Category: Creative nonfiction

Nine Years Ago in Italy

It’s been a while since I’ve boarded my dusty desert time machine. I figure we can all use a summer holiday escape. Away from daily reports of emerging COVID-19 hot spots, social unrest, and the grind of our shrunken stay-at-home lives.

Join me as I travel back nine years to late July 2011. When our resourceful guide and friend Yvette (a Canadian living in Tunisia), led six men (five Americans and one Canadian) on an eleven-day, Outgoing Adventures tour of Italy.

It was my first European odyssey. Six years before our 2017 Ireland immersion. Eight before Tom and I made a delicious 2019 dash through Germany and Austria.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Italy. The architecture, ancient history, hum and handsome men of Rome. The mystery and magic of Siena.

The countrysides and cooking of Tuscany. The alleys and alabaster of Volterra. The cliffs and colors of Cinque Terra. The style and silk of Florence.

Most of all, the enduring exuberance of the Italian people we met all along the way … lovers of art, pasta, wine, afternoon strolls and evening gelato.

Consider this my tribute to beloved Italy. A splendid sampler of nine representative images I captured that–nine years later–continue to feed my creative consciousness, spirit of adventure, and wonder about a nameless Florentine boy with a blue umbrella who followed his mother’s red shoes.

 

A Ray of Hope in An Awful Year

SR Ferrell diary entry … July 2, 1964 … from Huntersville, North Carolina.

I plowed corn in Bottoms until noon. We had showers of rain about 12:30 and I did not plow any this afternoon. I set out my blueberry plants this afternoon. President Johnson signed the “Civil Rights Law” into law today. Partly cloudy. Hot. I went to Charlie Gibson’s and got some tomatoes. 69 degrees (Low). 87 degrees (High).

***

My guest blogger is SR Ferrell. My maternal grandfather (Sherrell Richardson Ferrell was his full name) was a mountain of a man, devoted farmer and prolific writer. He left behind more than fifty years of simple-but-occasionally-profound diary accounts. He and they became central characters in From Fertile Ground, the story of my grief and quest to rediscover my southern roots.

About the same time SR (a staunch southern Republican) was plowing corn in North Carolina, LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson, a storied southern Democrat) was signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The legislation outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or natural origin.

I’m grateful for this history and what we can learn from it. Especially in 2020. So far, it’s been a frantic, frail and frenetic year. Defined by the immediacy of terrible tweets that take precedence in American society over the truth and track record of yesterday. It’s important that we pause for a moment to give the longitudinal threads in our lives their proper respect and attention.

History has shown LBJ was responsible for escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On the other hand, with a stroke of his pen, the 36th president also proved to have a positive impact on domestic policy. The Civil Rights Act prohibits unequal applications in voter registration, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations.

Certainly, our country hasn’t always followed the rule and spirit of this law. If it had, we wouldn’t now face a long painful road ahead. Sifting through the wreckage of racism. Building a society that actively demonstrates black lives matter.

Unrelated to the prejudices of skin color, today in a surprising 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of LGBTQ workers. Citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, nearly fifty-six years after LBJ signed the law, SCOTUS ruled that no one can be fired from their job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The SCOTUS decision was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch (a conservative appointed by Donald Trump), who said the “message” of the law is “simple and momentous: an individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.”

In this case at least, equality and history win out. This is a ray of hope in an awful year.

Perhaps it’s also a present from the past to the present from a president (born in Stonewall, Texas, ironically) hundreds of miles from the Stonewall Inn uprising of New York that defined the beginning of the LGBTQ movement in June 1969 … less than six months after LBJ left the White House.

Truly July 2, 1964 was a mighty day for SR, LBJ and all Americans. … and, with the Supreme Court’s decision today, despite our current troubles, we’ve taken a step in the right direction toward civil rights supported at the federal level.

 

 

 

Three Junes Ago

MountProspectHome_June2017

What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

The Golden Hour

GoldenHour_June2020

Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.

 

 

Come What May

DesertRose_053020

I can’t reconcile the beauty of the desert rose outside my backdoor with the ugliness of a black man’s murder in Minneapolis. Except I know the rose is a natural creation that thrives on heat and sun, while the killing is the latest manifestation of man-made hate and ignorance.

I can’t justify one-hundred-thousand deaths perpetuated by a virulent virus in less than six months in a complicated country. Except I know the virus is a natural creation with a cycle of its own, while the escalating numbers are evidence of lies and disarray in an ill-equipped nation.

I can’t imagine another month or two or three or more of disorientation and destruction. Except I know the mockingbird will forever sing atop a palm in the peak of the day, while an uncertain world continues to turn come what may.

Gymbolic Bliss

There was no celebration. No ribbon cutting. No marching band. No drum roll. No crescendo. No crashing cymbals as the glass doors parted magically and Tom and I swiped our membership tags under the watchful electronic eye at the entrance to Club SAR.

Yet, in the scheme of restoring sanity, at 11:45 a.m. on the Tuesday after Memorial Day I felt the symbolic hug of a good friend when I turned the corner and spotted a few familiar faces and free weights.

Smiling like a miscast Lone Ranger through the discomfort of his black bandana and makeshift mask, manager Jonathan greeted us from ten-plus feet away.

“Best day ever,” he proclaimed as we scanned the newly configured space.

It was a tongue-in-cheek phrase he had uttered previously throughout 2019 and early in 2020 every time we walked through the door. Every time we exchanged pleasantries before climbing aboard our favorite life-affirming machines in our past lives.

But on this day in late May it really did feel like the best day ever for two sixty-two-year-old men, who had cobbled together an at-home gym in mid-March (a basketball and ten-and-fifteen-pound hand weights to keep hearts and joints strong in the face of an impending pandemic).

The best day ever to take a giant step away from our predominantly stay-at-home lives. The best day ever to enter a newly configured world of plexi-glass partitions, spaced-out treadmills, scattered stationary bikes and strategically-located sanitizing stations.

It didn’t take long for muscle memory to take hold in a room sprinkled with souls intent upon forestalling the gym reaper. Forty-five minutes later … past trusty treadmill steps, a small stream of light weights, and elliptical exclamation point … we said our goodbyes, drained our water bottles to quench our thirst, and stepped toward our Sonata.

Certainly one thing is true. On this Tuesday–re-opening day at our community gym–a  smattering of Scottsdale survivors recaptured a strand of their pre-COVID-19 lives … ever grateful for a few moments of gymbolic bliss.

 

 

 

 

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.

 

The Columns and Buttes

MU_ColumnsRing_May1979

Our best memories–the ones cast in precious metals and inscribed with our names in cursive–far outweigh the cubic zirconium rings and balled up aluminum foil we choose to discard. But even the brightest ballast-laden snippets blur at the edges as they flash through our mind’s eye. They provide the weight we press against, cling to, or push away from.

My fourteen-karat gold college ring symbolizes the continuity of my University of Missouri years in Columbia. Resting in a dish with assorted jewelry in my bureau drawer, it features the school’s six iconic time-tested columns. All that remains of the university’s Academic Hall, which burned in a fire in the fresh snow of January 1892.

Out of the ashes, President Richard H. Jesse had the vision and fortitude to guide the school and transform it into a research-based institution. During his seventeen-year administration, the modern university Jesse envisioned was born. It grew and produced positive ripples around the ever-enduring stone columns … as well as generations who met near, lounged under or studied beneath them.

MU students have built lives and careers there. Succeeded and failed in times of war and peace. In the 1970’s, dozens of us tossed our Frisbees around the stone pillars … galloping across the Francis Quadrangle grass, running amok in the “Show Me” state until the next keg of beer or slice of Shakespeare’s pizza captured our attention. In my case, I walked across an outdoor stage to accept my Bachelor of Journalism degree in May 1979.

At their essence, the columns represent more than a social backdrop for play and frivolity. They are larger-than-life markers of time and civilization, before automobiles, airplanes, computers or digital technology. Poetic and historic reminders of their permanence and significance under fire versus our relative impermanence and insignificance.

I no longer wear the ring, but I’ve kept it nonetheless. When I pick it up and examine the luster and sparkle of the tiger’s eye, I marvel at what I accomplished, recall what I survived, and “retreat to the chambers that I left behind”, a lyrical line from folk rocker Dan Fogelberg’s song Heart Hotels and his 1979 album Phoenix.

In the late 1970’s, as I turned up the volume on my stereo and escaped into Fogelberg’s melancholy music behind my long hair, I didn’t imagine I’d go west one day and create a whole new life near the base of another rock formation … the Papapo Park buttes; a natural one … but that’s what can happen over the course of a lifetime.

More than forty years later, I’ve discovered a longer view, which comes only with lengthening late-afternoon shadows and survival. Whenever I imagine my life on an eighty-year, bell-shaped curve (we should all feel lucky to live that long … Dan Fogelberg died in 2007 at age fifty-six), I see the columns as the launching pad after the first twenty years.

The geological formation of the Papago Park buttes, just steps from my Arizona condo and millions of years ago at the bottom of a vast ocean, are likely the landing pad on the down slope of life for my last twenty.

Global pandemic or not, none of us knows when the end point will arrive. What the circumstances will be. We might as well enjoy the flights of fancy–keep throwing and catching our Frisbee in our sixties as Tom and I do–and take comfort in the anchors of life. The symbols of strength around us. The columns and buttes that keep us grateful and grounded in good times and bad.

 

 

 

 

 

Splash

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It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.

 

 

May’s Bouquet

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May crept in under the cover of disease and darkness. By late morning, after an hour of restorative outdoor yoga under the shade of an Arizona pine, she sped past spring and delivered summer beauty and floral comfort: our first desert rose bloom of the season.

Cue Midwestern years, purple-iris moments with mother, pink peonies that drooped over the driveway after it rained, and this poem. I penned it four years ago when I still called Illinois my home.

***

May’s Bouquet

Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.

Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.

Blooming lilacs, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.

Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled in peonies pink allure.

Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.

Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.

Gliding up, curling flow, blowing wishes afterglow.

Tempers flare, to dash away, majestic days of May’s bouquet.