Ozark; Azaleas; Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn

Well, as millions of fans of dark and dirty doings know, the Netflix series Ozark has come to a close. And, predictably, this saga (44 episodes in all), heavily populated by morally compromised people doing despicable things, does not conclude in a tidy manner. As the screen goes dark and a gunshot thunders a mere moment before the credits begin their final roll, any number of questions are left unanswered about four of the show’s main characters, the Byrde family.

Unanswered, yes. I’d have to say, however, that the future clearly does not look bright for Marty and Wendy Byrde, the married pair around whom Ozark significantly revolves, nor for their 15-year-old son Jonah. Possibly Marty and Wendy’s daughter Charlotte, a couple of years Jonah’s senior, has a chance to grow towards the light. But I wouldn’t bet heavy money on that.

What else would you expect, anyway, from a series fueled by the unrelenting pressures placed upon Marty by a Mexican drug cartel whose monies he must launder if he wishes to remain above ground? Man, the directions in which those pressures take Marty, a financial advisor by trade, and Wendy are head-spinning. And the fallout from their maneuverings affects Jonah heavily, and nearly everyone else they come in contact with too.

Such an intense, over-the-top show! I couldn’t get enough of it. Each season I’d stare at the tube in disbelief as, left and right, minor and major players exited permanently, usually by gunfire. Ozark’s foulness put me in a bear hug and wouldn’t let go. I’ll miss the series. And I’ll pass on to you the one big lesson that Ozark taught me. Namely, don’t f*ck with a Mexican drug cartel, or with any similar enterprise, needless to say. You better believe that I damn well won’t.

I’m not strictly a denizen of the lower realms. So, some things way more positive than Ozark also have pleased me of late. For instance, the spring season. Yes, plant life has been looking good here in southeast Pennsylvania, USA for the last five or six weeks, with maple and oak trees and the like flaunting their foliage, and flowering trees dazzling human eyes with their blossoms. What’s more, most of the azaleas in my area burst into bloom about two weeks ago, adding tremendously to the spring spectacular. Ah, azaleas. When dense with flowers, they are hard to beat.

Fortunately for me, each year I get a mega-dose of azalea magic, because my friend Joyce, who lives nearby, is in possession of azaleas as fine as any I’m aware of. The azaleas in front of her house not only glow in a number of different hues, they also are enormous. I’d guess that the square footage taken up by those plants is about one-fourth of the square footage within her home. That’s saying something.

And, though maybe it’s only my imagination, Joyce’s azaleas look better to me this year, in terms of fullness and vibrancy, than ever before. In any case, I bow to them.

Before I bid you adieu, I’ll say a bit about a song, Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn, that needed no help in becoming a favorite of mine after I heard it for the first time earlier this month. It is a winner. (And, parenthetically, let me note that its title is as cool as they come.) Released in late 2021, Love Letter, by the blue-eyed soul band St. Paul & The Broken Bones, unfolds seductively. Lead singer Paul Janeway pours his heart out to the listener, quietly and in a falsetto as sweet as clover honey. Alone in a hotel room, he misses his lady. He’s homesick. He’s on the verge of crying himself to sleep.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones have got what it takes. I’ve seen them on TV and would love to catch them in person. After hearing this song you might want to also. Here, then, is Love Letter From A Red Roof Inn, a recording that would have made waves back in the 1960s and 70s, when soul music by The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, The Delfonics, etc., etc. rode high on the music charts. Till next time!

A Flowering Trees Story

Nobody is ever going to mistake me for a botanist, that’s for damn sure. By which I mean that I don’t know shit, basically, when it comes to plants. Yeah, I can identify a few trees and flowers. And I might exclaim “hey, there’s a fern!” when I see one. Beyond that, however, please don’t press me.

Nonetheless, I enjoy spending time outdoors among flora. Who doesn’t? We all want our minds to be expanded, if not blown, you see, even if we know it only subconsciously. And what better way to allow this to happen than to initiate close contact with Nature’s fibrous wonders, absorbing their good vibes?

With that in mind, on the morning of April 27th I eased my aged ass from the living room sofa, hopped, more or less, into my car, and drove to a pretty neighborhood in a nearby town. Specific sorts of flora — flowering trees — not only were on my mind, they were the reason for my mini-expedition.

I’m not sure why, but I didn’t pay much attention to flowering trees until fairly recent years. A big oversight on my part. Since then, though, I’ve made it a point to check them out in April and May, which is when they do their unfurling thing in my part of the globe (I live in Pennsylvania, USA). Their blossomy performance is, of course, a winner. What’s not to like about shades of, primarily, pink, purple and white? Those hues sure liven up the green-dominated landscape around here this time of year.

What’s more, knowing that the performance doesn’t last forever imbues it with poignancy. Poof! — before you know it the petals are gone. Until a new production is staged the following year.

Well, I wandered through the neighborhood for an hour, gazing at the flowers on magnolia, cherry, dogwood and other trees. They looked good. After 30 minutes, though, I found myself disappointed by the relatively modest numbers of those trees. At least half of the properties I passed that day contained none at all, in fact. Man, how cool would it have been if I’d seen 10 or 20 times as many? Very. The blossom experience then would have overwhelmed and enveloped, like an ecstatic fireworks display.

And so, with intensification as my goal, over the next half hour I got much nearer to the flowers than I had previously during the walk, within inches in most instances and nose-to-nose twice. The strategy worked. From those vantages the blossoms made a hell of an impression, intricately designed and decidedly gorgeous as they were. And they instantly became my friends, wanting only to please. “Hello, Neil,” they whispered, “thanks for visiting. We’re at your service.”

“You’re the best,” I whispered back.

“But don’t linger, old timer,” they added. “You won’t be a happy sightseer if someone storms out of their house, yelling at you to get the f*ck off their property.”

True! Thus, I kept my up-close-and-personal sessions short. Thank you, blossoms, for having my back.

Sitting at my computer keyboard now, a number of days after the events described above, I’m wondering what came over me halfway through the stroll, as I’d never felt let down before by any aspect of springtime. Maybe the rotten state of affairs in the world — Russia rearing its ugly head; the growth of fascism in many nations, including my own — was wearing on me, putting me in need of big jolts of beauty. In any event, I’m back to my normal self. Grumpy, as usual, but appreciative too.

Let’s close the proceedings with a tune that, title-wise, is a perfect match for this essay. I discovered it a couple of days after my close encounters with flowering trees. Ordinarily I’m not a big fan of bouncy songs. But the more I listen to Cherry Blossom, by pop and country star Kacey Musgraves, the more I like it. Beneath the sugar and gloss it has a strong layer of soul. Likening herself to a cherry blossom, Kacey hopes and prays that her relationship with her new boyfriend, whom she’s mad about, will hold, that the wind won’t blow her away. I’m pulling for her.

A Sunflower Story

What the hell is wrong with you, Neil?” my unsubtle editor Edgar Reewright shouted into the phone a couple of weeks ago. He had called moments earlier with a special request — he wanted me to compose a story about sunflowers — and I had balked at the idea. “I mean, what do you have against sunflowers? Just about everybody likes sunflowers, right? Right. Furthermore, if they were good enough for Vincent van Gogh, who, unlike yourself, was a genius, then they damn well are good enough for you.”

“Neil,” Edgar continued, “have I ever asked anything of you before? Other than demanding high payments to compensate me for the extraordinary pains I take to make your writings intelligible, the answer is no. I haven’t been myself the last few weeks, so a bright, cheerful piece about the sunniest of flowers probably will boost my spirits. Write it!”

“Listen, Edgar,” I said. “I’ve got nothing against sunflowers. On the contrary, I love them. I mean, they’re just adorable. Big and grinning, and their gangly stalks are so improbable. They’re like dogs that want nothing more than to please you, that know they’re goofy and would have it no other way.”

“So, what’s the problem, Neil?”

“Well, it’s just that I’ve written quite a few nature-related articles the last several years. I don’t want to overdo it, you know.”

“Overdo it? Neil, you can’t go wrong with nature. And I highly doubt if you have anything better to write about right now, anyway.”

“Oh yeah? Listen, Edgar, I’m planning to do a piece on the wonders of napping. I’ll explore its ins and outs: how I position my head just so on the living room sofa before nodding off, for instance. And how I awake 10 or 15 minutes later with glazed eyes, uncertain where the hell I am. Edgar, I’m one hundred percent certain that the readers of that article will be enthralled. My exciting revelations will have them panting for more.”

A few seconds passed. And then Edgar had this to say: “A short while ago I asked, ‘what the hell is wrong with you, Neil?’ And I was right on the money, because a better question hasn’t been posed anywhere in the world today! Napping? You’ve got to be kidding me! Listen up, haven’t I always strived to help you create agreeable product?”

“Yes, that’s very true, Edgar. I don’t know how you do it, but you whip my reportage into decent shape.”

“Thank you, Neil. Even though I’ll never figure you out, I have to admit that anybody who unashamedly uses a clunky word like reportage in conversation can’t be all bad. Okay then, I strongly recommend that you drop the napping idea and move on to sunflowers. Are we on the same page?”

We were.

Thus, during three walks in the latter half of July, in my neighborhood and in nearby towns, I kept an eagle eye out for sunflowers, and found about 15 homes on whose grounds they were displayed. Having strolled past hundreds of houses, though, I was a bit surprised by the low percentage that carried this form of joyful flora. But little matter. Every sunflower that I saw smiled at me. They truly were glad to see me, and the feeling was mutual.

But you know what? Despite the time I spent with real-life sunflowers, I have to admit that I much prefer a particular Vincent van Gogh sunflower painting over them. Vincent painted sunflowers a dozen times, and one of those oils hangs within the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, where I have passed hundreds of hours. (I’ve lived in Philadelphia or its suburbs for most of my adult life.) It very well might be the most popular art work in the museum. It certainly is one of mine.

Vase With Twelve Sunflowers, by Vincent van Gogh (image credit belongs to Philadelphia Museum Of Art and to vggallery.com

Vincent had the abilities to find the hearts and souls of his subjects, to bring his subjects alive in both traditional and unexpected ways. And he did exactly that when he painted the canvas in question in 1889. It is glorious and imbued with vigor. It has deep stories to tell. Sunflowers never have looked so good.

(My editor has been getting on my frigging nerves big-time. So, you know what? F*ck him! I won’t allow Edgar to edit this article. I’m going to press the Publish button right now. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias.)

Beautiful Indeed

Well, I’ve been real tempted lately to pen an essay about the repressive, heads-up-their-asses people in my country who continue to believe in demagogic, riot-inciting Donald Trump and embrace his outrageous lies about the 2020 election having been stolen from him.

On the other hand, I haven’t been real tempted lately to have my blood pressure head into the stratosphere. So, I’ll stay calm by moving in my semi-natural direction. Towards the light, you dig. What follows, therefore, are a few words about beauty, a quality I found a couple of weeks ago in, among other things, a book, a song and some flowers. Away we go!

First up, the book: Local Girls is a collection of stories, by Alice Hoffman, about Gretel Samuelson and her small circle of relatives and friends. The stories are presented chronologically, and appeared in various publications before being gathered and published in one volume in 1999.

Not exactly a novel (some stories are narrated by Gretel, the others are in the third-person), but close enough, Local Girls follows Gretel from age 11 or 12 into her mid-20s. It’s set in suburban Long Island (which is near New York City), and is not the happiest of tales. Drug addiction and serious illness are among the book’s prime themes.

Nevertheless, drollness permeates the proceedings, partly by way of the sharp observations and bon mots of Gretel, her best friend Jill, Gretel’s mother Franny, and Gretel’s adult cousin Margot. Overall, Local Girls struck me as hard-as-nails realistic, despite the inclusion, unnecessary in my opinion, of some mystical occurrences. (Hoffman, I gather, is known for doing this in her works.) The book took me by the arm and then spoke intimately to me. It is damn well alive.

What got to me more than anything about Local Girls is the absolute beauty of much of its language. Time after time Hoffman took my breath away. Before ending this short discussion of Local Girls, I’ll leave you with three examples of Hoffman’s way with words.

It was a bad summer, and we all knew it. We liked to phrase it that way, as if what was happening was an aberrationa single season of pain and doubtinstead of all-out informing people that our lives were falling apart, plain and simple as pie.

She had been thinking about sorrow for so long she was amazed to hear the sound of love. What a foreign language it was. How odd to an ear unused to such things.

The streetlamps cast a heavy glow, the light of a dream you’re not quite finished waking from.

Yes, Hoffman has more than got the touch.

Now for the song: I’ve seen Brandi Carlile on a couple of TV shows and heard her music pretty often on the radio. I think she’s good but certainly not great. However, her recording Save A Part Of Yourself, is another matter. To me, it’s fab. The song, which Carlile co-wrote and sings lead on, was released in 2012.

Save Part Of Yourself concerns a love relationship that, though ended, has not been forgotten by one of its two parties. She hopes that her ex will not throw away memories of her. Such a lovely composition, so tender and imbued with longing. Yet, it also sparkles. That mandolin riff that enters five seconds into the tune, those handclaps, the joyful whoo-hoo-hoos. I for one cannot resist them.

Save Part Of Yourself’s main message, I think, is that remembrance can help us heal and make us better individuals. Who would argue with that? Here it is, following which we’ll turn our attention to flowers.

The day in which I am described as a knowledgeable identifier of flora isn’t about to arrive any time soon. Yeah, on a good day I’m able to look at a tulip and say, “Yup, that’s a tulip.” Ditto for a pine tree and a maple tree. But my scope doesn’t extend all too far beyond that. Still, that doesn’t stop me from going out to admire nature’s wonders. Hell, I’d be heartbroken if I couldn’t.

And I’m glad when my botanical expertise expands. Such as when I learned last month that a flowering plant I was gazing at during a visit to New Hope, Pennsylvania, a funky, former artists colony to which visitors often throng, was an example of a hydrangea bush. The plant impressed me. Thus, while walking and driving around my town a few days later I kept my eyes open for hydrangeas. And I found some, photographing two of them. Hydrangeas, I believe, were at the height of their flowering powers in my region (greater Philadelphia) at the time that I took these portraits. The flowers are sincerely beautiful.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias.)

In Search Of Yellows: A Walking Story

I’m nothing but amazed that I’ve sat myself down at a keyboard to begin the composition of this essay. It’s 11:31 AM on a weekday morn, a mere 27 minutes after I completed the walk around my neighborhood that I shortly will comment upon. I mean, I usually take forever to get enough thoughts together to write a story. What’s more, I usually take forever to come up with story ideas in the first place. So, I better keep pecking away before constipation sets in.

What, another walking story?” I hear a few of you crying in dismay. “Spare us, Neil! You’ve done dozens of them already. Can’t you think of anything else to write about?”

Believe me, I feel your pain, but what can I do? As I just indicated, I don’t exactly generate story ideas like Donald Trump generates lies. Anyway, I like to walk. Always have, because walking is the best way to see what’s going on around us. And the hodgepodge of ruminations and observations that I come up with after wandering around one locale or another is among this publication’s primary fuels.

But I can’t say that I especially love to walk in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighborhood is none too fascinating, as is true for suburbs in general. Although I regularly pound its pavements, I do so mostly for health reasons, exercise presumably being beneficial to one’s bodily systems. Once in a while, however, I have an additional motive, and today I put such into play. “Yellows, Neil, yellows,” I said to myself at the start of the walk. “You’ve had it in the back of your mind to look for shades of yellow during a neighborhood walk, probably because yellow was your favorite color when you were a kid, and to turn the experience into an article. Today you shall do so!”

Yes, sir!” I responded silently. “I hear you loud and clear. Yellows it will be!”

To begin, I want to tell you that there ain’t a lot of yellows in my neighborhood. In fact, there’s a paucity of many colors. The greens of nature are what rule here, as they do in much of the world, at least when trees are in leaf. But your faithful and determined correspondent wasn’t deterred. My eyes in constant motion, I spotted enough examples of yellows to illustrate this piece decently. And I did so in a mere 34 minutes. I could have extended the walk beyond that time, but was pretty sure that I’d exhausted the yellow possibilities. And it’s a good thing that I came home when I did. You see, as I entered my house after completing my rounds I thought that the blazing Sun and moist air hadn’t gotten to me very much. Wrong! My sweat glands, in a delayed reaction, suddenly erupted, causing my tee shirt, mostly dry only seconds before, to cling to me amorously. Man, I was shvitzing like a frigging pig! I’m happy to report that the A/C system, and the cool water that I washed off with, quickly set me right.

Okay, it’s time to mention the highlights of today’s trek. The first involves sunflowers. A year ago, on a neighborhood walk, I was delighted to find that a family two blocks away from my residence was a lover of sunflowers. They’d planted a load of the gangly, happy plants on a long narrow strip of their property. And a week or two ago I  noticed that sunflowers were strutting their stuff anew there. Needless to say, I strode down that block this morning to snap the yellow beings’ portraits. Of the various yellow objects in my neighborhood, they are my favorites by far. Indeed, I am a total sucker for sunflowers, thanks to Vincent van Gogh, their greatest immortalizer.

As for the second highlight: On various walks over the last couple of months I’d seen a yellow truck shining proudly and vividly. It always was in the same spot, five blocks from my house. It was there again today. This truck adds needed pizazz to a sleepy block, and makes me wonder why more people don’t buy vehicles of eye-popping color. Like I’m one to talk, though. My wife and I own two cars that are conservative as shit, one of them dark grey and the other dark blue. Next time we’ll go for cars aflame in . . . what? Neon yellow, that’s what!

Well, the blogosphere’s overseers are whispering to me that this article has gone as far in a yellow direction as it needs to go. And I know better than to cross them. But, as usual, I’ll let the piece marinate for a few days, and do plenty of tweaking, before depressing the Publish button. Take care, everybody. And please don’t be shy about adding your comments!

A Springtime Walk To Try And Take My Mind Off Of Things

I’ve been doing a little of this and a little of that of late, most of it nothing to write home about. You see, my routine has been thrown way off as a result of coronavirus. Yours probably has been too. Due to that health catastrophe, my volunteer jobs have been suspended and the places I like to hang out in — restaurants, movie theaters, music venues, to give some examples — have closed their doors, leaving me with shitloads more time on my hands than I’m used to. I’ve yet to use that time productively.

But my situation counts as absolutely nothing compared with the state of affairs worldwide. Tens of millions suddenly are without paychecks. Countless businesses and institutions very well might collapse. And people are succumbing in scary numbers to coronavirus. Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap. I have a sinking feeling. And when I say sinking, I mean sinking.

What will become of us? To try and protect ourselves, and to try and contain the virus, we stay in our homes as much as possible, practice social distancing when we leave the house, wash our hands numerous times each day, and use antiseptic wipes on potentially-suspect objects and surfaces. But, looking at the big picture, will any of that make much difference ultimately if an effective vaccine and/or other effective medical treatment isn’t developed in the very foreseeable future? Or if coronavirus doesn’t peter out on its own? I’m normally a fairly optimistic guy, but my answer is no. After all, in the twinkling of an eye, life as we know it has been turned on end. And right now there’s no reason to think that things won’t disintegrate far more than they already have.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear at least a couple of you yelling, “you’re bumming us the f*ck out! That’s enough, partner. Knock it off!”

I hear you, believe me. I’ve been bumming myself the f*ck out too, and for quite a while, as you can tell. Which is why, when I went for a walk on March 21 to try and take my mind off the current state of affairs, I had a potentially uplifting purpose in mind. The night before, driving home after buying take-out food from a restaurant, I’d noticed that some flowering trees around the corner from my house had burst into color. Thus, my plan on the 21st was to check out the flora in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood and also in a neighborhood of a nearby, bordering township.

Now, walking is one part of what-had-been-my-routine that the coronavirus calamity hasn’t disrupted. Since early January, for personal health reasons, I’ve been hitting the pavement, in one locale or another, four or five times each week. Thirty minutes or more each session. That’s the most exercise I’ve gotten in years. And, knock on wood, so far I’ve enjoyed the regimen more than I’d have guessed I would.

Anyway, I embarked on the trek at about 1:30 PM. The skies gleamed, their blues a welcome sight for eyes in need of perking up. As I figured would be the case, green leaves hadn’t sprouted anywhere, though budding was in progress. Green’s domination over the browns of winter was another week or two away from taking place.

But, damn straight, some flowering trees were doing their thing, and that made a big difference. We’re talking magnolia and cherry trees, I think, and maybe a pear tree of one sort or another (I wouldn’t bet my life on those statements though, because I’m almost as dumb as dirt when it comes to identifying flora). Whatever, although the flowering tree performance normally doesn’t begin till early April or later, the milder-than-average temperatures that we’d had in the winter months pushed up the schedule. I let the trees’ pink, red and white petals grab me. The colors felt pretty good.

Other splashes of springtime colors were around. I spotted a few azaleas showing off their purple plumage. Forsythia bushes, which had opened in my region two weeks prior, looked damn fine in their mustard yellow. And the smattering of ground-level flowers on the properties brightened things up a bit too, especially the patch of small, yellow wildflowers in one yard.

What really struck me though, in this time of coronavirus precautions, was that I saw far more people than I’d expected to, which gave the afternoon a sense of normalcy. For instance: a father with his two young daughters, all on bikes; two middle-aged guys shooting hoops with a kid on a sidewalk basketball set-up; people sitting in their yards; four or five ambitious sorts hammering and sawing away, in their driveways or garages, at one project or another.

All told, at least 40 people crossed my field of vision during the hour I spent wandering around. I exchanged hellos with a bunch of them. None of them, or me, was doing anything that, virus-wise, might be problematic. That’s what medical people say, anyway. It’s okay to be outside, according to the experts, as long as you keep your distance from others.

And so, I recorded another entry in my Book Of Walks. The excursion was a good one. As spring progresses, the walks, I believe, will become even better. Lots more flowering trees and shrubs to gaze at. Lots more colors to absorb. Hats off to all of that.

(Comments are welcomed. Ditto for sharing this article.)

A Coronavirus And Philadelphia Flower Show Story

These are tough times. I’ll mention but three of many calamitous situations: War, raging in Syria and Yemen, has displaced millions of people from their homes and homelands. Ocean levels are on the rise as a result of melting Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves. And coronavirus, emerging like a demon from a dark, dark corner, is throwing mankind into a tailspin. The virus is the story, so far anyway, of 2020.

Most of us might be fortunate and not contract coronavirus. But how can we not pay attention to it and worry about it? We can’t. As I began to compose this essay on March 11, I relived the conversations I’d had with the ten relatives and friends that I’d spent time with in the six days before that date. Coronavirus was, and remains, heavy on their minds. And on mine too. How far will this renegade spread? Just how deadly might it become? Will an effective vaccine or other treatment be developed, and if so, when? Will coronavirus mutate into other strains that will raise the human condition’s havoc level to even higher heights?

Before March 11, the virus hadn’t infiltrated my region too much (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA), or so it was thought. How quickly things have changed since then, though. As of this article’s publication date (March 16), there are many confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania. And, as we all know, numerous national and local governments, worldwide, have increased restrictions on travel, and have ordered schools and certain businesses and other organizations to close until further notice (this is true for my region). Much of the same has occurred via voluntary restrictions and closures too.

As a result, over the last few days my wife Sandy and I have made big adjustments in regard to what we do and don’t do. So, it’s sobering to think that until recently pretty much everyone around here was living life fairly normally — the population was aware of the virus, but was only starting to act cautiously. Sandy and I certainly weren’t exercising a whole lot of caution when, on March 6, we boarded a train in our suburban town and rode it into the heart of central Philadelphia. A short walk away was the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a huge-as-hell structure that for nine days this month was home to the Philadelphia Flower Show. We bought tickets for the show at one of the Center’s box offices and entered the exhibition hall.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is an annual, world-famous event. It began modestly in 1829 as a project of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and has become, by far, PHS’s most noted endeavor. Millions of people have taken it in over the years. Now, I’ve lived in or near Philadelphia since the mid-1970s and have been aware of the Flower Show all of that time. But I didn’t give a shit about it, and never went. Until a few years ago, that is. “What the hell, let’s go to the Flower Show,” I said to Sandy in 2016, and we did. We liked it. We returned in 2018, took 2019 off, and decided two weeks ago not to extend that non-attendance streak to two consecutive years.

One of the reasons that I didn’t give a shit about the Flower Show is that I wasn’t keen on looking at exhibit after exhibit of flowers. If I had investigated what the show really is about, though, I’d have discovered that it features all sorts of flora, not just flowers, and often replicates natural and man-made landscapes and waterscapes too. Hell, I’m down with all of that, so I should have given the Flower Show a shot way before I eventually did. I don’t live and learn all that often, but in this case it happened.

Almost needless to say, I found the 2020 version of the show to be absolutely a-ok. As did Sandy. Each year the Flower Show is centered around a theme, and this year’s was Riviera Holiday. Meaning, displays inspired by Mediterranean life in Spain, France, Monaco and Italy took up much of the hall (horticultural-competition areas and booths selling this, that and the other thing grabbed the rest of the floor space).

The themed section, filled with movie-set-like constructions, was where I spent most of my time. The gardens, some formal, some not, were lovely. As was a villa, and a modest cottage beside which a motor scooter was stationed, and the whimsical, color-drenched representations of Italian fishermen’s houses.

I dug the recreation of the Princess Grace Rose Garden. The original garden is in Monaco, the itsy-bitsy nation where, in 1956, the actress Grace Kelly became a princess by marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier. A mannequin, clothed in a copy of Kelly’s wedding gown, stood in the garden. Grace, I’m sure, would have approved of the tribute.

Yes, the Flower Show had atmosphere. It brought me back to 1977, the only time I was on the Mediterranean coast. I spent six weeks in Europe in the spring of that year, travelling solo, before returning to a job in Philadelphia that I foolishly had quit two years before. One of those weeks was passed in southern France and in Monaco. A very good week it was. And the Flower Show gave me the urge to return, this time with Sandy. But the coronavirus situation will have to be under control before we step onto a plane. And who knows when that will be?

The crowds at the Flower Show on the day we attended were noticeably smaller than those we encountered in 2016 and 2018. One of our friends, a Flower Show aficionado, went twice this year. She told Sandy that attendance was less than usual on the days she visited too. Part of the shrinkage was due I’m sure to the hefty ticket price increases that PHS instituted in 2020. But the main factor, I’m also sure, was the threat of coronavirus posed by being in crowds.

That threat was understood on March 6 in my area, but nowhere near as well as it is understood today. That’s why the Philadelphia Flower Show was lucky, in a sense, that it was able to complete its run (last week, government mandates in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania banned large events such as the Flower Show.) On the other hand, it’s more than possible that some amount of virus transmission took place at the show. And that truly sucks.

Coronavirus ain’t playing. It already has killed thousands. And its course is unpredictable. Hang on tight as best you can, girls and boys.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. And if you’re in the mood for sharing this article, go for it! I thank you.)

(The photos, duh, are from the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open.)

The Flowers In My Neighborhood Weren’t Wilting, But I Was: A Walking Story

It’s been hotter than hell — well, maybe not quite that hot, but hot enough — in the Philadelphia region, where I live, during much of July. And it’s been similarly hot in countless other portions of Planet Earth. You don’t need me to tell you that global warming has had a strong grip on our orb’s metaphorical balls for many years now, and that the situation is only getting worse.

Anyway, the heat was especially nasty in my area on the 21st and 22nd of July, days during which the highs came this close to hitting the fabled 100°F (38°C) mark, ultimately falling a degree or two short. The humidity was impressive too. Nice weather, no? Like countless millions around the globe, though, I had little to complain about. That’s because I stayed inside my air-conditioned home most of the time. Sure, air conditioning is made possible largely by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, thus contributing significantly to the global warming crisis. But what’s a guy to do? Turn off the A/C and melt like a Popsicle? Shit, my balls, which aren’t metaphorical, wouldn’t appreciate becoming liquified.

That unfortunate possibility notwithstanding, at 11:45 AM on the 22nd I decided to throw caution to the wind by launching myself into the elements. I’d had enough of being an indoors wuss. The time had arrived to become an outdoors wuss! I smeared sunscreen lotion all over my wrinkled, age-spotted face and then drank about 20 ounces of water to up my hydration level. Those important tasks accomplished, at noon I stepped outside with one main idea in mind: I was going to walk on many blocks of my suburban neighborhood in search of pretty flowers. The many flowering trees and azalea bushes in my hood all had dropped their blossoms well over a month ago, but whatever other flowers were around (and I knew that there wouldn’t be a whole lot) would have little chance to escape my eagle eye. Off I went. The walk turned out to be a pretty good one, two miles in length and one hour in duration.

My wife and I moved to our abode 14 years ago. And somewhere in the middle of those years I came to realize that there ain’t an amazing quantity of summertime flowers on the two hundred or more properties surrounding us. There’s no explanation for this. It’s just one of those things. I mean, all of the residents keep their lawns and shrubbery trimmed nicely, so it’s not that they don’t care about appearances. But the zing factor from flowers could be far, far better. The color that dominates is green. Green lawns. Green tree leaves. Green bushes. These two photos show my neighborhood’s typical summertime looks:

Yet, of course, there are exceptions. And I dug them. Here and there were excellent flower beds. And here and there were A-OK flowering bushes, including Rose Of Sharon shrubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rose Of Sharon, there having been several of them on the front and back lawns of the house I grew up in decades ago. And they grow brilliantly in my current backyard. Theirs are the only flowers to make an appearance on my property this time of year. I’m glad that a previous owner of my house planted those bushes because I, one of the world’s most inept and lazy gardeners, wouldn’t have taken that step.

Rose Of Sharon shrub in my backyard. This is the only photo taken on my property.

If there’s one flower for which I have an even softer spot than Rose Of Sharon blossoms, it’s the sunflower. Is that because Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings elevated it to iconic status? Maybe. Or is it because of the neat, trim house, in Manhattan’s quaint West Village enclave, that I walked past sometime in the 1970s? Lofty sunflowers grew in front of that small structure, contrasting magnificently with its white exterior. It’s possible that flowers never had made an impression on me like those did. And maybe none have since then. After all, here I am, all these years later, remembering them most fondly. And writing about them.

Yes, I encountered sunflowers on my neighborhood trek the other day. I was two blocks from my house, heading home and sweating like crazy. Despite all the water I drank before leaving home, my lips were unpleasantly dry. I was wilting. Lo and behold, at a corner property I saw them, a long row of sunflowers grinning at me. I stopped to say hello. I took their picture. And I’m going to go back and look at them again after I finish writing this essay. The world needs a lot of things. Peace, compassion and tolerance, for instance. And vastly more sunflowers would be very good too.

Sunflowers

In closing, it should be noted that the blazing Sun and extreme temperature kept things uneventful and quiet in the hood during my walk. The streets were almost empty of people. I saw but one human other than myself. Few cars passed me. And for the first time ever on my strolls in my town, not only did I not encounter any dogs, I didn’t hear barking from inside or outside their houses either. Not until I was about to enter my home at 1:00 PM, that is, when the distinctive yaps of a next-door neighbor’s pet escaped through closed doors and windows. Inside my house I stepped. I checked my balls. They seemed not much the worse for wear. Hallelujah!

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, I thank you.)

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Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

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Spring Indeed Has Sprung

The morning of April 13, a Saturday, was drizzly and grey. But the weather forecasters swore up and down that by early afternoon the Sun would be smiling broadly upon us. Damned if they weren’t right. It was, I decided, a good afternoon in which to take action.

Scads of flowering trees had burst into bloom during the previous few days. And because this annual seasonal display doesn’t last all that long, and because I’m the sort of guy who likes to commune with nature every now and then, I figured I better get hopping if I wanted a good look at the show. So, at 2:30 PM I drove to Jenkintown, a town near mine in the Philadelphia burbs. After parking on a tree-infused residential block, I spent 75 minutes imbibing a healthy amount of spring 2019.

Why Jenkintown? Well, it’s an attractive and tidy place. And I know its layout well. What’s more, I have ties to Jenkintown. It’s where my barber does a magnificent job of styling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. It’s where my wife Sandy and I go out to dinner fairly often. And, most important, it’s where she and I bought our wedding rings. Yeah, Sandy likely would have threatened to knee me in the balls if I hadn’t included most important in that last sentence. But that has nothing to do with why I wrote those words!

Jenkintown was, as expected, peaceful and calm while I trod upon many of its blocks. I saw people of all ages outdoors taking advantage of the warm, comfortable conditions. Some sat on their porches. Others puttered in their yards. One eight or nine year old bounced somewhat proficiently on a pogo stick. And two little kids streaked wildly on their scooters, up and down a sidewalk, as their father kept an eye on them. It was a nice day.

And I heard birds, a lot of birds, though I didn’t see any of them except for a few that were zooming real high in the sky. I don’t know much about them, but I’m not a total nitwit when it comes to our avian friends. I proved that to myself by recognizing the caw, caw, caw of a crow a few minutes into my walk.

And what about vegetation? For one thing, Jenkintown was looking a lot greener than it had in months. Most deciduous trees were not yet in leaf, but a few were, and they were beautiful. What’s more, much shrubbery had traded drab greens for sprightlier shades of that color.

One of the few azalea bushes that I saw.

Forsythia bushes, which had opened in my region in late March, rocked their yellows throughout the town. Ground-level flowers were starting to pop up all over the place. But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

And then there were the flowering trees, the main subjects that I had left my house to examine and to write about. Jenkintown doesn’t boast incredible numbers of them, but there were more than enough. I stopped to admire most that I crossed paths with.

Magnolia petals on the ground.

When it comes to flowering trees, magnolia, pear and cherry are the varieties in favor in Jenkintown. Their petals abounded, flaunting pinks, whites and pale greens. On one property I saw a powerful reminder, though, that the show’s days are numbered, because the lawn and sidewalk there were blanketed with magnolia petals. Before long, similar scenarios will be playing out all over town.

Is this a magnolia tree?

As my stroll was coming to a close I passed a house on whose lawn a young tree grew. It was scrawny but in flower, displaying a color I’m positive I’d never seen before on tree petals. Yellow. A soft, milky yellow. As with birds, my knowledge about plant life ain’t much to write home about. That’s why, a short while ago, I turned to Google for enlightenment. I’m now offering the possibility that what I was looking at is a member of the magnolia family, though I sure as shit wouldn’t bet my life on that. Some of my readers are wise in the ways of flora, and I’m hoping that they will set me straight.

The time to go home arrived. I’d more than met my minimum daily requirement of nature. Therefore, into my car I eased. And you know what? It was hot as hell inside the mighty machine, 10 degrees hotter than it was outside. That’s what happens when you forget to leave a window cracked. Within seconds sweat began pooling on my forehead. Plenty of it. And of course the sweat headed downward, saying a nasty hello to my nose, lips and chin, and reminding me that summer is on the horizon. I hadn’t thought about summer in a long time. I’m not a fan of that season. F*ck summer heat. F*ck summer sweat. I prefer spring.

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

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window. All photos were taken on April 13, 2019 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, USA.)