Me And My Muse: A Cry For Help (Hers, Not Mine)

Planet Earth contains over seven billion humans who are pushing hard to raise that number to eight billion. Of that multitude I’d estimate that 20 or 25 persons might recall my story from a few months ago about Erratica, one of the Greek goddesses and, more to the point, my wondrous muse (clicking here will make the tale appear). Clearly, my readership’s growth curve has almost limitless room to expand. That’s a positive, isn’t it? Go get ’em, cowboy! Yeah, you can do it!

Oh, Erratica, Erratica. She has helped me immeasurably since I took up blogging last year. Nearly every week she has materialized in my home to guide me, to prod me into getting my thoughts in order. Without her this blog would be nothing. Come to think of it, though, it’s kind of nothing anyway. Aww, shit.

Erratica
Erratica

Yes, like clockwork for the most part, Erratica has appeared on Thursdays. Except during my vacations, that is. She and I have an agreement that she won’t pop in on me when my wife Sandy and I are away, as we were for part of last month. But after we returned home, Erratica missed her next scheduled appointment. I didn’t give that much thought, figuring she had gotten my vacation dates wrong. But I began to worry the following Thursday when again she was a no-show. What was going on? Had Erratica abandoned me? If she had, I was staring the end of my blogging career in the face.

This past Thursday evening, as usual, I sat in my suburban Philadelphia home’s library. Decked out in hot pink cargo pants and my favorite bright blue t-shirt emblazoned with Wazzup, Dawgie? in neon green letters, I dazzled. Worn out from worrying about Erratica, sleep began to overtake me.

“Oh, Neil. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you. It seems like weeks since last we met,” an unsteady voice said, quickly awakening me. Erratica was in the house.

“My goddess, where have you been? I’m overjoyed that you are here. The last two weeks without you turned me into a nervous wreck. Miraculously I was able to write articles, but it was a struggle.”

I stood up and looked Erratica in the eyes. Something was very wrong. A handful of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. I had never seen her like this. She needed a seat. I brought a chair from the dining room and placed it next to mine. She took it and opened up her heart.

“Neil, I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do. You know my dad? Zeus?” she half-sobbed.

“Well, I’ve never had the pleasure. But I know of him,” I said. “Is he ill or something?”

Ill?” she cried. “He’s fitter than a fiddle, that old guy. He’s indestructible! But something has come between us. He can’t tolerate the way I’ve been performing my job . . . my bad attendance record, my lack of patience with my charges, the sarcastic barbs that I throw at them. Neil, I’m supposed to help unpolished writers like you, and for millennia that’s exactly what I did. But I’ve been failing them of late, including you. So, my dad has done the unthinkable . . . he has put me on probation. ‘Daughter, you better get it together fast, or you’re out!’ he said to me this morning. Neil, you are the first pseudo-scribe I’ve visited since he uttered those words. I need your help!”

It took me more than a few moments to process what I had heard. Then I took a deep breath, not knowing what words would tumble from my mouth.

“Erratica, somehow you have it all wrong. You have been a lifesaver to me these past many months. Sure, you can be crabby and mean, but so what? The bottom line is that your kicks to my ass have been productive. Because of you I’ve turned out a load of stories. Without you, I’d spend my writing sessions with fingers frozen to my computer’s keyboard.”

“But I need to become more reliable and customer-friendly, Neil, like I used to be. Somehow I got worn down by all the griping and whining that you and your amateur tribe are famous for.”

“Erratica,” I said, gently placing a hand on her left shoulder. “The world, on a human level, is a tough place, filled with negatives that make griping and whining seem like pablum. And I think that all of those real problems have gotten to you, even though you’re not human. If I tell you about a few good things that have been going on, might that help?”

“It might,” Erratica said quietly. “It might.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes. As you know, Sandy and I went to Paris and Amsterdam last month. We had a superb time. They are such great places. We did a lot and were with a couple of our friends for most of the trip. It was primo fun. For instance . . . ”

She cut me off. “I’m familiar with the details. Believe it or not, I read your stories about the vacation. I’m one of the few who did.”

“And you liked them?” I asked, wary of the forthcoming answer.

“Uh, they were okay. You’re not exactly Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, though, are you?”

“Be nice, Erratica.” I said. “I’m your friend.”

“Forgive me, Neil. It won’t happen again,” she said. And for some reason I believed her.

IMG_0793 (2)“And very recently we went to the movies to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s delightful. Taika Waititi, who I never heard of before, wrote and directed it. The flick takes place in New Zealand. It’s about a 13 year old who has spent his whole life in the child welfare system being passed around from one foster care family to another. At the start of the movie he looks and acts like a sullen bag of trouble. Doesn’t talk to people, dresses like a gangsta-in-training, which he fancies himself to be. Then he gets placed with a back-to-nature couple living in bush country, and his world changes. His sweetness and innocence begin to emerge, don’t ask me why considering everything he’s been through. Probably he barely knew himself that they were there. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation. And he’s not the only person who changes for the better. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything else. Erratica, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. We all need a healthy dose of healthy emotions these days, and this movie will give that to you.”

The sofa that Erratica eyed.
The sofa that Erratica eyed.

Erratica’s face brightened. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks for the boost,” she said. “Sounds like a good movie. And sounds like you’ll be banging out a story about it for your blog.” She paused for a second. “Neil, I’ve been in a bad way for a long time now. But I’m going to try hard to get back on track. My father’s a no-nonsense sort and means what he says. If he kicks me off of Mount Helicon I’ll have nowhere to go.” She walked into my living room to take a peek. I followed her there. “Could I crash on this sofa if it comes to that?” she asked. “It looks comfy. Oh my, how the time flies. There’s a nitwit in Vermont who I have to visit now. For kicks he gets a colonoscopy every week and writes narratives about them for his blog. The blog’s called Checking Up On My Innards. And it’s actually pretty interesting, a lot better than you’d expect. Somehow he doesn’t run out of things to say. Neil, I’ll see you in a week.”

And in a poof she was gone.

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Monet The Great

Well, I’ve made it to this, the beginning of Part Two of my planned three-part examination of the trip that my wife Sandy and I took to Paris and Amsterdam last month. So far, so good. For those interested, the first installment may be read by clicking right here.

And now it’s time to move past Part Two’s beginning . . . uhhhhhh, we have a problem here, Houston. You mean I need to come up with something to say? Now? What’s that all about? I tell you, this writing business ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

(The author, frustrated and close to tears, is moments away from removing his fingers from his computer’s keyboard. Shortly he will be guzzling several shots of Jack Daniels. Straight.)

Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Macarons are in the middle of photo.
Where's the driver?
Where’s the driver?

OK, I’m back and feeling better. I’m not gonna throw in the towel just yet. A jolt of inspiration whacked me a few minutes ago, and it was more than helpful. “Dummy, what’s the one thing you did in Paris that you liked more than anything else? That’s what you should write about next,” the jolt said to me. Wow, that was an enlightening question and an on-target statement. I put down my shot glass and thought about some possibilities. Seeing that I like being part of the In Crowd, I had to admit that eating macarons, colorful and tasty meringue-filled cookies that are all the rage in Paris, was a nifty experience. So was sitting at the front of one of the driverless Metro trains as it sped down the tracks, wondering how the f**k anybody figured out how to make that concept work.

But neither of them was number one. Nope, number one took place in a museum. And were it not for a blog that I stumbled upon a month or so ago I wouldn’t have been there.

I became a blog surfer at some point last year. Meaning, I get a kick checking out, sort of randomly, the near-infinity of blogs in cyberspace. And what I’ve discovered is that there are an astonishing number of blogs that range in quality from good to superb. Who’d ever have thought that so many perceptive/talented/creative people exist? Hey, it gives me hope. Anyway, I don’t remember the name of the website that I just mentioned stumbling upon, but stumble upon it I did while researching my Paris-Amsterdam expedition. And one of its articles made an impression on me. In it, the writer mentioned once being in Paris and absolutely loving the large canvases of water lilies, painted by Claude Monet, that hang in Musée de l’Orangerie (The Orangerie Museum). I was familiar with various of Monet’s water lily paintings — he churned out more than 200 of them over the years while living at Giverny, a country village about 50 miles from Paris, getting his inspiration from the water lilies that floated in the large pond on his property. But I knew nothing about l’Orangerie or its contents till skimming that article.

And thus when Martine and Alan, our Parisian friends with whom we were staying, asked Sandy and me what we might like to do while in Paris, I said I didn’t have a lot of specifics in mind but maybe l’Orangerie wouldn’t be a bad idea if we happened to be in the area.

Good call, Neil. In fact, a perfect call.

IMG_0548IMG_1335You know, I feel fanboy-ish and unstudied in saying this, but the eight enormous water lily canvases at the Orangerie are among the greatest paintings I ever have seen. Complex, inspiring, bedazzling, calming, mind-expanding, yes they are all of that. And their powers play off one another. Which is why their cumulative force is off the charts, in a contemplative sort of way. Right, right, I’m getting carried away here, but what can I do? I’ll try to calm down.

Monet worked on these paintings for 12 or so years, nearly up to the time of his death, at age 86, in 1926. He donated them to France, wanting them to represent peace and tranquility to a world that needed macro doses of same, as it does today. And he negotiated with the French government for the canvases to be housed in special chambers. Two curved rooms with natural lighting, quiet and elegantly simple, would fit the bill he decided. And he felt that the Orangerie would be a fine spot in which to build those rooms, whose design and construction he oversaw. But he didn’t witness the installation of his giants, which took place the year after he left this world.

IMG_0560IMG_0559Earmarking eight monumental canvases (they are six and a half feet high and average 37 feet in width) for France’s citizens, to be displayed in custom-made quarters, was a grand gesture on Monet’s part, possibly the grandest of his life. When I walked into the two rooms that the works occupy, four per room, I felt as though I were in a sanctuary, a shrine. And I was. Sandy, Alan, Martine and I spent an hour there. These are paintings you can get lost in. I know that I did, and I think the others in my party did too. The canvases are dreamy, amorphous, color-rich yet for the most part muted. Water lilies are depicted on each canvas, but they are only part of the story. Other small vegetation appears. And wispy visions of willow trees float on the four paintings, done in somber shades of violet and purple, that are housed together in one of the rooms.  Still, more than anything the works are dominated by water, sky reflections and, depending on the canvas, bright or nuanced light. All of those components, material and ethereal, are in their glory in the Orangerie’s Monet spaces.

IMG_0547IMG_0550And the paintings verge on abstraction. These are a whole other ballgame from the gorgeous hillside and seaside scenes that Monet, a founder of Impressionism in the 1860s, once painted. Monet’s sense of color, and his feel, are totally recognizable on the large canvases, but the idea of place largely is gone. Purposely. I think that what he was trying harder than ever to do was to distill the natural world, to get to its essences. An incredible endeavor for someone who began the project in his very advanced years. Monet The Great, no doubt.

Not unusual for me, I was late to the party. Obviously. I mean, millions of people know about the Monets at the Orangerie Museum. And swoon over them. A few days ago, for example, my brother mentioned to me that they are his favorite works of art in all of Paris. Ah, what can I say?

Okay, I’ll say this: The Orangerie is brimming with tremendous art besides Monet’s. The many oils there by Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo, two guys you don’t ordinarily see too much by, knocked me out. But Monet is the museum’s heart. A couple of day’s ago, Sandy reminded me of something that popped out of Alan’s mouth after we left l’Orangerie. “I guess we got our Monet’s worth,” he sagely cracked. Truer words were never spoken.

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Fun Times In Paris And Amsterdam: An Overview

We went, we saw, we had a very swell time overall, and then we came home. The end.

There’s something to be said for conciseness, don’t you agree? And maybe if I were more courageous than I am I’d write not another word beyond the 18 contained in the two masterful sentences above. But my fingers, God help them, are itching to type, so I’ll bag that idea for now. In fact, I’m going to try and bite off more than I normally can handle, by turning my wife Sandy’s and my recent visit to Paris and Amsterdam into a three-part blogging extravaganza. I’ve noted before on these pages that I have trouble enough producing one-parters. Wish me luck.

Let’s begin. In many ways I’m a lucky individual. And I don’t take my good fortune for granted. Throughout my adult life, for instance, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In the earlier of those years I somehow wandered far and wide with not much more than a few bucks in my pockets. During the last three decades they have been more fully filled with cash (and plastic). Regardless of my financial situation, though, I’ve never ceased to be amazed that I’m able to leave the home environment and rev my motor in other parts of the world. And for my money you can’t do a whole lot better than to frolic in Paris and Amsterdam. Great cities both. Beautiful cities both. And Sandy’s and my week-and-a-half-long sojourn there earlier this month came with a special bonus. Namely, we spent most of the expedition with our très magnifique pals Alan and Martine.

The view from Martine and Alan's guest bedroom.
The view from Martine and Alan’s guest bedroom.

Martine and Alan live in Paris. Have a lovely home in the city’s heart. And they not only put up with us, they put us up. I guess they like us because, after four days of that, they hopped aboard an Amsterdam-bound train with Sandy and me. The four of us spent several days bopping around that canal-laced city until the scheduled time arrived for the Parisians to return home. Alan! Martine! Don’t abandon us! We’ll be lost without you! But Sandy and I showed ’em. Yeah, maybe we stumbled and fumbled a bit, but we sure as shootin’ had three more Amsterdam days heavily sprinkled with fun. Amsterdam, I miss you. A lot.

Now, Sandy and I had been to Paris before. We’d seen most of the must-sees and plenty of the less-noticed sights too, such as the building in which Vincent van Gogh crashed with his brother Theo for two years in the 1880s. This time around we decided to let things flow organically, whatever that means. And to try and spend lots of time just strolling around, taking in the views and vibes in as unpressured a manner as we could. Sure, we couldn’t resist going to a couple of museums (The Orangerie, The Marmottan Monet), and we had a sweet dinner in a quintessentially Parisian eatery (Le Petit Colbert), the type that natives frequent. But walking is what we did the most of. Miles and miles of it. All over central Paris, on both sides of the Seine. And beyond. The entire time, indoors and out, Martine and Alan accompanied us. They are expert tour guides and really, really good sports.

IMG_0523 IMG_0511 What can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said? Nothing much, pardner. But that won’t stop me. I mean, I’ve got blog stories to create. First, if you haven’t been and have the means, you should go. As everyone knows, Paris’ appeal isn’t simply its gorgeousness . . .  the city is intriguing too. Streets come together at odd angles, a wonderful idea. Many sidewalks are narrow, an example of quaintness of which I approve. And seemingly every block has alluring buildings you’d like to live in, bistros whose tables are just made for sipping espressos beside, and perfect, little shops loaded with foods better than you’re likely to find at home. The pastries, the breads, the cheeses. Did somebody say breads? I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I know of only one place within five miles of my house where I can buy a crusty, flavorful rustic loaf of bread. Yo, when’s the next flight back? I need to be around people who know how to bake the staff of life.

Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame Cathedral.

And there’s a soul-satisfying uniformity in scale and color to much of Paris that I’d forgotten about. Most of Gay Paree’s buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s and about seven levels high and made from beige-colored limestone. Talk about a charming and serenity-inducing look. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wallowed in its aura.

It would be a mistake for me to end my brief Parisian recap without mentioning the big guns for which the city is famed. For starters: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine, the unreally-huge Louvre Museum. To first-time visitors I’d say you’d do well to examine them thoroughly, though, to be honest, you easily could live without stepping foot within the Louvre.

A snap of the fingers later, Sandy and I and our friends found ourselves in Amsterdam. I’d been there about 30 years ago, though my pigeon-like brain has forgotten many details of the experience. Sandy never had been. I’ve got to tell you, this is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live. And the fact that there wouldn’t be a language problem is a plus, as Amsterdammers speak English in addition to their native tongue. I kept looking around and exclaiming to myself and to whomever else in the party was nearby: “I love this city.”

IMG_1401IMG_1463What’s not to love? Amsterdam looks great. Most of the houses, many of which overlook canals, are cozy and cute and entertainingly gabled. Generally they stand five levels above ground and are constructed of bricks. And they are not new, the majority having been erected between 1500 and 1900. I like being in places that look pretty much the same as they did hundred of years ago. And the canals? Man, they crisscross the city gently yet semi-riotously. And their prettiness can not be exaggerated. As in Paris, the four of us walked and walked and walked. Very happily. And when we got tired of walking we climbed aboard Amsterdam’s trams, which make navigating the city a breeze.

 

IMG_0670Amsterdam is relatively compact, meaning that you can make it to pretty much anywhere on foot, though some treks might take you an hour and a half. There aren’t a ton of cars on the streets, and that’s because Amsterdammers are bicycle-crazed. Practically everyone owns a bike and uses it to get around. I’d heard about the bicycle scenario, and it was a gas witnessing it. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, loads in operation, many more attached to bike racks, bridge railings, trees, you name it. You gotta watch out where you’re going or you might get smacked by a bike. One evening, Martine received a double dose of near-trouble. It’s easy to become distracted by the loveliness surrounding you in Amsterdam, and that’s what happened to her. Stepping off the sidewalk into the narrow street bordering a canal, she nearly got clipped by a car. Half a minute later, at the same spot, a bicyclist almost broadsided her. But I’m giving the wrong impression. Back to Amsterdam’s magnetic powers.

At the zoo.
At the zoo.

The Fearsome Foursome hit some of the famed sites together (Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum) and took a groovy canal boat tour of the city. And after Alan and Martine hightailed it back to Paris, Sandy and I poked around neighborhoods and other spots, such as the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and the Stedelijk Museum, an astonishingly good modern art repository. Then, before we knew it, the time approached for us to head to the airport and return home. But I can’t wind things up without mentioning two subjects: marijuana and prostitutes. Amsterdam is famed for both, as cannabis use and prostitution are legal, within boundaries, in this enlightened and welcoming city. And they undoubtedly help make for an atmosphere real attractive to millennials (residents and visitors alike), who fill Amsterdam’s streets in uncountable numbers.

Now, seeing the prostitutes was kind of cool. They have set up shop on a smallish enclave of blocks in what’s known as the Red Light District, which my group toured on a Sunday afternoon. Barely dressed, the ladies stood in full view behind ground level doors and windows in what I assume used to be normal residences. My eyes, and those of my companions, were popping. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to indulging.

A purveyor of marijuana.
A purveyor of marijuana.

But marijuana was another story. Me, I haven’t had a toke in about 30 years. And boy was I tempted to resume the habit temporarily. After dinner on the day we arrived, Alan and I strode into one of the town’s numerous marijuana parlors, all of which, for reasons I don’t know, are called, incongruously, coffee shops. Alan strictly was an observer. The place looked like a Greenwich Village beatnik hangout. Lights were low, tables were small and occupied, and the air was filled with second-hand marijuana smoke. Inhaling deeply, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. I walked to the counter and sized up what’s what. Gazing at a menu, I saw that various strains of grass were available. The least potent varieties were described as strong. The most powerful were guaranteed to get you incredibly high. Prices for one ounce ranged, I think, from 10 to 15 euros. Not too expensive at all. One of the two girls behind the counter suggested to me that getting stoned after years of abstinence would be a terrific idea. I looked at Alan and pondered the situation. I breathed in the second-hand smoke hungrily. My buzz got slightly stronger. In the end, though, nerd that I am, I chickened out.

To be continued, if the stars align themselves properly.

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(Most photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The crooked ones are by a nerd whom she knows. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

“If you want a good cup of coffee, stay home.”

Each morning I combine these three ground coffees.  I don't use an excess of water.  The result is a very good brew.
Each morning I combine these three ground coffees. I don’t use an excess of water. The result is a very good brew.

Returning home from a restaurant where my wife, as expected, had consumed a disappointing cup of coffee to end our dinner, I uttered those words to her for the first time, about eight years ago. Myself, I had eschewed restaurant coffee some years before, having learned that most restaurants serve a timid brew. My wife, though, remained the always hopeful coffee seeker, and still is. I added, not particularly facetiously, that the above quote would be an appropriate inscription, as good as any, on my tombstone. It would give viewers of my grave something to think about, probably along the lines of “Huh? What was that guy all about?”

Coffee is a constant in the lives of half the planet’s population. Mine included. But I became a coffee person only when I reached my early 30s. Growing up, my parents didn’t offer coffee to me, even as I entered my teens, and I didn’t naturally gravitate to the dark brew. It’s not that coffee was absent from our house; my father drank it fairly regularly. My mother stuck to tea. I liked coffee, though, on the one occasion I can recall having it during my youth. That was in 1965 or ’66 in a Brazilian food pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. I was 17 or 18 at the time. I must have felt adventurous ordering a cup there, and I recall thinking that it was delicious. Yet, that fine cup didn’t jumpstart my desire or need for coffee. The habit began years later, when I started ordering a morning java from a food truck that parked outside the office building where I worked, in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.

Fast forward a couple of decades. My wife and I are vacationing in Paris in 1995. Our small hotel serves a modest but pretty perfect breakfast. Good rolls, pastries and fruit, and coffee that stuns us with its vitality. We’d never had coffee like this before. We realized that the coffee we drank in the States, both in and outside our house, was a very poor cousin of this French version. The American coffee revolution, with Starbucks leading the charge, had begun by this time but was in its early stages, and my wife and I were unaware of it. But, soon after returning to the USA, we began brewing strong coffee at home. Since then, we like it no other way.

These days, needless to say, rich coffee is easily found in much of our country. Starbucks outlets are almost everywhere, and independent coffee cafes are aplenty too. But regular restaurants leave me shaking my head, and that’s why I uttered the words that might decorate my tombstone. For accuracy’s sake, though, what I really should have said was: “If you want a good cup of coffee, go to Starbucks or the like, or stay home and brew it yourself. Forget about ordering joe in restaurants.”

But why do so few restaurants, from diners to pricey joints, choose to serve up a robust cup? Why has the coffee revolution bypassed most of them? Wish I knew. Brewing flavorful coffee isn’t too hard. The problem, I’ve come to realize, is simply that not enough ground coffee is used in proportion to water. The result is a weakish drink, even with the finest of beans. Duh, indeed. Hey, restaurateurs — up the bean count!

Dislikers of strong coffee should pay no attention to what I’ve written.