A Grunion Story

A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.

What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.

So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.

Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.

“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”

“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).

Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”

“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”

“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.

I guess he did!

I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.

Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.

And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!

Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?

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

Advertisements

I Need To Sit Down! (Tales Of A Dazed And Confused Volunteer)

On Tuesdays I man my post in a medical office building in the suburbs of the City Of Brotherly Love. The hours I put in there are of the volunteer variety, and I’ve been putting them in for the last seven years. Hey, a guy has to do something meaty when he hangs up his spikes from paid employment, or he very well might find himself hopelessly engulfed by his living room sofa. And volunteering is one of the good options for the post-career stage of life — giving back, as millions of people like to say. Yeah, that’s true — I get satisfaction from helping others at this and at my other volunteer gigs. But keeping busy is really more to the point. You’ve got to watch out for that f**king sofa, believe me. Its grip can be ferocious.

The infamous information desk

In the medical office building, which is one small part of an enormous regional health system, I stand behind the information desk from 8:00 AM until noon, doing my best to respond in an accurate and semi-intelligent manner to visitors’ questions and concerns. Though there is a chair behind the desk, I rarely sit in it. I do enough sitting at home.

“What room is Doctor Watson in?” is an example of the questions commonly asked of me. Hey, I know the answer! Do I win a prize? “Take the elevator over there,” I say, pointing my admirably-toned right index finger in the elevator’s direction, “and go up to the second floor. He’s in room 222.”

Or, “Is there a bathroom on this floor?” I’m queried frequently.

“Yes, luckily for you there is,” I answer, pointing to the niche that leads to the female or male loo, depending.

Or, “I don’t have any cash to pay to get out of the parking garage,” many people say to me, regarding the cash-only policy of the multi-level structure behind the medical office building. “What should I do?”

“Well,” I’d like to say, “how about wising up and carrying some money with you at all times? You never know when you’ll need it, genius.”

But instead I tell them that the cashier will ask them to fill out a form so that a bill can be sent their way, and then will raise the gate to let them out.

Another fascinating view of the desk.

None of this sounds too exciting, right? But I like the job, you know. Lots of people come up to me during my shifts, and that volume of situations keeps me on my toes and agrees with me just fine. Still, I get a bigger charge when the unexpected, in addition to the usual, occurs, and once in a while that happens. Now, keep in mind that I medicate myself with LSD on a daily basis, the better to stay in touch with my innermost self, so possibly neither of the following incidents took place two Tuesdays ago. But I’m more than certain that they did.

I was behind the info desk, absentmindedly stroking the three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head, when a suspicious-looking, middle-aged guy burst in through the main entrance. I say suspicious because a sizeable firearm was poking out of the waistband of his jeans.

“Where’s the Wells Fargo bank branch around here, cuz?” he breathlessly shouted. “I’m lost, and I’m supposed to meet my three partners there in 10 minutes.”

“We’re going to hold up the place. Don’t tell nobody, okay?” he added, nodding at his waistband.

“I won’t, sir,” I said politely, somehow able to mask the panic that was threatening to turn my knees into jelly. “Your secret is safe with me. The bank you’re looking for is three blocks north of here on this same side of the street.”

“Appreciated, amigo,” the guy said as he bolted out the door to the car he’d parked in front of the building.

I took several deep breaths, regrouped and did a pretty good job of putting the incident out of my mind. Next day I read — that is, I’m quite sure I read — about the robbery. It was big news. The newspaper reported that all four participants had been captured by the police, 15 minutes after making their escape, in a nearby McDonald’s where they paid for their Happy Meals with a crisp $100 bill. Their server was in the midst of giving them change when the cops arrived. Apparently one of the bank employees had heard the robbers talking among themselves as they were exiting the bank. “I’m hungry,” one of the bad guys had said. “There’s a Mickey D’s a minute from here. Let’s go, boys. We’ll divvy up the loot after chowing down.”

That’ll teach ‘em. They should have gone to a Burger King instead. The food’s better there.

Anyway, the day’s electric jolts hadn’t ended. That’s because a real looker, somewhere in the second half of her 40s I’d say, came up to me about two hours after the pistol-packer departed. I’m a sucker for real lookers.

“Young man,” she said, eyeing me from head to toe and apparently not noticing that I am 20 or more years her senior, “I dropped my husband off an hour ago for his cardiologist appointment. Then I went shopping at the mall, and now I’m back. He was supposed to meet me here in the lobby after he was through. But he’s gone. Gone, I tell you. I think he skipped off with Susie, the physician’s assistant he’s never been able to keep his eyes off of. The girls at the front desk in the cardiology office looked high and low for him. There was no sign of my Kevin, who never checked in with them, and they couldn’t find that floozy Susie either.”

She took a few steps toward me, coming very close, and then, unbelievably, began to twirl playfully the aforementioned three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head. “Pretty boy,” she said, “how about you and I go back to my place right now for a coffee and maybe something more? I’ve seen you here before and I’ve always liked your style. I know that you and I would find much in common, if you get my drift. I’m Lola, by the way.”

What? Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Once again I began to feel weak in the knees, not to mention in the head. “Hang on a sec, Lola,” I said. “I need to think. But first I need to sit down, which is something I almost never do here.”

I plopped into the chair behind the information desk and closed my eyes. Almost immediately I found myself in dreamland. When I woke up 10 minutes later, Lola was nowhere in sight. Maybe she’d located Kevin. Or maybe she’d found companionship with the FedEx deliveryman who makes his rounds in the building at about 11:30 on Tuesday mornings. Probably I’ll never know. Whatever, I headed for the parking garage, got into my car and made my way home. I’d had enough excitement for one day.

(If you enjoyed this story, then don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing it. Thanks.)

Time For A Checkup

Soon after I hit the Publish button last week in the very wee hours of Wednesday morning, sending yet another of my numerous music-related narratives into the ethers, I also hit something else. Namely, the sack. Not a grand number of hours later I arose, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, which to tell you the truth isn’t a pretty sight. I mean, I don’t know about you, but my tail hasn’t been looking too good for the last 30 years.

Anyway, an hour later, over breakfast, I began thinking about what I might write for the following week’s article, which is the one you are reading right now. I let my mind wander. And when nothing came of that I focused on a few specific story ideas that I’d been contemplating for a while. But the time seemed not quite right for any of those to flower. Uh-oh, the clock was ticking. If I failed to produce, who knows what ghastly consequences might result?

Dr. Mel Ifluous (in a playful mood)

Beginning to panic a bit, sensing sweat beads making their way onto the palms of my hands, I suddenly realized that a more pressing concern than story writing was attempting to stare me in the face. Somehow I’d forgotten that this blog’s two-year anniversary had arrived. Which meant, of course, that a two-year checkup was highly in order. Dashing to the phone I dialed the number of my internist, Dr. Mel Ifluous. His office manager answered. After I explained the situation to her, stressing its urgency, she squeezed me in for an appointment the following day. Dr. Ifluous is a wonderful physician, perceptive and sharp. I knew I’d be in good hands.

At 11:00 AM Thursday I was ushered into Dr. I’s examining room. A few minutes later he entered. We shook hands.

“Neil, it’s good to see you. How are you feeling?” Dr. Ifluous asked while thumbing through my medical records. “Hmmm, you were here three months ago complaining about sunburnt ear lobes, an inability to look at any and all green vegetables, and pains in your fingers from prying off the caps, using only your digits, of the 20 or so bottles of beer you drink each day. I take it that my prescriptions and suggestions didn’t solve the problems. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here right now.”

“Dr. Ifluous, to the contrary. I’ve followed your advice and, for the first time in decades, I’m feeling fit as a fiddle. My ear lobes, as you can see, are as pale white as the rest of my body. I now eat arugula and its kin and green beans like they’re going out of style. And I’m down to 12 bottles of beer per day, which has made all the difference in the world to my fingers. Doctor, I thank you.”

“This is good news, Neil. Why then, though, are you here?”

“Doctor, I made this appointment not for me, but for my blog. You see, I began the blog almost exactly two years ago, and I’ve written quite a few articles for it during that time. Two years is a long stretch, Doctor. Things can go wrong. Basically, I’m worried about the blog. I’m uncertain about its health. It needs a checkup.”

“I understand, Neil. I understand. What exactly are your concerns? I look at your stories now and then and I have to tell you that they seem alright to me.”

“It’s very nice of you to say that, Dr. Ifluous. But I’m not so sure. What’s bothering me more than anything are the topics I write about and the tone I take. Wouldn’t you say that my stories seem kind of light and fluffy? That too many of them are just plain loopy? And that my impressionistic ruminations about music, art and nature really aren’t making any kind of difference? Doctor, I’ve been thinking that I should move in headier directions and start writing about politics, science, religion, philosophy, not to mention the complexities of human relationships. The blog might be far superior if I did.”

Dr. Ifluous gave his chin a thoughtful rub, adjusted his eyeglasses and then laid my medical records on his desk. Looking deep into my eyes he said, “Neil, I’ve known you for a long time and, to be honest, you’ve never struck me as a PhD sort of guy. What do you know about philosophy, for instance? Tell me a thing or two about Kierkegaard and Sartre.”

“Well, Doctor, they both lived in Europe, right? I’m fairly sure about that. And Sartre, I think, smoked cigarettes by the truckload. Anything more I’d have to take a look at Wikipedia — that’s what it’s there for, you know.”

“Very deep, Neil, very deep. And please expound upon human dynamics.”

“Uh, that’s a complicated area. One thing I’m confident in saying is that life is like a checkout counter . . . you’re usually on line in one way or another.”

“Huh? I have no idea what that means. Neil, sit back and take a deep breath. Good. Now, listen to me. Go home, take two aspirin and don’t call me in the morning. Your blog is healthy. It is what it is meant to be. So, tell me . . . what’s your next story going to be about?”

“Doctor Ifluous, I wish I knew. Once I sit down to write a piece the writing process goes pretty smoothly. But before that, trying to come up with something to write about — that’s the tricky part.”

“Neil, keep on truckin’. That’s all I can say.” With those words of wisdom, Doctor Ifluous got up from his chair and left the room, with me on his heels. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

 

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

Up, Up And Away (High As A Kite On Music)

As I barrel down the highway that before year’s end will bring me to the road marker labeled The Big 7-0, assuming that I don’t kick off before then, I mean it when I say that I consider myself a fortunate guy. I’ve got a couple of biggies to worry about — who doesn’t? But for the most part I’m rolling along pretty nicely, doing most of the sorts of things that gave me a bang years ago, and still getting a bang from them. Such as palling around with my wife Sandy and with other pals; poking around in the great outdoors and in cities that have zing and depth; downing good foods and beers in taverns and restaurants.

And listening to music, which I’ve left for last to give it the space it deserves. And that’s because music sometimes takes me to realms — excellent realms — that otherwise I wouldn’t be setting foot in. Music, like nothing else, can get me high as a kite. Well, pot can get me high as a kite too, but I haven’t smoked any in, what? . . . 30 years? It’s a habit I dropped that maybe, to tell you the truth, I’d be interested in picking up again. But that’s another story.

It’s not as if listening to music always is a transporting experience for me, though. At home I usually am struggling with a Sudoku puzzle or thrashing through the Web as tunes play on the stereo, so the musical vibes sink in only partially. And in the car I make a modest effort to keep my eyes on the road, even if a great song is trying to liberate me.

Nor does music always lift me to the skies at concerts. A week and a half ago, for example, Sandy and I went with friends to see Peter Mulvey, a solid singer-songwriter who put his palette of emotions on display in a small space in Philadelphia. I dug him, but I remained Earthbound. Here’s why:

Volume. I need a lot of volume for liftoff to occur, and the Mulvey concert, consisting of  Peter and his acoustic guitar, was merely in the middle of the decibel scale. And, usually, there’s got to be strong drumming. And, usually, long and soaring solos from an electric guitar, though their counterparts from a piano or saxophone also might do the trick.

Hallelujah! High volume, crashing drum strokes and gorgeous guitar work soon came my way, because Sandy and I headed to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 15 hours after the conclusion of the Mulvey show. There, in an arts center built on the grounds of the defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation, day three of the three-day Blast Furnace Blues Festival was marching on. We stayed for five hours, catching three acts and gazing at the rusting Bethlehem blast furnaces through the music room’s huge windows, before taking to the roads once again.

The Lee Boys, Victor Wainwright, Ana Popovic . . . I wasn’t familiar with any of them before arriving in Bethlehem. If you like rip-roaring music, then these guys probably are for you. They all bring the noise, and then some, with skill and soul. And they all tour a lot, so they might show up in your corner of the world.

None of the acts plays straight-blues-all-the-way by any means, though their underpinnings are heavily molded from the blues. The Lee Boys mostly serve up gospel tunes, though you might have a hard time recognizing them as such, heavily wrapped in funky R&B drapery as they are. Victor Wainwright is a sweet-toned shouter who can put a little gravel in his voice, a suspendered showman who loves feeling close to his audience almost as much as he loves to pound out red hot boogie woogie licks on his keyboard. And Ana Popovic is, at heart, a rock and roller. She sings well, but it’s her string work that you go to see her for — she’s an electric guitar goddess.

Sandy and I took seats 25 feet from the stage. The place was mobbed. The audience was pumped. And when The Lee Boys, the first group we saw that day, tore into their opening number I tipped my hat to the guy twisting and sliding the sound board’s dials. He had the music pouring out loud, really loud, but not so utterly powerfully that my ears ever felt like they were in danger. I was bopping with the beats, pounding the heel of my left foot up and down like a piston. And then the magic carpet rides began when Roosevelt Collier slid into the first of his lengthy, involved pedal steel guitar solos. Dreamy at times, growling at others, stuttering and whooshing, his electric journey rushed inside me. Closing my eyes I became lost in the sounds, bouncing my head back and forth gently, uncontrollably, as they swept me along, swept me upward, seduced me. When his solos reached their ends in each Lee Boys tune, it took me a few moments to decompress.

I’m not sure why the same didn’t happen during Victor’s set. He and his band were on fire, and Pat Harrington, the electric guitarist, tore into his instrument like a demon. But for reasons unknown, my eyes remained open throughout the wild ride. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t groove madly. I did, but I didn’t levitate.

But I floated and communed once again when Ana and her gang took the stage. Ana’s electric guitar solos saw to that. This girl can play. Pulling on the guitar strings almost maniacally, she had them snarling, moaning, pleading, testifying. Ana took me to regions even loftier than those where Roosevelt Collier had wafted me. Amen.

Yeah, music can be a temporary cure for what ails us. Me, I love rising into the clouds, feeling gravity and neuroses slip away. Whenever it happens I’m grateful. And amazed that my body is able to latch onto and meld with invisible good vibrations. One of these days maybe I’ll figure out how to transfer some of what I feel when afloat into my regular daily regimen. Whatever, this I do believe: Get your kicks while you can, kids, because you never know when the final curtain will descend.

Here now are videos from the Blast Furnace Blues Festival:

 

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others)

California Stars: A Song To Make Better A Cold And Icy Day

Well, here I am at my writing post on the afternoon of the Ides of March. That’s a date that proved to be a real bad one for  Julius Caesar but hopefully will be benign for yours truly. It’s cold outside, as in 23°F, and my suburban community is weighed down with billions of tons of icy snow that fell from the heavens yesterday. This white stuff is so dense it won’t be going away anytime soon. There’s nothing like a late winter storm to disrupt gleeful thoughts of approaching springtime. Yippee-yi-o-ki-yay, baby.

Earlier today I published one of the oddball stories that, if I had any degree of fame, I would be famous for. Or maybe infamous. Anyway, it partly was about the dilemmas that confront me and surely a fair number of other scribes when it comes to figuring out what in the world to write about. Happily, I am not conflicted about the direction that the present essay shall take. After I kicked around several bushels-worth of slippery notions, things fairly quickly coalesced. Meaning, I have decided to spend some words on a song that is good for cold, ice-laden days such as today. This tune is good for any day, really. It is among my fave recordings of all time, and I think it will elevate my mood as I press forward with this narrative. The song of which I speak is California Stars, a joint production of Billy Bragg, the band Wilco and the late singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie. A better companion I could not hope for. Here it is:

California Stars came out in 1998 on the Bragg/Wilco album titled Mermaid Avenue. Mermaid Avenue is the result of a project that Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter and Arlo’s sister) put into motion. Her father, who bid adieu to Planet Earth in 1967, had left behind scads of completed lyrics that he hadn’t gotten around to recording. Their accompanying music might have existed in Woody’s head, but those melodies and harmonies never will be known, as Woody was unable to notate music. Nora asked Billy Bragg, a British singer-songwriter, to sift through the lyrics, pick those that wowed him and put them to music. Bragg brought the Wilco fellows aboard to help with the composing, playing and recording processes.

Now, the entirety of Mermaid Avenue is great. I was left kind of breathless when I first spun the CD soon after its release. But one song in particular of its 15 went straight to my heart. California Stars, of course. And I tell the truth when I say that every time I’ve heard California Stars since then, and that’s probably close to 100 times, its effect has been the same.

To me it is a perfect creation. Woody’s lyrics are sweet and simple. In two verses they tell the tale of a discontented someone, likely Woody, who pines for a more idyllic life with his female mate. The California stars of which he writes are the beautiful things that, along with her touch, might help soften his woes. Here’s the second verse:

I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars.
Jump up from my star bed and make another day
Underneath my California stars.
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine.
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars.

Gorgeous, Woody, gorgeous. But to be honest, I’m certain that Mr. G would have been unable to put his words to music as lovely and endearing as that composed by two of the Wilco boys, Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett (he passed away in 2009). Clearly captivated by Guthrie’s images, they found the essential combination of notes to encase the lyrics in. Seductively childlike, their work allows Woody’s poem to rise into the clouds and beyond.

And that’s where the song takes me whenever I pay it a visit. A short while ago, in the name of research for this piece, I listened five times to California Stars. Talk about multiple pleasures. And, as if the lyrics and music aren’t fine enough, I began to think that the song’s arrangement and instrumentation and Jeff Tweedy’s lead vocals are the keys to its star power. That’s a discussion that undoubtedly would go on for days, maybe eternally, among the song’s devotees.

I mean, Jeff Tweedy was born to sing this song. He’s a salt of the Earth kind of guy who quietly burrows inside lyrics, finding their core — loneliness or optimism or whatever the case may be. He does this straightforwardly, unaffectedly, an approach that in his hands is right on target. In California Stars, loneliness and optimism are entwined in Guthrie’s vision. Tweedy does the words proud.

Looking down at my star bed this afternoon I flowed with Tweedy’s calm voice. And I rode the gentle waves formed by a yearning and shimmering lap steel guitar, a grinning piano and a bobbing electric bass guitar. And when a fiddle started fiddling joyfully for a few seconds after the second stating of the second verse, I drifted even higher. Miraculously, those instruments touch the skies more than they might have. The elemental drumming pattern that Ken Coomer sagely locked himself into saw to that — a steady and unbroken string of thud-thuds never sounded so good. Sometimes things come together in mysteriously ideal ways. That is the story with California Stars.

Whenever California Stars draws to its close, as it inevitably must, it takes me a few moments to gather myself. I open my eyes (they’d been shut, you dig, the better to float) and begin my return to what passes for reality. And as this story too now nears its conclusion I’ll add another thought about endings: When I’m on my way out, breathing my last, I’d like to be serenaded with California Stars. The Mermaid Avenue version, needless to say, as there have been others in its wake. That’s the way to go.

 

(Notes: Wilco has seen musicians come and go over the years. Of its six current members, only two remain from the Mermaid Avenue days — Jeff Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt. As for Billy Bragg, his career is going strong. Ditto for Wilco’s.)

The Book Within Me

Some people think big. Big hopes, big dreams and big efforts to make those hopes and dreams come true. Me, not so much. I think modest at best, small more often than not. It’s just my basic nature, and always has been.

dulcolax-imagesMy great pal Alan, though, has a different opinion about my abilities. For example, he has urged me a few times to write a book. He, one of the handful of faithful who to my amazement truly seem to enjoy at least some of the stories I’ve been lobbing into cyberspace via this blog, believes I have it in me to design and bring forth a thriller. He has suggested that the plot be set on Cape Cod, a region I know well. Alan is a dreamer. Does he have any idea how I often strain and sweat like the King Of Constipation to squeeze out a blog entry of a mere 1,000 or so words? Alan, if you’re reading this, believe me when I say that daily doses of Dulcolax wouldn’t make those articles emerge any easier. So, a book, you say? Hey, man, are you joking? My inner strength and energies would have to quadruple before I’d be able even to begin entertaining the notion. Basically, fuhgeddaboudit.

Hmmm, on the other hand maybe I speaketh too hastily. I often do. No doubt writing a book is an alluring idea. Could it be that Alan is on to something? Has he peered deep into my core, à la Superman, and spotted an alternative me? As in the bestselling me. The me whose tightly wrought and pulsating fictional offering projects me into television and radio studios presided over by the likes of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross and Jimmy Fallon. Yeah man, I can dig it! Who wouldn’t? I mean, the royalty checks will be pouring in. The invitations to swank A-list parties will arrive by the dozens. Gorgeous girls will mob me on the streets. Yeah, I definitely can dig it.

OK, Alan, you’ve convinced me. The book is within me. Somewhere. I think. All I have to do is birth it. What should the first step be? Oh right, there needs to be a plot. Well, in that regard I’ll try not to think about what another of my great pals Dave once said. He and I went to high school with Arthur Agatston, who years later became famous as the author of The South Beach Diet books. Dave was wowed by Arthur’s success. “Neil, I’d write a book too,” Dave said to me back then, “except for one thing: I’ve got nothing to say.”

img_0370Ouch! Like I mentioned I’ll try not to think about Dave’s insightful comments. I’ve got plenty to say, don’t I? And placing the action on Cape Cod, a 70-mile-long spit of land filled with villages, sands, marshes and trees, surrounded on three sides by majestic, endless waters, is certain to inspire my writing. Think, Neil, think. What’s the most unusual and intriguing aspect of The Cape you’ve come upon over the years? I know — the dune shacks, those 20 or so primitive structures scattered among the ridiculously huge dunes of The Cape’s outer regions. Folks like Eugene O’Neill and Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock used to squirrel away in the shacks, seeking their Muses and churning out product. These days the shacks are in governmental hands, and are rented to modern-day hardy and artistic types (click here to read about the dune shacks). The shacks are isolated, not easy to find. The perfect scene of a crime.

Ah, the crime. What shall the crime be? Who will be the perpetrator, and who the victim? And what will be the reason that the crime occurred? You know, I believe it’s all coming together for me. Suddenly I’ve been zapped with a giant squirt of inspiration. Here goes:

img_0383I’m going to model the narrator/possible victim upon myself. Why not? I’ve gotten up close and pretty personal with several of the dune shacks over the years, walking around them, peering inside through their windows and admiring their no-facilities ambience. And for years I’ve been dreaming of the day when I’ll be spending substantial time in one of the shacks and its surrounding desert-like wilderness. Oh, the joy of peeing and dumping in sand pits or in the Atlantic Ocean! My life needs a major dose of that kind of back-to-nature reality.

Anyway, getting back to the plot. The time is autumn 2016, a Monday at 9 PM. The narrator, who goes by the nickname Cod Man, has been living for seven weeks in a shack located close to where the dunes peter out and meadows of beach grasses take over. A hop, skip and a jump beyond the grasses is the roiling Atlantic. Cod Man’s stay, per the rental agreement, is slated to end in one week. That situation is making Cod Man very nervous, because he had been confident that his shack experience would result in the creation of the book he’d put on the back burner for the past 10 years. Instead, the book, a novel about a Pennsylvania man whose world falls apart when his dog abandons him to take a job as chief mascot in Moscow’s Grand Hotel Trump, simply isn’t coming together. The reams of paper upon which Cod Man has been writing are, he fully knows, filled with dreck. “Holy crap!” Cod Man yells from his wobbly writing desk. “I’ve been out here for two months and have zilch to show for it. I’m bummed. Totally bummed.”

Moments later comes a pounding on the shack’s door. Standing outside in the moonlit night, a loaded pistol in his right hand, is Dick Hedd, Cod Man’s next door neighbor in Pennsylvania. Dick has tracked down Cod Man and is out for revenge. You see, three years earlier a friendly two-man game of Scrabble at Cod Man’s house had gone highly sour when Cod Man, upon throwing down two seven-letter words (halfwit and jackass) in the course of the evening, began to gloat. His gloating grew louder and wilder, reaching insane heights. Dick Hedd, certain that the seven-letter words were meant as commentaries on his personality, fumed. He stormed out the door before game’s end. And he never forgot or forgave Cod Man’s arrogance. The gents hadn’t talked since then. All the while, Dick waited patiently for his moment to avenge the foul deed. Among Cape Cod’s dunes that moment had arrived.

Little more need I say at this point. I have the book’s remaining plot lines worked out quite well. Everything fits. Everything is meaningful and believable.

Now all I have to do is write the entire story. Soon I shall begin.

 

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

(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)

Donnie Trump Doesn’t Like Me

Ah, it’s a comfortable day. Inside my house, that is. Outside, the temperature is an ass-nipping 23° F, too frigging cold for my refined tastes, as I begin to type yet another woozy sort of essay. Tight and controlled, not woozy, would be preferable, seeing that my membership status in The American Association Of Pseudo Writers has been on very shaky ground for awhile now, courtesy of Donnie Trump. If TAAOPW boots me out I’ll be required, per the organization’s guidelines, to put my blog in the deep freeze. And then what will I do with all of the time and energy I devote to blogging? Plea over and over with Cheez-Its’ parent company (Kellogg’s) to hire me as national spokesperson for the crispy, orange wonders that are my fave snack food? Go after the world record for consecutive minutes spent compulsively cleaning a clothes dryer’s lint filter (the current record is 368 minutes)? Well, I’d come up with something. No doubt about that. But I’d rather continue blogging.

AP photo/Nam Y. Huh
AP photo/Nam Y. Huh

As I mentioned, Donnie Trump, another orange wonder, is the cause of my current worries. Talk about a thin-skinned guy. I mean, did I say anything all that bad about him in the story I wrote in November (click here to read it)? How’d he even find out about that piece in the first place, considering that mine is one of the least-read publications on our globe? It must have been his private intelligence network that uncovered me. Man, they’re good. After all, it took them only — what? — six years to determine that Obama’s American birth certificate is legit? Impressive. Donnie sure knows how to surround himself with the best of the best.

Donnie’s discovering my November story is one thing. But his going after its virtually unknown author is another. How’d you like your incoming president throwing lightning bolts at you? No more than I do, I guarantee you. Totally predictably he complained about me on Twitter (“Neil Scheinin lies. And when he’s done lying he lies some more. Not fair. Unworthy of an American journalist.”). He forced my alma mater, The University of South Hoboken, to reduce my grade point average by 25 percent retroactively, nearly five decades after my graduation. And, worst of all, he put the heavy shoulder to TAAOPW, ordering them, if they know what’s good for them, to monitor my every blog story meticulously. I haven’t fared too well in that review process, TAAOPW so informed me. Where, then, will my second Trump opus land me?

That question is a heavy one. In hopes of lightening its answers I have decided to reach out to Donnie Trump, whom, as my November article explains, I knew many moons ago on a high school debate team for which he starred and for which I sat in the wings as the fifth alternate. I spoke with Donnie in writing that piece, our first conversation in eons. Bear with me as I look up his phone number and try to reach him again. Dum dum duh dum dum . . .  the phone is ringing. And still ringing. And, yes! I have him on the line.

“This is Donald. Make this fast, whoever you are. The toilet in the master bedroom is leaking. I’m expecting a plumber to get here any minute now.”

“It’s Neil Scheinin, Donnie. The fifth alternate. The guy whose life you’re wrecking. What’s the deal, dude? Where’s your heart, man?”

“What, you again? Don’t you have lawyers? If you’ve got a gripe with me, they should be the ones handling the situation. Not a loser like you.”

“Donnie, I’m here to appeal to your better side, the one you show to Putin. Listen, I can handle your delusional tweet. And I don’t care about my GPA. It was embarrassingly low to begin with. But trying to kick me out of blogging? That’s going too far, man. I dig writing, Donnie, and my blog is where I deposit the written word, where I express myself creatively. Without my blog my life will be an even emptier shell than it already is.”

Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr
Photo by Mike Licht/Flickr

“Fifth alternate, I could care less about your happiness or your sense of fulfillment. You wronged me, fifth alternate. You wronged me. Maybe you forgot that I’m a firm believer in retribution. That’s why Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino are my favorite directors. Fifth alternate, one of my administration’s goals is to take down your blog within the first 100 days that I’m in office. Without a doubt I can do it. Those nitwits who run The Pseudo Writers Association, or whatever they call it, are playing ball. Once the plumber fixes the toilet and leaves I’m going to get in touch with them again and hammer the nail home. Loser, your blog is history. What’s that rat-a-tat-a-tatting that I hear in the background, by the way?”

“That’s my fingers typing away, Donnie. I’m transcribing this conversation as we speak. Anything else you’d like to add?”

“Shove it, you piece of  sh . . . ”

Readers, before he could finish that thought I hung up on our president-elect. For the second time in recent months I might add. My fingers continue to type. This story, I’d say, is now complete. In seconds I will hit the Publish button. After you have read the article, I ask you to petition TAAOPW on my behalf. In the end your efforts might outweigh Donnie’s influence, allowing this humble, woozy blog to continue its run. It’s never too late to try and stop Trump. Thank you very much.

If (A Musical Story)

a2z_logo_final_social-620x324If, if, if. If only WXPN, a supremo radio station in Philadelphia, hadn’t come up with the idea to play almost 6,000 songs in strict alphabetical order, based on their titles, then I’d never have been flailing around helplessly in the monstrously deep rabbit holes that abound within my cranium. But XPN did, starting at 6:00 AM on November 30 with The Jackson Five’s smash hit ABC (click here to listen), and proceeding around the clock for what seemed like forever. The station finally closed the lid on the affair mid-day on December 17 after airing a song that just about nobody knows, ZZ Top Goes To Egypt (click here), by a band that just about nobody knows, Camper Van Beethoven. A tune with a title that begins with a double Z . . . who’d have thought that an animal like that exists? Leave it to the music worshippers slash obsessives at WXPN to come up with a stunning conclusion to the marathon.

And talk about obsessives. Me, I thought I was done with being one of them. Over the last few decades I’d shed a good ninety percent of my excessive tendencies. Still, backtracking happens, and I found myself being swallowed whole by what XPN was up to. Yeah, I got so involved with the A-to-Z my bodily systems started backfiring. For days I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Even worse, I didn’t watch my favorite episodes of Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives Of Atlanta over and over on demand. And not just because I was hopelessly involved in listening to that avalanche of music. Uh-uh. I also had been captured by letters, words, the whole alphabet thing. I was beaming in hard on alphabetic considerations of song titles. Pathetic, man.

I’d never before given more than a cursory thought to the words that song titles begin with or to the patterns that the titles form. Who knew that tons of titles begin with Just, for example? Or that there might be any titles starting with X (such as X Offender, by Blondie). Or that some letters (e.g. T, S and I) are the first letters of an astounding number of song names. Or that one artist (David Bowie) might show up with back-to-back songs (Fascination and Fashion), so tightly are their names alphabetically related.

“What’s going to follow Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot?” I frantically wondered during December 3rd’s early moments, unable to come up with the fairly obvious answer that soon hit the air: Dancing Days by Led Zeppelin. And I frantically wondered about countless other minutia throughout the A-to-Z, following along online as XPN posted each addition to its playlist (click here to see the playlist). Letters! Words! Sequences! My geeky and anal ponderings were getting the best of me. I needed relief, blessed relief. Who or what might be my savior?

“Snap out of it, you fool!” my wife Sandy commanded me, eight days into XPN’s extravaganza, as she dumped a pitcher of cold water onto my head. I was seated on the living room sofa, ears glued to the radio. “Thanks, Sandy, I needed that,” I said as the refreshing liquid ran lovingly from my head to my toes. I rose, gave Sandy a well-deserved hug and walked across the floor to turn off the radio. Over the following days I continued to listen to XPN, but in reasonable servings.

I guzzled many hundreds of the thousands of songs that spewed from WXPN’s studios during the festival. Great music abounded, yet one song more than any other brought me up short and went straight to my heart. It’s an oldie that most folks know. And, for reasons unknown, I heard it — no, felt it — much more powerfully than ever I had before.

Many sublime songs (Love Train; I Love Music . . . ) flowed from the minds and pens of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but did any equal or surpass If You Don’t Know Me By Now? No way. Gamble and Huff, two of the progenitors of The Sound Of Philadelphia that soulfully and majestically conquered the world in the 1970s, surely realized that they had created a diamond when the writing sessions for that number reached their end. What a song, its finest version being the 1972 original by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It’s a manifesto about the need for trust and honesty and, more than anything, a declaration of true love. You quiver when Teddy Pendergrass, lead singer for HM&TBN, unleashes pleas robed in frustration. When the rest of the group fills in all the blanks with angelic vocals that cushion and counterbalance Teddy’s hot emotions, you levitate and maybe find a few tears drizzling down your cheeks.

Sandy doesn’t know this yet, but one evening soon I’m going to dial up If You Don’t Know Me By Now’s number, turn the volume to a gentle but firm level and swirl with her around our living room. The song is in waltz time, and even a four-left-footed sloth like me can handle a waltz. Here, then, is the best song I know of whose name begins with If.

I Was There For Santa Claus When He Needed My Help

“Yo! I mean, ho! As in ho-ho-ho. Can’t you see that I’m stuck, you idiot? Give a guy a hand.”

santa_claus_png9972Indeed he was, he being Santa Claus. The one and only. To say I was surprised to find the jolly gent dangling head-downward from within my living room fireplace would have been the understatement of 2016 were it not for Donald Trump. Needless to say, the understatement of 2016 is that Trump is way bad news. Hell, he’s way bad news times fifty! But, I digress.

It was 9:00 PM on the eve of Christmas Eve when the rotund one unexpectedly appeared. I was sitting on the sofa, ruminating about this and that, as usual arriving at no satisfactory conclusions. Also as usual, the sofa cushions were profusely dotted with Cheez-It cracker crumbs. I already had put away 500 or more Its and, prior to Mr. Claus’ arrival, had no plans to stop the ingestion process.

“Santa, is this a joke? What are you doing here? Your delivery rounds don’t start for another 24 hours. And you’re in the wrong household, anyway. I mean, me and my wife are Jewish!”

I put aside the Its, reluctantly, and walked to the fireplace where, with only a bit of exertion, I helped Santa out of his predicament. Standing upright, he brushed himself off.

“Yo, brother. I know that you and your wife are Jews. And I also know your name. Neil, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended his pudgy right hand, which I clasped warmly, and smiled at me in the friendliest of manners. Santa gave off such good vibes. I liked him a lot. Immediately.

“Santa, likewise, I’m sure. Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat? To drink?”

“A toasted sesame seed bagel with a schmear would be nice,” Santa said. “And some schnapps to wash it all down would be outstanding. You don’t happen to have those around, do you?”

“Santa, this is more than your lucky day. My household overflows with bagels. And with schnapps in its many varieties. Come on, sit down at the dining room table and I’ll fix you up.” I assembled the simple meal and watched Santa happily eat and drink.

“Ah, this is delicious,” Santa said, alternating between bites and sips. Then, when his plate and glass were empty he got down to business. “I’ve had my eyes on you for awhile, Neil, and I’m certain I made the correct choice in visiting you. You see, I like Jews very much. Just like me, they know about good food and drink, and they rock the color red. Well, maybe I’m wrong about the second half of that statement. Anyway, speaking selfishly, what’s very important to me is that they boost my spirits. And once a year, believe me, I need that boost. You think it’s easy bringing toys to billions of children each year? Sure, if you only had to do it once or twice it wouldn’t be hard.  But year after year after year? Come on . . . talk about job burnout.”

“Many years ago I was schmoozing with a Jewish friend of mine, Morty Finkelstein, about this very problem,” Santa continued. “Morty listened carefully and let me pour my heart out. Then he proved himself to be a real mensch, saying all the right things to sooth my malaise. Since then, each year I seek out a Jew to help get me back on track. You were recommended to me a few months ago by the League Of Jewish Bloggers. That’s when I started reading your blog stories. I have to tell you that they give off the weird and optimistic sorts off auras that I’m partial to. Which is why I’m confident that you’re the person I need. Neil, tomorrow is my big day. I’m feeling down and tired, and I’m asking you to turn me around. I know you can do it.”

Holy man-o-Manischewitz. Was this really happening? Was I dreaming? I pinched myself on the right forearm real hard. Yikes, that hurt like crazy! No doubt, Santa truly was in the house. “Sir, I’m at your service,” I said. “And I think I know just what to do.” I motioned to Santa to rise.

“C’mon, guy. Follow me. I’m going to give you a powerful dose of lights. Christmas lights. Beautiful ones are all over this neighborhood, and some of the best are only two blocks away from here. I’m bummed out a little, too, right now. So, let’s take a walk, Santa. The lights will do both of us a lot of good.” I grabbed Santa by the arm and off we went. Thirty seconds later we hit pay dirt.

“Look at that house, Santa. Great, no? What artwork!”

img_1656

“And look at over there!” I yelled in his ear. “I ask you, who needs lavish, over-the-top Christmas light displays? Modest lights on cute, small houses often are where it’s at.”

img_1662

I could tell that Santa was impressed, even though for a while he didn’t say anything. But then he did. “You know, Neil, when I’m flying over houses all over the world on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, I never get a true head-on view of the decorations. I haven’t seen Christmas lights from this perspective in ages. I’d forgotten how sweet and heartwarming they can be. Why, that house right there is magnificent.” He pointed across the street.

img_1665

“And here’s another lovely one,” he said, as we continued a short distance down the block.

img_1673

I certainly couldn’t disagree. My suburban region, not known for its esthetic charms, becomes grand this time of year. And only at night.

I felt a powerful pinch on my right forearm, directly on the spot where I’d pinched myself only 10 minutes earlier. As if I required proof a second time that Santa was real. “Ouch, Santa! What’s the deal, dude?”

“Sorry, mate. But let’s turn back. I’m all energized once again, so I got to go. Mrs. Claus will start worrying if I don’t get back to the North Pole soon. It’s a miracle that nobody spotted me on the street, or I’d be here signing autographs till who knows when. I’ll need to borrow your cell phone, by the way. I’ll return it tomorrow night when I’m back this way. Mine broke into pieces when I was sliding down your frigging chimney. Once I’m in the air heading home tonight the missus will expect me to call her every half hour. She might want me to stop to pick up a quart of milk somewhere. Or maybe some Slim Jims,. My old lady, you never know what she’ll want.”

Santa embraced me in a thank-you hug. Minutes later I watched him nimbly scale the front of my house, its low side, and climb into his sleigh which, complete with reindeer and unnoticed by me, had been sitting atop the roof. “Bye, Santa,” I shouted. “Till next time. And keep those calls to the Pole short. International phone rates are a bitch.”

 

(Don’t be shy about sharing this story or about adding your comments. Or about signing up to follow this blog)

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

Sunrise In Suburbia

In most parts of the world the Sun is consistent in its rhythms. Each day it goes up. And then it goes down. Sunrise, sunset. Right, duh. Now, I’ve written about sunsets at least two or three times before on this publication’s pages. But not, until this moment, about sunrises. And I’m pretty sure that, like me, scribes and photographers (and just about everybody else) over the years generally have spent a lot more time gazing at and thinking about our star’s settings rather than its risings. Probably has something to do, in many cases, with their not wanting to freeze their asses off at six or seven o’clock in the morning. I can dig it.

A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.
A Cape Cod sunset. October 2015.

I’m definitely a sunset guy. I especially like to witness them when I’m in beautiful locales with wide open vistas and visible horizons. As this blog’s regular readers know by now, various sections of Cape Cod meet those criteria for me sweetly and perfectly. You’d think, then, that when I’m on Cape Cod I’d also be a sunrise guy. I mean, I get up early enough in the morning to watch our stellar friend ascend. But nope, never once have I seen a Cape sunrise. And I feel guilty about that. Catching a sunrise has been on my Cape to-do list for at least 15 years. And I mean to scratch it off that list before Mr. Reaper (first name Grim) comes to take me away. I don’t know, I suppose I’ve just been too lazy on The Cape to rev up my motor in darkness, which is what it takes to do the sunrise thing.

6:53 AM, Dec. 3, 2016. (Thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)
6:53 AM on Dec. 3, 2016 in suburban Philadelphia (thirteen minutes before the Sun broke the horizon)

Recently I was thinking about the above. And also thinking about the pathetic fact that, as far as I could recollect, I’d never seen a sunrise anywhere. “Yo, schmuck! You’re pushing 70,” I said to myself. “It’s time you remedied this situation.” And I did. On the first Saturday of the present month. On the outfield grasses of a baseball field within a public park located two blocks from my house in the Philadelphia suburbs. I’d like to say that it was a world-class experience, but I can’t. And that’s mostly because it took place in a less than jaw-droppingly beautiful spot. Gorgeous undeveloped areas are not to be found in my neck of the leveled woods. And, seeing that I wasn’t in the mood for driving miles and miles, the park was as good as or better than any location I could think of that wasn’t a hefty distance away.

7:05 AM
7:05 AM
7:11 AM
7:11 AM

Yes, I might sound like one, but I’m not totally an ungrateful fool. Only partly. Truth be told, I was glad to be out on the baseball field watching the sky get brighter and brighter and more and more colorful as the Sun pushed upward, breaking the horizon at 7:06 AM and continuing on its red-hot journey. There were lots of clouds in the sky and, as with sunsets, they enhanced the picture by adding malleable patterns and by enveloping and reflecting hues stylishly. I was into it, silently oohing and aahing a little bit while documenting the très cool event with my phone’s camera. And in between doing that, during the half hour that I spent in the park, I kind of rejoiced that the swarms of people who live all around where I was standing were, for the most part, nowhere to be seen or heard. That’s usually not true in my little corner of the world. I didn’t complain. You happily take your moments of peace when you can find them. All I saw was one fellow Baby Boomer striding along at a leisurely pace, a morning walker whom I’ve noticed in the neighborhood a few times before. He kept to the park’s walking paths, not once turning his head toward the fireworks taking place in the eastern heavens. And I heard one person, a someone who stepped outside his or her house to dump some trash into its not quite final resting place, a garbage can.

As my visit to the park approached the 30-minute mark I noticed that my fingers, though not my ass, were freezing.  It was about 38°F outside. I hadn’t brought along a pair of gloves. “Enough!” I almost shouted. “Sunrise, you’ve been great. You’ve been beautiful. I’m honored to have been in your presence. But we’re done for now. And so I bid you a melancholy goodbye.”

Hands thrust inside my coat pockets, in bright light I walked the short distance back to my house to drink some coffee and pop some (vitamin) pills. It had been a good start to the day.

Panoramic view from where I was standing.
Panoramic view from where I was standing.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this article or about adding your comments. Or about signing up to follow this blog)

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