Category: Community

Midwest Reunion: Part Two

Our lives are an intricate tapestry of disparate threads. They weave over, around and through us. It is up to us to tie the loose ends. For those who seek and remember, we are on a lifelong quest to integrate the texture, color, and reality of our experiences. We return to our past lives to celebrate and reexamine what we have left behind and to find the greater meaning.

***

In August of 1976, I operated the River King Mine Train controls for the last time. I said goodbye to my rollercoaster crew mates, walked down the asphalt hill, punched the time clock, changed out of my Six Flags Over Mid-America (SFOMA) uniform, and drove my parents’ blue 1970 Chevy Belair four-door sedan from Eureka, Missouri to my childhood home in Affton. I was nineteen years old. I was ready to depart the St. Louis area to begin my sophomore year at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

It would take me forty-five years, but on the evening of September 4, 2021, I returned to Eureka. I went back to revisit my formative-and-repressed teenage years (and the scene of my first job and colleagues) and anchor them to my sixty-four-year-old existence as an openly gay writer, husband, father, son, desert rat, and heart-attack survivor.

The setting for my personal melding was the 50th reunion of SFOMA employees from the 1970s … shiny, bouncy teens and twenty-somethings who had evolved into grayer versions of themselves. In their sixties and seventies, many had gained weight and lost hair. Others had left us entirely. But those who remained had somehow managed to salvage their spark and spirit of adventure.

Tom and I flew together from Phoenix to St. Louis, but this portion of the journey was mine alone. (My husband stayed back at our hotel to read. Though he was 100 percent supportive of me going to the reunion, he had nothing to renew with a Missouri gang that would gather under a covered outdoor picnic area inside a St. Louis-area amusement park. Tom is a native Chicagoan.)

After I parked my rental car at what is now called Six Flags St. Louis in a relatively empty parking lot, I threw on my face mask, zipped up my windbreaker, and pulled up my hood. Yes, it was raining again, but the sky had begun to brighten as I fumbled for my ticket, walked through security, and entered the main gate.

If you had blindfolded and air-lifted me into the space and then removed my eye covering, I wouldn’t have known where I had landed. But I was happy to be there nonetheless. With a little help from a SFOMA map in the park, I found my way to the River King Mine Train, situated on the eastern side of the park. I headed up a steep hill that began to look familiar, past a restaurant, once called Naylor’s. In the 1970s, it served greasy fried chicken. That trail and olfactory memory led me to the entrance of the River King Mine Train.

Back in the 70s, there were two mine train tracks that were pressed into service on the busiest days. Now there is only one. I snapped a quick selfie in front of the ride sign and peeked in to see the 2021 version of the mine train crew at work and a train leaving the station. Then, I headed to the Palace Theatre to see displays of photos and memorabilia from the 1970s, when the park was sparkling new and crowded nearly every day … rain or shine.

When I paused for a quick pic of the Log Flume ride (along with the mine train, one of but a few original attractions that remain), I accidentally dropped my mask. Kevin, another reunion attendee, told me so. I swiped it off the ground and for the next ten minutes we traded stories of working in the park.

I soon discovered Kevin had also operated the mine train a year after I left … then he moved up another rung to the Screamin’ Eagle, which opened in the bi-centennial year. In 1976, it was that death-defying, stomach-dropping rollercoaster kids ran to ride as soon as the park gates opened each morning.

At six o’clock, I walked to the picnic entrance for the reunion. While I was in line, Cindy approached. Long ago, we were mine train pals for three summers; in 1974, we worked the swing shift — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Supervisor Larry and foreman Gus (Cindy and Gus would marry a few years later) trained us at the same time to “drive” the rollercoaster and master the controls.

Cindy and I hadn’t seen each other in more than four decades–nor had we shared the up-and-down stories of our lives–but I felt the chemistry of our friendship return as we hugged. When I told her I had no clue of my sexual orientation back then, I realized why I had traveled from Phoenix to St. Louis. I needed to connect another piece of my past, less actualized, rollercoaster life in Missouri with the more even and authentic one I had created with Tom.

Cindy was on the reunion planning committee and needed to check on a few things, but we agreed to talk more once the event got started. After I filled out my name tag and an attendant handed me a 50th anniversary reunion pin, I walked through the crowd of 200 and chit-chatted.

I didn’t know or remember most of the attendees–singles and straight couples with their own stories and reasons for returning–though I could squint and recall younger versions of pretty and handsome cohorts lined up to greet guests nearly fifty years before.

A cooler breeze swept through. The rain stopped. Cindy returned. We stood in line together for a buffet dinner … beef brisket, baked beans, and potato chips. I suppose it qualified as a meal. What else should I have expected? It was amusement park food.

For the next thirty minutes, Cindy and I shared the highlights and lowlights of our past lives — the joys and tragedies that come with living and growing older. To keep the privacy of that moment, I’ll leave it at that.

On cue, the welcoming speeches from past leaders followed, along with a video collage set to music from the 70s. I felt sad more than happy as the images faded in and out. Though it reminded me of the hard-working days and fun-filled nights decades before, it also felt like I was viewing a fantasy land far away from the world we now occupy.

As the evening began to unwind, I pulled a signed copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator out of my backpack and handed it to Cindy. She smiled and thanked me. I invited her to visit Tom and me in the Sonoran Desert one day. Though she’s lived in Germany and speaks several languages, Arizona is a place she has yet to visit.

Before I left, there were door prizes, more hugs, and a small stream of goodbyes. At 9 p.m. I was ready to go. I made my way in the dark back to my rental car. No more rain. The sky was clear. The air was nearly crisp for a September night in Missouri.

I retraced my steps on I-44 to the Hampton Inn in Valley Park. Tom was waiting to hear more about my rollercoaster days, the 50th reunion, and the night I returned to Eureka, Missouri to tie up a few loose ends.

As I write and reflect on this experience, I realize my return to the past playground and promise of my youth–in the middle of a pandemic–placed me outside my comfort zone.

But, with my vaccination and mask protecting me and the creative impulse guiding me, I’m glad I went back there. The bonus was reconnecting with a good friend.

In addition to my memories, I left St. Louis with this souvenir of the 50th reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America employees of the 1970s. It was held at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Missouri, on September 4, 2021.

Counting Life’s Numbers

Writing is my thing. Not arithmetic. It has never been my forte. Going way back to 8th grade, I was lost in algebra class. That precipitated a math do-over in 9th grade.

Nonetheless, I realize we live in a number-centric society. Keeping track of and understanding numbers allows us to measure progress or lack there of.

Of course, the most obvious and disheartening example these days is the accelerating number of COVID cases and deaths, thanks to the Delta variant and a disturbing number of Americans who are still unwilling to get vaccinated for their sake and those around them.

But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the personal side of math–when you find yourself counting life’s numbers and celebrating the love, commitment, and longevity they represent.

Today marks 25 years since Tom and I met. In this ever-changing society, I’m proud of that significant number, though it pales when compared with the total our neighbors Mary and Earl have accumulated. They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary in October.

At any rate, Tom and I are thankful to be together for a quarter of a century. We’re escaping the summer heat of Scottsdale to spend a few cooler nights in a cozy B&B in Flagstaff, a mountain community we love.

We’re like a lot of gay couples in the sense that we remember and celebrate 2 anniversaries: the day (August 17, 1996) we met and the day (September 6, 2014) almost 7 years ago when we were married in an outdoor courtyard on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in Illinois, surrounded by 60 friends and family members.

In 1996, we didn’t imagine it would ever be legal in the United States for same-sex couples to marry and receive equal rights to those of straight ones. The idea of marriage equality was barely a whisper. Less than 2 decades later it became a reality thanks to a movement we fully endorsed … proof of an astonishing, positive shift supported by a majority of American people.

In the time since Tom and I met at a northwest suburban Chicago gay bar, we have emerged from a hidden life to an open one. Along the way, we have counted life’s numbers.

Collectively, in the past 25 years we have: raised and counseled my 2 boys into adulthood; loved and lost 1 adorable basset hound and 1 crafty cockatiel; cared for and buried 3 of our parents; endured 36 years in the workforce; vacationed in 4 European countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and 10 or 12 American states; watched our favorite baseball teams win 3 World Series (2 for my St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011; 1 for Tom’s Chicago Cubs in 2016); written and published 5 books; and survived 1 mild heart attack during 1 cross-country move. As I write this, we continue to navigate our way through 1 global pandemic that won’t end.

Of course, the glue that keeps our relationship going isn’t really about the numbers. It’s in the love and laughter we share, the relationships we’ve formed with friends and neighbors, the hundreds of movies we’ve watched together, the countless Scrabble games we’ve played over coffee, the unexpected hospital visits we’ve negotiated, the quieter moments reading and writing we protect; and the sense of day-in-day-out respect, comfort, and security we provide one another.

When it comes to the most important relationship in my life, it makes perfect sense why I’m not a math guy. I simply can’t put a number or value on the love Tom and I share, the hurdles we’ve cleared, and the successes we’ve realized.

Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Tom and me in October 1996 enjoying a Wisconsin weekend.
Tom and me in June 2021 during our Montana vacation.

Desert Friendships and Roses

If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.

Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.

My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.

I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.

Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.

Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.

Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.

As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.

No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.

From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.

Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

Coronaville

The COVID-19 traumas that spun endlessly in 2020 and early 2021 have spawned a mountain of stories bursting with pain and uncertainty. But rays of clarity and creativity have begun to emerge as we try to make sense of the pandemic that will forever shape those of us who survived it.

I devoted part of my latest book to Coronaville–that crazy town we still live in–because I think it’s important to remember the fear and examine it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. What a shame it would be if we didn’t learn from the madness this plague has perpetrated. Here is a sampling of what I wrote one year ago this week:

***

Monday, June 15, 2020 began with congestion in my chest, mild nausea, and an occasional headache. I did not have a temperature, sore throat, or experience a loss of sense of smell or taste that may accompany the dreaded virus.

Nonetheless, I was worried enough to call my doctor, who prescribed a chest x-ray at a nearby diagnostic center that afternoon and a COVID-19 test the next morning at an HonorHealth urgent care facility.

Fortunately, my chest x-ray came back normal. There was no sign of pneumonia or any abnormalities. More than likely, I was dealing with a sinus condition or allergy to an air-borne culprit than the dreaded COVID-19. But still I waited. I was afraid the other shoe might drop.

On Tuesday, I imagined the desert dust from an adjacent construction site–fumes from our recent bedroom painting project or particles I had ingested from the smoke of a wildfire that raged in the hills sixty miles northeast of us–could be the problem. But I worried about the worst as Tom and I drove to Mesa for the swab test at 11 a.m.

***

To read the rest of the story (and all thirty-nine essays set against the warm and rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert) click on the link below and purchase a copy of my book in paperback or Kindle.

Pruning the Palms

It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.

But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.

As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.

I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.

Double Red

As Scottsdale temperatures rise each May, crowds disperse. Locals breathe more easily, sip hazelnut coffee under eaves, and swim morning laps before triple digits roll in on a red hot Arizona day.

If you prefer a circus of disconnected distractions, stand by. Watch a tag team of fertile mourning doves feed their young. Wince as construction workers jackhammer in the name of progress over the western wall. Chuckle as a wily neighborhood cat scatters a chorus of squawking crows under a tangelo tree.

For today’s headliner, none of these sideshow performances matter. From her inconspicuous back patio stage, one determined desert rose enters the center ring. She dazzles passersby with her first double red bloom of the season.

The Ultimate Curveball

Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.

Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.

Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.

Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:

“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.

Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”

After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.

Cat on a Hot (Not Tin) Roof

More than a shameless ripoff of the Tennessee Williams play and the ensuing 1958 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this is a story about our community cat and the Sonoran Desert heat. Both are staring down at us on May 1.

Early this morning, Tom and I spotted Poly on our neighbor’s roof. (Poly is the name I’ve given the bright-eyed feline that has made our enclave her home; we aren’t sure who she belongs to, but she is everywhere in our retro Polynesian Paradise condo complex).

In pursuit of Saturday’s breakfast, persistent Poly was stalking a mourning dove and her baby nesting safely (they thought) under the eaves. Tom’s response was to worry about the well-being of the birds. Mine was to grab my digital camera and to stumble outside in my robe to document the moment.

Eventually, Poly slinked away without a catch. She pattered across the roof to find mischief elsewhere, perhaps on a back patio somewhere down the row. We likely won’t see her for a few days. That’s her pattern, at least. Appear. Disappear. Resurface. At dusk later this week, I expect she will reemerge and patrol the sidewalk in search of an evening snack.

The dry heat is more constant, less whimsical than Poly. Once it appears in early May (we expect a high of ninety-eight degrees in Scottsdale today), we know triple digits aren’t far away. But Tom and I have learned to adapt to the “oven” that is the Sonoran Desert from May through September. In a strange way, it’s become a familiar, returning friend.

In the Phoenix area, early morning and late evening walks or swims are the solution in the summer months … along with a few strategically planned escapes into the cooling pines of northern Arizona. This June we expect to venture even farther north to spend a few days with friends in Bozeman, Montana.

After a year of relative hibernation, I expect driving on the open roads and discovering new vistas in Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana will feel like a real adventure. It will certainly be welcome relief after the fright and disorientation of a pandemic year.

But even if we were forced to stay put another year and tough it out indoors away from the midday sun, the summer months are relatively peaceful in Scottsdale, because visitors leave to avoid the heat. For that reason, I give them high marks. I look forward to the quiet, to more time to reflect and write, and to hearing the potential pitter-patter of Poly’s cat paws pacing down our scorching sidewalk or across our hot (not tin) roof.

Yours for Ninety-Nine Cents

It’s time to dig out the loose change that’s fallen between your couch cushions and put it to good use! From April 23 to 30, you can download a Kindle copy of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, for just ninety-nine cents on Amazon.

Set against the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, my anthology of thirty-nine essays (some whimsical, some serious) explores the themes of family, community, authenticity, creativity, and uncertainty before and during COVID-19.

Here’s what one reader had to say: “Focusing on stories from his recent relocation as a full-time Arizona resident, Mark mines his past for insights into his new life, reflects deeper into the after-effects of surviving a health crisis, and even includes poems and works of short fiction. A great new collection from a distinctive contemporary voice.”

Happy reading!

On Uneven Ground

Now that I have a little more distance from Good Friday, it’s clear how painful it was to witness Gary, my neighbor, die of congestive heart failure right outside my front door. Especially because Gary and I see/saw the same cardiologist. (In case you don’t know, I had my own heart trauma nearly four years ago. My husband Tom was the one watching the calamity unfold that day, rushing to get me to an emergency room in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday.)

At any rate, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced the wide swings of life. Joy and sorrow. Victory and defeat. Jubilation and devastation. I think the secret to contentment is expecting and accepting both ends of the spectrum, then finding your balance somewhere between the two extremes.

On Palm Sunday, I found myself savoring an author’s dream come true. I was reading passages from my latest book to an attentive audience and signing copies in our community clubhouse. Five days later on Good Friday, Gary collapsed outside his and my condo. A few minutes later, he died in my grasp.

For the next two days–through Easter Sunday–I felt out of sorts and sick to my stomach. I was searching for my equilibrium, battling side effects of shock, and absorbing the protective properties of my second COVID-19 vaccination, as more requests for my book came via texts and front-door visits.

On Monday, I began to find some semblance of my equilibrium. I knocked on my neighbor Bob’s door. He and I had been there with Pat (Gary’s wife) when her world came crashing down. “Milwaukee Bob” (Pat calls him that because that’s where he and his wife Barb live most of the year) is adjusting to what he witnessed too.

Though it is the fig tree Bob and I stood beside, giving Gary and Pat comfort and support in the trauma of that Good Friday moment, he and Barb bought a copy of my book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. They weren’t able to make it to the book signing and reading on Palm Sunday.

On Tuesday morning, I exchanged hugs with Gary’s daughter, Andrea. She had flown in from Chicago with her husband and three children to comfort her mother Pat. Through tears, Andrea thanked me for being there for her mother and father. Her family’s spring Arizona vacation (planned before her father’s demise) was transformed into a mix of grieving, coping, swimming, and horseback riding. Her dad’s remains will be interred in Illinois at a later date.

It is Wednesday night now. I feel stronger again. I realize the tender result of Gary’s sudden death … that, through care and happenstance, I will be bonded to Bob, Pat, Andrea, and her family for life. This morning Tom and I joined a handful of friends for yoga in the park. Between ten and eleven o’clock, we stretched and posed on our mats. I felt the caress of a cool southern breeze under the shade of a tall pine tree. I heard the needles of the pine whisper and the call of the mockingbirds above us. I assumed my tree pose. I felt nature cradle me. I swayed, but found my footing on uneven ground.