seconds I dropped 60 years from my age and began doing cartwheels magnificently from one edge of the field to another. Too bad that Simone Biles wasn’t there to witness my athletic triumphs. She’d have been way envious.

img_1315img_1314But, getting back to reality, let me say this: You better believe it’s the simple things in life — like, strutting through tall grasses and admiring the muted shades of green and tan and sepia that the blades take on in winter — that can help to put your head back on straight. Not that mine remained in proper position for all that long. Though I embraced the Zenlike moments that happily blossomed within me at Awbury, they faded fast. I ain’t a Buddhist monk — not a bad thing to be, come to think of it — so I was almost back to my usual grumbly self by the time I arrived home. No doubt, however, that something sweet yet short-lived is better than nothing at all.

 

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Sunrise In Suburbia

In most parts of the world the Sun is consistent in its rhythms. Each day it goes up. And then it goes down. Sunrise, sunset. Right, duh. Now, I’ve written about sunsets at least two or three times before on this publication’s pages. But not, until this moment, about sunrises. And I’m pretty sure that, like me, scribes and photographers (and just about everybody else) over the years generally have spent a lot more time gazing at and thinking about our star’s settings rather than its risings. Probably has something to do, in many cases, with their not wanting to freeze their asses off at six or seven o’clock in the morning. I can dig it.

A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.
A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.

I’m definitely a sunset guy. I especially like to witness them when I’m in beautiful locales with wide open vistas and visible horizons. As this blog’s regular readers know by now, various sections of Cape Cod meet those criteria for me sweetly and perfectly. You’d think, then, that when I’m on Cape Cod I’d also be a sunrise guy. I mean, I get up early enough in the morning to watch our stellar friend ascend. But nope, never once have I seen a Cape sunrise. And I feel guilty about that. Catching a sunrise has been on my Cape to-do list for at least 15 years. And I mean to scratch it off that list before Mr. Reaper (first name Grim) comes to take me away. I don’t know, I suppose I’ve just been too lazy on The Cape to rev up my motor in darkness, which is what it takes to do the sunrise thing.

6:53 AM, Dec. 3, 2016. (Thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)
6:53 AM on Dec. 3, 2016 in suburban Philadelphia (thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)

Recently I was thinking about the above. And also thinking about the pathetic fact that, as far as I could recollect, I’d never seen a sunrise anywhere. “Yo, schmuck! You’re pushing 70,” I said to myself. “It’s time you remedied this situation.” And I did. On the first Saturday of the present month. On the outfield grasses of a baseball field within a public park located two blocks from my house in the Philadelphia suburbs. I’d like to say that it was a world-class experience, but I can’t. And that’s mostly because it took place in a less than jaw-droppingly beautiful spot. Gorgeous undeveloped areas are not to be found in my neck of the leveled woods. And, seeing that I wasn’t in the mood for driving miles and miles, the park was as good as or better than any location I could think of that wasn’t a hefty distance away.

7:05 AM
7:05 AM
7:11 AM
7:11 AM

Yes, I might sound like one, but I’m not totally an ungrateful fool. Only partly. Truth be told, I was glad to be out on the baseball field watching the sky get brighter and brighter and more and more colorful as the Sun pushed upward, breaking the horizon at 7:06 AM and continuing on its red-hot journey. There were lots of clouds in the sky and, as with sunsets, they enhanced the picture by adding malleable patterns and by enveloping and reflecting hues stylishly. I was into it, silently oohing and aahing a little bit while documenting the très cool event with my phone’s camera. And in between doing that, during the half hour that I spent in the park, I kind of rejoiced that the swarms of people who live all around where I was standing were, for the most part, nowhere to be seen or heard. That’s usually not true in my little corner of the world. I didn’t complain. You happily take your moments of peace when you can find them. All I saw was one fellow Baby Boomer striding along at a leisurely pace, a morning walker whom I’ve noticed in the neighborhood a few times before. He kept to the park’s walking paths, not once turning his head toward the fireworks taking place in the eastern heavens. And I heard one person, a someone who stepped outside his or her house to dump some trash into its not quite final resting place, a garbage can.

As my visit to the park approached the 30-minute mark I noticed that my fingers, though not my ass, were freezing.  It was about 38°F outside. I hadn’t brought along a pair of gloves. “Enough!” I almost shouted. “Sunrise, you’ve been great. You’ve been beautiful. I’m honored to have been in your presence. But we’re done for now. And so I bid you a melancholy goodbye.”

Hands thrust inside my coat pockets, in bright light I walked the short distance back to my house to drink some coffee and pop some (vitamin) pills. It had been a good start to the day.

Panoramic view from where I was standing.
Panoramic view from where I was standing.

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The No Bell Prize

Before I threw this blog into gear, in April of last year, I’d hardly ever looked at any of the who knows how many millions of blogs that flap their wings in cyberspace. Since then, though, I’ve become a blog addict and have clicked on the pages of at least a thousand. Most I’ve never revisited, for reasons only my valet Jeeves is privy to. But there are over 100 whose words and images I imbibe anywhere from occasionally to frequently. And that’s because they are good. Real good in numerous cases. If anyone had told me in April 2015 that Planet Earth houses many times more strong thinkers and boffo writers and discerning photographers than I ever imagined, I’d have responded “yeah right, and I’m going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature before this decade is out.” Well, all I can say is that I now am totally impressed, and intimidated, by the oceans of citizens who can turn a sweet phrase and/or snap a fine photo. And despite the obvious fact that a Nobel isn’t part of my future, I’m here to announce somewhat reluctantly that a No Bell is. More about that later.

Intimidated. Yes, that word surely applies to me. Trying to keep pace with the many who, anywhere from twice a week to daily, knock out good stories for their blogs intimidates me. I mean, it’s all I can do to compose a ditty once a week. Twice a week or more often than that? Ain’t about to happen anytime soon. I’m more likely to pack my bags for the Himalayas and scale Mount Everest or K2.

Inspiration that leads somewhere is what it boils down to, and some writers have it up the wazoo. Me, uh uh. Take one day last week, for example. I hit my blog’s “Publish” button early that morning, lofting my latest masterwork, Ponds, into the ethers. Hours later I was sweating up a storm, racking my brains for a topic I could wrap my head around and turn into another addition to the publication whose sentences you presently are glued to. The pressure was on. If something didn’t emerge pretty soon I’d be in sharp danger of being empty-handed when, the following week, the “Publish” button coolly beckoned me to depress it confidently. Becoming more desperate by the minute I yelled to myself “come here, topic, come here. Be a good boy and come here.”

And who’d have guessed it? Next thing I knew a few ideas began to dribble in. Starting to feel better I grabbed a pen and a pad and scribbled some notes.

img_1254Cape Cod were the first words I jotted down. Sure, how about another opus about The Cape? My previous two fell into that category, so why not make it a threepeat? On the other hand, I quickly decided, fuhgeddaboudit. I needed to point my blog in a direction away from The Cape, if only temporarily, before my meager readership abandoned ship entirely. “Cape Cod, my love,” I said to myself, “I’ll come back to you. Sooner rather than later. Wait for me, my dearest. Please wait.”

monkey-scratching-headIf not Cape Cod, what then? A few more words transferred from my brain cells to paper: Movies That Made Me Scratch My Head. Not a bad idea, I thought, as I’d seen two action flicks in October that I enjoyed but whose plots, par for the course for me, I couldn’t keep up with. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, a Tom Cruise-led endeavor, and Ben Affleck’s The Accountant were the films in question. Sitting back on my living room sofa I tried to bring Reacher and Accountant to life in my mind, but had only middling success. I could barely recall the plot twists that a few weeks earlier I’d been scratching my head about. Like much of my life, they’d faded into wispy memories. What, you expect a body to take notes when he goes to the movies in the event he might want to comment pointedly on them for his blog? I’ll take it under consideration.

You get the picture. I played around with a couple of other ideas and ended up tossing them aside too. And so, here I am with an essay about not much of anything. And the “Publish” button is staring me in the face. What’s a boy to do? That button is a demanding and inscrutable entity, one best not to ignore. It’s anyone’s guess what ghastly forces might be unleashed if I do.

In conclusion, I return to the aforementioned No Bell Prize. Here’s the situation: I have it on good  authority that next week I will be invited to Stockholm, Sweden, where, should I accept the invitation, I would be presented in December with a document inscribed as follows: We at The No Bell Institute Of Blogging Mediocrity hereby state that Neil Scheinin’s blog post from November 10, 2016 is not ring-a-ding-ding. It is unworthy of any number of bells, not five, not even one. No bells being more like it, we are issuing this certificate to Mr. Scheinin.

Ouch!

Oy vey!!

Onward and Upward!!!

 

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Ponds

For those of you who have been wishing and praying that this correspondent would drop the Cape Cod kick he’s been on, I have a few things to say, such as “lump it.” Or, as I mentioned in my previous story, “sue me.” Be forewarned, though, that if you choose the latter path you’ll soon encounter the legal fury of my attorney, the one and only Harry “I’m gonna git you, sucka!” Hooznext. Harry is a fearsome son of a bitch. The last time he lost a case was before any of us were born.

Ponds. Yeah, that’s what I’m about to write about. Specifically, Cape Cod ponds. Not with the magical descriptive powers or insights that Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-1800s, brought to the subject in his charming book Cape Cod. Rather, with the flabby notions that one would expect from he who in his own mind is a sort of Nature Boy, but whose knowledge of the natural world actually is barely enough to squeeze out a 1,000 or so word essay. But we work with the tools that have been granted us, no? Yes.

Let’s get on with it. Last month my wife Sandy and I spent some time on Cape Cod, a locale where, as I’ve noted previously on these pages, we frolic in and stand in awe of the great outdoors indescribably more than we do back home in suburban Philadelphia. That’s because 97% of the great outdoors has been bulldozed and paved over where we live, whereas on Cape Cod substantial areas of near-undisturbed beauty remain.

A portion of Hawksnest State Park's forest.
A portion of Hawksnest State Park’s forest.

We’ve been coming to Cape Cod since 1998. At first it was The Cape’s waters and coastlines that made us chant “OMG” in unison several times each day. As the years rolled by we started to realize that those waters and sands and marshes weren’t all there was to go gaga over and to commune with. Hey, there were trees! A trillion of them! I mean, within and between its villages, Cape Cod is slathered with woods, many public. And there are several sprawling areas that meet just about anyone’s definition of true forests. And so, to the woodlands we went, skipping hand-in-hand down their trails, dropping bread crumbs behind us and keeping one dominant thread of thought in our minds. To wit: “Holy crap! There’s a ton of poison ivy all over the place! What the f*ck are we doing here?” But we carefully watched where we placed our feet and soldiered on.

Lo and behold, one day in a woody spread we came upon a body of water so pristine and lovely we almost dropped to our knees. It was a pond. A freshwater pond. It sat there demurely, prettily, surrounded by trees small to medium in stature, trees unable to reach towering heights due to The Cape’s less-than-fully-nourishing sandy soils. And small to medium seemed just right, the correct accompaniment to a modestly sized pool of water. Yes, we were smitten. Once again Cape Cod’s elemental beauty had melted us like butter. Pre-Cape Cod we hardly were oblivious to nature’s bounties. But The Cape somehow opened inner windows that allowed us to enjoy the views as we never had before.

Since that fateful day Sandy and I have added pond-seeking to our repertoire of activities on The Cape. Needless to say, the hands of man have surrounded too many ponds with roads and houses that don’t exactly make enchanted experiences out of gazing upon the waters. Yet, a decent number of freshwater ponds remain in unspoiled woodlands. And we’ve worshipped at some of their altars. By the way, if one is to believe what one reads, the end of the latest Ice Age, 12,000 or so years ago, is responsible for The Cape’s freshwater ponds. Retreating glaciers apparently scraped holes in the ground that filled with water and became the ponds we know and love today. And how many freshwater ponds are there? There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the answer. Anywhere from 365 to 1,000 are the numbers thrown around. Whatever, The Cape contains more than a few.

Hawksnest Pond.
Hawksnest Pond.

Sandy and I fell under the spell of a pond one week into our latest Cape trip. We’d seen it, Hawksnest Pond, a few years ago, and decided to refresh beside it again. This pond, and two others, are sheltered within a small forest, Hawksnest State Park, a little-known and little-visited and undeveloped swath of Harwich township. We parked along one of the park’s borders and entered, marching down the park’s wide main trail till Hawksnest Pond materialized. Man, standing on its shores I felt my anxieties begin to slip away. Alas, an hour later all the tensions returned when we exited the forest. Tight as a frigging knot I often tend to be.

Tight doesn’t begin to describe the emotional state that a pond-hunting escapade threw me into two days later. Ballistic is more like it. There Sandy and I were in Nickerson Sate Park, a 1,900 acre forest in Brewster township. Eight freshwater ponds are on the premises, and pine trees and oak trees abound, as they do throughout Cape Cod. Sandy and I have been to Nickerson a few times over the years. This time I was determined to gaze upon its Higgins Pond, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never seen before. But gaze upon it I did not, as Higgins wasn’t visible from the road that supposedly ran near it, and trying to ascertain which forest pathways led to the pond proved to be an exercise in sheer frustration. The park brochure and map? Pretty useless.  Road signs and trail signs clearly pointing to Higgins? Nonexistent. “Where’s Daniel Effing Boone when you need him?” I bellowed, not for the first time in my life. “He’s on his lunch break,” a voice, barely perceptible, answered from far, far away. It figured.

Flax Pond.
Flax Pond.

Smoke pouring out of my ears, I drove back towards the park entrance, deciding to turn onto a road that seemingly had a good chance of leading to Flax Pond, another of Nickerson’s oases. Mercifully it did. Flax Pond wasn’t new to us, but was no less beautiful for that. The pond looked sweet and innocent. Hell, it was sweet and innocent. Quiet blue waters ringed by a chorale of lovely, welcoming trees . . .  not much is better. Almost instantly I felt my diastolic and systolic numbers head southward dramatically. And there they remained for a good while, as memories of the Higgins mini-fiasco evaporated presto. Some days work out just fine.

 

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To The Beach!

Regular readers of this publication (there are at least three or four of you, which is a hefty increase from the one or two who were tuning in a year ago) might be sick of hearing me extol Cape Cod. You know what? Sue me. I traipse through life under numerous aliases, so you’ll never track me down.

The Outer Cape's sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.
The Outer Cape’s sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.

This, then, is another story revolving around The Cape, a locale that I and my wife Sandy most favor. We find Cape Cod to carry a pretty perfect combination of attributes and personality traits. Overall it is scenically beautiful, which is why we spend much time outdoors, way more than we do back home. And, if you know where to go, you’ll find expansive and mostly undeveloped shoreline and forested and sand dune areas that are far beyond beautiful. Awe-inspiring and majestic are words I’d use to describe those sections, especially the Outer Cape’s long stretches of sand cliff-backed ocean coastline and crazily huge dunes. What’s more, Cape Cod is nicely doused with cute villages, good art galleries and museums, small theater companies and plenty of cinemas and restaurants. All of this is right up my and Sandy’s alleys. We’re at ease, wowed and highly entertained on Cape Cod.

We were on Cape Cod for a spell earlier this month, based in a somewhat secluded part of Orleans, one of The Cape’s 15 townships. The Atlantic Ocean, which paws at and sometimes pounds CC’s eastern border, was near our rented house. Ditto for the endless extent of sands that goes hand-in-hand with the ocean. In other words, double duh, the beach. I’ve racked up many miles of hiking and strolling on Orleans’ share of the ocean beach over the years, and also on the portions within the boundaries of other Cape townships such as Wellfleet and Truro.

Normally when I’m out on Cape Cod’s sands (be they beside the ocean or Cape Cod Bay or Nantucket Sound) or poking around in its forests and marshlands, I don’t particularly like seeing or being aware of fellow humans. Sandy excluded, I hasten to add. That’s because I’m a misanthrope and also because my delicate psychological relationship with Mother Nature is easily disturbed. Not to mention my delicate psychological relationship with myself. Luckily for me, normally Sandy and I don’t come in contact with many others on our expeditions. In summer, when Cape Cod swarms with frolickers, that wouldn’t be the case. But the hordes of humanity significantly diminish in the off-season, which is when Sandy and I do our Cape thing.

A view from Nauset Beach.
A view from Nauset Beach.

Our first full day on Cape Cod this month was the Friday of Columbus Day weekend. A good way to inaugurate our latest Cape trip, we decided, would be to head to Nauset Beach, a part of Orleans’ coastline that has been tamed a
bit in its central section so that people can get their beach fixes. There’s the mandatory big parking area, the restrooms and showers, a seafood stand. And not much else, actually, besides trillions of grains of sand and trillions of gallons of H2O and millions of blades of beach grasses. No boardwalk, no amusements. Which pleases me. And no sand cliffs, which doesn’t, Nauset Beach being a tad south of the Outer Cape.

Nauset Beach. October 2016.
Nauset Beach. October 2016.

In the summer Nauset Beach is congested. Otherwise, usually not. On the Friday in question Sandy and I were surprised, but shouldn’t have been, to see quite a few vehicles in the parking lot. And quite a few people, hardly a mob but maybe 125 or so, scattered around Nauset Beach’s miles-long length. Hey, why not? Columbus Day weekend is a Cape draw. And the day was perfect. Mild, sunny, a light breeze coming off the waters. And, much to my amazement, I was glad to be among those folks. It happens sometimes.

img_1088img_1089Everyone was calm and quiet. Small brigades of my brethren were cemented into beach chairs, staring trancelike at the ocean waves. Others practiced multitasking. Sandy and me, for instance. We walked the sands, gazing downward at human footprints and canine pawprints, upward at the clear blue sky and outward at the eight to ten foot waves rolling relentlessly to shore. During our journey we came across beaucoup people out for a jaunt with their canine friends. Two couples led dogs almost as large as they were. Perhaps the creatures were ponies. I’m not sure. Wait, on second thought they definitely were dogs. I heard them bark, not neigh.

What is it about sand, sky and indescribably massive bodies of water that attract people like ants drawn to carelessly disposed and half-eaten Slim Jims? A few hours after leaving Nauset Beach that question came to me and, predictably, I had no bright answers. It’s quite the phenomenon, though, a natural part of human behavior as far as I can tell. Maybe it has something to do with our links to our fishy ancestors who eons ago inhabited Planet Earth’s liquid stuff. Whatever, I love staring out at Cape Cod’s waters and scampering on its shorelines. I can’t keep away. Invisible forces from within and without bring me there. It amazes me that I used to have no clue that this innate attraction was lurking inside me waiting to bloom. I found out only when Sandy and I hit The Cape for the first time in 1998.

After an hour and a half of beach-meandering we headed back to our car to retrieve our picnic lunch. A gourmet meal of yogurt, grapes, pretzels and seltzer awaited us. We ate it at one of the tables outside the seafood stand and then drove off for some sightseeing in the historic core of Orleans village. The first adventure of our Cape Cod 2016 sojourn was in the books.

 

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