Autumnal Thoughts, Autumnal Tunes

Planet Earth, which we humans increasingly have been making a mess of since the Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s, nonetheless has remained reliable in various ways. It keeps on spinning, for one thing, and traveling around the Sun, for another. Good thing that it does, no? If those movements were thrown out of whack, we, along with every entity taking up earthly space, would be goners in a couple of blinks of an eye.

Well, as we know, on the 22nd of September those good ol’ reliable movements brought about the autumnal equinox and the vernal equinox in, respectively, the northern and southern hemispheres. This was due to the Sun being directly above the equator, by the way. For me, a resident of the north, this event officially marked the beginning of my favorite time of year — fall — and prompted me to gather some thoughts about that season. Here they are, along with a few recordings that capture fall’s cozy, mellow essence. Damn straight, I’m in an autumnal mood!

This is the main reason why I like autumn as much as I do: I was born in late October, smack in the heart of fall. And my birthday has been lovingly acknowledged and celebrated, by one combination of people or another, every year of my life. Over time it became only natural for me to associate autumn with my birth anniversary. How could I not, seeing that autumn never fails to whisper frequent reminders in my ear about the approaching big day? And when that day arrives, autumn, behind the scenes, is one of the celebrants. Yeah, autumn loves me, and I therefore love autumn back, you dig?

Hatboro, Pennsylvania

To meld with autumn righteously and timely, on its first day this year I took a long walk through Hatboro, a cute town a few miles from where I live in the Philadelphia suburbs. I headed there with the newly-hatched season fully on my mind. The mid-day temperature was lovely, about 73° F (23° C), the skies were as blue as you could hope for, and a light breeze ruffled the few strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. In other words, the day was pretty damn well ideal. How sweet it was not to be sweating like a pig, which I had done numerous times during walks in the just-departed summer. Autumn weather suits me just fine.

Produce Junction (Hatboro, Pennsylvania)
Hints of gold in a tree in Hatboro, Pennsylvania

Hatboro was starting to get its autumnal mode in order. For instance, I saw scarecrows on a couple of porches and in a couple of store windows, and I gazed with admiration at the arrays of pumpkins in Produce Junction, a store on Hatboro’s main drag. But there was little evidence of fall in the billions of leaves within Hatboro’s boundaries. Only in a smattering of trees did I notice a changing of the color guard, such as in a tree outside of Produce Junction. Hints of gold decorated that specimen, harbingers of full-blown color transformations yet to come. I’m eagerly awaiting mid-to-late autumn’s golds, russets, burgundies and ambers. That palette grabs me powerfully each year, yet tenderly. Yes, autumn is a period of beauty that goes down as satisfyingly as comfort food.

As I walked through Hatboro, I pulled some autumn tunes out of my memory bank and let passages of them play silently in my head. I’ve always loved Autumn Almanac, by The Kinks, and Van Morrison’s Autumn Song. They provided part of my stroll’s soundtrack. As did Harvest Moon, a Neil Young composition that quite a number of musicians have covered. Young’s version is special. It makes me go limp with wonder, so beautiful do I find it. In Hatboro, those songs, and a few others, kept me company excellently.

Back home later that day I did some research into fall-themed songs, discovering Eva Cassidy’s live rendition of Autumn Leaves (music by Joseph Kosma, English lyrics by Johnny Mercer). With vocals emanating from Cassidy’s most-private chambers, this performance would break the hearts of all but the stoniest. And I reconnected with Autumn Serenade (music by Peter DeRose, lyrics by Sammy Gallop), off the album that the famous saxophonist John Coltrane recorded in 1963 with the not-so-famous vocalist Johnny Hartman. A bit more research would have revealed many others, so deep a hold has autumn maintained on songwriters past and present.

Rather than overload this essay with YouTube presentations, I’ve decided to limit the recordings to three. I think you’ll enjoy the following Young, Cassidy and Coltrane/Hartman works. Be well, boys and girls. And, as I usually mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments.

Some Of This Year’s Pix: A Photography Story

Ah, the wonders and the ease of digital photography. I mean, you’ve got to love it. No mess and no fuss, which is precisely the way that little ol’ me, who is lazy as shit, likes things to be.

What’s more, digital photography can be quite addictive, as half or more of the world’s population is fully aware. I’m definitely addicted. In spurts, anyway. I don’t take pictures of every damn thing I do or of every place I go, but, ever since obtaining my first smart phone in 2015, I’ve snapped more than enough. And a fair number of those shots have found their way onto the pages of the publication that you now are reading. Man, writing stories for this site usually drains the hell out of me. But snapping pix for it with my phone? That’s a gas, gas, gas!

And so, the other day I decided to have a look at the hundreds of photos from 2020 that sit quietly and patiently in my phone’s storage room. I did so with the idea in mind to put a small bunch of them on public display for the first time. Fortunately, there were enough that struck me as worthy. Thus, this essay became a go. That brought a nice big sigh of relief because, as I’ve noted semi-regularly over the last few years, story ideas don’t exactly spew from me with the force of volcanic eruptions.

Miles Table (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). January 15, 2020
Abington, Pennsylvania. March 21, 2020
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. May 29, 2020

Are there any connective tissues holding these photos together? I suppose so, since they portray scenes that appealed to me sufficiently to try and capture them. For instance, I’m into color juxtapositions, arrays of angular shapes, and unexpected elements. And all of those are to be found in some of the pictures, such as the one taken in front of Miles Table, the Philadelphia café where my pal Gene and I ate lunch one January day.  The reflections in Miles Table’s windows intermesh giddily with the interior of the shop. Dig that crazy tree cozying up to a prim and proper table! You don’t see that every day.

Photo taken in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania on June 2, 2020
Georgian Bakery And Café (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). January 10, 2020
Photo taken in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania on June 22, 2020

On the other hand, I also enjoy simplicity, and there was a sweet simplicity to the early-evening cottony sky that I photographed from my house’s deck. We’ve all seen skies like this one mucho times before. But we never grow tired of them, because they are both calm and majestic. They give us pause.

My house (Willow Grove, Pennsylvania). May 24, 2020

And, speaking of my house, how could I resist the photo of the rhododendron bush that sits in my front yard? I tell you, that plant preened exuberantly this spring, something that it never had done before during the 15 years that my wife Sandy and I have lived here. To my mind, this was proof that flora can be unpredictable in their moods and actions, sometimes behaving wonderfully and sometimes not. Humans, take heart in that! Every entity on Planet Earth is complicated as hell, not just us.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts related to the selfie that I took a few weeks ago at the Michener Art Museum, a medium-sized and excellent museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It is named after the famous author James Michener, who, in the 1980s, donated tons of money to help establish the institution.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the museum closed its doors in March of this year. But the pandemic situation improved in Pennsylvania over time, allowing some cultural facilities to re-open. The Michener did so on July 20.

Sandy and I, who are museum lovers, were as happy as two masked people could hope to be, because we last had been at a museum in January. Being able to visit the Michener helped to create the illusion that the world was spinning towards normality. Anyway, we spent an hour looking over the exhibits. One of them, which displayed works that various artists created in recent years in reaction to climate change, kept us rapt.

But, as much as anything that day, I liked looking at oil paintings by Fern Coppedge (1883-1951), who lived much of her life not far from Doylestown. A number of her works are in the museum’s collections. Sandy and I have visited the Michener pretty frequently this century, and both of us have come to admire Coppedge’s art very much. Bold, tastefully-arranged colors. Strong brushstrokes. Depictions of scenic old towns and beautiful natural landscapes. I mean, what’s not to like?

Photo taken in Michener Art Museum (Doylestown, Pennsylvania). August 25, 2020

So, natch, it was in front of a Coppedge oil painting that Sandy and I positioned ourselves to grab the selfie, an art form whose mechanics I haven’t come close to mastering. Yeah, the painting appears to be drunkenly crooked in the photo, but that’s kind of charming, don’t you think?  Coppedge, who wasn’t a stickler for perfect balance, probably wouldn’t have minded a bit. And I bet that she’d have dug the contrasts and connections that our masks and tilted heads established with her painting. This photo will remain a fine reminder to Sandy and me of a very good day during the Pandemic Era.

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

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!

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.)

Getting Closer? Yes And No

Man, in the early days of coronavirus I wouldn’t have guessed that this microbial demon would find its way into as many of my essays as it has. Its omnipresence and dangers, though, have made it impossible for me to ignore, in my everyday life and as a writer. Alas, truer words than these rarely have been spoken: We need an effective vaccine sooner than ASAP!

It’s anything but new news when I observe that in a mere handful of months the virus has impaired our world in oh so many ways. Hundreds of thousands of people have died at the villain’s hands, and that count will rise and rise. Livelihoods have disappeared. Economies have been derailed. And that which is normal behavior for most of us — having a fair amount of close contact with fellow members of our embattled species — has become, for the most part, a big no-no. We can, of course, be physically near to those who we are confident are non-contagious, assuming that we are confident that we meet that criterion too. But to anyone else? Yo, it’s risky!

It’s natural to wonder about the extent to which close contact will return after our savior, a good vaccine, rides in from whatever lab ends up creating it. That’s assuming the savior is creatable. It better be. Anyway, will the general populace go back to their merry old ways? You know, crowding into elevators, sharing joints, rocking out shoulder-to-shoulder at concerts, spilling their guts to friends seated near them at bars and cafés, etc., etc. (As we know, some people, against expert advice and governmental guidelines, are doing these sorts of things already. Spikes in coronavirus have resulted. Those folks just don’t want to keep their distance from one another!)

I’m betting that a full return never will happen. Maybe we’ll level off at about 75% of where we were, but no more than that. I mean, coronavirus has brought home the fact that microbes don’t always play nice, that unfriendly bacteria and viruses could be anywhere, and that cutting back a little on your potential contact with same might be a wise way to live your life.

For example, as many already have noted, the handshake has an uncertain future. Shit, that’s no big deal. To a decent extent, pre-virus, handshakes already had been replaced by fist bumps, elbow taps and other far-less-germy forms of greeting. I’m cool with that. But some also are predicting that hugs won’t be as common as once they were. Hugs? That is a big deal, and I’m not cool with it. Me, once the pandemic is no more, I’m going to give a nice big hug, if they want me to, to every pal and relative that I get together with. That will be a damn good way to celebrate the nightmare’s demise.

Well, like all good boys and girls, I’ve been trying to keep at least six feet away from nearly all homo sapiens. (The one exception to this regimen is, of course, my wife Sandy.) Doing so is frustrating, for sure. So, when the idea hit me the other day to get real, real close to something — in this case, certain inhabitants of the non-human sphere — I jumped at it.

Thus, a couple of days later, while walking around my neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburbs, I gave flora, stone walls, traffic sign posts and other objects a good looking over from way within spitting distance. Then I snapped their portraits, some of which are plastered on this page. Photographically-speaking, I dug the close-up approach and probably will venture out on a similar mission in the foreseeable future.

But, during the trek and after, I couldn’t stop thinking about human physical closeness, and decided that it would be appropriate to illustrate this story with songs that touch upon aspects of that wide subject. No doubt there are thousands and thousands that fit the bill. I’m going to go with two that popped into my head pretty much right off the bat. These great recordings, which more or less represent opposite sides of the closeness coin, remind me, as if I need any reminding, that I’m anxious for the day when once again I’ll be able to talk with people from a normal distance. And to pass within a whisker or two of strangers on the sidewalk as I nonchalantly walk from here to there. I present to you, then, The Temptations singing I Can’t Get Next To You, and Ol’ Blue Eyes’ heart-melting rendition of The Nearness Of You.

Till next time, gals and guys. Stay safe, as the saying goes. And, by the way, 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.)

Relentlessly, Time Marches On (A Mortality Story)

For nearly all of my adult life, walking around while looking at things has been one of the activities that pleases me the most. I especially like to stretch the ol’ legs in cities, where there is no end of interesting sights, and in unspoiled natural areas, where the wonders of organic and inorganic matter never fail to amaze. And I’m also an explorer of towns that look like towns. Their old-timey ambience gets to me every time. This year I went for a healthy number of walks in all of these environments, both in the USA and in Europe, and consider myself fortunate to have done so.

My neighborhood (November 7, 2019)

However, one place where I don’t go out for walks too often is my own neighborhood, which occupies a fair amount of space in the suburbs of Philadelphia, USA. Basically that’s because my neighborhood is bland, man, bland, as is much of suburbia. Early this month, though, the urge hit me to hit my house’s surrounding blocks. Why? I wanted to check out how much of autumn’s colors were still in evidence. So, off I went in mid-afternoon. I strode along many streets, my eyes primarily focusing on tree foliage, or what was left of it. One hour later I returned to my home, having been wowed not all too much. That’s because, in my little corner of the world, yellows and ambers and russets and burgundies were close to being placed on life support. The autumnal party was just about over.

My neighborhood (November 7, 2019)

Yet, the walk had its good points. The temperature was pleasant and the air was still. Few cars made their way along the roads, and I crossed paths with only a couple of fellow humans. My mind and emotions, as a result of all of this, were in a state of relative calm. I was getting my Zen on. And I kind of liked that. You know, maybe I should enroll in a Zen monastery. I hear that they give heavily discounted rates to old f*ckers like me. Plus, I’d look great in a real long robe.

Calm as my mind was during the expedition, however, the obvious failed to impress itself upon me. Two days later it did. What I realized is that not only is fall waning in my section of the globe, but winter is drawing near. Not exactly an earthshattering observation, of course, but a useful one. Note to myself: Get ready to start freezing your ass off!

And one day after that I became somewhat melancholy as my thoughts expanded beyond winter’s approach. What struck me is that last winter seemed to be not all that long ago. For instance, I can recall in detail the events of last December’s New Year’s Eve, when my wife and I went with friends to dinner and to see John Oliver perform stand-up comedy at a Philadelphia theater. Was that really eleven months in the past? It feels like five months max.

Which at long last brings me to the main theme of this opus. Namely, our lives are flying by right before our very eyes. This would be okay if we went on and on and on. Time, then, would be irrelevant. I’ve reached the age, though, where time’s rapid pace mildly depresses me. I think semi-regularly about how much time I have left. My end might be imminent, after all. Shit. Double shit. Then again, I might hang around for another 30 years, which would bring me into my early 100s. Who knows? Whatever, if it were up to me, I’d go on forever. As in forever. I know that some or maybe most people wouldn’t choose the same. But even though the state of affairs on Planet Earth is incredibly far from perfect, overall I like being here.

“Huh? Who would want to live forever, considering that wars, floods, droughts, health epidemics and untold other calamities never go away?” I hear someone ask.

“Well, to my way of thinking, these things shouldn’t exist,” I reply. “For that matter, the whole setup on our planet would be different if I were in charge. I mean, what’s the deal with animal species — and that obviously includes humans — feeding upon other animal species? Where’s the value of life in that? And let’s not get started about other orbs in the cosmos. I shudder to think what varieties of mayhem are taking place among life forms out there.” Sigh. “It’s a pity that I wasn’t around for consultation when the universe began spinning itself into shape.”

Yeah, yeah, I sidestepped the question big time. Sue me.

And so we move along through life, hopefully trying our best to do our best. What matters in life? We all know the answers: Showing others that you care, and attending to them when your help is needed; providing properly for those that depend on us, and for ourselves; respecting the planet on which we pass our days; pursuing that which rocks our boats, as long as our passions don’t cause harm.

The list, without question, could hold many more entries. But I think I got most of the basics right. Seeing that our time on Planet Earth is limited, we might as well spend it wisely and meaningfully. And, speaking of time, it’s a late morning as I type this essay’s final words. Shortly I’ll be out the door, meeting the world and trying to keep in mind the unsolicited advice I offered in the above paragraph. Onward and upward!

(As I almost always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)

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.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks very much.)

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