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.)

Hippieish Notes From The Information Desk

Infamously lazy as I am, it’s a damn good thing that for eight hours a week — four hours each on Mondays and Tuesdays — I man my post at a medical office building a couple of miles from my house. If it weren’t for these assignments, long ago I’d have set a world record for hours spent on a living room sofa, and my bony ass would have bored even deeper into my sofa’s cushions than it already has. And it has bored deeply.

Anyway, the medical office building is across the street from a suburban Philadelphia hospital and is owned by an enormous health care organization of which the hospital is another component. I’m a volunteer in that organization. My job is to provide information to visitors (I’m the answer man for questions such as “What room do I go to for my colonoscopy?” and “Where’s the men’s room, pal?”) and to help out those who find themselves in one sort of pickle or another. The job takes me here and there within and outside the building, but most of the time I’m positioned behind a sturdy, unassuming black desk. The information desk.

The information desk

Tuesday the 24th of September was a busy morning for the guy standing behind that desk. Questions came at me left and right. More in-a-pickle people than usual appeared. But, despite that, there were a number of lulls in activity during my shift. Usually nothing to write home about goes on in my mind during lulls. But on the 24th, from absolutely out of nowhere, some words of note silently materialized: “I was more comfortable in the hippie era than in any other era,” I thought to myself.

Wow! The succinct, unexpected notion startled me. And immediately I recognized that it was true. I never was a full-fledged hippie, but during the hippie heyday (1965 to 1972, more or less) I felt at ease with hippie philosophies and lifestyles. And I still do.

Copyright Anna Vynohradova

A baby boomer, I came of age during the hippie era. I’m not mentioning anything you don’t already know when I say that war in Vietnam raged during those years. And that political and social turmoil gripped the USA and other parts of the globe. And that, maybe partly in reaction to those realities, an inquisitive, peaceful and kind mindset developed among many millions of youths worldwide.

Who could argue with hippie slogans such as “Make love not war” and “Flower power”? Not me. I didn’t drop acid, move to San Francisco (the hippie epicenter) or put flowers in my hair. But I did grow my hair long and smoked a lot of cannabis. And I felt nothing but admiration for and solidarity with those who were all about camaraderie, harmony with nature, and attempting to bring peace to the world. Still, I was too unsure of myself to take a full plunge. So, I stayed on the hippie movement’s periphery.

Yeah, those were the days. I miss them. And, later that Tuesday morning, I was reminded of them a number of times while standing behind the information desk. Now, a lot of visitors to the medical office building are friendly towards me, but on most of my shifts one or two are unusually friendly, acting as if seeing my drooping eyelids and wrinkled puss is the greatest thing that’s happened to them in ages. I’m amazed by this. I mean, without even trying did I develop a lofty form of personal magnetism in my over-the-hill years? It ain’t likely. Shit, only in my dreams might Emma Stone or Charlize Theron appear at my doorstep, looking me over with lust in her eyes.

On the Tuesday in question, though, not one or two, but six individuals walked past me with their friendliest instincts at the fore. “How are you, man?” one guy said to me, a big smile on his face. “Take care, brother,” said another, unquestionably meaning what he said. In all six instances it felt good to be greeted so warmly. Real good. This kind of thing happened fairly commonly among the population in the hippie era. That’s because hippies’ good will, thankfully, permeated the culture to a decent extent.

The hippie movement, of course, went way beyond friendliness. Concern for the environment and a pretty wide degree of open-mindedness are among its lasting effects. How cool would it be if a neo-hippie movement, a drug-free incarnation, were to germinate and flourish? And if its good vibes and progressive actions were to become major parts of the norms throughout the world? Man, it would be more than cool. It would be miraculous. Our troubled planet is waiting.

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

The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

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

This Is My 200th Story! Will It Be My Last?

Image by Karma Willow Designs

It’s amazing! They said it couldn’t be done! I’m going to throw a party to which you all will be invited. I’m going to hire a sky-writing plane to fly over Manhattan and cover the heavens with this announcement: Neil Scheinin, a grand slacker, somehow has written 200 stories for his blog. A miracle has occurred!

And after all of that I might just hang up my writing boots forever. Why? Because writing mentally exhausts me. I mean, after I finish a piece I’m so limp you’d have no trouble folding me up and squeezing me into a goldfish bowl. I’ve gone through this 200 times now. Maybe that’s enough.

And if it is enough, that wouldn’t be so bad. With writing no longer on the menu, I’d devote the extra time on my hands to my living room sofa, where I’m already spending an average of 10 hours a day. The sofa is where I do my best kind of work anyway, you know. By which I mean that I am a master at twirling the handful of hairs remaining on the crown of my head while stuffing my maw with boxfuls of Cheez-It crackers. I love my sofa. My gratitude for having the comfiest place in the world to rest my ancient ass is eternal.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Making the decision isn’t easy. Which is why I’ve recently sought guidance from three individuals. The first conversation took place a week ago. It was with my esteemed editor, Edgar Reewright.

“Neil, the exorbitant fees that you pay me for my services are crucial to my financial stability,” Edgar screamed over the phone after I laid out my thoughts. “Do you hear me? Crucial, I say. My stable of writers has been shrinking like a Greenland glacier. Without you on board I don’t know what I’d do! Oh, why was I born? Why was I born? I should have listened to my parents and majored in philosophy in college. If I had, then I’d know the answer to ‘why was I born?’ Shit, maybe it’s not too late. Where are those volumes of the collected works of Plato and Aristotle that I occasionally glanced at years ago? Ah, I remember. They’re under my dog’s mattress, firming it up. Spot! Spot! Get off your bed! Daddy needs to get something.”

“Later, Edgar,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

Edgar’s situation is no joke. Though not many people depend on me, he definitely does. Conversely, my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, is someone upon whom many people depend. Including me. The day after I spoke with Edgar I attended my bi-weekly session with Dr. Forereel.

“Doctor,” I said to her after seating myself in her patients’ chair, “I know that we normally discuss issues that have their roots in my misspent childhood, such as why in my 71 years of existence I’ve never once bonded with a cat. If I weren’t so sphinxlike, maybe by now we’d have uncovered an answer or two to that one. My bad! But today I need your opinions about my creative outlet. I’ve been writing steadily for almost four years, as you know. My next story will be my 200th, a true milestone. But I’m weary, doctor. Writing has taken its toll on me. I’m thinking of ending my career.”

Career?” Dr. Forereel immediately exclaimed. “What career? Neil, the essays and other pieces that you produce are trifles, no? And you receive how much in payment for them? Wait, let me guess. The answer begins with a z and ends with an o and has an e and an r in the middle. Am I right? Neil, what you do with words amounts to nothing more than a hobby, a way to pass the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s important to look at things realistically. I have no couch in my office for my patients, only a chair. But you, Neil, have a wonderful couch at home, as you’ve told me many times over the years. Take further advantage of that sofa. It’s one of your very best friends. Writing means little in comparison to the peace of mind that your sofa brings.”

At the end of the session I thanked the good doctor and then went to my car. Her advice echoed through my mind continuously during the drive back home.

Later that day I poured out my heart to my wife Sandy. Edgar Reewright had implored me to continue writing. Dr. Forereel had said, basically, “why bother?” What were Sandy’s feelings?

“Listen,” she began, “it’s entirely up to you. But I’ll say this: At least you’re not getting Cheez-It crumbs all over the couch when you’re at your writing desk. So that’s a good reason, in my opinion, for you to keep turning out your stories. However, there are how many projects around the house that you’ve never gotten to? Twenty? Thirty? Seems to me that starting a blog might be what you came up with to avoid doing what needs to be done around here.”

Valued readers, I’m in a quandary. I’m going to have to look deep within myself over the next several days. There’s plenty for me to ponder. Maybe I’ll be back on these pages. Maybe I won’t. Time, as always, will tell.

(Yo! Despite the uncertainties presented above, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Mucho gracias.)

Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

It’s not every day that a visit to a shopping mall inspires someone to write about eggplant parmigiana and good advice. This is one of those days. Off we go.

I can’t begin to explain how or why, for many years, I stopped eating eggplant parmigiana, somehow forgetting that it is one of my favorite dishes. I hadn’t overindulged on eggplant parm, thus getting tired of it. And I hadn’t turned away from Italian cooking in general. God forbid! No, sometimes life takes weird, head-scratch-inducing turns, and my losing awareness of eggplant parm’s existence was one of them. This southern Italian mélange of fried eggplant, tomato sauce and melted cheeses, which had gone down my gullet numerous dozens of times during the 1960s through 1990s, became a stranger to me in the current century. Until September 15 that is, about 10 weeks ago, when eggplant parm vivaciously reentered my life. Hallelujah!

That night my wife Sandy and I were at a good restaurant a few miles from our suburban Philadelphia home. Marco Polo is its name and Italian cooking is part of its game. We have thrown business Marco Polo’s way for around 25 years. Scanning the menu I was awakened from my eggplant parmigiana amnesia, for it was as if a Roman god or goddess slapped me upside my head and then trained my eyes on one and only one listing on the menu. My mouth began to water almost uncontrollably. I became a sputtering, emotional mess. “I must have it! I must! I shall!” I nearly screamed.

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

And so I had it. And, man, was it superb. The eggplant was moist and tender, the tomato sauce as sweet as a sunny springtime day, and the cheeses very fine and, importantly, not overwhelming in amount.

Since that joyous occasion I’ve eaten eggplant parmigiana six more times, most recently on Saturday past (November 24), when Sandy and I once again dined at Marco Polo. I’m hooked on the stuff! For the remainder of my earthly stay I plan to keep it that way, in moderation. I could do a lot worse.

Okay, then. That’s the eggplant parm part of this story. Now it’s time for some good advice, and also for a valiant attempt to connect those two themes.

Once in a blue moon I head to the wondrous, three-level, enclosed shopping mall near my home. Usually, like most people, I go there to shop. But two or three times I’ve gone to try and find something or other to write about for this publication (click here to read one example). On November 24, seven hours before dining at Marco Polo, the latter was my intention. There was a pretty good chance, I figured, that the visit might prove to be journalistically fruitful.

Maybe an essay about frenzied shoppers and kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap should have been the result of my time at the mall. But, you know, that just ain’t me. Instead, my attention was drawn to a sign in Macy’s department store, the first place I investigated within the mall. The sign, a store directory, said “Find Your Way” in big letters across its top. “Holy shit!” I thought to myself. “That’s powerful advice. It’s important for people to find their way, their true path in life. Fulfillment will result if they do.”

Whoa, what had come over me? I’m not the philosophical sort. I’m in the middle section of the deep-thinking pool, at best. And it wasn’t ganja that brought out that unlikely response from me, seeing that I haven’t smoked weed in 30 years.

Whatever the reason, I then went on a quest to locate other examples of good advice in the mall. And indeed I found some. “Believe In The Wonder Of Giving” commanded another Macy’s sign. “Love Your Mother” (meaning both your female parent and Mother Nature) proclaimed a tee shirt in Bloomingdale’s department store.  “It’s Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood” smiled down upon the customers at Build-A-Bear Workshop. And the finest advice of all came from a poster at Sephora. “Be Kind. Be Open. Be Gracious” it urged. Needless to say, the poster also should have said “Be Helpful.”

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

The final emporium in which I met words of wisdom was a Hallmark store. A small box, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table or shelf, contained a message that I paused over: “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” A pleasure-seeker to a sizeable degree, I could relate, because I took it to mean that we might as well boost our fun a lot while we can, seeing that the number of spins we make around the Sun are, shall we say, on the limited side.

But there’s a more expansive way to look at the message, as I decided the following day when it rose to the surface of my mind. There it joined with memories of my most recent Marco Polo meal and got me thinking. Eating eggplant parm is a fairly trivial endeavor, but it sure enough makes me happy. And when I’m happy, my frame of mind improves, increasing the volume of positive energy that I deliver to the world. In other words, increasing the frequency of my being kind, open, gracious and helpful to others. The uptick is on the minor side, no doubt. But considering the state of affairs on our planet, every little bit counts.

This isn’t just about me, me, me, though. If hundreds of millions of us followed the Hallmark store’s advice, the upticks might add up to something special. Hey, maybe the world would significantly change for the better. You never know. After all, those four adjectives  — kind, open, gracious, helpful — are where it’s at.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Many thanks.)

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Aaah, The Early Morning: Coffee, A Puzzle, And A Fine Song

Hello one and all. It is afternoon as I begin to write this story on the fourth day of October of 2018, the year that is rapidly disappearing in our collective rearview mirror. Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up! Get your eyes off of that mirror! Even though it ain’t a wonderful thing that our expiration dates are getting closer with each passing second, there’s no point dwelling on that. If it had been up to me, I’ll note nonetheless, the design and nature of the cosmic game we’re parts of would be a whole lot different, a whole lot more user-friendly, than they are. But, par for the course, I wasn’t consulted.

Still, despite my dissatisfaction with how the world and universe turn, there’s one time of day that I am almost always glad to greet: The first hour after I arise at 6:30 AM, when the potential troubles of the day normally haven’t yet reared their f*cking heads, and there’s nary a peep coming from within my house.

“What, do I disturb Your Majesty when I come downstairs in the morning?” my wife Sandy, who snuck up on me to take a look at the mighty words that I’m typing, just snarled at me.

“No, no, not at all. You are the sunshine of my life. You are the apple of my eye. You . . . ”

Oooh! Sandy has unloaded three big, fat kisses upon the crown of my head, one for each of its remaining strands of hair. See? It pays to be complimentary. And it pays to have three strands of hair. Now, there’s a couple of life lessons for ya!

Where was I? Oh yeah, the first hour after I jump, or should I say stagger, out of bed, leaving Sandy to her dreams.

This is my general routine: After visiting the bathroom I head into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of joe. The coffee always is waiting for me, for I fill our Mr. Coffee machine with ground coffee and H2O an hour before hitting the sack, and then set Mr. C’s timer to begin the brewing process at 6:25 AM. The coffee without fail tastes vibrant and strong, because I use a lot of ground coffee in proportion to water, and have discovered over time a number of java brands that really make the grade.

Being a guy who’s happy to provide public service, I’m now going to impart what might be useful information to some: Try combining two or three coffees to create your own personal blend. The flavors and intensities most likely will be very complimentary. If they’re not, then experiment till you find a blend that suits your taste. Me, I use three coffees, one of them decaf, in equal proportions. The current choices are Melitta’s Classic Decaf, Melitta’s Columbian Supreme and Lavazza’s Intenso. I tell you, just writing about my morning beverage is setting me all aquiver. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s jolt!

Okay, getting back to October 4: Filled cup in hand, I relocated to the living room sofa at 6:45 AM, as usual. And also as usual I opened my laptop and signed onto the BrainBashers website to bring up its selection of sudoku puzzles. Man, how did I live for so many years with no awareness of sudoku, a captivating numbers puzzle that I first attempted seven years ago? It didn’t take long for me to become an addict.

I felt content and subtly happy as I filled in numbers on a BrainBashers sudoku grid, giving my flabby brain its daily dose of exercise. And I became even happier when I flipped on my portable radio, something that I rarely do, silence-seeker that I ordinarily am at that time of morning. Lo and behold, at 6:59 a terrific, endearing song (Homesick) by The Marcus King Band burst forth from WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I think that Homesick helped speed my way through the puzzle’s nooks and crannies. At my discouragingly advanced age I need all the help I can get. Here’s Homesick:

So, the time has arrived for my second public service announcement: If ever you have the chance to see The Marcus King Band in concert, don’t toss it away. I plan to catch them when they pass through Philadelphia next month. They are tremendous, a young Southern rock/soul group whose leader (Marcus) plays electric guitar, well, electrifyingly. They knocked me out when I watched them on Conan O’Brien’s late night television show in August. And they knocked out Conan too, leaving him kind of gaga. These guys, I firmly predict, are going to become big. Here’s the band’s performance on Conan’s program:

I’ve now performed two good deeds in one day. Who knew that writing could be so fulfilling? Without a doubt I’ve earned myself a reward! And I know who will be delighted to bestow it upon me.

“Oh, Sandy! I think I discovered a fourth strand of hair. The crown of my head sure could use another kiss.”

“Oh yeah?” says Sandy from 60 feet away. “I’ve already blessed your scalp three times today. That’s my limit. I’m done.”

Shit! Life ain’t fair! I need a nap. Over and out, till next time.

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

Two New Movies That I Liked A Lot: “American Animals” And “RBG”

As I’ve mentioned a few times before on this publication’s pages, I go out pretty often to the movies. So far this year I’ve caught 20 of ’em. Maybe early in 2019 I’ll do a nice, big writeup on the flicks that passed before my eyes and ears during this, our current year. But for now I’m going to limit my focus and write briefly about only two. I saw both very recently and they agreed deliciously with my delicate system. Okay, away we go.

By the time you read this essay, American Animals may be gone from the theaters. If it remains in one near you, however, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and go to see it. Or do likewise in the comfort of your home whenever it materializes on Netflix or HBO or whatever. (But note the caveat several paragraphs below).

What we have here is an indie effort that struck me as near-perfect filmmaking. The movie is entertaining as hell. Its plot unravels tantalizingly. Its screenplay nails the way that people talk. The acting is excellent. And you’ll be sweating bullets when the going gets rough. Hey, you get the idea. I’m an American Animals fan!

American Animals tells the story of four college-age guys who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare and valuable books (including an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America) from the special collections department of Transylvania University’s library. Believe it or not, there really is a Transylvania University. That institution is located in Lexington, Kentucky. And believe it or not once again, the story that plays out in American Animals really did happen. Writer and director Bart Layton constructed the movie by cutting between reenactments of the crazy story lines, using professional actors, and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The latter offer fascinating commentaries on what was going through their minds at various points in the heist’s planning and execution.

It would be wrong, wrong, wrong for me to spill any more beans about American Animals. You’ll thank me, should you view the movie, for not being a spoiler kind of individual. And so I’ll end my discussion of Animals by noting that anyone who wilts and/or takes shelter from barrages of F-bombs should stay away. As for everyone else, I believe that this one’s for you.

Oh wait. There is another thing or two: I’d never heard of Bart Layton before, and knew but one member of Animal’s cast (Blake Jenner), but so what? The movie proved to me, as numerous others have, that the world is awash with very talented though hardly famous individuals. I’m totally down with that.

RBG, a hit documentary that entered a sizeable number of American cinemas in May, and is still in quite a few, was not on my to-be-seen list. I don’t know why, but I decided that I wasn’t all that interested in learning about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest (age 85) of the nine justices who comprise the USA’s Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the land. But my wife Sandy badly wanted to see it and, peerless spouse that I am, I capitulated. Off we went on a miserably hot day to watch the film in downtown Philadelphia.

I’m here to report that I was wrong. RBG (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) is really good. Justice Ginsburg has led a remarkable life, one devoted to her family, to the advancement of human rights and to the intricacies and necessity of the law.

This movie might not be up the alley of those who, like The Donald, are narrow-minded, mean-spirited and eager to restrict and oppress. But if you believe in respect and equality, then I imagine you’ll become an admirer of Ruth. Hell, you probably already are. Unbeknownst to me, without trying in the least she became a cultural icon and a judicial rock star over the last 10 or so years. This was quite an unexpected phenomenon, since Ginsburg is a quiet, unassuming sort. But millions of Americans have become captivated by her steadfastness, by her support of abortion rights and of gender rights. And by the slight twinkle in her eye and shy smile on her face that she often wears. She’s endearing. No other justice on the high court has a devoted fan base like hers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is smart as a whip. She graduated from law school in 1959 and began to make her name in the legal world in the 1970s, co-founding The Women’s Rights Project and ultimately arguing six gender-rights cases before the Supreme Court. Little did she know that she herself would become a member of that court in 1993, after Bill Clinton nominated her for the job.

Now, I’m anything but a jurisprudence expert, but I’m being more than decently accurate, I think, by describing Ginsburg’s philosophy on the high court as liberal but cautious, common-sensical and mindful of people’s needs. She has taken her job extremely seriously, as well she should, working enormous numbers of hours. And she has no plans to retire. As she says in the film, she won’t step down until she feels that she is unable to keep up her full-steam-ahead pace. She’s a source of hope and pride for many in these right-wing crazy, Trumpian times.

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A Better-Than-Usual Walk Around My Hood

It was hot as hell two Fridays ago, as in 90°F (32°C), a temperature that usually makes me want to stick to the comfort of my air-conditioned house. But come 2:30 PM I was getting restless. And so, grabbing a cap to shield my hair-challenged pate and a pair of sunglasses to make me look like a movie star, I unlocked the front door and stepped outside. Ordinarily I don’t particularly like walking around my neighborhood, part of a suburb a few miles from Philadelphia, because I’ve seen it a million times and because there’s nothing much here that’s going to knock your socks off. But what the hell  . . . I needed to stretch my legs.

And stretch them I did on that tail-end day of June. For an hour. Under a summer sun that was sending down heat rays as if there were no tomorrow. Luckily, it turned out that there was a tomorrow. If there hadn’t been, then I wouldn’t be at my writing station right now, pecking out this ultra-fascinating tale.

What with the heat, a lesser man might have decided quickly that he’d made the wrong decision, that he’d be better off back inside his cozy house where he could resume reading the collected works of I. C. Fairley-Farr, the all but forgotten British existentialist whose philosophy is best summed up by a simple phrase. To quote him: Life is for living, water is for drinking, and . . . shit, where’d I put my distance glasses?

Stumps I, II And III

But on that day I wasn’t a lesser man. Nope, for some reason the brutal ball of fire in the sky wasn’t bothering me. And for some reason, right from the get-go, I found myself enjoying the walk. Why, only half a block from my house I noticed something that on another day might not have registered at all — three neat and concise tree stumps on the lawn of a church. Transfer them to the grounds of an art museum, give them a title such as Stumps I, II And III, and they’d gain esteem as a fine piece of minimalist outdoor sculpture. See? There’s always an alternative way of looking at things.

And how about the township park and playground behind the church? There wasn’t a soul there, not even on the basketball courts. Yeah man, I had the neighborhood to myself!

Well, not really. Still, during the walk I came upon only 25 or so people, many of them unloading this or that from their cars, and not a one of them out for a walk. And I crossed paths with but one dog. I exchanged hellos with its master who, positioned on his home’s front path, was eyeing me with mouth slightly agape. It must have been my sunglasses. In them, I’m a ringer for George Clooney. Or so I’ve dreamt.

Suburban jungle

Block after block I wandered along, going downhill on some and uphill on others. My area is seriously hilly, almost San Francisco-worthy in places, and the upward climbs got me decently sweaty. One thing I realized was that I should have a much better working knowledge of the layout of my hood than I do, because I trekked upon a couple of streets whose names I didn’t even vaguely recognize. And I also realized something that I knew but hadn’t experienced in a healthy while. To wit, parts of my neighborhood are very, very heavy with trees and other foliage. Those blocks are a suburban jungle, a dreamscape in shades of green.

Tiger Lillies

On the other hand, most of my hood’s blocks, though cute in a comforting way, are kind of vanilla in appearance, including the street on which my house sits. But I found myself getting into the vanilla, grooving on those blocks’ occasional good-looking flower beds and other decorative touches that homeowners here and there have added to increase their residences’ wow factor. When I passed one abode with a fine grouping of Tiger Lillies, naturally I stopped to admire them. And to take their picture. I couldn’t have done otherwise, seeing that the house in which I grew up, forever ago on Long Island (near New York City), was blessed with large patches of Tiger Lillies. My heart since then has maintained a very soft spot for that variety of flora.

And the walk turned out to be a learning experience too. Only two blocks from my house are extremely tall metal towers. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 13 years, yet I’ve never known what the heck those towers do, if anything. For all I knew, they might have been decommissioned years ago after serving one purpose or another.

As it turns out, they are important pieces of equipment. They transmit messages to and among personnel of police departments, fire departments and 911 emergency systems. I know that now because, early in my walk, there was a worker at the towers as I approached them. I stopped to ask him what the towers’ functions are, and he told me. Yes, opportunity had presented itself, and I took advantage of it. Too bad I haven’t applied that principal consistently over the course of my life. Oh well.

As far as I can recall, this walk was the longest, time-wise, that I’ve ever taken in my neighborhood. I don’t expect my next venture into the hood, whenever that may occur, to resonate with me as satisfyingly as this one did. But that’s okay. I returned home mentally refreshed, feeling pretty chipper and somewhat seeing the brighter side of life. Not every walk is a keeper, but this one was.

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There’s No Getting Around It: Old Is Old

Holy crap, or more to the point, holy shit, I’m getting old. Old, as in old. I mean, how is this possible? I used to think that the rules didn’t apply to me. I don’t like this game!

Not until my most recent birthday, though, did I ever feel the least bit depressed about the advancing years. But when I spun the dial six months ago and it landed on the big 7-0, I gulped. Then I gulped again. Then I said to myself, “Neil, you’ve been around a looong time. In your head you might feel no different than you did when you were 45. But times have changed. The wrinkles on your face are multiplying faster than amoebae. Not to mention that your ass is starting to look as grainy as a minute steak. And the hairs on your head? Cowboy, there are fewer of those than there are fingers on your hands.”

“Man, the days when the occasional girl would give you the eye are gone, gone, gone,” I continued. “At this point, if a girl ever looks you over it’s gonna be because she has a case of myopia so severe she would mistake a McDonald’s sign for a rainbow. Neil, your glory days, as sadly placid as they were, are so far in the rear view mirror they in effect predate the Old Testament. You’re in the home stretch, fella, even if that stretch lasts another 25 years.”

Seconds after that cheery monologue ended I was on the verge of emitting a multitude of tears. Fortunately, I remembered that crying isn’t manly, so I merely wept very gingerly and very quietly. When the drippage came to its conclusion I shrunk off to a corner and stayed there until, my bladder near-exploding, I had to answer nature’s call. I haven’t returned to that corner since then, though I’ve been tempted to do so.

Fast cut to the present day. Gentle readers, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen the light. Moonlight, specifically, because on the evening of March 31 my phone rang. My childhood pal Mike was on the line. (We grew up in a town outside of New York City, and now reside 20 miles apart in suburban Philadelphia. Yeah, we’re stalking one another).

Mike, an astronomy buff of sorts, was calling to inform me that a Blue Moon was making its appearance, that it was the second Blue Moon of the year (the first having been in January), and that I should go out and look at it because a Blue Moon in each of two months within the same calendar year wouldn’t happen again until 2037. That’s a lot of info, especially for someone whose brain is as old as mine. I barely knew what he was talking about, but I did what Mike suggested.

The Moon was a beautiful sight. Of course, it wasn’t blue at all, Blue Moon being a phenomenon that refers not to hue. Instead it denotes the second full moon that occurs within a given month (a somewhat rare event, though not freakishly so). “Hey, if you’ve seen one full moon, you’ve seen ’em all,” I hear you saying? Uh-uh, not if you’re someone like me who 90% of the time forgets to look up when he’s out at night.

From my front lawn on March 31 I gazed hard and fairly long at the rock in the sky. It was not far above the horizon and it was huge and bright. I asked it to smile and say cheese before I took its picture, to no avail. “I don’t smile,” it said to me. “That’s not the way I roll.” I couldn’t argue with that, of course, and proceeded to document the moment. My phone’s camera doesn’t capture nighttime images too sharply, but I’m shoving that moon photo into this article nonetheless. I kind of like it despite its graininess. It reminds me of my aforementioned ass.

What does admiring the Moon have to do with feeling less than chipper about entering the stratosphere, age-wise? Well, a lot, actually. Yeah, I’ve traveled plenty farther down life’s highway than I wish was the case, but there probably are — what? — three billion members of humanity who feel the same way. All that any of us can do is keep on keepin’ on, with our heads held high and our hearts and five senses open to greet the good people and good stuff around us. No point getting too down about the nature of the cosmic set-up. We come and we go, just like everything else, even stars so large they make our Sun appear puny. I don’t particularly like that set-up, but what can you say?  It is what it is, as the truest of truisms goes.

I’m not the sort who ever will attain a relentlessly positive attitude about life. Never have been. But I get a charge out of more than a few things on a pretty regular basis. Not long after the day of my 70th I stuck the Unhappy Birthday card that I’d delivered to myself into my back pocket. I’ve been doing what I can to keep it there, out of sight and mind. As I’m typing this essay right now, picking up from where I left off the night before, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out a window at a gloriously foggy morning. I’m going to step outside for a few minutes to admire the fog. And I’ll take its picture. Onward we go.

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The Final Curtain . . . Oy Vey

finalcurtain-hqdefaultMortality, one of the less-than-fun subjects to ponder, has been on my mind a tad more than usual of late, and I’ve been dealing with it like the well-adjusted adult that I fantasize being. I know why my gaze has moved slightly in that direction, and I’ll get to that shortly. Luckily, though, I normally don’t give the topic a whole lot of thought, which I suspect is the case for nearly all of us. Most days I subconsciously shrug my shoulders in the face of the inevitable and continue performing my clumsy dance through life. There’s nothing we can do about the final curtain, so why sweat it? It’s out there. We know that. And one of these days it’s going to drop . . . Hey, wait a minute. That’s really true, isn’t it? One of these days it is going to drop. On little ol’ me. Me, who never hurt more than a few thousand flies in his life. Me, who makes it a point to help the elderly cross the street whether they want my assistance or not. It’s not fair, I tell you! It’s not fair! Holy crap, I’m bumming myself out. I need to walk away from my computer’s keyboard and try to calm down before I resume work on this depressing essay. A beer, that’ll help. Let’s make it a six pack. Better yet, a full case. I’ll be back at some point, unless that f**king curtain falls sooner than I expect it to.

(Three days later). As promised, I’ve returned. And I’m in fighting shape once again. It’s time to continue. I recall a conversation I had six or seven years ago with a childhood friend. I was in my early 60s at the time and recently had celebrated a birthday. “You know, I’m not getting any younger,” or something similarly clichéd I said to her. “Neil, you’re not old. To me you’re youthful,” she more or less said to me. What? Was she kidding? All I could think of was an indisputable fact: Even if I were to live for another 30 years, I was a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. And today, as I barrel down the track towards age 70, which is a mere 10 months away, that’s far truer than it was then. Oy vey, what’s a poor boy to do?

Aging. Closing in on the finish line. They are mystifying phenomena. And when you’re truly getting up there in years they can be hard to wrap your head around. My mother, for example, couldn’t believe it when she turned 70. She laughed and laughed when talking to me about the dubious milestone she had reached. 70? Hah! She probably thought of herself as being 45 or 50, and those numbers pretty well reflect the way I think about myself today. But time marches on unconcernedly, despite what’s going on in our imaginations. My mom, a wonderful person whose health problems were considerable and heartbreaking, is long gone. The grains of sand in her hourglass’s upper section emptied pretty quickly after her 70th spin around the Sun.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike

And now it’s time to mention the reason I’m writing this story, which for sure is not of the fluffy and puffy sorts that I usually populate cyberspace with. Yes, philosophy fans, once in a blue moon I cautiously reach into my mental library of deep thoughts and pull out a couple. Problem is, my supply is incredibly limited, so I have to ration them carefully. Right, I still haven’t mentioned the reason. Well, Sharon Jones is the reason. Sharon Jones, the gritty and splendid soul/funk singer. Sharon Jones, who didn’t find musical success until firmly in her middle age and probably was all the more appreciative of it for that. Sharon Jones, who a couple of weeks ago joined the long list of notable musicians (Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, et al.) whose tenures on Planet Earth ceased in 2016. She made it to only age 60.

When I heard about Sharon’s death I felt sad. Quite sad. And not because I was a devout fan of hers. I wasn’t, though probably I should have been, as she was really, really good. Instead, her passing brought me up short because of something that I suspected to be very true. Namely, that undoubtedly she was a lovely person, someone whom I’d have been lucky to know and be pals with. I came away with those observations five years ago when my wife Sandy and I went with a group of friends to see Sharon perform in Philadelphia. As always, she was with The Dap-Kings, a horn-heavy, swaggering band she’d hooked up with in 2002, and found acclaim with over the succeeding years.

Sharon and The Dap-Kings’ performance was part of a weeks-long arts celebration that Philadelphia put on in the spring of 2011. On April 30 of that year she and her bandmates climbed the outdoor stage set up in the heart of town. They were the final act of that day’s street fair. The stage sat in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, and all around it were oceans of human bodies. I don’t know how, but Sandy and I and our friends found a few feet of open space pretty close to stage right. I was pumped. I knew that Sharon and company would be good, but had no idea they’d be fantastically good. And Sharon led the way. For an hour and a half or so she absolutely commanded the stage, shimmying and strutting and testifying and propelling songs to the skies with her powerful vocal cords. My God, she and The Dap-Kings rocked the city to its knees.

I was entranced. Not only that, I could tell that Sharon Jones was beyond ordinary in more than musical ways. That became obvious when she invited a group of little kids, who had been dancing their hearts out a few feet in front of her, to join her onstage. Sharon went wild with them, and the crowd roared. And they also roared, during the group’s signature song (100 Days, 100 Nights), when, with a “Come on, baby,” she motioned to a young man in the audience, Thomas, to climb up and party madly with her. She and Thomas made an exuberant couple. Here is the video of Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings and Thomas:

What can I say? Beautiful people, those who are open and joyful, behave as Sharon did that afternoon. By that I mean that Sharon was a beautiful person. Which is why many in this world will miss her. It’s a sorrowful day when a bright light goes out.

 

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