Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

Hey, you in the back row! I see you rolling your eyes! I know what you’re thinking: “What’s wrong with this guy? Enough already about New Mexico. It’s time to move on, fella! Give us an article about your lifelong quest for the perfect jockstrap, or about your failed attempts to launch yourself to the Moon by using a mile-long rubber band. Anything except New Mexico, Part Three!”

Well, cowpoke, you’re plum out of luck. The conservation-minded Boy Scouts organization, in the early 1960s, taught me to waste not. And so I’m plowing ahead, about to squeeze New Mexico like a boa constrictor until a few ideas pop into my head. Take some deep breaths, Neil, and squeeze! Squeeze!

Oh man, it’s working. Something’s happening! I don’t know where this is going to lead but we might as well find out. Part Three, here I come!

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Okay then. As I indicated in Part Two, the grandeur of wondrous landscapes and seascapes is hard to appreciate fully, at least for me, when legions of your closest total strangers are practically breathing down your neck. That was the situation at Frijoles Canyon last month when I visited its gloriously pockmarked cliffs with my wife Sandy and brother Richie. Part of Bandelier National Monument, Frijoles for centuries was home to many indigenous peoples, who now are referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo. Due to a variety of circumstances they left Frijoles Canyon around 400 years ago, moving to other locales.

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Sure, I thought the cliffs were magnificent. Heavy erosion over almost countless millennia has turned them into rutted works of glory. But their beauty never fully sank in because I kept getting distracted by people sharing the trail with me. “Get a move on, asshole. You’re holding up progress,” I could swear one of them had to restrain himself from saying to me.

And things became really crowded near and at Frijoles Canyon’s most famous site, Alcove House. It’s a large opening in a cliff wall, 140 feet above ground. According to the literature I read, about 25 Ancestral Pueblo used to live in the cave at any one time. Others lived in smaller elevated holes in the cliffs, though the vast majority of Ancestral Pueblo occupied tidy housing built at ground level, Frijoles Canyon and nearby lands having been home to several settlements.

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

Bandelier National Monument’s personnel have made it possible to climb up to Alcove House. They’ve done this by bolting four wooden ladders into the cliff wall. Rock steps separate one ladder from the next. Climb a ladder, climb some rock steps, repeat, repeat, repeat. Voila! You now are inside the alcove, looking out at, and down upon, the various landscapes.

The views from up there were great. And I got a kick from the ascent that had brought me to the aerie, and later from the descent. But not as much as I should have, because both directions involved a lot of waiting — there were at least 20 people in front of me. What the f*ck was this? Disneyland?

A paucity of people: That’s one reason why I liked Plaza Blanca, my focus in Part Two, a whole lot better than Bandelier. There are times in life when I just don’t want to be around many members of our species. They can spoil the picture.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

And speaking of pictures, I’ve studded this story with some photographs that please my eye. Shots of the Frijoles Canyon cliffs, as you’ve seen. And one of a home in Santa Fe so intriguingly constructed that its exterior seems to be on the verge of turning to gel. The house is one of several in that same pliant condition that I noticed during my walks around New Mexico’s capitol city.

I couldn’t resist adding the photograph of a bright yellow newspaper box in Santa Fe. It was the first of about 180 pictures that I snapped during the eight days spent in New Mexico. Nor could I resist the allure of a snazzy blue newspaper box in the town of Taos. Sandy, Richie, my sister-in-law Sara and your humble reporter visited Taos during a day trip from Santa Fe, where Richie and Sara live. Hell, newspapers have been having a hard time of it for the last 25 years. The day may come when newspaper boxes will be found only in antique stores.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

As for the remaining photos, something about their colors or off-kilter arrangements or juxtaposition of objects convinced me to immortalize them in cyberspace. They’ll thank me some day. They better.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gentle (or not) readers, I am going to conclude my New Mexico trilogy with these notes: I did virtually no research in advance of or during this trip. I’ve become a lazier and lazier son of a bitch as the years have elapsed, so my dearth of research wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, I believe that the trip was a smashing success. Sandy concurs with that judgment. I thought, correctly, that Richie and Sara would have a fine stash of ideas as to how we all might spend our time together. And everybody left plenty of room for wandering, whimsy and improvisation.

Chimayo, New Mexico

I’m not suggesting that anybody reading this story should skip doing research for their future journeys. You’ll need to do plenty of it, unless your tour guides are as good as Richie and Sara. But I am saying that there’s a lot to be said for frequently allowing gentle breezes to carry you here and there.

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Plaza Blanca Knocked Our Socks Off: New Mexico, Part Two

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about what I should include in the second installment about my recent adventures in sun-drenched New Mexico. Climbing up ladders attached to the sides of cliffs in Frijoles Canyon (part of Bandelier National Monument) — to reach niches within which indigenous peoples lived centuries ago — seemed a natural, as did viewing the deep and dangerous Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos village. But you know what? No more will I now say about those experiences, as excellent as they were, because wafts of inspiration caressed my face a little while ago. And, as I’ve learned over the last few years, one shouldn’t argue with inspiration. This story, therefore, shall be about Plaza Blanca.

Plaza Blanca

May 29, the last full day of my wife Sandy’s and my visit to New Mexico, found the two of us inside a Honda Accord being driven by my brother Richard. We were on our way from Santa Fe, where Richie lives with his wife Sara, to Abiquiu, an area famously known as the one-time home of the late, great painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Richie had printed out some information about the sights in the Abiquiu region and, 10 minutes into the journey, asked me to take a look. Scanning the pages I noticed a paragraph about Plaza Blanca (The White Place), described as unusually beautiful. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said. Nobody objected.

Luckily I found a website that provides precise driving directions to Plaza Blanca, because it’s not the easiest locale in the world to find. The final leg of the motorized segment of the journey was upon a dirt road. Expecting numerous ruts and holes, we were relieved to see almost none. Richie parked the car in Plaza Blanca’s small parking section. Then the three of us got out and looked around. From first glance we knew that we were in a special place.

We spent an hour hiking through Plaza Blanca, a masterful collection of rock formations not far from forested mountains. The sun was high in the sky, clouds were few, and the views, to employ a cliché, were awe-inspiring. I’ve gone limp now and then over the years from the beauty of what was in front of my eyes, but that hadn’t happened in a good long while. And, now that I think about it, I hadn’t been as stunned by a natural landscape or seascape since 1982. That was the year of my trek through the high Himalayas in Nepal, the one truly astonishing adventure of my life.

And I wasn’t the only one to gaze in wonder at Plaza Blanca’s cliffs and columns, or at its other wildly surreal sculptures. Sandy and Richie were as spellbound as me. We were in a stark fairyland where strange, beguiling shapes reigned supreme. The formations sat stoically, yet pleased with themselves. They knew that they are remarkable creations. I caught Richie staring unbelievingly at one vista, imperceptibly shaking his head and not quite knowing what to say except for the obvious: “This is incredible” were his words.


As for Sandy, she agreed when I suggested that Plaza Blanca likely was the most beautiful and fantastic landscape she’d ever set foot in. A compact expanse of desert, Plaza Blanca is where one might go to let the problems circulating within one’s head fade away for a bit of time. It’s where you likely will be able to engage undisturbedly with the powers of nature, since Plaza Blanca is off the beaten track compared to many other spectacular sites. Only two other souls crossed our paths as we made our way around. That was two too many, but it was far better than the hundreds you’d encounter at the Grand Canyon or at Yosemite.

A geologist I’m not, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, Plaza Blanca is the result of volcanic activity that took place roughly 20,000,000 million years ago, and of the subsequent effects of heavy erosion. Its cliffs and other structures are composed of varieties of sandstone and of other types of rocks. The place was drier than the driest bone the day that my trio was there. But I’ve read that flash floods sometimes develop during heavy rains, racing mightily between the giant pieces and with the potential to sweep incautious visitors away.

Georgie O’Keeffe, From The White Place. Image copyright: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe was smitten with Plaza Blanca (as she was with much of New Mexico). She wandered around and painted in The White Place many times. Her desert homestead was about 15 miles away. I wouldn’t mind owning one of her renderings, From The White Place, pictured above, which she painted in 1940. It would look smashing on a wall beside my living room sofa. I doubt if the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where the painting is housed, plans to put it up for auction anytime soon. If they do, however, I’m ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $20,000,000 or more that will be required to make it mine.

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

As I mentioned in my previous essay, staying very hydrated in New Mexico is the thing to do. The Sun there can be brutal. I’d been downing water conscientiously before arriving at Plaza Blanca and continued to do so during my hike on site, but there was no point in taking any unnecessary risks. My companions must have felt the same way. Without discussion we took our last looks at Plaza Blanca, immersing ourselves in its glory. And then we made our way out from between the art works and headed back to the car.

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(All photos are by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin, with three exceptions: Richard Scheinin took the photo of Sandy and me. I took the photo of Rio Grande Gorge and the one of Sandy and Richie.)

Santa Fe Pleased Us Just Fine

My wife Sandy and I had been itching for a good while to stretch our traveling legs, to go somewhere we’d never been that’s far from our suburban Philadelphia environs. But where? “How about here? How about there?” we pondered.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Well, in the end we left here and there for another day, as the answer was right at hand. My brother (Richard) and sister-in-law (Sara) moved to New Mexico several months ago, after occupying space in California for 30 years. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol, was their new home. Sandy and I wanted to see them and also were more than happy with the idea of poking around Santa Fe and other parts of NM, a state full of deserts, soft-colored hills, mountains and mind-boggling rock formations. New Mexico it would be.

Ergo, late last month we spent eight days in the Land Of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called by some, unpacking our bags chez Richie and Sara and doing our best to be good houseguests. I think we succeeded in the latter, but, as with much of life, who really knows? Anyway, we passed mucho hours wandering around Santa Fe with them, occasionally without them, taking in a good deal of sights and the general swing of things. I’ll leave New Mexico’s natural landscapes, which we also visited, for a future story or two. My typing fingers are all set to concentrate solely on Santa Fe right now. Away we go.

Turns out that Santa Fe, a sweet place whose buildings primarily are adobe-style and low to the ground, is high as hell. By which I mean that this city of 80,000 humans lies in the high desert, 7,200 feet above sea level. That’s up there. The air is dry and fairly thin and, when a drought is on, as is currently the case, the sun is unrelenting. Drinking lots of water throughout the day, therefore, is pretty much a must even if you’re the indoors type, unless you enjoy the effects of dehydration. As is slathering on lots of sunscreen and donning a hat if you plan to spend more than 20 minutes outdoors.

I took to Santa Fe from the get-go. I liked its look, an amalgam of the influences of indigenous peoples and of the Spanish, who conquered and colonized enormous chunks of the Americas starting in the 1500s. Adobe, adobe everywhere. The earth colors made for a soothing experience. As did Santa Fe’s overall quietness, the lack of a mad rush of residents and tourists. Motor traffic gets fairly rough on certain avenues at certain times of day, but for the most part cars and trucks don’t interfere with the easy-going feel of the city’s central sections.

At right, Richie and Zella

A number of my walks through town were in the company of two individuals: my brother and Zella, who is Richie and Sara’s large dog. Zella is a Bouvier, a breed I’d never heard of till making Zella’s acquaintance several years ago in California. Zella doesn’t use sunscreen or wear a hat in Santa Fe, though I urged her to. She took offense at my suggestion, indicating that she doesn’t look good in hats and, in no uncertain terms, that I should go f*ck myself. Naughty doggie. However, Zella does imbibe a sensible amount of H2O throughout the day. Smart doggie.

Zella received a good deal of attention from pedestrians during these walks, far more than I did. And she was made right at home at a shop we passed one morning, a dog-loving establishment that has a Dog Bar, just outside its front door, where water and treats are at the ready.

One afternoon, Sandy, Richie and I were plopped on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, a park in the center of downtown. Zella wasn’t with us. We were eating chicken fajitas that we bought from a food stand at the park’s southeast corner and were watching the world go by. You never know what you might see in parks, which is part of the fun of hanging out in them. That afternoon a bubble-blower, probably a Plaza regular, showed up. With a net-like bubble-making device he filled the air with soap bubbles, some of them really big. The fajitas were tasty, the soap bubbles were captivating. Sandy and I agreed that we were feeling fine.

Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, crafts galleries, museums . . . Santa Fe has them in quantities far beyond what you’d expect in a small city. It’s one of the major art centers in the USA, which was fine with me, as I’ve been popping into galleries and museums for nearly all of my life.

Left to right: Sandy, Sara, Richie

Appropriately enough, Sara and Richie took us to Museum Hill, a part of town that, also appropriately enough, is home to several museums, including the Museum Of International Folk Art. Our group of four headed to the Hill one afternoon for lunch at a café. We then entered MOIFA, an astonishing place. Sara had been there before and decided to go back to the café to read a book. Richie wasn’t a first-timer either, but he was in the mood to see the collection again.

Mexican musicians

And what a collection! I spent time mainly in the Girard wing, which houses folk art from all over the globe that one couple (Susan and Alexander Girard) accumulated during the mid-1900s. They donated their collection to the museum in 1978.

Mexican village

The Girard wing contains dozens of exhibits that are recreations of village scenes and of everyday life, all populated with miniature renditions of people, houses and appropriate accoutrements. The two exhibits that rang my gong the most were Mexican-themed, one of a village in all its colorful glory, the other of musicians having the times of their lives in a crowded three-level performance area.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Trees In Autumn 1920/1921, oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation

You can’t go wrong in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum either. It’s one of the many museums in Santa Fe that are not part of the Museum Hill complex. I’m a fan of O’Keeffe’s paintings and had a tip-top time looking them over. On her canvases, O’Keeffe captured the essence of the landscapes and objects before her — be they mountain scenes, vast deserts, or flowers only inches away — with bold shapes and intense colors.

O’Keeffe lived in New Mexico for part or all of every year starting around 1930 until her death in 1986. For much of that period she made her home on a property in the desert about 60 miles from Santa Fe. She attained huge fame in her lifetime, and her reputation since then hasn’t waned. Deservedly.

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery store

Nor can you go wrong in Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, one of the many shops that I entered. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an indoor space of any kind whose every item struck me as beautiful. But that’s what happened at Fisher, which carries Native American ceramics both old and new. Magnificent stuff, beautifully proportioned, colored and decorated, in styles that date back numerous centuries. I should have made a purchase. Man, I can be dumb as shit.


Okay, I can’t leave without talking a little more about food. Sara is an excellent cook. She and my brother fed us deliciously. And on a couple of nights the four of us ventured out for dinner, hitting the jackpot on one of those excursions when we had terrific pizzas at Pranzo Italian Grill. Sandy’s and my Margherita pie, with added olives, is pictured above in the forefront. Its extremely thin and charred crust was a model for how pizza crusts should taste and look.

Good trips are good for the soul. Sandy and I had a very good trip, spending quality time with family, gathering new experiences, seeing sights worth seeing and dining well. We’re fortunate folks.

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The Stairs And I: An Exercise Story

Yo, reading fans, listen up! It’s shout-out time, because if it weren’t for Janet Sheridan, the hunk of wordage that you’re staring at right now wouldn’t exist. If you end up not enjoying this story, then blame Janet, not me!

Now, Janet is the talent behind an excellent website to which she has given the name Aunt Beulah. You’ll have to go over to Janet’s place (clicking here will direct you to it) to find out why she titled it as she did. Janet is a witty and agile writer. Her essays about her life are well worth your time.

In a piece that she published on April 15, Janet talks about her experiences over the years with exercising. I added a comment to her article in which I indicated that I don’t particularly love to engage in regimented exercise, but that for a long time I’ve consistently performed one form of same. Lucky for me that I read Janet’s essay. If I hadn’t, nor posted a comment, then I wouldn’t have been sparked to write an opus of my own on the subject.

Zipley parking garage

Here’s what I said in the comments section of Janet’s essay: “I’m not as devoted to exercise as you. But I’ve been doing the following for years: Three or four times a week I climb (without stopping) the 130 steps in a parking garage near my home. Doesn’t take too long, which I like (because I’m lazy!).”

Damn right I’m lazy. And I’ve gotten to the age (70) where, in my biased opinion, there’s no shame in being that way. Hell, after decades of mowing the lawn, raking leaves, vacuuming rooms, shoveling snow, etc., etc. — all of which I continue to do, extremely reluctantly  — about the only things I actually want to break a sweat over anymore are chowing down Cheez-It crackers late at night while sitting on my sofa as I twiddle the few strands of hair remaining on the crown of my head, and devouring slices of pizza at lunchtime at pizzerias.

Excuse me while I catch my breath . . . that was a long sentence.

Oh yeah, and walking. I like to go out for walks, as regular readers of this publication are aware. If it weren’t for the walks I take and write about, this here blog would be only half the size that it is. But I don’t think of walking as exercise. That’s because it gives me love, not pain. Not only that, walking doesn’t raise my heart rate to the level at which I wonder if I’m going to expire within the next few seconds, which is something that true exercise, I think, is supposed to do. Expire? Me? Shit, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

I now shall devote some paragraphs to stair-climbing. But before I do I’m going to head out the door to the parking garage I mentioned. I’ll climb the stairs there and also snap some dazzling photos that I’ll place in this story. Is there anything better than looking at pictures of a parking garage and of its stairwell? Talk about excitement! I’ll be back at my keyboard fairly soon, hoping to complete this noteworthy essay in two or three more writing sessions. Till then, peace, sisters and brothers.

As promised, I’m back. Not only did I climb the stairs and push the button quite a few times on my iPhone’s camera, I subsequently went to a local pizzeria for a couple of slices. So I’m now typing away on a full, satisfied stomach.

Near the bottom of stairwell

Turns out I was in error when I said to Janet that the parking garage I frequent contains 130 stairs. On my jaunt up its stairwell an hour and a half ago (that is, at 12:30 PM on April 18), I paid strict attention to the number of stairs. There are 135 of them, and they are spread out over 15 half-flights. It was an uneventful climb. For some reason I was out of breath merely a bit by the time I reached the top. Usually I’m panting like a lost soul desperate for water in the Sahara and wondering if I’m going to expire. And, as always, I was glad that my workout was quickly accomplished, this time in around a minute and a half. Not only am I lazy, but exercise bores me. Those are the main reasons why I settled on the stair-climbing regimen that has been part of my life since the late 1990s. Boom, boom, boom and each session is over.

When the idea came to me to climb stairs as an easy way, hopefully, to keep in halfway-decent shape and strengthen my cardio system, I was working in an office tower just outside of the heart of downtown Philadelphia. I pounded the stairs therein countless times until I retired from my job in 2009.

The top of stairwell

But I knew that I needed to maintain a minimal exercise program after saying goodbye to paid employment, and not too much later I found the solution. Hallelujah, I would continue to climb stairs because only a mile and a half from my suburban house was the Zipley parking garage, the newest and tallest of several parking garages surrounding Abington Hospital. I felt right at home at Zipley. Why not? In mid- 2010, just before beginning to ascend the Zipley stairs, I became a member of the AH family when I started two volunteer assignments at the hospital, assignments that I continue to perform to this day.

View from middle of stairwell

Well, there’s only so much you can say about stair-climbing and parking garages, right? Yes indeed, truer words never were written. I can sense more than one pair of eyes glazing over, and that includes mine. But before I bring this story to its natural conclusion, let me add that I’m somewhat in awe of people like Janet Sheridan who conscientiously exercise for several or more hours each week. Me, I’m an incredible slacker compared to them, as I devote about six or seven minutes weekly to stair climbing. Water finds its own level, as we all know. And that’s mine.

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A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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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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He Whose Thumbs Are Anything But Green Visits The Philadelphia Flower Show

I’ve a close friend who oohs and aahs and maybe even finds her reason for being when she goes to the Philadelphia Flower Show, a massive and annual event that attracts numerous gardeners and other assorted nature lovers. Yeah, the Flower Show means a lot to her. She attends every year with her sisters, excitedly looking at exhibits both grand and small and sniffing out ideas that might be applicable to her garden. Basically, she loves to get her horticultural groove on. She was there with her female siblings two Mondays ago, devoting five hours of her life to the enterprise. And, I’m sure, had a remarkable time.

As for me, on the other hand, I never entertained the idea of going to the PFS until two years ago. It’s not that I don’t like to look at flowers and other plants  — I do! — but I guess the notion of seeing them indoors in artificial settings never rang my bell sufficiently. What’s more, I’m not in the market for floral or other gardening hints that undoubtedly would aid the small patch of land upon which my suburban abode sits. Hell, the subject just doesn’t interest me. And, I’m not embarrassed to admit, my thumbs are so far from being green, flowers and shrubs sprint down the block faster than Usain Bolt when they see me coming.

But in 2016, after having dwelled in or near Philadelphia, my adopted city, for about 40 years, I had a change of heart. Why not go, indeed? The Philadelphia Flower Show is enormously popular (200,000 or more bodies take it in each year) and known around the world. The time had come to check it out. Which my wife Sandy and I did. We had a pretty good time.

One thing I learned at the show in 2016 is that flowers hardly are the only focus. Maybe it once was strictly a floral endeavor, but those days are in the far away past. Now pretty much all of nature is fair game. In the interests of accuracy it wouldn’t be a bad idea, I’d therefore say, if the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, which has been putting on the extravaganza since 1829,  changed the event’s name. How about Flowers N More R Us? No? Well, I’ll give it some more thought.

Anyway, for many years now the Flower Show has had a theme, a different one each go-round, to which about a third of the floor space is devoted. The displays within the themed section are the event’s biggest draw. The rest of the square footage is taken up by that to which the theme does not apply: small-to-medium scale floral and other plant displays, flora competitions, horticultural product vendors, and by refreshment stands. Two years ago the exhibits in the themed section had nothing to do with cultivated flowers at all, or with any other examples of horticulture for that matter. That’s because the topic at hand was the USA’s national parks, which, duh, are wilderness or near-wilderness regions.

This year, though, cultivated flora was a part of the story in the themed district, which was dubbed “Wonders Of Water.” Still, the untamed substantially ruled, as a recreation of a tropical rainforest — rainforests, duh, being environments in which human hands play little part (except when man is leveling them, which is what our blighted species loves to do) — held 2018’s center stage position.

I’m not complaining, by the way. It’s all to the good that the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has expansive viewpoints that encompass much of nature, not just the human-tailored parts of the picture.

Admirably, I’ve now attended the Flower Show twice. Because on March 6 of the present year, the fourth day of the show’s nine-day run, Sandy and I entered the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is in downtown Philly and only inches away from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Flower Show took up a whole lot of the enormous structure’s acreage. I’ll say this about the quarters in which the PFS was staged: If you’ve seen one airplane hangar, you’ve seen ’em all! If I owned a hat I’d tip it to the Horticultural Society for having given it all they’ve got to transform an antiseptic mega-space into something more than decently attractive.

Getting back to that rainforest, it was a beautiful, sprawling installation. Colorful, fragrant and dense, complete with misty rains dropping from on-high in one (or was it two?) spots, and a not-bad facsimile of a waterfall, it dominated the Wonders Of Water area in nothing but good ways. Truckloads of show-attendees clogged the pathways that wound within and around the rainforest. The Flower Show clearly is not the place to go for anyone seeking to get away from it all. Not that the crowds were unpleasant. They weren’t. Everyone seemed relaxed and respectful of their fellow tribe members, whose numbers included high quantities of young children and individuals who needed canes, walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

Of the sizeable number of displays other than the rainforest in the Wonders Of Water zone, three grabbed me more than the rest. How cool was the Spring Thaw exhibit, its pretty flowers abloom in a meadow being fed by melting waters from mountain peaks. And how aridly spot-on was the desert mock-up in which cacti and other life forms thrived in their own stark way, making do with very little of the wet stuff.

Plenty of water (in an irrigation ditch), however, was present in the tulips field display. Those flowers jolted the eye in washes of yellow, purple, red and other members of the spectrum. I’m a sucker for splashy swaths of color, so I spent quite a lot of time letting them raise my spirits. There, more than anywhere in Wonders Of Water, the name Philadelphia Flower Show truly applied.

Sandy and I passed many minutes together in the themed section. Then we separated for a while, she investigating the sections of the show outside the Wonders Of Water boundaries. I however stayed within those boundaries. The creations there satisfied me very well, and I felt little desire to stray.

Before we knew it, two hours had passed. Sandy by then had rejoined me and we decided to call it a day. Our visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show had been a good one.

But that’s not the end of the story. I’ve given the visit some thought in the process of composing that which you now are reading. And I’ve come to realize that what the show had to offer me, beyond its immediate delights, was the impetus to get out into, and explore, nature. I imagine that such is one of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s main aims in mounting the exhibition each year.

I have plans to head west to New Mexico in 2018, where my brother and sister-in-law recently moved. There I’ll mosey around the deserts, remembering, of course, to lather on sunscreen beforehand, as all good little boys and girls should do. And, closer to home, in fact only seven or so miles away, I’ll hike the trails inside Pennypack Park, a nine-mile long forest, bordered by residential streets, that runs through Philadelphia’s northeast section. Call me crazy, but I plan to try and hike the park’s entire length in one session. The last time I walked that far in one day was when I was in my 30s. I’ve recently tiptoed into my 70s, so who knows if nine miles is within my engine’s capabilities. If I make it all the way, and even if I don’t, you can bet your sweet bippy that I’ll be writing about the expedition on this blog’s pages.

Thanks, Philadelphia Flower Show. I enjoyed you quite a lot this year. If I remain above ground for a good while longer, then I’ll see you again.

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(All photos are from March 6, 2018. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

A Long Walk In Philadelphia On A Warm Winter’s Day

Cira Centre

There I was two Wednesday mornings ago, unfruitfully occupying space on my living room sofa. My shoulders were tense, my mind was neither here nor there. In other words, it was business as usual.

“Yo, schmuck! Snap out of it!” I silently yelled to myself. “Somebody ought to paint your portrait right now and call it Here Sits A Schlump. Life’s for living, boyo. Get with it already.”

And so I did. Gathering myself together, I decided to go for a walk. A nice long walk. But where? Not in my suburban area, whose charms are incredibly limited. Philadelphia it would be then. Philly’s the metropolis that never bores me. Soon I was at my little town’s train station. A late-morning ride arrived and I climbed into the second of its three cars. Fifty minutes later I exited said metal box at 30th Street Station, in the city’s West Philadelphia section, all set to explore a nearby area that I was barely familiar with. Ferdinand Magellan I’m not, but I’ve always liked to poke around.

It’s amazing though, being someone who likes to poke around, that I’d never done so among the blocks only a hop, skip and a jump northwest of 30th Street Station. Those streets, part of West Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood, contain a good bit of Drexel University’s sprawling campus. From the mid-1970s until 1991 I lived in West Philadelphia, only a mile and a half from Powelton Village, but I didn’t venture to the Drexel enclave there, despite Drexel’s rise during that time to major-player status in the academic world. And in the ensuing years, which have seen me visit West Philadelphia who knows how many dozens of times, the pattern continued.

Hallelujah, now the deed is done! I came and I saw. I’ll leave conquering for another day.

Powelton Village
Powelton Village

Now, let me say that my stroll through Powelton Village, checking out not only the Drexel facilities but the sturdy, soon-to-be-leafy residential blocks, wasn’t a walk for the ages. I mean, not too many urban campuses are going to knock your socks off. And Philadelphia’s older housing — rowhouses, twins and stand-alones — are so much with us in Powelton Village and in many other Philadelphia neighborhoods, I’ve come to think of them as comfort food.

Still, stretching my literally old legs felt great. Especially since the day was sunny and warm, as in 74°F, an insanely high number for mid-February winter. I worked up a good, pungent sweat hauling my ass and my bones around. And my eyes did plenty of darting, admiring the college girls who were dressed for summer. Skimpily, shall we say.

In addition to the girls, certain sights during my travels did make quite the impression on me. For instance, before I reached Powelton Village — in fact, when I was only 150 feet from 30th Street Station — I remembered to take a look at the Cira Centre, a majestically sleek office tower that smiles down upon the station. But I didn’t see it. Was the station somehow obscuring my view? Turns out, of course, that Cira was there in plain sight. Sort of. A glass wonder, the reflections of the sky on its surface were camouflaging the building, as the photo at the beginning of this article reveals. Man, that was something, clouds seeming to float everywhere on the glass along with the reflected image of a tower under construction several blocks away.

Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field
Vue32 apartment building

And in Powelton Village, just up the block from Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field, I was most surprised to see a tall, modern apartment building (Vue32) being erected on North 32nd Street. Some might say that Vue32, a non-Drexel project, is totally out of place in a quiet two-and-three-story-high neighborhood, and if I lived nearby I’d probably agree. But it looked cool to me.

SEPTA rail yard

Speaking of North 32nd Street, if I hadn’t been there I would have missed being near-stunned by the sight of oceans of commuter railroad cars — just like the one I took into the city — a smattering of feet east of where Vue32 stands. As I later learned, I was looking at a rail yard used by SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transit agency, to house and do maintenance work on trains. I’ve lived in Philadelphia or its suburbs for most of my adult life and I’d only vaguely noticed that enormous yard before, though it is glimpsable from numerous vantage points in the city. Call me Mr. Observant.

An open square on Drexel campus

Well, the early afternoon passed pleasurably. I ambled along block after block in Powelton Village. Many streets contained a mixture of private homes and Drexel buildings. Everything was peaceful and quiet, just the way you’d wish that all the world would be. I saw many students, some on their way to or from classes and residences, some munching away or doing work at tables in a campus open square, some lolling on the grass in pocket parks. I enjoyed being a college student, but you’ll never find me enrolling once again in an institution of higher learning. There would be just too much work. In these latter stages of my life I prefer things that are way on the easier side.

By the time I made my way back to 30th Street Station I’d racked up four miles of ambulation. My shoulders were a lot looser than they’d been five hours earlier. My mind was no longer neither here nor there. And I was happy to be heading home. A few minutes before the train pulled in to whisk me back to my sleepy town, for no particular reason I took a photo of the “Watch The Gap” warning painted on the platform. It refers to the open space of an inch or two between the platform and each train car. Looking at that picture the next day it occurred to me that watching the gaps elsewhere in life is good advice too. Relationship gaps can be painful. Equality gaps are unfair and often hideous. But, with effort, gaps can be closed or dealt with productively, though not always.

With those words of wisdom I’ll now take my leave. But (hopefully) I’ll be back! Till next time.

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Snap, Snap, Snap: A Photography Story

Philadelphia (2017)

Starting in the late 1970s, and continuing for 10 or 12 years, I passed a good amount of time wandering around Philadelphia (where I lived), other parts of the States, Europe and elsewhere with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera in hand or in pocket. A non-techie all my life, the Instamatic was the perfect camera for me. Small and easy to load — you dropped a film cartridge into place and then closed the back cover over it, a process even I could handle — the camera provided photographic images that struck me as just fine. Bulky cameras, special lenses and filters, carrying cases? Man, I wanted no part of any of that. And still don’t. I like my life plain and simple, because I’m a plain sort of guy who some might describe as being simple too. Doesn’t offend me. I’m simple that way.

Philadelphia (2017)

And so, wander I would, snapping photos of things that caught my eye. Street scenes, decorated house doors, gnarly trees, cool-looking cars, mountains and forests . . . fairly avidly I documented all of those and more. Outdoor photography was fun, a hobby that made me think creatively and provided exercise in the process. What was not to like?

Manhattan (2017)

Alas, for reasons I haven’t tried to decipher, my photography excursions came to a halt. The photos I took, and they likely number in at least the high hundreds, lie within boxes shoved into attic and basement and closet niches. I haven’t looked at any of them in 10 years or more. And I probably didn’t label half of them. I swear, I’m going to hire a personal assistant one of these days to haul out those photos and put them into working order. And then I’ll donate the pictures to the Smithsonian Institution, which I hear has a program called We’ll Accept Anything, As These Photographs Taken By Extremely Ordinary Americans Clearly Prove.

Manhattan (2017)

Fortuitously, my wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, picked up the slack. On our vacations and at family gatherings she’s the one who for years took nearly all the photos. Sandy, kind of a photography buff, always has had cameras far more advanced than the Instamatic, and happily danced into digital camera ownership earlier this century. I had no problem with her handling the photographic duties. I didn’t miss them, whatever the reasons might have been. Needless to say, when I started this blog in April 2015 Sandy was the chief photographer.

Cleveland’s baseball stadium (2017)

And then came January 2016. During that fabled month, Sandy bought a new iPhone and donated to me the iPhone she’d been using till then. iPhonically-speaking, for me it almost was love at first sight and first usage. I mean, the phone is so cute, so compact, and not too hard for a technological imbecile like me to figure out.

Cape Cod (2017)

Before then I’d been a flip-phone person, basically ignorant of the wonders of smart phones. But within days I became an addict, surfing the web, watching videos, etc., etc. And my iPhone’s camera? Why, it called to me with a song that I was powerless to resist. Before I knew it I was snapping photos left and right, far more than I did in my Instamatic days. Twenty-six months later I’m still snapping. And, by the way, not long after the iPhone came into my possession Sandy lost her photography job with this blog.

Cape Cod (2017)

And why do I bring up all of this? Hold tight, Bunky, as I’m about to tell you. Not that you haven’t already guessed, seeing that photos are on display right from the start of this essay.

Cape Cod (2017)

A day or two before I sat down to begin the composition of that which you presently are reading, it dawned on me that not the worst idea in the world would be to write a story into which I might place a number of photos that I took in 2017. Dozens of them I’d already used in blog articles during that year. But many others were sitting all sad and lonesome, feeling unwanted, on the hard drive or whatever it is within my iPhone. “I’ll liberate some of you! And I accept your thanks in advance,” I said to the pictures.

Cape Cod (2017)

Yes, it’s as simple as that. As I’ve prominently noted above, I’m a simple guy, so what would you expect? In any case, the year 2017 found me in my suburban Philadelphia region, in the City Of Brotherly Love itself, in The Big Apple, in Cleveland and on Cape Cod. There were a few other locales too, but that’s enough. I selected about 30 photos from the previously-unused pile and studied them almost assiduously. I whittled down the pile to the eleven pix herein contained. Some are artsy shots, some are candid, some display the wonders of nature, some have sentimental value to me. My favorites are the two that follow: a selfie of me and Sandy taken on Cape Cod, and a spontaneous etching that I made in the sands of a Cape Cod beach.

Thanks for reading and gazing. Your humble reporter is now going to sign off, hopefully to return in the near future with an as-yet-undetermined commentary upon something or other.

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Signs In The Windows

Last Friday I could feel a story idea calling me from far, far away. I cupped my hands behind my ears and did what anyone would have done: “What?” I yelled into the wilderness of my soul. “You have to speak louder, for crying out loud. Give an old guy a break!”

I waited for a response for a while. When none was forthcoming I waited a little longer. Finally I gave up on the idea of waiting. I’m a man of action, right? Well, not exactly, as proven by the impressive and permanent dents in the cushions of my living room sofa. Still, I rose anyway, put on my coat, stuck my iPhone into one of the coat’s pockets and explained quickly to my wife Sandy what my amorphous game plan was. Then I headed for the door, on my way to the three-level mall minutes away from my suburban Philadelphia house.

“You’re not going to do any shopping?” Sandy said to me as I exited. “Anyone else would go shopping.”

Shopping? Hmmm, not a bad idea. I could use a pair of slipper socks to replace the ones joyfully embroidered with Daffy Duck images that I’ve been wearing for the last 60 years. But whatever it was that was trying to reach me from the wilderness of my soul, shopping wasn’t part of it.

I pulled out of the driveway at 10:15 AM and pulled into one of the mall’s gargantuan parking areas at 10:20. Few cars were around. I entered the wonderland through a door that deposited me in Bloomingdale’s, a classy department store whose goods and displays I always marvel at during my infrequent visits. I felt at home, pretty confident that something somewhere in the mall ultimately would result in yet another blog essay being catapulted into cyberspace.

A poster in Bloomingdale’s cosmetics section caught my eye. “Everyone’s Invited!” it partly read. At once a bell rang in my head. Ouch, that smarted! I shook off the twangs of pain and went with the flow. If I wander around the mall, maybe I’ll spot all kinds of signage that share a sentiment similar to that poster’s, I thought. “C’mon in!” and “Don’t be a stranger!” would be good ones to come across, for example. But, nah . . . after I made my way out of Bloomingdale’s and into the main arteries of the mall’s lower level, I walked past store after store and came up with zippo. Nix that story idea.

All was not lost, however. Far from it. For what I realized is that beautiful signs, primo examples of artful composition, grace the windows of many of the shops. There was my story, I concluded. I would navigate all the avenues of each mall level, photographing the window signs that struck me as worthy of immortalization. I breathed a sigh of relief. The wilderness of my soul, at least for the moment, became a less scary place.

I went at it for an hour, 16 signs making my grade. The majority of them are on display in this essay. At the moment, examining the photos from the comfort of my home, it’s hard to say which of the signs I like best. Who can choose? Why choose? Isn’t it better just to appreciate each sign’s worthy aspects? Okay, you’re right. Choosing isn’t all that difficult. Let me think for a few seconds. I’ll be right back.

You know, I like the one picturing a pink Adidas cap, which fills a big section of glass at the Lids hat store. I’m one with its simplicity and admirable balance.

And I can’t deny the power of the seductive image of Selena Gomez balancing a black and pink handbag on her right leg. I had to restrain myself from marching into the Coach store and buying one of those bags, so helplessly jelly-like am I in the presence of gorgeous girls.

And let’s not overlook the black and white flag that stares out at potential customers from the mall’s Gap store. Maybe it’s a political statement of some kind, I don’t know. But it’s clean and taut and hard to take your eyes off of, from an aesthetic point of view.

There was more to my mall escapade than art appreciation, as it turns out. As I made my way around the mall’s highways and byways it dawned on me that I was getting some needed exercise. And that it felt really good to be stretching my legs. I tried to remember the last time I’d gone for a long walk. I think it was in October, on Cape Cod, upon whose open and natural areas I’ve racked up the miles in a major way.

But when I’m home? The landscape in the burbs, an homage to concrete and asphalt, doesn’t thrill me. And I sometimes forget that areas worth walking in, such as the olden streets of Philadelphia, aren’t much more than a hop, skip and a jump away.

But walk now and then in the mall? Hey, I never really thought about that before. We’ll see. I’ve read that plenty of folks do it regularly, placing one foot after the other upon the mall’s interior corridors as if those paths were athletic field ovals. I saw some of the hardy souls during my rounds. One of them, a millennial of the female variety who was attired in black workout clothes, passed me twice. I watched her do her thing. Her ears were home to earbuds and her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone as she relentlessly pushed ahead. You go, girl! Maybe I’ll join you some day. In my dreams.

An hour and change had passed by the time I got back in my car. I felt refreshed. My head was clear. My mood was up. And the remainder of the day, I was certain, would unfold attractively. That’s what good art and a two-mile stroll will do for you.

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