A Family Gathering And A Desert Walk (My 300th Story)

It’s good to be around your relatives, is it not? Yeah, it is, but only if you like them! Well, my wife Sandy and I are crazy about my brother Richie and his wife Sara, and their oldest son Ben and his wife Amanda, and the latter couple’s two young boys. Ergo, we had one hell of a fine time recently when we gathered with this family grouping in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is where Richie and Sara reside.

Now, being Pennsylvania denizens, Sandy and I don’t get to see the folks listed above all that often, as they live so damn far away from us. Especially Ben and company, who call Hawaii home. So, when earlier this year the Hawaiian crew decided they would visit Richie and Sara in a few months, well, Sandy and I wasted no time in making our arrangements to join the upcoming celebration. We arrived in Santa Fe, via American Airlines, on the 31st of May.

We spent three days with the entire clan and, after Ben and company decamped for Hawaii, four more with Richie and Sara. The time flew by at lightning speed, as time is wont to do. Sandy and I did all kinds of fun things with the family. You know, shooting the shit, eating swell meals, playing with the kids, going here and there and there and here, etc., etc. It almost didn’t matter what was going on, though, since everybody was just plain glad to be together.

One activity in particular rang my bell exceedingly well. It resulted from Sara asking me, soon after Ben and his crew began their journey home, if there was anything special that I wanted to do in New Mexico. “Nah, not really,” I thought to myself. But all of a sudden I realized that there was: Below the surface I’d been itching for a desert experience, one that might rival the trek through Plaza Blanca that knocked my socks off when Sandy and I visited Richie and Sara in New Mexico four years ago (click here to read about it).

Right to left: Richie, Sandy, Sara, Alfie. (This photo and the other photos are from the Nambé Badlands.)

When I told Sara that the desert was calling me, almost at once she said that the Nambé Badlands was the place to go to. Man, turns out she was spot-on correct. A day later, there the four of us were (plus Richie and Sara’s trusty dog Alfie), strolling around this stunning wilderness together. Nambé thrilled our eyes and graciously allowed our feet to take us where they might.

The Nambé Badlands is a dizzying configuration, straight out of a surrealist’s mind, of gullies, canyons, hills, level grounds, and sculptural rock formations. It encompasses a huge chunk of territory about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. Sandstone and limestone are among Nambé’s main inorganic ingredients, and a highly surprising number of juniper trees, most of them roughly ten feet in height, pepper the landscape. We arrived at 9:15 in the morning, when the Sun was already more intense than we’d have liked it to be, but less so than it was when we bid adieu to the desert an hour and a half later. The skies were painted a sweet blue, and few clouds were on display. As totally expected, we spotted not a single drop of water on the premises.

For the most part, our group hiked on dusty trails, upon which we crossed paths with a dozen or so other humans, several of whom were zipping along on their sturdy bikes. The trails were easily followed. But I couldn’t resist going off-trail a couple of times, wandering down crumbly hills to peer more closely at canyon sides and dry gully beds. I toyed with the idea of making my way down to a bed or two, but in the end chickened out, though, to tell you the truth I think I could have done it. On the other hand, climbing back up without incident probably would have been a near impossibility for me, an old f*ck whose body contains more rings than 99.99% of the trees on Planet Earth.

Yeah, hell will freeze over before I’ll be mistaken for Indiana Jones. But so what? I lost myself for a while in the Nambé Badlands, my tensions and jumbled thoughts slipping away like yesterday’s news as I grooved on the wonderland surrounding me.

With any luck, some day I’ll be back.

(Girls and boys, this is my 300th story. I’m more than stunned that I’ve typed as many words as I have since launching this publication in April 2015. If I decide to throw a party to celebrate my unlikely feat, I’ll invite you all!. Here’s another important announcement: Anyone who enjoys mysteries that have a social conscience would do well to check out Murder At The Crossroads: A Blues Mystery, which was co-written by my friend Debra Schiff. It came out this year. A lot of info about the book is available by clicking here.)

Six Pix

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, in articles buried in this site’s musty archives, I know virtually nothing about the technical aspects of photography nor about the cameras, lenses and associated equipment that make serious photographers drool. Nonetheless, I get a bang from taking photographs, because I like looking at things while walking around, and often feel compelled to document what I’m looking at. Most agreeably, the cameras I’ve used over the years in this pursuit have allowed me — a lazy f*cker who can’t be bothered with complicated stuff — to snap away with a minimum of effort.

First there was the Kodak Pocket Instamatic, which served me well during the pre-digital 1970s and 80s. I took a zillion pictures with it. The Pocket Instamatic was small and worked automatically, producing a nice image nearly every time. Aim and shoot was all you had to do, a pretty perfect set-up for yours truly.

A long dry spell set in for me after that era, my wife Sandy taking over the photographic duties. However, in late 2015 I obtained my first smart phone, an iPhone, and soon fell heavily for its camera. The camera was as easy as pie to use and, no need to mention, was digital. Thus, the small hassle of getting rolls of film developed (as was the case with the Instamatic) didn’t exist. Absolutely my kind of camera!

Willow Grove, Pennsylvania (March 2022)
Goods on display in the Lids store, Abington, Pennsylvania (January 2022)

That iPhone was traded in some time ago for an updated model, which I’ve put to use a whole lot. This year alone I’ve pressed its button several hundred times. A fair number of the several hundred resultant images have appeared on this wobbly publication’s pages, but the vast majority haven’t.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (March 2022)

And so, in honor of the fact that we currently are hauling our asses through month number six of the year, I am decorating this article with six previously unpublished pix, all from 2022, that pleased my eye recently when I scrolled through the photos residing within my phone. I’ll limit my commentary to three of them.

Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (March 2022)

Isn’t the mural gorgeous? It was created under the auspices of Mural Arts Philadelphia, a quasi-governmental organization in Philadelphia that, since 1984, has orchestrated the painting of several thousand outdoor murals throughout that fair city. This one is in Philly’s Mt. Airy section. I took the picture in March as I was walking to a nearby tavern for a rendezvous with my great pals Jeff and Mike.

And you know what? I noticed while writing this article that the name of the mural, painted on the lower right corner, is Walking The Wissahickon. Well, as fate and/or coincidence would have it, my wife and I did exactly that — we walked The Wissahickon, aka Wissahickon Valley Park — about seven weeks after I took the mural’s portrait.

Wissahickon Valley Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (April 2022)

Man, the park, which extends for more than five miles through northwest Philadelphia, a swath that includes Mt. Airy, is damn well more gorgeous than the mural, as it should be. Sandy and I were there on a lovely spring day, admiring the greenery and the robust creek (Wissahickon Creek) that flows through the park, and adroitly sidestepping the occasional piles of horse shit that bless the main trail. Not having had a true Nature experience in months, we dug the heck out of the hour and a half that we spent in what I consider to be the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s parklands.

Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania (February 2022)

I’ll bring this opus to an end by talking ever so briefly about the photo of Sandy and me posing before a mirror in the Michener Art Museum, a superb institution in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There we are, squashed within the mirror’s confines, our faces half-obscured. Yet, despite all of that, we look pretty damn good, no? Gorgeous even, no?  I think so. And those of you who don’t agree should leave the room right now!

Thanks for reading, girls and boys. Till next time!

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.

Provincetown, Sands And Seas

Well, as my previous opus points out, my wife Sandy’s and my vacation on Cape Cod last month was sweet. Real sweet. I’m back home now in the suburbs of Philadelphia, trying to become acclimated to the fact that the equivalents of quite a few of the Cape’s top features ain’t to be found anywhere in my region. For example, on the Cape there’s Provincetown, where bohemianism is alive and well. And beaches on which an individual easily can escape into higher dimensions by gazing upon waters that go on forever.

There’s a lot to be said for being home. But man, I miss Cape Cod!

Provincetown, located beside Cape Cod Bay at the tippy tip of Massachusetts, is a sizeable village, roughly two miles long and half a mile wide. Still, it comprises but a smallish percentage of greater Provincetown’s overall space. Waters, sands, woods and wetlands account for the rest.

Provincetown, Cape Cod

Since my first visit circa 2000, I’ve been in the village around 35 times I suppose. Old and bleached by the Sun, it looks countrified in parts, seaside-y in others, and is artsy and free-spirited throughout. A longtime commercial fishing center (it remains active as such), and once a whaling port, P-Town began to change its colors when The Cape Cod School Of Art, which is still in existence, set up shop in 1899. Before long, the village morphed into a mecca for creative types, tourists following in their wake. And in the second half of the 20th century, gays and lesbians in significant numbers began making the town their home. These days, about 3,600 individuals live there year-round. During summer, the height of the tourist season, many tens of thousands of additional humans appear.

Provincetown, Cape Cod
Provincetown,  Cape Cod

I love to meander through P-Town’s streets. Somehow they both relax and energize me. More important, they please my eyes. The homes, stores and restaurants are, comfortingly, of compatible size, usually one to two-and-a-half stories tall. Yet nearly every one carries a distinct personality. Not only that, many are tucked away in nooks and crannies and at odd angles to their neighbors. That’s why, whenever I’m in Provincetown, I notice buildings that I hadn’t before.

Pilgrim Monument (Provincetown, Cape Cod)

If I had to pick one sight over any other in the village, it would be the Pilgrim Monument. Not in daylight but when, illuminated at night, its gentle glow casts a spell. P-Town’s most uncharacteristic structure by far, it commemorates, if that’s the correct word, the landing in 1620 of English colonists on the shores of what later was dubbed Provincetown. Native Americans, not surprisingly, already occupied the land. I have no doubt that the indigenous folks were less than pleased by the strangers’ arrival. In any case, the Monument, at 252 feet in height, is an imposing creation, visible fully or in part from much of the village and its surroundings. And at night? Ooh la la! For the umpteenth time it captivated me one evening a few weeks ago.

How is it that I rarely exchanged meaningful hellos with sands and open waters until Sandy and I discovered Cape Cod in 1998? I mean, I wasn’t a stranger to them, having spent numerous days of my youth at one beach or another on Long Island. (I grew up on Long Island in a town that’s about 20 miles from Manhattan.) Whatever the reasons, I’m truly glad that the relationship developed. Hell, I’m nothing but putty in the hands of the Cape’s sandy coastlines and the liquid bodies (Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound) that embrace them.

We always visit Cape Cod in the off-season, which is when there’s no problem finding long stretches of beach that are empty, or almost empty, of other individuals. Yeah, that’s the way we like it. With distractions at a minimum, we’re able to admire meaningfully the perfect elemental combination that is sand, water and sky.

Atlantic Ocean and Nauset Light Beach (Eastham, Cape Cod)
Cape Cod Bay and Corn Hill Beach (Truro, Cape Cod)

I took two solo beach walks last month and more than several in partnership with my better half. The latter strolls seemed more complete than the former. I mean, when the two of us stopped to stare at the endless waters every five or ten minutes, we kind of Zenned out together, no matter if the waters were roiling or calm. There is no doubt that going eyeball to eyeball with infinity, at the side of someone doing precisely the same, is a good way, a very good way, to spend some time. You can’t beat joint bliss!

(Please don’t be shy about entering your comments. I thank you. All of the photos, by the way, are from October 2021.)

Cape Cod 2021 Turned Out Just Fine

I’ve mentioned before on these pages that Cape Cod, a 65-mile-long chunk of sandy land bordered on three sides by magnificent open waters, is a locale in which I truly love to place my aged, scrawny ass. My wife Sandy and I fell for the Cape, which is in the southeastern part of Massachusetts, USA, during our first vacation there. That was in 1998. Since then, to both of our amazements, we’ve returned nearly every year, usually in autumn. Who’d have thought that there would be a somewhere we’d want to visit again and again? Not us!

Cape Cod satisfies us in many ways. For example, we spend plenty of time outdoors, walking on sands, in forests and beside marshes, and gazing at the endless seas. We go to museums, art galleries, movie theaters and restaurants. We play mini golf, fly our roughed-up but seemingly indestructible kite at one beach or another, and wander around villages that range from stately to countrified to funky. Yeah, Cape Cod is cool, a combination of ingredients and opportunities that both soothes and invigorates.

Atlantic Ocean and Coast Guard Beach. (Eastham, Cape Cod)
Marshes at an ocean inlet. (Orleans, Cape Cod)

Last year was one of the two or three, since 1998, in which Sandy and I didn’t meet up with Cape Cod. There was little point in going there during a time when our artsy and gastronomic options would have been severely limited by coronavirus.

Autumn 2021 seemed worth taking a chance on, though. For one thing, and it’s an important thing, we’re vaccinated against COVID. Also, life in general is far less restricted than it was 12 months ago. Thus, in early October we crammed a shitload of clothes and other stuff into our car, and drove from our home in Philadelphia’s suburbs to Cape Cod. We unloaded the shitload in the house we’ve rented many times before, in the town of Orleans.

Provincetown dunes. (Provincetown, Cape Cod)
Provincetown village. (Provincetown, Cape Cod)

Thankfully, the vacation, two and a half weeks in length, turned out A-OK. Sure, due to staff shortages and other virus-related reasons, a good number of art galleries, cinemas, restaurants, you name it, had reduced their hours and days of operation. But we worked around all of that as best we could, planning our activities with care. We didn’t have to worry about the sands, forests, marshes and waters, of course, because they hadn’t altered their ways of doing business. I’d have sued the f*ckers if they had!

Little Cifff Pond, nestled in a forest. (Brewster, Cape Cod)

So, in the end we were almost as busy as we were in past years. We didn’t feel shortchanged at all.

Now, I could go on and on about where we went, what we did. But I’m going to leave most of that for another day. I do, however, want to write about an activity that I didn’t mention above, one that as far as I can remember wasn’t in my repertoire prior to Cape Cod entering my life. I’m referring to sunset-viewing. Man, I suppose that Sandy and I have watched our pal the Sun drop below the horizon something like 40 times during our Cape sojourns. We’re fans.

Sunset at Cape Cod Bay. Many of the sunset-viewers are elsewhere on the sands. (Skaket Beach, Orleans, Cape Cod)

Our fondness for sunsets led us one evening this month to Skaket Beach, a smallish stretch of sand on Cape Cod Bay. Although it’s in Orleans, our home base, we hadn’t been to Skaket in years. Pulling into the parking lot, I  couldn’t believe my eyes. There were a lot of cars there. Several dozen. And strung along the beach were 75, maybe 100 individuals, more by far than I’d ever seen gathered to witness a sunset. Most of the attendees were seated on the sands upon folding chairs that they’d brought with them. Folding-chairless, Sandy and I grabbed seats on a bench a few feet behind the beach and admired the lovely skies. It was almost 6 PM, and the Sun was only minutes away from saying bye bye.

Well, as soon as the sun disappeared a good round of applause filled the air. Not only that, quite a few folks immediately left the premises. Huh? What the hell was their rush? The curtain hadn’t fallen. I mean, sunsets are generous. They linger and linger, gradually changing their patterns and color intensities. Sandy and I stuck around for another 20 minutes, oohing and ahhing and shooting the breeze. Maybe we should have stayed even longer, but darkness was descending and dinner beckoned. Back to the emptying parking lot we went, soon making our way to a nearby restaurant. We’d just seen the best show in town.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias. All of the photos are from October 2021)

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.)

Words From A Philly Fan

I’m proud and relieved to say that I am fully vaccinated against coronavirus, the microscopic beast that, for us humans, likes nothing better than to cause pain and death and to make an unholy mess of things. And though there are plenty of unknowns about what the future holds, for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, I’m proceeding on the assumption that the two doses of Moderna I received have done their job. In other words, protected me from developing COVID.

That’s why, earlier this month and for the first time since the pandemic began, I packaged together activities that used to be semi-regular parts of my repertoire. Namely, I hopped aboard a train, a means of transport that I deemed too risky to use pre-vaccination, and rode it for an hour from my suburban town to a station in the heart of Philadelphia, the city I know better than any other. Then, upon arrival, I took a substantial walk through The City Of Brotherly Love’s streets.

(Yeah, I could have driven into Philly at pretty much any time during the past year, but said drive is a major pain, as is finding somewhere to park in the sections I like to walk around in.)

Vivid sunlight greeted me as I exited the train station at 10th and Filbert Streets. With no game plan, no specific destinations in mind, I looked this way and that, shrugged, and let my legs and feet take me where they would. Three and a quarter hours later — a chunk of time that passed almost in a flash — I had walked upon a fair number of central Philadelphia’s blocks, covering about four and a half miles in all.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood

The area that I traversed on the Friday in question forms a large rectangle and includes a host of neighborhoods. Among them are Chinatown, Old City, Society Hill, South Street and Center City West. Old City and Society Hill, by the way, encompass much of what was within the city’s boundaries during its emergence as a major player in the 1700s. Reacquainting myself with these and other Philadelphia neighborhoods felt damn good, though my absence didn’t seem as long as it actually had been. What surprised me more than anything was that, despite all the walking I’ve done in central Philadelphia over the years, I probably never had been on some of the blocks that passed beneath my feet. For instance, had I ever before walked past or seen the enormous mural that proclaims WORK UNITES US on a building that is close to both Chinatown and Old City? I think not.

Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood
Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood

Well, the conditions were as fine as any I might have dialed up. The skies were a sweet blue, the temperature mild, and a healthy number of young ladies strolling around looked superb. Within the eastern half of the rectangle that I visited, the sidewalks were not particularly crowded. Its Old City and Society Hill areas normally teem with tourists, but not now, needless to say. Add to that the fact that mucho workers who used to be on the streets during their lunch hours are now working from home, another consequence of the virus. I saw quite a few more people, however, within the rectangle’s western half, mainly because of cafes and restaurants whose outdoor tables, in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, were packed. But not as many as I would have a year and a half ago.

Philadelphia’s South Street neighborhood
Philadelphia’s Center City West neighborhood

All in all, COVID has put Philly, and just about all American cities, I suppose, in a hell of a hole. For one thing, Philadelphia never will return to its former self should working-from-home remain a significant way of doing business. I mean, can you imagine the ripple effects that will occur if the city’s office buildings, whether modest or skyscraping, become half vacant, or worse, permanently? Man, I’m very worried about this.

Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood
Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square park

However, all is not lost. The city has much going for it. Deep history. Parks galore. Handsome buildings several centuries old. Modern skyscrapers tantalizingly sleek. I saw examples of all of that during my walk. What’s more, during the last 25 or 30 years Philadelphia’s restaurant scene became world-class and its cultural offerings exploded in number. Restaurants, in general, have hung in there fairly well during the pandemic, though there have been casualties of course. And culture is slowly returning as pandemic restrictions are being relaxed more and more.

No doubt about it, I’ll head back to Philadelphia a bunch of times pretty soon. To trek again. To dine. To take in movies and rock and jazz concerts. I dig the city a whole lot, as if you couldn’t tell. If I didn’t, I’d have moved to another region long ago.

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

Looking Up Is Where It’s At: A Springtime Story

When my phone rang at 10 AM on April 27, I knew that I would be in for a scolding. That’s because the name displayed on the phone was none other than Dooitt Orr Else, the no-nonsense CEO of the blogosphere. I’d never had the pleasure of speaking with Mrs. Else, but I knew all about her. Bottom line: she does not suffer fools gladly.

I answered the call. “Hello, can I help you?” I asked, my voice trembling.

“Help me? I doubt it, fool. But you can help yourself. Listen, mister — and, by the way, this is Dooitt Orr Else speaking — it has come to my attention that you have yet to publish an article that centers around spring 2021. What is the matter with you? You’ve written about past springs, have you not? The answer is yes. Therefore it will be unacceptable if you allow the present season to vanish into your rearview mirror without comment.”

“Sir, you have fallen short of the contractual obligations that you entered into with WordPress. Get to work on a spring-related article or I shall be forced to revoke your writing privileges. Not that anyone would mind if I did. Over and out!”

Holy shit, that conversation, if you can call it that, left me worried. I mean, what the hell would I do with my freed-up time if I no longer were allowed to hurl my words of quasi-wisdom into cyberspace? Man, I don’t want to learn how to do yoga. And I don’t want to learn how to bake. Hence, the next day I took to the streets to see what spin I might put on spring 2021.

A lovely day it was when I began the adventure soon after breakfast. On the hazy side, yes, but there’s a charm to haziness. And the temperature was very comfortable, so I knew that I wouldn’t start sweating like a pig as I pounded the sidewalks. My plan was to admire and investigate the flora on some of the blocks in my neighborhood and also on some in a nearby area, as nature had begun to come alive gloriously several weeks earlier. Most deciduous trees were fully in leaf. And many of their flowering varieties were strutting their stuff. But what would be my focus? I wasn’t sure when I left the house, but two minutes later I knew.

I knew, because I decided to photograph a pine tree on a home’s front lawn, but not from a distance. Instead, I got real close to the densely-needled beauty and looked up. What a view! No pavement, no houses, no electrical wires were part of the scene. Nothing but the tree and the sky. The template for the walk, and for the story that you now are reading, immediately fell into place. I would look upward frequently and see what was to be found.

The natural world, needless to say, is infinitely complicated in terms of design, structure, materials, color, and in terms of every other aspect that one might think of. We reside on a planet that is an absolute wonderland. These facts are what hit me the hardest as I wandered along, stopping here and there to peer heavenward through tree branches. The branches, the leaves and needles, the blossoms on those trees so adorned, interplayed at wild angles, combining to form intricate canvases, canvases that shape-shifted whenever I changed position even slightly. Add to this the play of sunlight and the calmness of the sky . . .  the sights were truly stunning.

What’s more, most of the canvases looked like works of modern art to me, swaths of colors and in-your-face immediacy being major parts of their hearts and souls. But I also enjoyed the more delicate constructions, especially the unassuming manner in which one tree, with a smattering of white petals on its thin branches, met the sky.

For the past 18 months I’ve been walking my ass off in my and other neighborhoods, most of them in the Philadelphia burbs, doing so for health reasons and also to get off the living room sofa often enough so as not to take root on it. I’m a lazy guy at the core, though, not one who is thrilled about engaging in regular exercise sessions. But I plan to maintain the routine for as long as I am able. And looking up will help. As the title of this opus says, that’s where it’s at. Sometimes, anyway.

Okay, Mrs. Else. I’ve met your demand. Don’t call me again anytime soon!

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