A Not-Socially-Distanced Story

It’s funny, or maybe not, how my wife Sandy and I have changed our ways of thinking and acting during the it-better-end-soon pandemic era. Scared quite shitless when the era began in the USA in mid-March, we hunkered down, staying home nearly all of the time. We ventured out only to take walks, to buy provisions at supermarkets and to take out meals from restaurants. Right from the start, mask-wearing and social distancing were parts of our regimen. We wore disposable gloves when shopping, washed our hands regularly and used hand sanitizer profusely. None of this was unique to us, obviously. Most people were scared quite shitless, and took the same safety precautions that we did.

Thankfully, Sandy’s and my anxiety levels have subsided since then, mostly due to the easing of the lockdown in Pennsylvania, the state that we call home. As a result, we’re getting out of the house a lot more than we did a few months ago (we dine outdoors at restaurants frequently, for example), and are feeling better about things because of that. But the f*cking coronavirus, which ain’t going away any time soon, is still very much on our minds. Yes, we’ve ditched disposable gloves (hand-sanitizing and hand-washing make them superfluous, I think). But, in general we continue to follow safety guidelines.

“In general?” I hear a few voices ask. Right, 99% of the time we haven’t deviated from the guidelines. But the remaining 1% of the time we have, and that’s because we have pals named Cindy and Gene. When we’ve been with them recently, social distancing among the four of us has gone out the window.

It all began on an innocent day: the fourth of September. Sandy, myself, Cindy and Gene met up at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which only two days before had reopened after almost six months of coronavirus-precipitated closure. Masked, we began to wander the galleries together. Before we knew it, Sandy and I were practically shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends instead of the recommended six feet apart. If masks weren’t required in the museum, the four of us probably would have yanked ours off within minutes. Never fear, the yankings took place a couple of hours later when we all settled around a small table on the patio of a café near the museum. There we sat, ate and talked, a foot or two away from one another.

Now, none of us four ever will be mistaken for a wild and crazy type. What, then, caused the two couples to say goodbye to social distancing and mask-wearing when in each other’s company? In my case, I think it was because it somehow just felt like the natural thing to do. Subconsciously, I apparently had been as ready as could be to have normal interactions with these two close friends. And I knew that Cindy and Gene routinely follow the coronavirus guidelines, and trusted that they had determined, as best they could, that they were virus-free.

Let the good times roll! That’s what they continued to do in Cape May, a sweet, seaside, beachy town at New Jersey’s southern tip, about 110 miles from my suburban Philadelphia abode. There, Cindy had rented a condo for the Saturday-to-Saturday week that straddled late September and early October. At Cindy’s invitation, Sandy and I came down to stay with her for the final three of those days. Gene, who was needed at his and Cindy’s Philadelphia home for most of the week, arrived one day after Sandy and myself.

Yeah, we all had a great time together. We social-distanced from other people, but not among ourselves. We wore masks in Cape May’s stores and when walking on visitor-crowded streets, but otherwise not. Our time together passed quickly. Sandy and I were delighted to be on a mini-vacation in a popular area that we’d been to only once before, halfway to forever ago.

Cape May is a lovely place. It is filled, primarily, with old, well-maintained houses, hotels and other structures, all exuding strong character. And Cape May’s public beach, beside the Atlantic Ocean, is wide and lengthy. I, who hadn’t strode on a beach or seen ocean waters since a vacation last year on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was damn well thrilled to do so once again. And I also was damn well thrilled to walk through the woods and around the marshlands of Cape May Point State Park. They were a sight for sore eyes.

Well, hopefully Cindy and Gene and Sandy and I will be able to continue our undistanced get-togethers. I’m already looking forward to our next one, whenever that might be. And by the way, I’m sure that what the four of us have done is anything but rare. Worldwide, undoubtedly, plenty of people, who otherwise adhere to coronavirus-related safety guidelines, at times are meeting up with trusted relatives and friends in a normal, pre-pandemic manner. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about this and/or related topic(s).

Okay, that’s about it, girls and boys. Be well. Adios till next time.

(All of the photos were taken in Cape May, New Jersey, USA)

Will We Stay Or Will We Go? (A Cape Cod Story)

I’ve written an awful lot of pieces that revolve around Cape Cod, the narrow 65-mile-long stretch of land, and its surrounding waters, in southeastern Massachusetts. Which is fitting. This publication, after all, is a personal narrative more than anything else, and Cape Cod has played a major part in my life for years.

A small section of the enormous dunes in Provincetown, Cape Cod

In 1998 my wife Sandy and I vacationed on the Cape for five or six days, not knowing what to expect. We had researched Cape Cod, of course, and determined that it seemed to be a place that we’d relate to nicely, but the proof would be in the pudding. Well, we had a grand time, and decided that we would return the following year to soak up more of the Cape’s vibes.

Baker’s Pond (Orleans, Cape Cod)

The trip in 1999 sealed the deal. We were, and remain, smitten. For us, much of what Cape Cod has to offer (beautiful sands, waters, marshlands and forests; sweet villages; good eateries, museums, art galleries, music venues, cinemas, theater companies and more) comprise a damn near perfect package. We’ve returned again and again, usually for one vacation annually. We’ve been there in every season but summer, which is when Cape Cod is jammed with vacationers and visitors. F*ck jammed! We’ll stick with autumn, which has been our preference for the last ten or so years. In autumn, jammed doesn’t come into play.

Wellfleet village (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)

As the years went on, the lengths of our visits increased. In total we’ve spent somewhere in the vicinity of nine months on the Cape, a healthy chunk of our life together. Sandy and I think of Cape Cod as our second home. And, overall, we like Cape Cod more than we do our permanent home, which is the Philadelphia suburbs. We’ve thought of moving to our seaside paradise, but nixed the idea for two reasons. First, health care availability is limited on Cape Cod, but bountiful in the Philly region. When it comes to health care, we are fans of bountiful. Second, we don’t know anyone on Cape Cod. We ain’t spring chickens, and trying to create a good social life there would be a bigger challenge than we’re up to.

Marshland (Orleans, Cape Cod)

Friends, Romans and countrymen, it now has taken me about 400 words to get to the reason I am composing this opus. Here it is at last: Though Sandy and I are undecided as to whether we will visit our favorite place in 2020, it’s doubtful we will.

Hot Chocolate Sparrow café (Orleans, Cape Cod)

Why? Because of the pandemic. On Cape Cod we spend an average of eight hours daily away from our cozy rented house, immersing ourselves in various combinations of the environments and venues that I listed a few paragraphs ago. Yes, this fall we’d be able safely to stroll on beaches and pick our way though forests and around marshlands. Not too many people show up in those locales in autumn, and it would be easy to keep our distance from those that do. But it would be risky to enter restaurants, cinemas and all the other indoor places that help to make Cape Cod special for us (and many might be closed anyway, for pandemic reasons, by government mandate). Too much possibility of coming in contact with coronavirus microbes.

Rock Harbor, at Cape Cod Bay (Orleans, Cape Cod)

What it boils down to is this: With greatly limited options on Cape Cod I’d end up spending way more of my waking hours than usual in the rented house. There I’d watch the tube, work on sudoku and crossword puzzles, scratch my balls, and twirl the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. Shit, that’s what I do at home. I don’t need to travel 360 miles to duplicate those activities somewhere else. Even if that somewhere else is the Cape. For similar reasons, Sandy is leaning towards staying home too.

Our kite in action at the Atlantic Ocean (Cahoon Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod)

Oh well. C’est la frigging vie. Maybe we’ll end up on Cape Cod anyway. You never know. For now, I’ll picture myself on the Cape’s sand-cliff-backed Atlantic Ocean coastline. Nobody besides Sandy is in view. I’m scanning the skies, the sands and the cliffs, letting their essences flow into me, and also gazing at the ocean, a powerful, mesmerizing beast. I’ve done exactly that, in reality, many dozens of times. It’s as close to experiencing pure bliss as I’ve ever come.

Chatham Orpheum Theater (Chatham, Cape Cod)

And I’ll imagine the kicks that Sandy and I get from flying our kite at the ocean or at Cape Cod Bay. And the quiet awe that fills us when watching sunsets. And the fun we have while wandering the cozy, quirky streets of Provincetown village. And the thrills that climbing up and down the enormous, otherworldly dunes on Cape Cod’s far end gives to me.

Provincetown village (Provincetown, Cape Cod)

Man, I could go on and on about activities such as these. But that’s enough. I will say this though: Until 1998 (the year in which I turned 51) rolled around, it never had occurred to me that there might be a somewhere with which I’d bond profoundly. I’m a fortunate son of a gun that it happened.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias. All of the photos are from recent years.)

Colors, Colors, Colors!

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Colors, colors, colors! I’m in the mood to write about colors — big, bold combinations of them — and to look at those combos in the eight photographs that decorate this article. Who, after all, doesn’t like snazzy hues that are having a ball playing together? They can make your day.

Manhattan, New York City
Philadelphia Flower Show (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

And before I go any further, I have to say that the pictures, all of which I took in recent years, send tingles from my head to my toes. But wait, I’m exaggerating. The truth is that the tingles don’t come close to reaching my toes. Due to my advanced age, the best they can do is terminate one foot above my groin, where they paddle around for a second or two and then go poof! Shit, such is life.

Abington, Pennsylvania
Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Where was I? Yeah, I’m a sucker for vibrant color displays. Always have been. Like just about everybody, for instance, I’ve dug fireworks for almost as long as I can remember. Circa 1954, when I was very young and living in Brooklyn, my parents took me to the roof of a tall apartment building on our block. There, along with a bunch of other families, we watched fireworks exploding in the skies above the Atlantic Ocean near Coney Island Beach. The fireworks were several miles away from where we stood, appearing small at that distance, of course, but I found them groovy. Colors, colors, colors.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

And in my adulthood, which has been a work in progress for over 50 years, my admiration of fireworks has done nothing but grow. I always get close to the displays, as I like having the shifting shapes and colors in my face as much as possible. Many communities in the USA, including Philadelphia and various towns surrounding it, set off fireworks on July 4, which is America’s Independence Day. My wife Sandy and I live near Philly and have attended many Fourth Of July shows in that city or in its burbs.

What’s more, for a long time Philadelphia has gone one step further by ushering in each New Year with fireworks on the city’s Delaware River waterfront. Sandy and I love those shows too. As long as the outside temperature isn’t an ass-freezer, we go. The fireworks photo included with this story was snapped in Philly on the final evening of 2019. Right, we didn’t freeze our asses off.

Cape Cinema (Cape Cod, Massachusetts)

The other photograph that I’ll expend some words on is the one from Cape Cinema, a movie theater in the Massachusetts town of Dennis, on Cape Cod. My wife and I have vacationed almost annually on Cape Cod since 1998. And Cape Cinema has become one of our must-go-to entertainment venues. It shows good movies. And, incredibly, it is blessed with a swirling, otherworldly artwork that covers every inch of its auditorium’s ceiling and much of the auditorium’s walls.

Is there another theater in the world such as this? If so, I’m unaware of it. Created by Rockwell Kent and Jo Mielziner in 1930, the enormous mural (which was painted on canvas strips that then were glued to the interior surfaces) blows my mind every time I see it. Which is often, because I’ve been to this theater at least 35 times. The mural depicts mythological creatures and heavenly objects, but the subject matter hardly matters to me. No, what I’m interested in is allowing the feast of colors and patterns to intoxicate me, which they always do. I get lost in them. Cape Cinema is magical.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Yet, here’s the thing: As much as I love to be around color extravaganzas, there are limits to how often. Lengthy exposures to them on a regular basis (or to any forms of excitement, come to think of it) would cause my system to overload, to beg for mercy. Of that I have no doubt.

And so, if I were forced to make a choice, color-wise, between flash on the one hand and mellowness on the other, the latter would win hands down. To cite an example of mellowness, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than stand, facing the water, on a sandy ocean coastline on a clear day. Hundreds of times I’ve done exactly that, drenching myself in the tans below me, the teals in front of me, and the great expanse of baby blue overhead. The palette in such a setting soothes, man, soothes. No, I wouldn’t be pleased about eliminating bouncy, bright color schemes from my life, but I would if I had to. I have a feeling that most people would choose the same as me.

Thank goodness that none of us has to make that choice, though. There’s a vast number of colors out there. And there’s a time and a place for each of them. Say hallelujah, girls and boys! Amen.

(Comments are welcomed, as is the sharing of this article. Mucho gracias.)

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

The Nighttime Was The Right Time: A Photography Story

As I was flipping through the photographs on my phone the other day, I more or less said this to myself: “Holy crap, I snapped away like a damn fool in 2019!”

I made that observation because it seemed to me that at least 800 photos from last year reside in my phone’s innards. Not only are they mementos, they’ve also proven useful, as a fair number of them have adorned articles published on this site. And you know what? I ain’t done with using the photos. No way! That’s because, in the midst of reviewing the pix, inspiration zapped me with a story idea. Shit, that hurt! And to make matters worse, I think I tore my right pectoral muscle when I grabbed for the idea before it could vanish into thin air. Shit, that really hurt! And still does. Man, the things we go through in the name and service of creativity.

Nighttime outdoor photos. Yes, that’s what this essay is going to feature. I hadn’t given it any thought before but, when perusing 2019’s photographic output, I realized that I hadn’t taken all too many that fit into that category. The heavy majority of the pictures was created in daylight. And half or more of the after-dark shots were from restaurants or music clubs. Indoor locations, you dig.

But we work with what we have. After sifting through the appropriate pictures on my phone, I’ve selected nine to be shared with the world, three each from Philadelphia (USA), Cape Cod (USA), and Edinburgh (Scotland, UK). Nicely inhabited places are they. And pretty safe places for the most part too. But my camera contains no night shots from their woodlands or desolate sections, because I don’t venture into areas such as those after the Sun dips below the horizon. I’ve got a heart and I’ve got a pair of balls, but nobody ever will mistake mine, metaphorically-speaking, for Rambo’s. I know my limitations.

As I’ve noted more than once previously in this publication, walking around while looking at things has been one of my main interests since I entered my early 20s, which occurred 50 years ago. And most of that walking has been done in daylight, as my photos from 2019 emphasized to me.

Spruce Street Harbor Park, Philadelphia. (August 8, 2019)
Spruce Street Harbor Park, Philadelphia. (August 8, 2019)
Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia. (December 27, 2019)

But I like to wander nocturnally too, and should do more of it than I have. What’s not to like? When natural light is low, the world seems to don new sets of clothes. For instance, some areas blossom wildly at night under artificial lights, because those lights contrast so magnetically with the darkness overhead. Think Times Square. Along those lines, there are blasts of man-made colors in the pictures that I’ve selected from Cape Cod and Philadelphia, though the mysterious nature of nighttime is mixed into all of those scenes too. They won’t be confused with Times Square.

Provincetown, Cape Cod. (October 13, 2019)
Provincetown, Cape Cod. (October 18, 2019)
Sunset as seen from Harding Beach, Chatham, Cape Cod. (October 19, 2019)

It’s a different story for the pictures I’m presenting of Edinburgh, Scotland. They are on the somber side. Melancholic. Their shadows possibly hold secrets. When I walked the streets depicted in those photos, I had the feeling that almost anything might happen. And I liked that. I was a bit wary yet relaxed, in a dreamy state that vibrated tantalizingly, deliciously. I guess I’m in a very receptive mode as I type these words, because I’m reliving my late night strolls through Edinburgh right now. They took me to locales within myself that I’m not often tuned into. They were good for my “soul.”

Edinburgh, Scotland. (May 22, 2019)
Edinburgh, Scotland. (May 28, 2019)
Edinburgh, Scotland. (May 28, 2019)

Well, several days have passed since I composed the above paragraphs on the 28th and 29th of December. I was planning to wrap up the essay with only a few more words. But it has become obvious to me that it needs to go on for a while longer. I say that because my wife and I spent part of New Year’s Eve with two friends near Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. For many years Philadelphia has set off fireworks in the middle of the river on NYE, and the 31st of December, 2019 was no exception. The four of us took up positions atop a parking garage that overlooks the river. We didn’t have long to wait before the big event began at 6 PM.

How were the fireworks? Splendid as always. Not only do I love fireworks, I enjoy snapping photographs of them. And the ones I took the other evening are, of course, nighttime outdoor pictures. So, they are a natural fit for this story. Here are several of them. Happy New Year, one and all! Let’s hope that 2020 will be an uplifting year. And, by the way, please don’t be shy about adding comments or about sharing this story. I thank you.

I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!

Picking Cape Cod Pix

Last month, while vacationing on Cape Cod, I saw a small, very good exhibit about daguerreotype photography. The show, appropriately, was in a small, very good museum, the Cahoon Museum Of American Art. Before setting foot in the Cahoon I knew zero about daguerreotypes. Now I know a bit. What I learned is that daguerreotypes were the first form of photography widely available to the general public. During the 1840s and 1850s, which were the heyday for daguerreotypes, millions of them were produced. They documented the everyday and the less common aspects of the world.

What I also learned is that the process for making daguerreotypes is a mother. You need shitloads of patience and scientific know-how to turn out the finished products. Trained professionals handled the job in the 1800s, not the average Jane or Joe. You wanted a portrait of your family to be taken? You went to a pro’s studio, or maybe they came to your home, for that to be accomplished.

But time marches on, and sometimes fruitfully. For quite a few years now, any old fool — and I fit the last two words of that term awfully well — has been able to take photographs quickly and easily. Smart phones and digital technology have seen to that. Yup, I just stated the obvious.

How many people around the world are snapping away with their phones? I’m going to guess that the answer is about one billion. If the correct number is far higher than that, I wouldn’t be surprised. In any event, I was part of the snapping-away crowd while on Cape Cod. I took 300 photos, give or take a few, over a 20-day period.

Clearly, 300 is a high number. But I easily could have taken 300 more. I restrained myself from doing so, however, because obsessively photographing events takes away from truly experiencing life. You can get so caught up in photographing everything that catches your eye or seems to demand immortalization, you pretty totally miss out on the bigger picture.

Still, it’s a-ok to stop now and then to grab a shot or two or three. Playing the photographer, after all, usually is fun. For instance, when I began this blog over four years ago I didn’t anticipate that in the near future I’d be getting a kick and a half not only from taking pictures with an iPhone, but from illustrating my essays with some of them. It’s gotten to the point where sometimes I think I enjoy photography more than I do stringing words together. There’s a whole lot less angst involved with the former, that’s for sure.

Now, I’ve previously published two pieces about last month’s Cape Cod excursion, and each contains a bunch of my photos. It certainly seems unfair to me to leave all the rest of the pix sitting within my phone. I mean, those photos are begging to be set free, to travel through the ethers and to pop up on screens around the world.

On the other hand, I just heard a chorus of readers begging me not to loft every damn one of the photos into cyberspace. “Shit, Neil,” they said, “we sort of like you, but don’t try our patience. A relative handful of photographs is all right. Any more than that, though, and we’ll unfollow you faster than Superman can take a piss! Doing his business at lightning speed is one of his super powers, you know.”

Hey, I hear you! Here then are a mere nine previously unpublished photographs. I like them for various reasons. In some cases they portray what to me were unexpected scenes. In others, a feeling of melancholy or moodiness pervades. And the one of birds in flight over Cape Cod Bay was impossible to ignore. By the way, the photo within Land Ho!, a restaurant in the town of Orleans, was the first one I took during last month’s trip, though that isn’t the reason it’s included. The atmospheric ocean of dimly illuminated signs is why it’s here.

Land Ho! restaurant (Orleans, Cape Cod)
White Crest Beach, at the Atlantic Ocean (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)
First Encounter Beach, at Cape Cod Bay (Eastham, Cape Cod)

My wife Sandy and I returned from Cape Cod about two weeks ago. The trip is still on our minds, partly because Cape Cod’s combination of nature, culture, mellowness and good restaurants is mighty fine. If we vacation there again next year I’ll pen more articles about The Cape. And stick plenty of photographs into them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

A small section of the enormous dunes in Provincetown, Cape Cod
Provincetown village, Cape Cod
Chatham, Cape Cod

As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, if you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.

The Blue Trees, an outdoors art/environmental exhibit at Cahoon Museum (Cotuit, Cape Cod)
Hyannis Port, Cape Cod
Nauset Light Beach, at the Atlantic Ocean (Eastham, Cape Cod)

Goodbye, Cape Cod, Till Next Time: A Happy Place Story

Part One

Man oh man, time has been in overdrive from my perspective over the last 19 days, all of which I’ve spent on Cape Cod. That’s what happens when you’re having fun. And when your days are filled in a fascinating yet relaxing sort of way. Cape Cod, my home away from home, I’ll miss you badly when my wife Sandy and I are back in our permanent residence in the Philadelphia burbs. Ah, tears are already welling up in my eyes. Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?

I’m typing these words on the 21st of October, one day before we hit the road and bid a heartfelt adieu to The Cape. We have every intention of returning next year, and hopefully the cards will play out that way. After all, we’re Cape Cod addicts. Since 1998 we’ve vacationed here almost annually. Cape Cod has become a major part of our story.

It was a no-brainer, then, that I’d pen a second essay about our 2019 Cape Cod sojourn (click here if you’d like to read the first). But when I told Sandy what this piece would be about, she perceptively commented that I’d touched upon that theme any number of times before in this publication. Her implication was: Did I really need to go down that path again? Well, hell yes. I’m used to repeating myself. I mean, there are only so many directions in which my mind turns, and the number of them ain’t all that high. I’d have to start dosing myself with LSD and/or mescaline regularly to expand my way of seeing things. And although doing so is a tempting idea, I’m pretty sure that such behavior is not recommended by the American Medical Association for one whose brain is in the eighth decade of its existence.

Question: So, what’s the theme, Neil?

Answer: On Cape Cod I’m as happy, content and at ease as I could ever hope to be. Cape Cod is my happy place. (Am I really heading home on the 22nd? Where’s the f*cking box of Kleenex?)

Now, in the Philadelphia region I’m decently happy, content and at ease. But its high degree of vehicular congestion is a bold reality that jars my delicate constitution. Which is why I now and then need to decompress significantly. I do that, primarily, on Cape Cod, where my blood pressure heads south thanks to The Cape’s natural beauty, innate mellowness and relatively low ranking on the vehicular overpopulation chart.

What’s more, Cape Cod boasts more than enough museums, art galleries, cinemas, music venues and restaurants to satisfy this ol’ boy’s cravings. Sandy and I probably would move to Cape Cod if it were anywhere near as studded with medical facilities and physicians as is greater Philadelphia. But it isn’t. Not by a longshot. Shit.

Part Two

Cut to the 23rd day of October. Indeed, we have returned to our abode in the Philly suburbs. And I’ve taken up position at my trusty keyboard to bring this essay to its conclusion. Let’s return to the 21st, a day during which Sandy and I let nature embrace us, something that is part of our agenda regularly on Cape Cod.

More than anything, it’s nature that makes Cape Cod my happy place. I never can get enough of the woodlands, marshes, ponds, ocean and bay waters, and sands. On the 21st we encountered a majority of the aforementioned.

Baker’s Pond

I’d never given ponds a second thought until I became an honorary Cape Codder. Now I love ’em. But somehow we hadn’t bathed in any pond’s elegance during this most recent trip before the final day. Off we went to Baker’s Pond, about three miles from our rented house in the town of Orleans. I believe we’d been there once before, years ago, but I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Baker’s Pond, surrounded by quiet woods, is beautiful.

Baker’s Pond

It was a clear, autumnal early afternoon. Trees and other flora were in the midst of switching their colors. As I knew would happen, I could feel my blood pressure, already nicely low, drop a few more points. We gazed at Baker’s Pond from several vantage points as we moseyed along trails that brought us to about 10 feet from its edges. The water’s surface danced slowly, courtesy of a light wind. Ponds, in settings such as this, seem perfect to me. They appear to be in a state of calm fulfillment. They want for nothing more.

Nauset Light Beach
Nauset Light Beach

I, however, did want something more. And I got it later that afternoon at both Nauset Light Beach and at Nauset Beach, both of which are part of the lengthy Atlantic Ocean coastline on Cape Cod’s eastern side. If I had to pick the one aspect of Cape Cod that pleases me above all others, it would be this coastline. Being a government–protected area, it contains no boardwalks, no vendors. And, in autumn, not all that many people. The layout is basic and, to my mind, stark: ocean waters, beach sands, sand cliffs that back the beach along much of its length, and open skies. The coastline’s purity and vastness never fail to capture me. When I’m there, and if almost nobody else is around, I often feel as though I’m on another planet.

Nauset Beach

Sandy watched the ocean from the Nauset Light Beach parking lot, not joining me on the beach itself because of high winds. But two hours later, at Nauset Beach, which is about four miles south of Nauset Light Beach, she trod the sands with me, putting up with the winds because she knew that this was her final chance to be at the ocean during the trip. We looked for a stick on the beach, and found one. With it I wrote our names and the date in the sand. We’ve been doing this for a number of years at the ends of Cape Cod vacations. Taking a photo of the inscriptions was a requirement, needless to say. The picture would remind us of the good times we’d had once again on Cape Cod. Cape Cod, of course, is not solely my happy place. It’s Sandy’s too.

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Three Sunsets In A Row: A Cape Cod Story

As I begin to compose this opus on October 9, my wife Sandy and I are into day six of our annual Cape Cod pilgrimage. More likely than not we’ll have returned to our suburban- Philadelphia abode before I complete the piece. That’s because I’m on The Cape (a 65-mile-long peninsula in Massachusetts, USA) to indulge in fun and games and to immerse myself in natural beauty. Ergo, writing sessions are nowhere near the front burner.

We love Cape Cod, as I’ve noted in a bunch of essays since launching this publication four and a half years ago, and so far the trip has been absolutely A-OK. We’ve filled many of our waking hours with activities that bring us pleasure and joy. To name a few: walking along Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay coastlines; moseying around sweet villages; flying our trusty kite; chowing down each night in good, dependable restaurants; grooving hard to rock and blues bands; playing a round of miniature golf; going on a whale watch voyage in the Atlantic Ocean. Holy shit, I’m a fortunate f*cker, aren’t I? And I’d unhesitatingly call Sandy a fortunate f*cker too, except that she’d be very displeased with my language if I did.

Probably I’ll focus a bit more on some of the above pursuits in a future story or two. But the rest of this piece will be about a different subject, one that warms the hearts of much of humanity. Yes, somewhere in the vicinity of 80,000,000 articles already have been written about sunsets, but that won’t stop me. I’m a follower, not an innovator, so I ain’t too proud to squeeze yet another sunset story into the mega-humungous pile!

Is there anything about this sunset story to set it apart? Don’t bet your life on it. But it does have something going for it. You see, before this trip Sandy and I never witnessed more than two consecutive sunsets. But we improved on that by catching sunsets on the 5th, 6th and 7th of October, a personal record that we may never top. This wasn’t by grand design. Instead, things just casually fell into place. Not otherwise engaged on each of those nights at around 6:00 PM, we wisely chose to watch our friend the Sun make its way to the horizon, and we stuck around for a while longer because, as everyone knows, sunsets frequently become better after the Sun has disappeared. Then we headed off to dinner, feeling better ourselves.

Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)
Rock Harbor (Orleans, Cape Cod)

The sunsets that we caught had different personalities from one another. The first, a gauzy cloth of yellow and orange in a cloudless sky, was the brightest, even though the colors didn’t cascade all over the heavens. The colors would have done so, I thought, if a nice amount of clouds, with their reflective and refractive powers, had been present.

Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)
Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)

But what do I really know about clouds? There were plenty of them, airy and tufted, the next night. The sunset remained muted nonetheless, with simple bands of orange and yellow that didn’t radiate into other regions of the skies. Clouds! I think they thumbed their noses at me that night just for spite.

Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)
Mayo Beach (Wellfleet, Cape Cod)

And the third sunset was the least colorful of all. In fact, only hints of yellow were visible through a very dense cloud cover. But that was all right with me. It was a different form of sunset, a subdued one in greys, yet beautiful. And a lonely kite surfer was a good addition to the scene.

The sunsets took place over Cape Cod Bay, which abuts Cape Cod’s northern side. For sunset number one we took our positions at Rock Harbor, in Orleans. For the second we stood on the sands of Corn Hill Beach, in Truro. And for the third we gazed from Mayo Beach, in Wellfleet. I tell you, each of those locations is magnificent. The unfussy layout of all the pieces (sky, waters, sands, grasses) is as fine as you ever could wish to see. Hell, sunsets are the icing on an already-astonishing cake.

So, here’s the thing. At home in my suburban/urban region, there are not a lot of expanses where you can engage with nature properly. Overdevelopment has seen to that. And sunsets? Well, good luck viewing them over the houses and office buildings and other structures. That’s why, when at home, sunsets are rarely anything I think about. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

But on Cape Cod? Man, when I first came here, in 1998, my nature-loving component swelled in size and slapped me awake. While on the Cape I make it a point to walk on sands or in forests or marshlands every day, weather permitting. And though Sandy and I don’t seek out sunsets compulsively — too much of a good thing would dampen the glory — we never want to end a Cape vacation without having scratched “watch one or more sunsets” off our to-do list. Sunsets are there for the taking, after all, beautiful performances for which the tickets are free.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Gracias.)

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Picking Pix: A Photography Story

It’s a wonderful thing, photography. At a push of a button we can immortalize anything or anyone we want: flower gardens; baseball games; birds in flight; bird crap on car windows; pals; lovers; favorite cousins; despised in-laws. You name it, somebody has taken its picture.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 2018)

Those obvious notions came to mind a few nights ago when I decided to green light an essay about photography, whose final form you are now looking at. I’ve written before on the subject. And that’s because I get a soul-satisfying kick out of shutterbugging.

Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 2018)

That kick had lain dormant for decades, but vigorously popped out of its coffin in January 2016 when I came into possession of my first smartphone. An iPhone, it struck me as miraculous. Hell, was there anything it couldn’t do? Well, the phone balked at fetching my dog-eared slippers and washing my dirty underwear. But other than that, it was primo.

Philadelphia’s Powelton Village section (February 2018)

And the phone of course came equipped with a camera lens that, despite its incredibly tiny size, took, for the most part, damn good pictures. Good enough for me, anyway. Within no time I was snapping away. And decorating my journalistic output with some of the results of those snaps (prior to that, my wife Sandy took the photos for the stories). Man, I had lucked out, if you want to look at it that way. Meaning, even though I was a whole lot older than I could believe, depressingly older, at least I had added two worthy creative endeavors (writing and photography) to the late autumn/early winter of my years. Excuse me for a moment, please, while I now resume watching those f*cking grains of sand continue to fall, fall, fall to the bottom of my hourglass. Oh, my breaking heart!

Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (October 2018)

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. Here’s the way I look at photography: Many of us, including yours truly, can’t draw or paint or sculpt worth a shit. But it’s not too hard for anyone to be pleased with their photographs. All you have to do is decide what angle you want to take a photo from and what person or object should be its focus. Then you frame the shot and, if needed, adjust the light level. At that point the magic moment has arrived in which to tap the camera’s button. Voila! Mission likely accomplished.

Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s an art form made for us all.

Coast Guard Beach, Truro, Cape Cod (October 2018)

So, what’s the deal with the photographs that I’ve included in this essay? Let me start by saying that all of them date from 2018 and that they are among the 1,000+ that I took during the year. None of them have appeared in previous articles. I suppose that my aim is simple: To publish photographs on this page that strike my artsy-fartsy sensibilities just right. Each has some combination of shapes, colors, angles and textures that I can’t deny. Yeah, these photos do something to me.

James “Blood” Ulmer, Philadelphia (April 2018)

Take the one of musician James “Blood” Ulmer, for instance. Ulmer, unaccompanied, performed deep, heavy blues in April in Philadelphia at the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. The golden hues of his outfit and the jumble of audio equipment nearly encasing him give the picture a techno/alien quality. “Prepare for blastoff,” the photo is announcing. “Destination unknown. Mysteries await.”

Tree in Santa Fe (May 2018)

And I like the grand grooves in the Santa Fe tree, and its thick, finger-like upper sections. But what gives the photo its distinctiveness is the modest yellow, black and red traffic sign standing contentedly next to the behemoth.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (May 2018)

The deeply pock-marked cliffs at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument are modern art taken to an elemental extreme. And the photo of trees, hills and houses in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico would have floored Paul Cézanne, so Cézanne-ish is it in its blocky composition. Talk about pure luck. I took that picture from a moving car. Nearly every other picture that I snapped from within the car that day was meh.

Cezanne-like scene from Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico (May 2018)

I’ll mention one more snapshot, that of the sunset at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. The picture appears almost theatrical in its lighting. The light on the picnic bench came from my car’s headlights. The car’s engine was running because it was as cold as a witch’s tit that night, and I jumped out only for a second, documenting the beautiful sunset with my phone’s camera and then admiring the view again from back inside the heated vehicle.

Mayo Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod (October 2018)

By the way, like every picture herein, the sunset pic is unmanipulated. Being a natural sort of guy, so natural that I prance naked in my dreams, I wasn’t about to crop, enhance, rotate or do anything else to my babies via the photographic software that came with my computer. Popeye The Sailor once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If my photos could talk, each would quote those immortal words.

Marshland near an Atlantic Ocean inlet, Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

In closing, I’ll add that all of the selections come from New Mexico, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, places that I’ve written about a lot this year. They are good places, fascinating and colorful and full of the unexpected.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

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We’ll Be Back . . . Probably: A Cape Cod Story

In the above photo snapped last week, the grubby guy with a confused look in his eyes and elegantly deep creases in his forehead is none other than me. The shot is a selfie, and I have to say that it came out a whole lot better than many of the selfies that I take. Half the time I can’t figure out how to angle my phone’s camera so that each person’s head is fully in the frame along with a decent amount of background scenery.

The severe terrain in which I was standing is a section of Cape Cod that doesn’t fit the seaside-y, romantic image of the Cape (a 65-mile-long peninsula in Massachusetts) that quite a few people hold. I was out among Provincetown’s enormous sand dunes, a wide and lengthy expanse that separates Provincetown’s village from the Atlantic Ocean. In a few days my wife Sandy and I would be heading home to the Philadelphia suburbs, after a two-week vacation on the Cape, and I didn’t want to leave without a dune walk, which to me always is a fairly otherworldly experience.

Shit, it was cold out there, about 45°F (7°C), and windy as hell too. My fingers were losing sensation, and my ears didn’t feel terrific either. That’s because your genius reporter had left his gloves and earmuffs in the car, which was parked at one of the very few official access points for the dunes. Sandy was in the car along with my gloves and earmuffs. She had taken a look at the access point’s mountain of sand that must be conquered in order to enter the wonderland, and declined to join me on the expedition. She just wasn’t in the mood that day. In past years, though, she joined me in several of my dune adventures.

It was great being in the wilderness, despite the raw elements. How often do I get to immerse in environments like that, after all? Not a lot. I’ve scampered about 15 times over the years in the Provincetown dunes, or in the equally imposing dunes within Truro, which is PTown’s neighboring area. It’s one of my favorite things to do on Cape Cod, where Sandy and I have vacationed nearly annually since our first visit in 1998.

Yeah, we fell in love with Cape Cod pretty much right from the start. Never in my life had I expected to find a locale that I’d want to return to over and over, one that would soothe my soul and whose natural beauty and man-made charms would make me sigh in a good way. I discovered all of that on the Cape.

But earlier this year, six or seven months after a Cape vacation in October 2017, I began to think that I needed a rest from Cape Cod, that everything there was taking on too much of an air of familiarity. “Yo, Sandy!” I yelled. “Something fishy is going on inside my hard head. Call my shrink! Cape Cod burnout might have settled in!”

Unfortunately, my shrink had problems enough of his own and wouldn’t take the call. And so, Sandy, stepping in for the good Dr. Wazzup, analyzed my emotional and mental states and concluded that a change of vacation scenery indeed might be in order. We thereupon began to investigate regions where we might happily deposit our bods in autumn 2018. Denmark seemed like a good idea. Ditto for Scotland. I believe that the latter would have been our destination were it not for the fact that we got derailed by various unexpected situations that sapped the energy we’d have needed to plan and mount that trip. We therefor reverted to Cape Cod, an easily arranged vacation for us. Virtually no planning was required, so familiar are we with most of the Cape’s nooks and crannies.

Well, Cape Cod in October 2018 turned out to be a delightful trip. Sandy and I did all of the things we enjoy: Walks on ocean and Cape Cod Bay beaches; walks in woods and marshlands; poking around charismatically quaint villages; visits to museums and art galleries and music venues and cinemas; and chowing down each night at a different restaurant.

Believe me, I know: I’m a highly fortunate guy to possess this sort of a life. And I often feel guilty and uneasy about it, what with all of the human misery and unhappiness on our planet. But, even if I make it into my 90s, I don’t have an amazing number of spins around the Sun left to me. So, having a good ol’ time while I’m physically and mentally able, and also giving back as best I can, seems like an A-OK way to live.

Will we return to Cape Cod in 2019? I don’t know. A break for a year or two probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. Although this most recent visit was a winner, I suspect that Cape burnout is still quietly festering within me. No relationship is perfect, that’s for sure. Some require temporary separations. Cape Cod will understand and forgive me if it comes to that.

And variety is the spice of life. What’s more, it’s a big world, to cite two of the duh-est of clichés. Sandy and I have done a good amount of non-Cape traveling during the 29 years that we’ve known each other, but spreading our wings even more might be where it’s at. I mean, going to Scotland would be cool. Denmark too. And Arizona and Colorado and Montana and Portugal and Spain. Not to overlook dozens of other places that I won’t bother mentioning.

Originally I was going to decorate this essay with photos taken throughout our just-ended Cape Cod sojourn, images of gorgeous ocean vistas, of forest trails, of quirky and fabulous Provincetown village, of a primo eggplant parmesan entrée that I scarfed down at Front Street (one of PTown’s best restaurants), etc.

But I’ve changed my mind. Instead, all of the pictures herein are from the aforementioned ramble through Provincetown’s dunes. The Provincetown/Truro dunescape is one of Cape Cod’s most remarkable features and is deserving of pictorial shoutouts. Will I be back in the dunes again in the foreseeable future? Hopefully. Probably. We shall see.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Or about sharing this article, for that matter. Gracias.)

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