You Don’t Find Memphis Slim And Ludwig van Beethoven In The Same Story Every Day

If I’ve had a true passion for nearly all of my life, it’s music. The high decibel kinds above all. I may be at least 20 years past my prime, but I still like to fill my body regularly with driving beats and pounding drums and merciless sonic assaults. Yeah, hard rock, wailing jazz and raucous blues are very alright with this boy.

Having said that, I now will wimp out by adding that, often when I’m listening to music, I don’t care to be blasted into outer space. My constitution ain’t that far from the delicate side, so there’s a limit to how many wham-bam vibrations I can healthfully deal with. That’s why I keep at hand a welcome mat for mellow music. Hell, mellow is like Jell-O, right? There’s always room for Jell-O.

And I don’t mean that in a slighting way. Not at all. Sure, aggressive music is what you turn to when you need to shimmy and shake, when you’ve got to let the lava flow.

But music on the calmer side of the spectrum can work wonders too. Everybody knows that. How many more shoulder knots and jaws half-frozen in the clenched position would there be in the world were it not for the likes of James Taylor, Alicia Keys and Willie Nelson? A lot.

But you know what? Music, whatever its intensity level will, if you’re lucky, do something far better than what I mention above. Namely, transport you to purer realms. For me, I find that it works in different ways, depending on the nature of what I’m listening to. When it comes to hard-driving music, long solos from electric guitars (and, less frequently, from other instruments) sometimes capture me. I’ll close my eyes, find the gentle currents underlying the musicians’ explorations, and in moments will be hopelessly at ease, happily drifting in the ethers. These are out-of-body experiences, natural highs.

Calmer music, on the other hand, doesn’t bring me outside myself. What it does at times, though, is open a space within me that I ordinarily am out of touch with. This is a peaceful place. The noise of the world isn’t there. I settle into it and then let beautiful sounds wash over me.

What’s the difference between the two types of phenomena? Well, the first involves awe, meaning that I can barely believe the sweep of the magic carpet ride, nor my good fortune in occupying lofty regions in the first place. When the ride ends I find it hard to decompress.

Awe, however, doesn’t enter the picture in scenario number two, a more down-to-earth experience. It’s similar to when I’m in a museum, checking out this and that work of art, and meet a piece that immediately captivates me. Scenario number two isn’t as astonishing as its sibling, but it’s damn well good enough. The more smitten we are by the world around us, the better.

Naturally, I would like to add specific musical examples of both forms of enchantment to this story. But in a sense that would be cheating. You see, when I first sat down to compose the present piece, I didn’t anticipate that it would squirm around, mutate and head in the directions that it has. Awe wasn’t part of the original story idea. Any further mention of magic carpet rides will therefore wait for another day. Instead, I will say a few words about the two numbers, both of them members of the calmer side of the musical spectrum, that originally were meant to center and anchor that which you’re now reading. They struck me just right when I heard them, stopping me in my tracks to bask in their fineness.

I haven’t been to any concerts in the past week, but at home and in the car I’ve imbibed plenty of music. Many genres, many levels of intensity. As good as much of the music was, only Mother Earth, by the American bluesman Memphis Slim, and Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major, by Ludwig van Beethoven (as performed by André Watts), separated themselves from the pack.

I was in the bathroom late at night brushing my teeth when Mother Earth came over the airwaves. I’ll be damned if I didn’t put down the toothbrush and listen hard. The song, a commentary on mortality, possesses a deep soul and unaffected beauty that can’t be denied or resisted. Memphis Slim, who wrote Mother Earth, recorded more than one version of the song. The one that I heard was the first, from 1951. Here it is. That’s Slim on vocals and piano.

Memphis Slim (born 1915, died 1988) was a big talent. He had what it takes when it comes to singing, piano playing and composing. And Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770, died 1827) was no slouch either — What, you mean that’s common knowledge?

I’m making a heretical statement, however, when I say that Beethoven is not among my very favorite classical composers. For example, I’ll take Haydn, Bach and Sibelius over him. But Piano Sonata No. 13, which Ludwig wrote during 1800 and 1801? Man, its grace goes straight to the heart. I was sitting on the living room sofa when I heard it on the radio a few days after putting down my toothbrush for Memphis Slim. After the first three notes I was convinced that it is something special. Several listenings later, I still feel that way.

Goodbye till next time, gentle readers. Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias. And, oh yeah, here’s the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 13:

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It’s Old, And Now It’s Almost Gone: Goodbye, Honda Civic

If it had been up to me, the Honda Civic that my wife Sandy and I bought fresh from the factory in 2001 would still be parked in front of our house, ready for action. I’ve always liked that car. Even though its body paint eventually mimicked the appearance of my age-mottled skin, and the fabric on the underside of its roof has drooped like a cow’s udder for years, I didn’t care. Sure, a paint job and a fabric repair would have been just what the doctor ordered, but I’ve got a knack for putting things off. Ergo, I happily continued to drive the Honda in its unattractive condition, allowing it to take me around my immediate area. In its old age, no way was I going to test the car’s capabilities on a long-distance drive. For modest daily transportation needs, however, the Civic has performed its job damn well.

On the other hand, Sandy has disliked the Honda, which I fully admit is an eyesore, ever since its appearance went south. She wouldn’t be seen as a passenger in said eyesore. Nor, as follows, would she drive it. She therefore stuck exclusively with our other car, a much, much newer model that I also motor around in a lot. And, needless to say, she also wasn’t thrilled that the Honda was on full display, for everyone to see, in the neighborhood. Who could blame her?

That’s why I promised last year that I’d help to make the Honda disappear by replacing it with a modern vehicle, one that looks good and is equipped with far more safety features than the Honda possesses. One situation or another kept getting in the way of that happening. But finally a miracle occurred a few weeks ago. Hallelujah, a new Toyota has become part of the family!

So, now we possess two recent-vintage vehicles. Sandy and I share them. And the Honda has been relegated to the bottom of the driveway, behind our house, where it awaits its fate. In a matter of days it will be towed away, a donation to a worthy charitable organization. I suppose they’ll get a few hundred bucks for it. I’ll be sorry to see it go.

Dig the drooping fabric inside the car.

But why will I be sorry? It’s a good question, one I probably wouldn’t have thought about had I not decided to bless cyberspace with a Honda tale. Luckily, a few insights have popped into my head.

I’ve never been too much of a materialistic sort of guy. Partly that’s because I had only a small amount of funds during the first 12 or so years of my adult life. And even though I’ve done all right financially since then, I haven’t felt the need to make up for lost time, acquisition-wise. Fact is, most of my possessions mean little to me anyway. Except for my vinyl album collection. Vinyl is f*cking cool, after all. And for a few pieces of artwork that tug at my emotional core. And for the Honda Civic, which, it’s only now dawned on me, reminds me of some qualities that I like and admire in people.

The Civic, which I’m going to refer to in the past tense here, was easy to be with, unpretentious, and made its way through life in good spirits despite my neglect of the face that it presented to the world. It also was reliable, having had very few mechanical issues in its lifetime, and, by virtue of its reliability, demonstrated excellent loyalty towards me.

Is it any wonder then that I felt totally at home when I slipped behind the Honda’s steering wheel? Being inside that car was like spending time with a good friend. I was on the same wavelength as the Honda. I understood it. Our personalities melded admirably. We were a compatible pair that had grown old together very comfortably.

I enjoy but have yet to develop anything resembling a love affair with either of the vehicles that Sandy and I now drive. And I’m nearly positive that I never will, which is okay. As long as they get me from here to there and back, that’s all that really matters. But they are too high-tech for me to fall heavily for them, too full of buttons and knobs and adjustment options and display screens. All of that places them far from the warm and cuddly section of my spectrum that the Civic occupied. These two newer cars don’t remind me of the sorts of people that I want to be around.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll go out for a final spin in the Honda before it’s towed away. Haven’t decided yet. Whether I do or don’t, the deep green Honda Civic, once as handsome as hell, soon will be gone from my life forever. Shit, I’m going to miss that old boy.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

The Flowers In My Neighborhood Weren’t Wilting, But I Was: A Walking Story

It’s been hotter than hell — well, maybe not quite that hot, but hot enough — in the Philadelphia region, where I live, during much of July. And it’s been similarly hot in countless other portions of Planet Earth. You don’t need me to tell you that global warming has had a strong grip on our orb’s metaphorical balls for many years now, and that the situation is only getting worse.

Anyway, the heat was especially nasty in my area on the 21st and 22nd of July, days during which the highs came this close to hitting the fabled 100°F (38°C) mark, ultimately falling a degree or two short. The humidity was impressive too. Nice weather, no? Like countless millions around the globe, though, I had little to complain about. That’s because I stayed inside my air-conditioned home most of the time. Sure, air conditioning is made possible largely by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, thus contributing significantly to the global warming crisis. But what’s a guy to do? Turn off the A/C and melt like a Popsicle? Shit, my balls, which aren’t metaphorical, wouldn’t appreciate becoming liquified.

That unfortunate possibility notwithstanding, at 11:45 AM on the 22nd I decided to throw caution to the wind by launching myself into the elements. I’d had enough of being an indoors wuss. The time had arrived to become an outdoors wuss! I smeared sunscreen lotion all over my wrinkled, age-spotted face and then drank about 20 ounces of water to up my hydration level. Those important tasks accomplished, at noon I stepped outside with one main idea in mind: I was going to walk on many blocks of my suburban neighborhood in search of pretty flowers. The many flowering trees and azalea bushes in my hood all had dropped their blossoms well over a month ago, but whatever other flowers were around (and I knew that there wouldn’t be a whole lot) would have little chance to escape my eagle eye. Off I went. The walk turned out to be a pretty good one, two miles in length and one hour in duration.

My wife and I moved to our abode 14 years ago. And somewhere in the middle of those years I came to realize that there ain’t an amazing quantity of summertime flowers on the two hundred or more properties surrounding us. There’s no explanation for this. It’s just one of those things. I mean, all of the residents keep their lawns and shrubbery trimmed nicely, so it’s not that they don’t care about appearances. But the zing factor from flowers could be far, far better. The color that dominates is green. Green lawns. Green tree leaves. Green bushes. These two photos show my neighborhood’s typical summertime looks:

Yet, of course, there are exceptions. And I dug them. Here and there were excellent flower beds. And here and there were A-OK flowering bushes, including Rose Of Sharon shrubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rose Of Sharon, there having been several of them on the front and back lawns of the house I grew up in decades ago. And they grow brilliantly in my current backyard. Theirs are the only flowers to make an appearance on my property this time of year. I’m glad that a previous owner of my house planted those bushes because I, one of the world’s most inept and lazy gardeners, wouldn’t have taken that step.

Rose Of Sharon shrub in my backyard. This is the only photo taken on my property.

If there’s one flower for which I have an even softer spot than Rose Of Sharon blossoms, it’s the sunflower. Is that because Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings elevated it to iconic status? Maybe. Or is it because of the neat, trim house, in Manhattan’s quaint West Village enclave, that I walked past sometime in the 1970s? Lofty sunflowers grew in front of that small structure, contrasting magnificently with its white exterior. It’s possible that flowers never had made an impression on me like those did. And maybe none have since then. After all, here I am, all these years later, remembering them most fondly. And writing about them.

Yes, I encountered sunflowers on my neighborhood trek the other day. I was two blocks from my house, heading home and sweating like crazy. Despite all the water I drank before leaving home, my lips were unpleasantly dry. I was wilting. Lo and behold, at a corner property I saw them, a long row of sunflowers grinning at me. I stopped to say hello. I took their picture. And I’m going to go back and look at them again after I finish writing this essay. The world needs a lot of things. Peace, compassion and tolerance, for instance. And vastly more sunflowers would be very good too.

Sunflowers

In closing, it should be noted that the blazing Sun and extreme temperature kept things uneventful and quiet in the hood during my walk. The streets were almost empty of people. I saw but one human other than myself. Few cars passed me. And for the first time ever on my strolls in my town, not only did I not encounter any dogs, I didn’t hear barking from inside or outside their houses either. Not until I was about to enter my home at 1:00 PM, that is, when the distinctive yaps of a next-door neighbor’s pet escaped through closed doors and windows. Inside my house I stepped. I checked my balls. They seemed not much the worse for wear. Hallelujah!

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, I thank you.)

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

An Old Guy’s Photography Story

Hallelujah! The creation of this story has allowed me to take it easier on myself, to give myself a bit of a breather from the more involved pieces that I normally launch into cyberspace. Two thumbs up for that! I’m an old guy, you see. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. My mind wanders into spaces that it barely can squeeze out of. And let’s not overlook the discomfort that two of my private parts (the globular ones) are currently causing me. Because of all of the above, yesterday I came this close to throwing in the writing towel for a while. Meaning, I was set to let lots of time go by, a month or more, before attempting to produce a fresh entry for this website.

Ambler, Pennsylvania. February 15, 2019
Philadelphia,, Pennsylvania. March 16, 2019

But no! In the end I couldn’t let that happen. For one thing, the CEO of the blogosphere, Tammy Whammy, wouldn’t stand for it. I’ve been on a short leash with Ms. Whammy for the last year and a half. Hell, she has made it perfectly clear to me that she is displeased about the decreasing frequency with which I’ve been posting articles during that period. And I’m not thrilled about it either. But I’m an old guy. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. Ah crap, I already said that, didn’t I? Let’s move on.

Philadelphia. April 11, 2019
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. April 13, 2019

When I press the Publish button for this story, nearly two weeks will have passed since my previous opus appeared. Fairly lengthy gaps like that now are not uncommon for me (in my peppier days I graced the ethers weekly with new material). Will the wait have been worth it? Maybe so, if you like to look at photographs. For that’s what this piece basically is: a collection of photos that I took during the first half of the current year. None of them have appeared previously. More important, I like them.

Philadelphia (near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art). May 1, 2019
Edinburgh, Scotland. May 23, 2019

Yeah, scrolling through my photos was about all I had to do to birth this article. Didn’t have to engage in much thinking or research. I’m down with that! But, I have to admit, during the writing sessions I did spend a few hours contemplating my navel, which, for reasons that my doctors are at a loss to understand, has drifted three inches southward since early 2018. “Don’t worry about it, though, Neil,” they’ve all said to me. “You’re old. It’s just one of those things.”

Edinburgh. May 28, 2019
Edinburgh. May 28, 2019

All right then, what we have here are ten photographs. I’ve placed them chronologically. Five were taken in daylight and five after the Sun set. I’m partial to those nighttime shots, especially the final four of them. The mysteries and moodiness that they contain are irresistible to me. Location-wise, four photos are from Philadelphia, two from the Philadelphia suburbs, and four from Edinburgh, Scotland. Those locales are where my ass has spent most of its time so far in 2019.

Edinburgh. May 29, 2019
Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. June 23, 2019

Speaking of Scotland, my wife and I were there in May, as some of you know. Miraculously, I was able to churn out three stories about our Scottish sojourn. They came out in June. That was a lot of writing. A lot of taxation on my senior citizen brain. I’ve heard about old dudes who, from out of the blue, become all Rambo-like, able to face life’s challenges powerfully and expertly. Maybe something like that is what happened to me, scribe-wise, with the Scotland pieces. But now I’m back to my regular old-guy self. And as it turns out, even though I didn’t have to work too hard to compose this essay, my battery is practically drained. I need a snooze. Nothing I can do about it. Repeat after me: “C’est la f*cking vie!”

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

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

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.)

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.)

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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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