The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Have Some Faves. How About You? (Art On Wheels, Part Four)

There must be a good reason why I occasionally slip behind the steering wheel of my ancient but spunky Honda Civic and drive around my area to photograph attractively-adorned motor vehicles. Maybe it’s because I’m older than dirt, a condition that leads some people to engage in oddball activities. Or maybe it’s because I’m inherently an oddball, and has nothing at all to do with my advanced years. I asked my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, about this during a recent session.

“The answer, Neil, is obvious,” she said. “Yes, you’re old. Really old. Might not be a bad idea to have some work done on your face, in fact. There are dried-out prunes in my refrigerator with fewer wrinkles than you have. And yes, you’re an oddball. But who isn’t? Neither of those factors explains the situation, though. So, here’s the answer: The universe requires each of its components to play their proper roles. One of your roles is to immortalize eye-catching designs on motor vehicles. If you don’t do it, who will? Nobody, Neil, nobody. So, keep up the work. Notice that I didn’t say good work, by the way. I’ll see you next week. And pay at the front desk with a credit card this time. The check you used for the last session bounced.”

Perhaps Dr. Forereel’s theory is correct. It’s as good as any. Anyway, where was I? Right, last week, for the fourth time since launching this website, I hit the roads in the Philadelphia suburbs, aiming to find sharp vehicles to photograph (the previous entries in this series may be read by clicking here, here and here).

Plenty of lovely vehicles passed me as I drove, but, having no interest in buying a ticket for an early grave, I didn’t attempt to snap their pictures when my Honda also was in motion. As always, then, I pulled into strip malls and shopping centers and other commercial areas where my potential victims might be parked. Whenever I spotted a looker, I’d park too, get up nice and close to it, and press the button on my phone’s camera.

The day proved to be not only pretty fruitful but less demanding than I’d expected. I found more than enough subjects within a three mile radius from my house, rather than the eight miles I’d been expecting. That took a nice amount of strain off my sagging shoulders, though the crazy amount of traffic in my region and the abundance of assholic drivers more than made up for that. “Yo, dipshit, get off my tail!” I yelled in my mind any number of times at others sharing the roads with me. Man, my kingdom for a relaxed, casual drive.

I set one rule for the day: I wouldn’t take photos of vehicles I’d photographed before. Alas, I had to ignore a magnificent, huge Dunkin’ Donuts truck, which was delivering goods to a Dunkin’ franchise near my house. One of the truck’s clones made an appearance, you see, in the Art On Wheels story that I published last August.

And I had to tread lightly a couple of times. I’ve shopped now and then at the Best Buy store a mile and a half from my house, but till the other day hadn’t noticed an employee parking area behind this electronics emporium. Wow, it was partially filled with Geek Squad vans, the vehicles used by the Best Buy workers who make home visits to fix problems with computers and other complicated wares. Damn right I took a bunch of photos there. And damn right somebody drove into the lot to ask what the hell I was doing. “Nothing much,” I mumbled. “I’ll be on my way now.”

So, off I went to Best Buy’s customer parking section, where sat a delivery truck upon which was painted a very fine arrangement of fruits and vegetables. A produce truck at an electronics store? Its driver, who was sitting comfortably behind the wheel, probably had pulled into the lot to take a breather. I loved the truck. It would have made it into this article. But I didn’t need the driver climbing out or rolling down a window to ask what the hell I was doing. One encounter of that sort was enough.

I snapped the portraits of 17 vehicles during the two and a half hours that I devoted to the project. Looking over the pix after I got back home, I concluded that 10 made the grade for this mighty story. I’ve looked at that group several times, narrowing down my absolute favorites to four: Terminix, for its design’s clean lines and limited but highly effective palette. U-Haul, because who else ever has painted bats on a truck? Fast Signs, which is as colorful and cool as it can be. Five Star Painting, for the same reasons as Fast Signs.

And my number-one choice is? Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no way I can not go with Five Star Painting. Concise, breezy and hip, the artwork on that car is a feast for the eyes.

And how about you? Which designs rock your world? I need to know! The box in which to enter your comments is below. Adios till next time, amigos.

Jeff Bezos Spoke With Me! (An Amazonian Story)

I was mad as hell. You would have been too if the monogrammed boxer shorts that you ordered from Amazon came with incorrect initials. My initials are NSS, not ASS, for crying out loud! And the manufacturer got it wrong not once, not twice, but thrice. And so I decided to give Amazon a piece of my mind before returning defective goods to them once again. They needed to know that Underpants R Us, based in Crotchonia, Bulgaria, is a firm that does not deserve to have its products handled by the world’s largest online retailer!

That’s why I dialed 888-280-4331 last week, Amazon’s customer service number in the USA. I wasn’t sure where my dissatisfaction would take me. Turns out that the call resulted in an experience that in a million years I wouldn’t have expected.

“This is Anna, in Amazon’s customer service department in beautiful Kennewick, Washington. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with, and how are you this fine day?” were the words that greeted me. Ah, such a lovely tone. Anna seemed so agreeable, so gentle over the phone, I almost decided not to burden her with my complaint. But complain I did, succinctly explaining the situation without ever raising my voice.

Anna listened attentively, confirming all pertinent information and asking appropriate questions. Then she took me aback.

“Mr. Scheinin,” she said, “I am pleased to let you know that there is a special visitor in our facility today. He stops by several times each year, being a very hands-on individual. He has been listening to our conversation and has indicated to me that he would like to talk with you. He will provide you with the highest level of customer satisfaction. If it’s all right, then, I’m going to place Mr. Bezos — Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO — on the line.”

“Why, yes, that is absolutely all right, Anna,” I said. “Thank you.”

A few seconds passed. And then I heard the voice of the world’s richest person. (He’s worth well over 100 billion American dollars.)

Photo of Jeff Bezos by Tom Stockill/Redux

“Neil! This is Jeff Bezos. I’m so sorry that you’ve been having problems with some of our merchandise. I don’t quite understand what the situation is, though. Something’s wrong with your ass, is that it?”

“Well, not exactly, Jeff. You see . . .”

He cut me off. “Neil, if your derriere isn’t feeling right, I have just the product for you. I totally swear by it. I tell you, it’s provided me with wonderful relief many times in recent years. Preparation H, Neil. Preparation H. It’s been around forever, and that’s because it works. Hemorrhoids begone! Neil, Amazon will be glad to sell you a case of this magical concoction, enough for many years, for a mere $109.99. And shipping, it goes without saying, is free. What do you say, Neil? May I process your order?”

“Mr. Bezos,” I said, “you’ve got it all wrong. Let me start from the beginning. You see, I’ve been having enormous difficulty obtaining properly-monogrammed boxer shorts . . . oh, it’s a long, boring story. Who really cares? I’ll just keep the ones with ASS stitched onto them. My wife thinks those initials are appropriate, anyway. Listen, do you have a couple of minutes?”

“Indeed I do. Wassup?”

“Jeff, you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain. You have achieved success and wealth to a degree that boggles the mind. Obviously you are a man with a plan. On the other hand, I’m a chap with no map. Jeff, all my life I’ve been bouncing through life like a pinball, rarely finding satisfaction, unable to smell the roses because of my intense sinus condition. Hire me, Mr. B! I want a job that I can throw myself into.”

“Neil, I liked you the moment we started talking. But I have to probe a little deeper to make sure that you’re the right individual for the position I have in mind. Spot quiz: Spell hemorrhoid quickly!”

Wham! The convoluted letters flew off my tongue like bullets.

“Excellent! Another spot quiz: How many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“Jeff, that depends on how deeply they want to analyze the situation. Writers, you know, can be complicated.”

“Right on, Neil! You’re the first person to get that one correct. My man, I can’t believe my good fortune in meeting you today. I want you to join Amazon as my sounding board. I have so many ideas to bounce off you. For instance, I’d like to create a chain of restaurants that serve nothing but LOL sandwiches — liverwurst, onion and Limburger. Man, I love me a good LOL! And I have the perfect slogan for the sandwich: It surely does smell, but what the hell.”

“That’s brilliant, Jeff. Brilliant.”

“Thanks, Neil. And how about this one? Amazon gas stations manned by robots who give you the best hugs of your life before and after they fill up your car’s tank. Customers will drive away bursting with happiness!”

“Bravo, Jeff! You have your finger on humanity’s pulse. It will be an honor to work for you. What’s my salary going to be, by the way? Eighty grand a year sounds about right, don’t you think?”

“Salary? Who said anything about a salary? This is an unpaid internship, Neil. Despite the lack of remuneration, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. When, my boy, can you start?”

That was a good question. I don’t encounter good questions all that often. And when I do, I usually don’t have good responses to them. This time I did.

“Later, Jeff,” I said.

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

Walking Around While Looking At Things . . . It’s What I Do!

What you’re now reading is another of my walking around while looking at things stories, this time an examination of my escapades last week on the day after Valentine’s Day. I’ve written scads of such stories since inaugurating this website in 2015. Hell, they probably account for one-third of my output. And why is that? Well, because walking around while looking at things is one of the activities I most like to do. It’s part of my fabric. Has been for decades. But I didn’t consciously realize that until the recaps of my mini-adventures started flowing naturally and happily from my keyboard four years ago. Yeah, writing sometimes teaches you about yourself. Learning is good!

Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania

The 15th of February began in a cloud-covered, uncertain fashion in the Philadelphia suburbs where I reside. However, all signs, as indicated on the all-knowing weather.com, pointed towards bright skies and warm temps in a handful of hours. Itching to stretch my legs and to feel the Sun upon my wrinkled, age-spotted visage, I gathered my iPhone, a water bottle and a packet of trail mix, and jumped into my car when it became apparent that the weather prediction was correct. Eight miles later, at a few minutes past noon, I parked across from the public library in Ambler, Pennsylvania. The game was on! Another edition of walking around while looking at things was about to start.

For sure, in my neck of the woods there aren’t a whole lot of towns worth walking around in, including my own. That’s because most are uninviting, not looking like towns at all. What they do look like are hodgepodge collections of strip malls, large shopping centers, office buildings and residential sections. Eh!

Butler Avenue

Ambler, however, is a different story. It boasts a long, traditional main drag, Butler Avenue, that is filled with old and not-so-old structures containing eateries, non-food-related businesses of all manner, an art house cinema (Ambler Theater) and a stage theater (Act II Playhouse). And there are streets of interest that run perpendicular to Butler Avenue, including the misnamed Main Street, which decidedly is secondary to Butler. Whatever, much of Ambler, whose history dates back to the early 1700s, looks like a true village. The town, by the way, is named after Mary Johnson Ambler, a civic leader during the mid-1800s.

Bar on Main Street
Tattoo parlor on Butler Avenue

Now, my walk around Ambler wasn’t a walk for the ages. It was on the mild side, on the casual side. But a good walk it was, about three miles in length and nicely invigorating. Meandering from here to there as instinct and whimsy called, I enjoyed the hell out of the unseasonably warm temperature (58°F/14°C) and soft blue heavens, as I kept my eyes open for interesting sights, including good-looking women. Hey, it’s every girl’s dream to have a wrinkled, age-spotted geezer looking her over, right? Don’t answer that!

Houses on Main Street
Church door on Lindenwold Avenue

And, of course, I took photos of that which seemed worth documenting, such as street scenes, sharp buildings and signs, and the most interesting door that I could find in town. It belongs to Calvary United Methodist Church.

Ambler Boiler House, on Maple Street

Did I stumble upon anything I hadn’t expected to run across? Indeed I did. Near the town’s railroad tracks I saw a huge, smokestacked old building, now known as Ambler Boiler House. It’s an office building, but once was a power plant for the asbestos products factories that, for about 100 years, had been Ambler’s industrial core. Due to health concerns and governmental regulations though, asbestos, a carcinogen, eventually went out of favor, as well it should have. As a result, almost needless to say, Ambler’s fortunes fell swiftly, reaching a low point in the late 1980s when the remaining segment of its asbestos industry went kaput. That low point didn’t budge for many years.

Act II Playhouse, on Butler Avenue
Ambler Theater, on Butler Avenue

These days, though, Ambler is a lively place. Its revival can be pegged to the birth of the Act II Playhouse in 1998 and to the rebirth of the Ambler Theater in 2003, and to the restaurants that opened in their wake. My wife and I have been to Ambler probably about 150 times during the 21st century. And that’s mostly because of the cinema and the eateries. Many a night we’ve caught a movie and stuck around for dinner.

Ours is a world full of problems. Humans are skilled at creating problems, whether intentionally or not. In Ambler the main problem is the mountains of asbestos waste materials that were dumped in the southern end of town over many decades. The federal government has dealt with, and is still dealing with the situation. The asbestos is contained, supposedly, and poses no immediate threat, supposedly. But who really knows? (You can read a very good article about the situation by clicking here).

The Pizza Box, on Butler Avenue

Me, I become trembly and irritable when thinking about or confronted with problems too much. That’s one of the reasons why I favor walking around while looking at things. And it’s also one of the reasons why I enjoy sitting in pizzerias, where I can ingest my favorite food while letting my mind wander. Speaking of which, two-thirds of the way into my stroll through Ambler, I noticed The Pizza Box, a cute-as-a-pin establishment that I’d never paid attention to before. Inside I went, and was glad that I did, because the two slices of traditional pizza that I ate were very good. They helped ease my worried mind over the next half hour, as I further poked around Ambler before walking back to my car.

The above paragraph would have been a good one with which to end this essay. However, during the day that followed my mighty stroll it dawned on me that I, an ambler, had ambled in Ambler. And that many amblers amble in Ambler every day. It would have been oh so wrong of me not to point this out. Thanks for reading. Goodbye till next time!

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

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

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

Image by Karma Willow Designs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story That Almost Wasn’t: A Sculptural Walk Through Philadelphia

“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774

Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.

If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.

For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.

I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.

Bolt Of Lightning, by Isamu Noguchi

My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.

In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.

Milord La Chamarre, by Jean Dubuffet
Paint Torch, by Claes Oldenburg

After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.

The Bond, by James West
(Ben Franklin on left, George Washington on right)

In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.

Brushstroke Group, by Roy Lichtenstein
Rock Form (Porthcurno), by Barbara Hepworth

Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.

The Burghers Of Calais, by Auguste Rodin

I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.

My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.

Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.

Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias!)

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Rock On, Old-Timer!

Hey there! This piece is partly a commentary about growing old, a subject and a sad reality that I can’t seem to stop thinking about. And, consequently, writing about. I don’t obsess over it by any means, but as I mentioned in an article a month or two ago, I am very aware of the grains of sand that steadily and relentlessly are falling to the bottom of my hourglass. Man, I’m 71, at least 20 years older than I’d like to be. But hopefully I’ll be around for many more years, hitting the Publish button for scads more stories on this website. And if not, well, c’est la f*cking vie, as they say in Gay Paree.

Doom and gloom, however, will not dominate the present proceedings. Nah, that’s not me. Age-wise, I may be nearing lofty heights. (Nearing? Shit, I’m already there.) At heart, though, I’m still kind of a rabid 20-something.

Which is why I was bouncing like a rabbit on amphetamines a week and a half ago, on the way back home from the supermarket. I was in my trusty, humble, beat-up Honda Civic, model year 2001. This car is well-known in my neighborhood for its pitted paint and for the fabric langorously sagging from the roof’s underside. Hell, I’m pitted and sagging too. Naturally, then, the Honda and I get along real well.

I listen to music a lot when I’m in the car, but it’s pretty rare for my body to react like it did on the short drive home. My hips, my shoulders, my head were jumping around excellently, fueled by the energy coming through the speakers. I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t believe that not one, not two, but three catchy-as-hell, blistering rock tunes in a row accompanied me on the drive. I hadn’t been blasted like that in quite a while. It was good to be reminded that hard, driving rock and roll is hard to beat, and that, old as I am, I love potent rock as much as I ever did.

The music came over 88.5 FM, the frequency of  WXPN, a Philadelphia station. More important, these are the songs that I heard: Feels Alright, a brand new number by the young band The Nude Party; Do Anything You Wanna Do, a classic by Eddie And The Hot Rods that came out in 1977; Silver, from 2017, by the group Waxahatchee. You can listen to them now, if you wish, via YouTube. My epic tale continues below the YouTube offerings.

Yeah, ever since my late teens I’ve been under the power of snarling, soaring electric guitars, throbbing electric basses, and pounding drums. Not that I don’t like the less-wild forms of rock or other styles of music. I do. A lot. In fact, I’m into almost everything, except for rap, opera and Madonna-style pop. And I even get along with those genres at times.

But if I had to pick the one type of music that perfectly meshes with the hidden recesses of my inner self, there would be little contest. It would be vigorous, tuneful, guitar-driven rock. Were I a musician, that’s what I’d be playing. I’d man the electric bass, helping to hold the rest of the band together, and getting my rocks off stratospherically.

Alas, I have zero talent as a musician. Like most of the rest of humanity, I’m a listener, not a player. But there’s a lot to be said for listening when you have the capacity to go higher, higher, higher. What a rush! What a gas!

Why, then, don’t I listen to the recordings of powerful bands (The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, The Patti Smith Group, etc.) at home as much as I did when I was single? Well, my wife Sandy usually prefers that things be on the calmer side in the house, so that’s the main reason. And yes, I know I could listen through earphones, but I’ve always found them to be uncomfortable.

As for hearing the strong stuff in person, there’s not much of it in the burbs, where I live. Most of it is concentrated in clubs and theaters in The City Of Brotherly Love, an hour’s drive away. It’s tough to find a parking spot near those Philly venues, and the shows start late and aren’t over till after midnight. Which means that I’d arrive back home well into the wee small hours. Thus, when I attend concerts these days (I go to quite a few), they tend to be of non-hard-rock varieties in places within comfortable driving distance of my home.

But you know what? Those excuses in the above paragraph are lame. I know for a fact that a smattering of people in my age bracket go to the music venues that I’ve been avoiding. They’re not embarrassed to shake and groove among music lovers 40 or more years younger than them. And neither am I. That’s why, a few days into our new year, I’m making one resolution: I am going to start visiting some of Philadelphia’s rock meccas now and then. Johnny Brenda’s, Boot And Saddle, and Union Transfer, here I come! It will be fun. It will be soul-satisfying. And I’d better do it while I can, because those frigging grains of sand have no plans to take a break.

(As I always mention, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

Will Santa Claus Make His Rounds This Year, Or Will The Job Fall To Me?

A few nights ago my cell phone began to ring 10 minutes after my wife Sandy and I lit the menorah candles on the eighth and final night of Chanukah. A secular Jew, I’m about as unreligious as they come, but I’m okay with Chanukah candle-lighting. When aglow, those slender wax sticks look so sweet and peaceful, they come pretty close to making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Or something or other on that order.

The caller’s name didn’t appear on my phone’s screen, and the displayed phone number didn’t register with me at all. But being in a relaxed and welcoming mood after watching the candles burn down for a while, I did what I ordinarily wouldn’t have done. In other words, I answered the phone.

I opened my mouth to talk, but the caller beat me to it. “Neil! I’ve lost my way! I have enormous doubts about my purpose in life, about my abilities to continue doing my good work, about whether the world really needs me, about . . . ”

I cut him off. “My man, calm down! I hear you. But I haven’t a clue who I’m talking to. Who the f*ck is this?” I yelled.

“Neil, it’s Santa Claus. You gave me your number two years ago, remember? I’d have shown up in person, but I’m too down in the dumps to even open my front door and go for a walk. Anyway, a phone call is a lot easier than flying thousands of miles in a sleigh to get to your house. Bottom line is that my wife’s not here to help me, and I couldn’t think of a better person to speak with than you.”

“Thank you, Santa. I’m humbled,” I said. “But where’s your wife?”

“Neil, don’t get me started on Mrs. Claus. She’s gotten so fed up with my moods and angst, she’s threatening to file for divorce. And she split a week ago. Last I heard she was flaunting her fine Nordic bod on Ipanema Beach, in Rio. Yeah, she enrolled in Weight Watchers last year and the program worked. She used to be on the plump side, to put it charitably, but now the girl is smokin’ hot! Who could blame her if she never comes home to the frigid North Pole?”

“Santa, oh Santa,” I said, “I’m so sorry. She’ll come back, though. I mean, there’s no better catch than you. Just give her time. What can I do to help?”

“Neil, my problems are so deep rooted, a plumber couldn’t flush them out. I appreciated the help you gave me two years ago [click here to read all about it], and as you know you weren’t the first to keep me focused on my daunting job. But, brother, this time I think I’ve had it. I suppose I’m having an existential crisis. Neil, I don’t see how I can do my toy deliveries anymore. Someone else might have to take over. I’ve done it long enough.”

“Santa, please reconsider. There’s no one who can replace you.”

“Well, then the world would have to adjust. I really need to start thinking about myself at this point. Maybe Judaism holds the answers for me. Should I convert, move to Miami Beach and start wearing that little skull cap . . . what do you call that thing, Neil?”

“It’s a yarmulke, Santa.”

“Yes! I’d look good in one of those, don’t you think? They’re usually in black, right? Black would match my belt, and I’d be happy to ditch my silly hat with the pom-pom on the end.”

“But, Santa, why the heck would you want to convert to Judaism? The Christian world relies on you. You’re one of its bedrocks. Santa, you’re an icon, someone who should have been awarded a Nobel Prize decades ago, maybe in best costume design. Oh wait, it’s the Oscars that do costume design. Well, shit, then you should have been awarded an Oscar!”

“Thank you, Neil. Thank you. You know, an Oscar would look grand sitting above my fireplace. Which reminds me, I’ve got to throw another log on the fire. I’m freezing my ass off. Be back in a minute.”

A minute passed, and then, true to his word, Santa was back.

“That’s better,” he said. “It’s starting to feel nice and toasty again inside this icebox that I call my house. I tell you, whoever they were that decided to start inhabiting these far northern regions ages ago were out of their freakin’ minds!”

“Neil,” Santa then continued, “I’m uncomfortable bringing this up. It’s a favor of the highest magnitude: If I decide to bail out from my job this month, is there a chance you might fill in for me? I know that Christmas isn’t your holiday, but who else can I ask? I barely know anybody, living up here in no-man’s land. Keith Richards sat on the sleigh with me last year [click here to read about it], but he wasn’t much help, to tell you the truth. He spent half the time strumming an air guitar, so there’s no way I’d ask him to carry the load all by himself. Neil, a large segment of humanity might have to count on you!”

Stunned, I didn’t answer right away. Finally, I spoke. “Listen,” I said, “I want no part of this. I’ve got hemorrhoids, Santa! Raging, powerful hemorrhoids. Endless hours of sitting in your sleigh might be the end of me. But I’ll do it if I have to! I’m that kind of guy!

“You’re the best, Neil. The best! Well, actually I don’t know you very well, so there’s a good chance I’m wrong about that. In any event, you have my thanks.”

“But here’s the thing, Santa,” I said. “I’m going to go outside in a few minutes. And I’m going to walk around my neighborhood, taking pictures of the pretty Christmas lights that lots of people have put up outside their houses. Then I’m going to write a story about our conversation. And I’ll add a few of the Christmas lights photos to the article. Read that story, Santa. And look at the photos! The lights in my neighborhood got you back on track in 2016, and I’ve got a strong feeling that they will turn you into your jolly ol’ self again this year. And if they do, there will be plenty of time left for you to pull everything together and make your Christmas deliveries. Okay, Santa? Do we have a deal?”

“Deal, Neil.”

“Goodbye, Santa. I’m ready to do my duty, if need be, but not as ready as you had better be a few days from now. Man up, Santa. Man up!”

(As I always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Thanks.)

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Picking Pix: A Photography Story

It’s a wonderful thing, photography. At a push of a button we can immortalize anything or anyone we want: flower gardens; baseball games; birds in flight; bird crap on car windows; pals; lovers; favorite cousins; despised in-laws. You name it, somebody has taken its picture.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 2018)

Those obvious notions came to mind a few nights ago when I decided to green light an essay about photography, whose final form you are now looking at. I’ve written before on the subject. And that’s because I get a soul-satisfying kick out of shutterbugging.

Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 2018)

That kick had lain dormant for decades, but vigorously popped out of its coffin in January 2016 when I came into possession of my first smartphone. An iPhone, it struck me as miraculous. Hell, was there anything it couldn’t do? Well, the phone balked at fetching my dog-eared slippers and washing my dirty underwear. But other than that, it was primo.

Philadelphia’s Powelton Village section (February 2018)

And the phone of course came equipped with a camera lens that, despite its incredibly tiny size, took, for the most part, damn good pictures. Good enough for me, anyway. Within no time I was snapping away. And decorating my journalistic output with some of the results of those snaps (prior to that, my wife Sandy took the photos for the stories). Man, I had lucked out, if you want to look at it that way. Meaning, even though I was a whole lot older than I could believe, depressingly older, at least I had added two worthy creative endeavors (writing and photography) to the late autumn/early winter of my years. Excuse me for a moment, please, while I now resume watching those f*cking grains of sand continue to fall, fall, fall to the bottom of my hourglass. Oh, my breaking heart!

Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (October 2018)

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. Here’s the way I look at photography: Many of us, including yours truly, can’t draw or paint or sculpt worth a shit. But it’s not too hard for anyone to be pleased with their photographs. All you have to do is decide what angle you want to take a photo from and what person or object should be its focus. Then you frame the shot and, if needed, adjust the light level. At that point the magic moment has arrived in which to tap the camera’s button. Voila! Mission likely accomplished.

Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s an art form made for us all.

Coast Guard Beach, Truro, Cape Cod (October 2018)

So, what’s the deal with the photographs that I’ve included in this essay? Let me start by saying that all of them date from 2018 and that they are among the 1,000+ that I took during the year. None of them have appeared in previous articles. I suppose that my aim is simple: To publish photographs on this page that strike my artsy-fartsy sensibilities just right. Each has some combination of shapes, colors, angles and textures that I can’t deny. Yeah, these photos do something to me.

James “Blood” Ulmer, Philadelphia (April 2018)

Take the one of musician James “Blood” Ulmer, for instance. Ulmer, unaccompanied, performed deep, heavy blues in April in Philadelphia at the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. The golden hues of his outfit and the jumble of audio equipment nearly encasing him give the picture a techno/alien quality. “Prepare for blastoff,” the photo is announcing. “Destination unknown. Mysteries await.”

Tree in Santa Fe (May 2018)

And I like the grand grooves in the Santa Fe tree, and its thick, finger-like upper sections. But what gives the photo its distinctiveness is the modest yellow, black and red traffic sign standing contentedly next to the behemoth.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (May 2018)

The deeply pock-marked cliffs at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument are modern art taken to an elemental extreme. And the photo of trees, hills and houses in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico would have floored Paul Cézanne, so Cézanne-ish is it in its blocky composition. Talk about pure luck. I took that picture from a moving car. Nearly every other picture that I snapped from within the car that day was meh.

Cezanne-like scene from Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico (May 2018)

I’ll mention one more snapshot, that of the sunset at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. The picture appears almost theatrical in its lighting. The light on the picnic bench came from my car’s headlights. The car’s engine was running because it was as cold as a witch’s tit that night, and I jumped out only for a second, documenting the beautiful sunset with my phone’s camera and then admiring the view again from back inside the heated vehicle.

Mayo Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod (October 2018)

By the way, like every picture herein, the sunset pic is unmanipulated. Being a natural sort of guy, so natural that I prance naked in my dreams, I wasn’t about to crop, enhance, rotate or do anything else to my babies via the photographic software that came with my computer. Popeye The Sailor once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If my photos could talk, each would quote those immortal words.

Marshland near an Atlantic Ocean inlet, Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

In closing, I’ll add that all of the selections come from New Mexico, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, places that I’ve written about a lot this year. They are good places, fascinating and colorful and full of the unexpected.

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

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Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

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

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

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

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

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

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

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

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

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