The End

Magnificent and valued readers, do not be alarmed by the title of this opus. It is not being published posthumously. Yours truly, a vaguely trustworthy septuagenarian, thankfully has not yet reached his expiration date, and hopefully that date won’t arrive for at least 20 years. But, as with pretty much everything in life, who the f*ck knows?

Almost inconsequentially though, the title does pertain to an opened box of pasta that had been sitting in one of my kitchen cabinets since 2006, give or take a year. My wife Sandy and I finally got around to tossing it a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that we hadn’t paid any attention to the box, which is what it deserved, as lousy-tasting as the pasta was the one and only time we prepared it back then.

We’d purchased the pasta, known as Barilla Plus, because Sandy was somewhat down on regular wheat products and was all for multi-this-and-that concoctions. Barilla Plus was the latter, what with lentils, chick peas, oats, spelt (what the hell is spelt?), barley and flaxseed comprising major parts of the dough. One night we cooked and ate the stuff, probably covering it with a good tomato sauce. It bit the big one, to resurrect a phrase that was popular on my Vermont college campus during the hippie era. Or, to put it another way, the pasta sucked, its flavor remarkably strange and unappealing.

As far as expiration dates are concerned, Barilla Plus’s was long ago. The box said the pasta would be best if used by September 2007. Being generous by adding two or three years to that, I estimate that the true expiration date (the date on which the product in effect died) took place no later than in 2010. Well, our box of Barilla Plus at last has been buried, with no mourners present, in wherever it is that my township dumps its residents’ garbage.

However, there is more to this essay than a frigging box of pasta. A lot more. Because when it comes to mourners, Sandy and I came close to tears when we bid goodbye last month to our 2012 Hyundai Elantra. The vehicle, cute and comfortable and totally to our liking, had only 45,000 or so miles on it when, in early August, it was rear-ended two miles from our home by a careless driver. I wasn’t in the car when the collision took place. Only Sandy was, and the extremely good news is that she was unhurt.

Hyundai on the repair shop’s grounds

Not so for the Hyundai, whose rear sections crumpled like tissue paper. Man, the car looked bad, but it was drivable. And fixable, we assumed. We drove it home, and there the victim sat for a day or two in our driveway till arrangements were made, via our insurance company, to have it towed to a collision repair shop.

Well, no point going into all the details. The bottom line is that the insurance company ultimately decided that the cost of repairs was more than the car was worth. We’d be sent a check, for the car’s value as if it were undamaged, said the claim handler. And that’s why, two weeks after the accident, Sandy and I went to the collision shop to clear out our belongings from the Elantra.

Pitiful baby . . . that car had been awfully good to us. I found it hard to believe that I’d never again sit behind its steering wheel while its motor was running. On the shop’s grounds, Sandy and I emptied the car and hung around for longer than we’d expected. We patted the car, looked at it longingly, and silently remembered the many good times we’d had in places to which our Hyundai had taken us. Shit, that big hunk of metals and plastics and fabrics was dear to our hearts. I hadn’t realized that before. But in saying goodbye, I did.

Our Toyota

We’ve replaced the Hyundai with a new car, a Toyota Corolla, whose fate, with luck, will be far better than its predecessor’s. And the Hyundai is now in its graveyard, having been towed, two days after Sandy and I paid our respects, to a facility whose mission was to take it apart, salvaging as much as possible. Graveyard I guess is the wrong word, seeing that much of the Hyundai will find new life in other man-made bodies. Which doesn’t change the reality of the Elantra being dead and gone. Obviously.

There is an uncountable number of things in life that are worse than losing a car. Still, I’m damn pissed at the person who whammed and bammed my former wheels. “Up yours, dear,” is what I’d say to her if I were to pay her an unannounced visit, a visit that is possible because her address is listed on the police report that the accident generated. “You have caused me and my wife a lot of problems and expense. Did I forget to say up yours? I didn’t forget? That’s okay. I’ll say it again anyway. Up yours!”

Hey, typing up yours three times, and now a fourth, has made me feel better. I knew that blogging would pay unexpected dividends one day! Didn’t think, though, that it would take over three years (I launched this website in April 2015) for a dividend to manifest itself.

On that note, boys and girls, I shall ease this essay into its conclusion. Please drive safely, as most of our roads are congested and crammed with potential dangers. And stay away from my new Toyota, or else!

(As I say at the end of nearly each and every one of my pieces, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing. It’s good to share, or so we have been told.)

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When Opportunity Knocks: A Book (Falconer), A Movie (Leave No Trace), And Me

Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.

And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!

In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.

Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.

In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.

Yes, Cheever could write.

Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.

And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.

Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.

The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.


In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.

But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?

Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.

Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.

I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.

Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

Walking Away From A Cold

Where the f*ck have I been that I wasn’t aware that a summer cold is a thing, a topic of active discussion, and probably has been a member of the thing category for a good long while? Had I ever heard the term before? Possibly. But if I had it didn’t stick like glue to my brain cells. Anyway, a week or so ago two people mentioned the words when they learned of my ailment. In sympathy, one of them said that “summer colds are the worst.” The other said that he knew of someone else who was suffering from the symptoms of this dastardly condition.

Summer colds. Are they different from colds that you might pick up at any other time of the year? Beats me. In any event, I was down and partly out for the count during the first week of August. The cold was heavy. It was a summer cold, you dig?

I went through Kleenex tissues as if they were salted peanuts, so full of amazingly robust mucus was my respiratory system. I moaned and groaned like a wuss. I had less energy than a used flashlight battery. But eventually my body pulled itself together and I began to feel pretty damn good.

Yeah, pretty damn good indeed. And so, on August 8 I decided that I needed to stretch my legs in a meaningful way in environs that might inspire and intrigue me. Looking forward to a mini-adventure, off I headed to Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town that looks like a town (Hatboro has two long strings of stores and businesses along a main street, which is crisscrossed by tidy residential blocks). In other words, it’s not a hodgepodge collection of housing developments and strip malls. I’ve been to Hatboro many times, what with it being only three miles from my home, but never had gone on more than a 15-minute ramble there. At 10:30 AM I parked my car on Hatboro’s shopping drag (York Road), fed the parking meter and set off.

York Road’s shopping section is lengthy, extending for half a mile. The stores are mostly of the mom and pop variety. I’ve often wondered how most of them stay in business, as I’ve never seen Hatboro’s sidewalks even remotely crowded. But stay in business they somehow do. You have a hardware store, several barber shops, bakeries, delis, diners, a big furniture store . . . and I’ll end the list now to avoid this becoming a 2,000-word essay. None of the shops are glitzy. Glitziness has little place in Hatboro, a blue collar area and proud of it.

Not unusual for me, I took a lot of photos during the walk. At first I concentrated on bouncily-decorated storefronts and nifty store signs. Who would turn a thumbs-down on the Hatboro Barber Shop’s facade, a parade of red, white and blue? Or on Village Hardware’s “We Fix Stuff” sign, which succinctly (and hopefully accurately) tells a story. Nobody, I’m sure.

And when I wandered off York Road into the neighborhoods, I was surprised by the goodly number of old, beautiful homes. Had to snap some of their images, of course, one of which is directly above.

But halfway through the stroll my focus changed unexpectedly, as I became enchanted with the idea of looking for bright yellows. I guess it was a riveting yellow (and red and black) traffic sign on a residential block, meant to announce that a stop sign was ahead, that put the notion into my head.  That and the fact that I was getting some exercise on a supremely sunny day, the Sun being the finest yellow friend that any of us ever will have. Ergo, a patch of yellow flowers aside a house became fodder for my phone’s camera. As did the golden arches of Hatboro’s McDonald’s franchise.

But enough about yellows. Let’s face it, in most regards, the walk ultimately wasn’t very different from nearly any neighborhood walk that one might take. It lasted one and a quarter hours and encompassed two miles. Nothing special about those figures. But here’s what I’m getting at: I enjoyed the heck out of the walk. I was glad to have recovered from my illness, glad once again to be outside breathing freely and taking in the sights.

Which is why it would have been very, very cool if the lyrics to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah had been playing in my mind as I walked around. You know them:

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

Alas, they weren’t. Still, I’m in tune with the song’s message. Meaning, I know enough not to take things for granted. Hopefully many walks lie ahead. Onward!

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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I’ve Got My Faves. Which Are Yours? (Art On Wheels, Part Three)

8:51 AM

Last Friday, the first day without rain in what seemed like forever for southeast Pennsylvania, I decided pretty early in the morning to scour the grounds of local businesses in pursuit of colorful designs and nifty patterns. I’d gone on such journeys twice before, penning the recaps for the publication that you’re currently staring at. And speaking of which, if you are interested in reading about Art On Wheels, parts one and two, then click here and here. Okay, with that matter out of the way, let’s now move on to my latest effort to spot and photograph good-looking trucks and vans.

8:55 AM

I left my suburban Philadelphia home at 8:45 AM. Six minutes later, near the delivery bays of my town’s supermarket, I parked my car and got out to snap a picture of a Maier’s truck that was filled with breads and rolls. Hey, not only did I like the looks of the truck, I also liked the feeling that immediately swelled up within me: Namely, that this was going to be a productive morning. I mean, the supermarket was the first place I visited, and right off the bat I’d hit pay dirt.

9:02 AM

Pay dirt. I knew from past experience that it wasn’t necessarily lurking everywhere. Hardly. For every truck and van worthy of attention there are 15 or more that are real plain Janes. Not only that, it ain’t possible to photograph the lookers, vehicularly-speaking, that are on the move. If I attempted to do so while I too was cruising along the road, then I’d now be writing this opus from six feet under.

9:11 AM

I’m here to report that things panned out. After immortalizing the Maier’s truck, I spent an additional, and fruitful, hour and 45 minutes on my project. In parking and delivery areas during that time I met plenty of trucks and vans, of which nine (including Maier’s) made the grade. And — bonus! — later in the day, while coming home from an ordinary shopping mission, I lucked out by crossing paths with a long, long trailer that was making a delivery to a Dunkin’ Donuts store about half a mile from my house. That bad boy was a slam f*cking dunk for me. And it brought the total up to 10.

9:30 AM

Ten excellent vehicles! That’s success in my oddball book. After all, this was a mission of serendipity. It was impossible for me to know what trucks, if any, would be at the locales I visited. Yeah, for some reason truck drivers don’t give me their delivery schedules. And one beauty, a Lehigh Valley dairy products truck, wasn’t where I’d have expected it to be. Instead of being in the delivery section of the Walmart mega-store on whose property it was parked, it was on the outskirts of Walmart’s enormous parking lot. Its driver was not in sight. Maybe she or he was reclining amidst the cargo, grabbing some ZZZs. Whatever, I was more than glad to find that truck.

9:36 AM

Well, I’ve placed the photographs of the 10 head-turners in the order that I encountered them, noting the time that I snapped each picture. And I’ve studiously gazed at the photographs, trying to come up with my top three. It wasn’t easy. For instance, I dig the Utz truck, which carried potato chips and other snacks. Its black, white and red design reminds me of the era, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, when those three colors, in conjunction, were de rigeur in the fashion world. But ultimately Utz didn’t make my cut. I guess that these days I’m more in tune with splashy lines and a palette that dips broadly into the color spectrum.

10:13 AM

Here then are my top three, in ascending order: Edible Arrangements, Lehigh Valley and Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, that Dunkin’ truck drives me wild. “I’m Number One! I’m Number One!” I can hear it yelling.

10:25 AM

And how about you? Which of these 10 exhibits particularly ring your bells? If you let me know in the comments section, indicating the ranking you give each of your top three choices, then I’ll compile the results. And once that’s done I’ll spend however many it takes of my remaining Earthly days to track down the winning vehicle. And when that mission is accomplished I’ll pin a big gold ribbon somewhere on its glorious body.

10:57 AM

One final note: Yes, I agree, it’s on the odd side for a geezer, let alone anyone, to get his jollies from trolling the parking and delivery areas of shopping centers, strip malls and stand-alone businesses, with art as his prey. What can I say? I like to wander. I like to look at pretty things. When it comes to jollies, my philosophy is to try and grab ’em where and when I can. Amen.

1:52 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

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

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

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

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

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

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

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

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

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

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

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

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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

Chimayo, New Mexico

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

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An Old-School Story (Four Great Songs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over and out.

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Books That Are Short And Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mark Seliger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stairs And I: An Exercise Story

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

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

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

Zipley parking garage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near the bottom of stairwell

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

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

The top of stairwell

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

View from middle of stairwell

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

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