Are We Living In Television’s Golden Age? I Think So. Do You?

Over the last year or two I’ve mentioned to a few people that American television’s Golden Age — by which I mean its greatest era in terms of scripted series — is now. In my humble opinion, needless to say. I said it just last week to my pal Gene as we were munching on our lunches in a café near to where I lived, many moons ago, in Philadelphia’s University City section.

Yes, I know that the Golden Age title long ago was bestowed by some on 1950s American television, because it was in that decade that the small screen came of age in the USA. But let’s face it — when it comes to quality, 1950s American TV doesn’t deserve to wear the crown. And speaking of America, it’s that country’s products that I plan to talk about in this article, since I know not much more than diddly-squat about television’s offerings from elsewhere.

Getting back to Gene and me: Our conversation, as always, was all over the map. Part of the time we talked about television, about series from TV’s earlyish days, such as Have Gun Will Travel and The Twilight Zone. They, and plenty of other shows from the 1950s and 60s, not to mention less-ancient decades, are in repeats on an assortment of networks. And some of those series hold up. The Twilght Zone, for instance, will mess with your mind and emotions nearly as much now as it did when it was originally on the air (1959-1964). Overall, though, a pretty high percentage of elderly shows don’t seem so good anymore.

But Gene and I didn’t have too much to say about the tube’s post-2000 scripted fare. That’s partly because neither of us, especially me, has seen a lot of it. I used to watch quite a few series. But, for reasons I’m not too sure of, that mode of behavior became very sporadic starting in the early aughts. When Sex And the City hung up its high heels in 2004, followed by NYPD Blue’s closure the following year, my series-watching came almost to a halt.

But despite that, I’ll assert once again that we are in the midst of American television’s greatest era. (And let’s define that era as starting around 15 years ago). I’m certain of this because I keep up with reviews, and I’ve never read as many good reviews of scripted shows as I have since the early 2000s. It’s often one rave after another. Far more excellent shows have been birthed in the aughts than in the 30 years that preceded them, substantially because there are way more networks and other outlets (Netflix, Hulu et al) airing original material than ever before. Take these examples of series from our present century: The Wire, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and Homeland. From what I gather, hordes of people would say this about each: “It’s the best series of all-time.”

And I’m certain because my wife Sandy clues me in on the programs that she watches. Currently she’s in love with, among others, This Is Us, Elementary, black-ish, Better Things, I’m Dying Up Here, Modern Family and Homeland. And she swooned over The Middle, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire and many more whose plugs have been pulled.

And how about these high-quality programs that are churning out new episodes and which Sandy hasn’t (yet) added to her menu? — Killing Eve, Atlanta, Westworld, Dear White People, The Chi . . . the list goes on for distances too lengthy to travel. Maybe that’s why I watch so few of them: There’s just so much good stuff, the multitude of options is intimidating.

It’s not that I don’t turn on the television. I do, though usually for only an hour and a half late at night when my usual pattern is to flip from sports show to talk show to news show to whatever. And it’s not that I haven’t seen any scripted series at all. I have. In the last three years, for instance, I’ve watched various episodes of five: Blue Bloods, Modern Family, Everybody Hates Chris, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Lopez. The first two, which are still in production, I catch now and then in repeats. Ditto for EHC, which was cancelled in 2009. And I wouldn’t have missed even one installment of Curb’s latest arc (from 2017). Curb Your Enthusiasm is hilarious.

As for Lopez, I was one of about eight people who knew of its existence. I liked its adorably quirky characters and went into a mild depression when I learned a few months ago that it wouldn’t be returning for season three. I hope that George Lopez reads this article and, out of the goodness of his heart, decides to cast me in whatever his next series might be.

Of all the many, many series that I could be tuning into, how’d I come up with those five, only two of which (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) not only began in our Golden Era but meet its high creativity standards? Well, it’s just one of those things. So, yeah, I need to up my series-watching game. I mean, I’m not an anti-TV snob. These days, sadly though, I allot too many hours to contemplating my navel. You would too if yours alternated every 30 minutes between being an innie and an outie, as mine does. Very distressing. Yes, spending more of his time with an increased number of primo TV series would be a far better way for what passes as a grown man to behave.

Readers, am I right or wrong about American television’s Golden Age? What current shows do you like, and why? Which of them do you consider to be top-notch? Which are guilty pleasures? What are the best series of the last 15 years? Or of any time? Etc., etc.

And let’s open all of the above questions to series that are not of American origin. What’s the state of affairs, TV-wise, in countries outside of the States?

I’m awaiting your responses eagerly. This, for me, is a learning exercise. One’s never too old to learn, after all. And one’s never too old to grab hold of good entertainment.

Advertisements

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons are below. Thanks.)

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

An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

How many good musical recordings have been made over the years? Man, coming up with an answer to that one is a tall, tall order. First of all, there are the millions upon millions of records you’d have to listen to. And then there’s this sticky point: Who’s to say what good is?

Still, I’m undeterred! I’ve placed the query on my TBDBIDBPL (To Be Determined Before I Die, But Probably Later) list, which now has 46,786 entries on it. I’ll take that list with me to my grave, where I intend to continue working on it. What, like I’ll have anything better to do?

Getting back to my questions: You know, some days you just plain luck out when it comes to hearing music that rings your bell just right, even within a really compact amount of time. That’s precisely what happened to me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I backed my car out of the driveway. The Hyundai, feeling parched, was pleading with me to inject some refined liquid down its maw. It was going on and on, making a big deal out of nothing. Hell, cars, like humans, sure as shit can be emotionally needy. “Yeah, yeah,” I said not so soothingly, “where do you think we’re headed?” And continued on my way to my favorite gas station.

The gas station is a measly 0.9 miles from my house. If I lived in a rural part of Pennsylvania, the trip to the station, by car, might take two minutes. But I live in suburban Philadelphia, which isn’t any better traffic-wise than living in just about any part of The City Of Brotherly Love itself. In my little town, traffic lights and stop signs abound. What’s more, a few blocks from my house are railroad tracks upon which passenger trains do their thing throughout much of the day. It’s not easy to avoid meeting railroad track gates in the down position. They seem to be down a whole, whole lot.

The point that I’m making, and it’s not exactly a genius observation, is that in our day and age it can take longer to get from Point A to Point B than you’d like. Normally I wouldn’t have been thrilled that my mini-trip to the gas station used up 10 minutes of my life, crawling along as I was on the first leg of the expedition, then coming to a total standstill at horizontal railroad track gates, then crawling along some more before pulling into the gas station.

But I wasn’t mad at all. In fact I was cheerful and loose as a goose, because I spent those 10 minutes bopping to four mighty fine songs. They came to me consecutively on Soul Town, a great station on SiriusXM satellite radio. It’s a good day when I Thank You (by Sam & Dave), First I Look At The Purse (The Contours), Bernadette (The Four Tops), and James Brown’s Hot Pants Part 1 enter your life. A very good day.

Now, I’ve decided not to devote much wordage to the beauty of these songs or to their artists. I figure that nearly everyone who reads my stories has heard these recordings any number of times and knows of their majesty. And if that’s not true for you, then you’ve got yourself some livin’ and learnin’ to do! The numbers are old-school classics (they came out between 1964 and 1971) and are guaranteed to get you reeling and rocking, which, generally speaking, are excellent ways to behave.

I listen to music of all different sorts from all different eras, but I never stray too far from the kind of fare that Soul Town broadcasts: soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. Funny thing is that I’ve gotten much deeper into these genres over the last eight or so years than ever before. I always liked them aplenty, but I’m a real nut about them now. Superb singing; fabulous arrangements; beats that’ll send you to the sky (and maybe to the chiropractor) if the tune is a heavy workout, or make your heart melt if it’s a ballad; and strong melodies. What more could you want? And yeah, I know that Hot Pants Part 1 isn’t blessed in the melody department, but that’s not what that tune’s all about. As James Brown says: One two, one two three, uh!!

So, get down while the getting down’s good, girls and boys. The four songs here are anything but of the ballad variety. Yeah, baby, I can see you, now you’ve got it, keep on going, c’mon, c’mon, oh yes you’re smokin’!

I’m seconds away from saying over and out, as this here is a piece whose main purpose, I suppose, is simple and clear: to set cyberspace a-tingling a bit with songs that have what it takes. You bet we’re lucky to live in a time when it’s oh so easy to bathe luxuriously in terrific music. Terrific music is all around us, only a click or a tap away.

Over and out.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, sharing buttons are below. Gracias.)

Books That Are Short And Good

Fourteen months ago I wrote a piece (click here) about my successful attempt to re-enter the world of book-reading after a two-year hiatus from same. I’d taken baby steps, no doubt about it, but the two books I’d read at that point during 2017 (Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means Of Escape) had me bursting with pride at my accomplishment. I was back in the saddle!

One major reason for my choosing to read those two works was that they were très compact. As were nearly all of the five subsequent volumes that passed before my eyes in 2017. I don’t know, my attention span has shrunk like an icy dick in somewhat recent years. So, any book I’m apt to tackle is going to be on the easily consumed side in terms of page count and likely blessed with nice, big print. The days of possibly giving Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov a shot are gone, baby, gone. And I can live with that! Happily.

Well, I’m here to report that consistency continues to reign in my book selection process. So far this year I’ve etched three notches on my literary belt, and the books for which the notches were created average around 200 pages in length. Short, in other words.

Good books they are, too. And although dubbed novels, two of them come awfully damn close to being memoirs pure and simple. As for the third, also a novel, it’s a memoir at its core despite its many flights of fancy.

The first one that I took on, Big Sur (by Jack Kerouac), is a mass of jagged and breathless energy. It recounts Kerouac’s efforts, three years after 1957’s publication of On The Road made him famous, to get away from the fans and from the media attention that he felt were dragging him down. To a cabin in California’s idyllic Big Sur he retreated, soon to discover that he couldn’t escape his alcoholic and highly unsettled self. In Big Sur’s pages, Kerouac tears into himself pitilessly. The public might have thought of him as a cool guy, a free-flying bird. But in reality, uh-uh. The so-called and supposed King Of The Beatniks, Kerouac wasn’t destined for many more years on our orb. He passed in 1969 at age 47.

Next up was Portrait Of The Artist, As An Old Man. Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, completed it shortly before his demise, at age 76, in 1999. Catch-22, which entered the world in 1960, was Heller’s first and most popular book. I’d say that Portrait, of whose existence I was unaware until noticing it sitting all lonesome on a library shelf in March, deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This is the book that I mentioned above wherein flights of fancy flourish.

I tell you, this book made me squirm, not because it’s creepy or weird in any way. No, this is Heller’s account of a novelist (himself with a fictitious name) whose muse has bolted south. But needing to write (“He had nothing better to do with his leisure than to try writing another novel . . . ” Heller notes in one of many permutations on the notion throughout the book), our hero keeps coming up with one lame or unworkable story idea after another. Man, I can relate! Funny, human, almost adorable, Portrait is a satiric picture of a man determined not to give up, for lack of anything better to do, come what may.

I’ve known of Charles Bukowski for eons, but never read a word of the zillions he put to paper until I decided to give Post Office a spin. It’s Bukowski’s telling of his career during the 1950s and 60s as a mail carrier and letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, and of his life during the hours when he wasn’t on the job. Crazy anecdotes and bushels of nastily humorous lines fly from Bukowski’s pen. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Bukowski wasn’t cut out to work within a bureaucracy. A model employee he never was nor ever wanted to be. A hard-liver, a heavy drinker, a denizen of society’s underside, a street poet and a true character, it’s amazing that he hung onto his job for as long as he did.

Bukowski was and remains a cult literary figure, primarily known for his poems. I get the feeling, though, that quite a few millions of folks are into his work. That’s a big cult. I might relax with another of his “fictional” novels one of these days, because rapid-paced Post Office pleased me. Apparently totally at ease with his drinking, race-track frequenting and disheveled lifestyle, Bukowski comes across as a guy I’d probably have enjoyed talking to, but maybe for not too long. His energy would have swallowed me whole. Despite holding the antithesis of a holistic orientation, Bukowski hung around for a decent amount of time, his tenure ending at age 73 in 1994.

Okay, that’s enough about those three guys. It’s time to get back to what this publication mainly is all about. Me. Hell, if I don’t write about myself, who the f*ck will?

But, appropriately, I’ll keep it short. Getting back to my short attention span, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly when and how it developed. Maybe it settled upon me as a result of societal osmosis, since cultural analysts and pundits have been saying for 20 or so years that most peoples’ attention spans are skimpy. Whatever the reasons may be for the state of mine, I’m not sure if I can or want to elongate it, to bring it back to where it once was during the decades I spent in the academic and paid-employment worlds.

But hey, maybe I just stumbled upon the key. It could be that when I hung up my career spikes in 2009, when additional hours each day became mine to deal with as I chose, my ability to stay focused began to slip. Now I kind of flit from one thing to another. Not that I mind flitting, to tell you the truth. I’ve gotten used to it and maybe even like it. In fact, in a day or two I’m going to flit over to a local library and scour its racks for a shorty. It’s time to etch another notch on my literary belt.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons, as always, are below. Gracias.)

Another Side Of Keith Richards (He’s A Genius Inventor!)

When my cell phone rang in my bedroom a week ago Monday at 4:30 AM, I bolted up from the deepest sleep I’d been in since I don’t know when. Shit, I’d forgotten to leave the phone out of earshot! Double shit, the jolt was so dangerous I came this close to reaching the end of my Earthly days. Hallelujah though, my wife Sandy continued to sleep the sleep of babies. Grabbing the phone, I tiptoed out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the living room sofa.

“What the f*ck’s wrong with you, man?” I said to the caller. “Don’t you know what time it is here? It might be late morning in Ireland, but I don’t live in Ireland!”

Photo by Mark Seliger

“Calm down, bro,” said Keith Richards. “I forgot about the time difference, ya know? Gimme a break. And by the way, it’s good to hear ya voice.”

I put my hand over my heart. It still was beating like a big bass drum, but overall I felt alright. I put on a happy face and resumed the conversation.

“Keith-o, what’s happening? How are the rehearsals going?” He was in the Emerald Isle with the rest of The Rolling Stones, preparing for their latest tour. It opens next week in Dublin. And yeah, damn right that Keith and I are buds. You can learn a bit of the backstory by clicking here.

“Ah, man, I don’t know. I mean, the band’s still got it. We’re smokin’ hot, but I’m feelin’ blue. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right career choice. I mean, I like writin’ songs and playin’ on stage and all, but is that all there is to life? Neil, I shoulda been an inventor. I’ve got lots of great ideas. There’s one that I’ll call the Bravo Toilet if I decide to try and bring it to market. Did I ever tell ya about it? Here’s the deal: After ya finish doin’ your business — it don’t matter if it’s number one or number two — and push the flush handle, two big mechanical hands pop up from behind the tank and start applaudin’ real enthusiastically! And they don’t stop clappin’ till the tank has refilled. Not only that, a recorded voice keeps yellin’ ‘Bravo! Bravo! A magnificent performance!’ over and over. Ain’t that the coolest?”

I had to agree. Keith had a very brilliant idea there. I was more than impressed. “Yo, Keith,” I said, “this is a side of you I’ve never known about. What other genius notions have you been keeping secret from me?”

“Well, how about this one? Chewing gum, Neil. Its potential is almost untapped. Think about all the flavors of gum that nobody makes. Brussel sprouts, prunes, kale, quinoa. Oh, and I forgot to mention turnips and parsnips. I tell ya, the list goes on and on.”

“Keith, my man, your future is bright. Very bright. You’ve got more lightbulbs going off in your head than I have strands of hair on my head.” And that’s when a lightbulb went off inside my head for a change.

“Good buddy,” I said, ‘‘you need to turn your attention to finding the cure for baldness. Come up with that one and your legacy will be unmatched. You can do it, Keith, I’ve got total confidence in you.”

“Neil, after this tour is over, curing baldness will become the heaviest item on my plate. I’m gonna tackle that problem with laser intensity. You’ve got my word.”

“You rock, Keith-o! Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to pay a visit to the little boys’ room. I wish I had a Bravo Toilet installed, because my impending dump is going to be majestic. But I have to ask you one more thing: I have a blogging buddy who lives in Scotland. Andrew Ferguson is his name. Andrew and his musical partner call themselves Tribute To Venus Carmichael. They play great songs that Venus composed over the years. Thing is, nobody knows where Venus herself is these days. She’s been performance-shy for forever. You remember Venus, don’t you? She was part of the L.A. music scene in the 70s.”

“Holy crap, Neil, I can’t believe that you’re bringing her up. Sure I remember her. We were an item for a nano-second back in those days. Gorgeous girl. Excellent songwriter. And you won’t believe this, but I’m pretty sure that I saw her in Manhattan last month. I was on my way to a recording studio — me and Mick were working up some new songs there — when I swear she walked right past me. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but I think it was her.”

‘‘ ‘Venus, baby, it’s Keith,’ I said. ‘It’s fantastic to see ya again.’ But the girl didn’t give me a glance. What can ya say? Maybe it was Venus, maybe not. In any case I’d love to know what Venus’s been up to all these years.”

“Okay, Keith. I’m going to let Andrew know about this. And I wasn’t kidding about what I said a minute ago. Nature is calling me in a deep, powerful voice. See you, Keith-o. You can start applauding in a few minutes. And don’t forget to yell bravo. I’ll hear you from across the pond.”  

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Sharing buttons are below.)

(P.S. Andrew Ferguson is real, as is the musical duo Tribute To Venus Carmichael. Is Venus Carmichael herself real? You’ll have to check out the TTVC website to find out. Is anything else about this story real? Well, the Stones begin their latest tour next week in Dublin. As for the rest . . . )

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Sharing buttons are below)

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

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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media or via email. Sharing buttons are below. Thanks.)

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

Dinah, Sarah, Abbey And Michelle: A Snowy And Jazzy Story

Three weeks ago, we here in my section of the greater Philadelphia region were blessed with a storm that deposited a foot of heavy, messy snow. Ooh la la! I spent four hours, spread over three days, hurling the white stuff off of my walkways, driveway and rear deck. That’s a lot of work for a guy who has made a depressingly large number of revolutions around our friend the Sun.

That barrage was the seventh or eighth snow event this year. So, when the forecasters told us to expect plenty more snow for last week’s Wednesday, I went into a bit of a funk. “Enough with the shoveling already! This winter bites the big one big-time! In other words, it f*cking sucks!” I loudly thought to myself.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the outcome could have been worse, though it was bad enough. Nine inches of white matter descended onto my area, white matter that was, mercifully, far less dense than had been predicted. I spent an hour and a half that Wednesday afternoon lashed to my snow shovel, and then the job was done. I went back into the house feeling okay but, unbeknownst to me at the time, in need of some soul sustenance.

Enthroned at the dinner table at 6:15 PM, my wife Sandy and I chomped away and happily chit-chatted (Sandy: “Please pass the salt.” Neil: “Huh?” Sandy: “I need the salt. Please pass it.” Neil: “What?” Sandy: “Pass the salt, you nitwit!” Neil: “There’s no need to shout!”)

As we ate, musical accompaniment was provided by WRTI, Temple University’s radio station that spends half of each day (6:00 AM till 6:00 PM) spinning classical fare and the other half broadcasting jazz selections. So absorbed am I with filling my maw at dinnertime, music ordinarily connects only moderately with me then. But that wasn’t the case on the after-shoveling evening in question.

Around 6:30 PM, in between bites, I perked up my ears. A distinctive voice, one I recognized, began to soothe me. And the words being sung seemed very right. They got to me, made me go all warm and fuzzy inside. “I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you./I passed a shadowy lane/And I thought about you.”

It was Dinah Washington singing I Thought About You, a number written in 1939 by Jimmy Van Heusen (who composed the music) and Johnny Mercer (who penned the words). It’s a great song, one that I and most of us have heard over the years. Sinatra, Diane Schuur, Ella and a million others have recorded it. Dinah Washington’s version came out in 1959 on her album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes! Dinah nailed it.

Dinner all of a sudden, as good as it was, became better. But WRTI wasn’t done with me, thanks to Ms. Blue, that evening’s program host. Half an hour later I found my ears doing that perking-up thing again when another female voice captivated me. I knew whose voice it was. Sarah Vaughan’s. And I knew the song too, Can’t Get Out Of This Mood. It has a moody lyric, yup. And in this recording the instruments swagger and caress, as often is the case when jazz practitioners are at work. The number is damn good, not least because it was placed in Sarah’s hands. Or should I say mouth? Jimmy McHugh (music) and Frank Loesser (lyrics) wrote the tune in 1942. Sarah waxed it eight years later.

Well, Sandy and I, by then removed to the living room sofa, kept the dial set to WRTI for another two hours. And the only pieces that really registered with me during that time were by lady vocalists: Abbey Lincoln and Michelle Lordi. Somehow my mind and emotional mechanisms weren’t programmed that night to find any manner of enlightenment in non-vocal pieces or in songs warbled by persons of the male variety, though both sorts abounded on the WRTI airwaves throughout the evening. No, the female voice was what my shoveling-weary arms and shoulders and all the rest of me needed for sustenance, for rejuvenation. If Sandy and I hadn’t turned on WRTI that evening, I’d have gone to bed in an untuned state of being.

Ah, Abbey Lincoln. She’s a favorite of mine, a powerful singer and a songwriter who examined the human heart and the imbalances in society with a sharp eye. But she wasn’t the author of the tune that I heard on WRTI, which was Lost In The Stars, a melancholy rumination from the 1949 musical of the same name by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (book and lyrics). If Abbey’s cries and laments don’t move you, especially those that begin at the song’s three-minute mark, then you’re a lost cause. Her recording dates from 1959.

As for No Moon At All, the composition sung by Michelle Lordi, it was a new one to me. It’s a terrific song, playful and perceptive. No Moon entered the world in 1947, the work of David Mann (music) and Redd Evans (lyrics). Michelle’s version, witty and jaunty (but not annoyingly jaunty), entered the world last year. Her vocal approach meshes ideally with the tight jazz combo frolicking with her. Dig those guitar and trumpet solos.

While compiling that which you currently are reading, I realized that only one of the four jazz vocalists — Michelle — is with us in the flesh. Dinah, Sarah and Abbey left the planet in 1963, 1990 and 2010, respectively. The three of them were superior talents. And also quite famous.

As for Michelle Lordi, who is not a big name at all, I believe her to be a marvelous singer. She’s not show-offy, for which I give the thumbs-up sign, and she’s able to find her way deeply into a lyric. She resides somewhere in my neck of the woods and performs regularly in it, as well as in The Big Apple and here and there too. I saw her perform in, of all places, a pub two miles from my house three years ago, and wrote about the show. I guess my review was pretty much a rave.

Well, the time has come for me to mention that yours truly has been tinkering with this essay a whole lot. There’s only so much tinkering a guy can stand! Adios, for now, amigos. I hope you enjoyed the music contained herein.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on social media or via email. I thank you.)

Harvard University’s Commencement Speaker This Year Will Be . . . Moi!

Yes, you heard it here first, though Harvard’s administrative offices will be making the official announcement soon.

To wit: Yours truly has been tapped by Drew Faust, Harvard University’s outgoing president (her final day in office will be June 30 of this year), to deliver that esteemed institution’s Commencement address to the Class of 2018. The happy event will take place on May 24.

Man, I’m honored! I’m flattered! And I’m so nervous thinking about it I just might end up soiling my underpants any number of times between now and then. Little matter . . . I’ve got plenty of underpants in reserve!

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. There I was last week, joyously chewing away in the early afternoon on a BLTPB&J (bacon, lettuce, tomato, peanut butter and jelly) sandwich. An unusual concoction, yes, but invigorating and fabulously tasty. You should try it.

In between bites the phone rang. I pressed the Talk button.

“Khhhhhhhhhhhh,” I croaked, a huge wad of sandwich preventing any normal sounds from emerging. “Khhhhhhhhhhhh,” I repeated, having no better luck on the second attempt.

“Is this Neil?” asked the caller. “What’s the matter? You don’t sound well. I’m going to call 911.”

I worked hard, quickly, on the clump inside my mouth, somehow managing to send it on its way into my esophagus. I then collected myself and had success in getting out some words.

“No need for 911,” I said. “I’m okay. Excuse me for my terrible manners. And by the way, who is this?”

Drew Faust
(photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe)

“Neil, this is Dr. Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University. I can imagine that you never in a million years expected to be answering a call from me, but stranger things have happened. Well, maybe not. In any case, here we are, about to have a conversation.”

“Hello, Dr. Faust,” I said. “Actually, in a million years I’d never have been able to guess who the president of Harvard is. Not to mention that I’ve never heard of you. It’s nice to meet you, though, needless to say. Just wondering, are you related in any way to the Doctor Faustus who has been written about over the centuries?”

“Ha, ha, ha! Neil, everyone asks me that. No relation, I assure you. And unlike him, I’m harmless. Please call me Drew.”

“Drew, I’m pleased to be speaking with you. What in the world, though, is the reason for your call?”

“Well, young man, and I’m using young facetiously of course, I’ve been at Harvard’s helm for 11 years. That’s a long time. And I’m getting up in years. So in a few months I’ll be retiring from the job, but before then the Commencement Day for the Class of 2018 will have arrived, and a few details for that extravaganza still need to be worked out. As I’m certain you know, one of the most important aspects of any commencement is the keynote speaker. For various reasons we here at the university haven’t offered the speaker’s job to anyone yet. My associates have agreed to let me make the final decision. Which is where you come in.”

Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Neil, I want to shake things up in these my final months at Harvard. And I can think of no better way to do so than to bring in a, shall we say, nobody to deliver the school’s Commencement address. This has never been done before. Commencement speakers always are persons of prominence and of great achievement. In recent years the Harvard speakers have included J.R. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, to name just a few. I want to show the 2018 graduates that this pattern is unnecessary, that an average Joe or Jane deserves the opportunity to impart whatever limited amount of wisdom he or she possesses to those who are about to become the leaders and doers and  shakers of the modern world.”

“My word, Drew,” I said, “that’s an amazing speech you just made. Hell, you should be the Commencement speaker. Forget the average Joe or Jane bit. Girl, you carry the goods!”

“No way, Neil. I’ve basked in glory long enough. Listen, one of my daughters somehow stumbled upon your blog yesterday and read one of your recent pieces, A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story. She called me and told me about the article, that she couldn’t believe how flimsy indeed it is, how perfect an example it is of the flotsam and jetsam clogging up cyberspace.”

“She also forwarded the story’s link to me. And I read the article. Neil, I totally concurred with her assessment. I then looked at several more of your efforts. My opinion about your talents didn’t change.”

“That’s when a brainstorm hit me,” Drew said. “Considering the worth of your works, you show a remarkable degree of courage by publishing them at all, in my humble you-know-what. Having courage is an admirable quality. And although you lack prodigiously in the insights department, I am absolutely certain that a few nuggets of near-wisdom are lodged within your cranium. Ergo, you, whom just about nobody has ever heard of, are my choice to address the 2018ers at Harvard’s Commencement Day.”

I gulped. “Holy Toledo, Drew,” I then said. “I don’t know what to say, except that I’ll do my best. Offer accepted.”

“Neil, I thank you. Harvard thanks you. You are soon to embark on a wonderful journey, one that will thrust you into the academic spotlight and possibly increase your blog’s readership, though I wouldn’t bet too heavily on the latter. Anyway, please give me one or two examples of what your speech might contain. Small but helpful tools for living would be welcomed by everyone in the Commencement Day audience.”

“Yes, Drew, I understand. Give me a moment.” A moment passed, then several more, at which point I began once again to speak. “You know, I can’t overstate the importance of dental hygiene, Drew. It wouldn’t look good if tomorrow’s leaders were in possession of ugly, swollen gums and loose teeth. Which is why I’ll stress to the graduates that they must brush regularly throughout the day and also floss diligently before hitting the sack.”

“That’s good, Neil. Very good. Anything else?”

“Uh, nothing much beyond that is coming to mind. Oh, wait. There is one other piece of advice I might offer: Don’t step on cracks in the sidewalk. Not because it’s bad luck but because you might trip!”

“Excellent, Neil. You’ll do just fine.”

“Drew,” I said. “You know, there are a couple of jokes I heard a few years ago that have stayed with me. Would it be all right if I worked them into my speech?”

“I don’t know why not, Neil. Everybody needs laughs these days. Throw ’em at me, guy!”

“Okay. What do you call it when a Frenchman tosses a hand grenade onto his kitchen floor?”

Drew was stumped, so I told her.

“Linoleum Blown Apart!” I shouted. Drew exploded in laughter.

“A classic!” she screamed. “What’s the other one?”

‘What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic?”

“Tell me, Neil, tell me!”

“Halfway.”

Drew couldn’t contain herself. She was laughing so dangerously hard I was seconds away from calling 911 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But she pulled herself together. And we chatted for a few more minutes.

The bottom line is that Drew is absolutely convinced that she has made the right choice. Me, I’m not so sure. But as she said, I’ve got courage. And so, any day now I’ll begin to craft my Commencement Day speech. Harvard might not need me in any truly remarkable sense, but they’ve got me.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece on social media or via email. Gracias.)

A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and their ilk. I thank you.)