Category: Creative nonfiction

B&N Bliss

Back in July, I wrote a story about Barnes and Noble stocking my memoirs on its shelves in Mesa, Arizona.

A month or so later Rachele, the community relations manager, invited me to sign my books there.

It will happen on Saturday, October 1, from 1 to 3 p.m. at their Dana Park store, located at 1758 S. Val Vista Drive. I’ll even have the opportunity to read a few passages.

(No, it hasn’t sunk in that this independent writer will have this blissful moment in a large bookselling space among the work of more-renowned writers.)

Anyway, I realize most of you who follow my blog don’t live in the Valley of the Sun. But if you do–and you’re looking for a creative outlet this weekend and a story or two to add to your fall reading–stop by.

I’d love to see you there!

The Clothesline

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.

For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.

Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.

More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.

It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.

The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.

Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

***

The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.

Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.

Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.

Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.

And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.

It’s a much less turbulent September day.

Part Friend, Part Feral

Shy and suspect, she appeared in May 2021. Soon after, I named our feral friend Poly. It’s short for our Polynesian Paradise community where she resides on the lam.

Curious but skittish, Poly stared down at me from our neighbor’s roof the first time we met. Later on, she padded down the walk–past the lemon and orange trees–when Tom or I approached.

She didn’t allow us to get closer than thirty feet.

Last summer came and went. On warm mornings, she’d climb into the crook of our fig tree to search for food. Delectable fruits weren’t her thing. In her dreams, it was a birdie buffet, featuring an unsuspecting dove or finch.

In the months that followed, Poly paraded by frequently. Meanwhile, Tom and I sat for other cats: adorable Blanca and acrobatic Hex. They also live on our lane, but both will be leaving in the next few months. As is the way of life, they’re moving on with their owners for adventures in new homes.

Now, in August 2022, Poly is the featured performer. She appears at our front door most mornings. Here on the southwestern edge of Polynesian Paradise, she meows, stretches, and rolls on her back. Like a shifty circus character, who knows how long she’ll stay in town?

By now, you have surmised that Poly has become our friend. Perhaps even our pet without an official home or address.

If she had to call one place home, I think she’d scribble the number outside our door onto a legal document with the tip of her paw. That is my fantasy.

On her most trusting days, she stands on our threshold, brushes up against our legs, and peeks in. She waits patiently as I place a ramakin of milk, handful of dry kitty kernels, or dish of wet food from a can (turkey, chicken, or fish) at her feet.

She finishes her savory treats, licks her paws, and grooms herself. Then slinks down the lane to rest on another neighbor’s doormat.

During this active summer monsoon season, I wonder where Poly hides, where she sleeps at night. Perhaps under a low palm. Or, if she scales a wall, in the cozy corner of a neighbor’s empty, but protective, patio.

Chosen or not, this is the life of our feral friend.

Sure, Poly trusts us more. She has warmed to our food and advances. But she hasn’t quite come to terms with whatever shadows lurk in her checkered past.

Like any nomad, Poly believes she’s better off on her own … better off when left to her own devices.

Never Too Late

Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.

On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.

Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.

Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.

If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.

Just the Start

Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.

It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.

Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.

The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.

Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.

I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.

Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.

That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.

If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.

Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.

In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

Hate has no home here.

324 and More

Today marks four years since I began my blogging adventure and obsession.

When I launched this website May 4, 2018, I wanted to promote my books and develop a greater literary presence online. Over time, that goal has been superseded by a desire to share topical stories about the extraordinary, meaningful moments and people that cross through one ordinary life.

It’s been no simple task nurturing my creativity in this chaotic world. Blogging has given voice to my memories, ideas, values, observations, and opinions. More than that, in my sixties it has become the organic structure I need to stay sharp, sane, hopeful, and whole.

Most definitely, blogging was my salvation during the height of the pandemic. The whimsical and serious tales I spun at my laptop became fodder for my fourth book about two gay men forging a new life in the Sonoran Desert.

This post is #324. That’s an average of eighty-one stories per year or nearly seven each month. Written at all hours of the day and night. Concocted in all sorts of moods: happy, sad, angry, reflective, devastated, and triumphant.

Thank you for joining me on this circuitous journey. If you follow me, you know I often share poetry. Frequently, I like to include photos that ignite and inspire an idea that might otherwise never have surfaced.

For nearly thirty years, I’ve written poems and stashed them in an expanding file. It’s a body of work that encompasses the highs and lows of six-and-a-half decades and chronicles the profound role nature plays in our everyday existence.

As I approach my 65th birthday in July, I feel an impulse to publish a collection of my most vivid poems. Would such a chapbook interest you? As you ponder that question, I hope you enjoy reading this verse.

When I wrote it May 7, 2016, Tom and I were Midwesterners–more familiar with blooming iris and peonies than spiky cacti and monsoon rains.

As an Illinois resident on the threshold of more change than I could imagine, I wanted to remember the imagery of past Mays.

My, our world has changed.

***

May’s Bouquet

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

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

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

Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled 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.

In May 2017, I gathered this bouquet of fragrant iris from our Illinois garden and placed it on our table.

Georgia on My Mind

I have Georgia on my mind today. Not the Peach Tree state, but my peach-ice-cream-loving grandmother. April 7 would have been my maternal grandma’s 119th birthday.

Warm-hearted and hard-working, Georgia lived most of her seventy-one years in North Carolina.

In 1914, Georgia Evabell Miller met Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell. Both attended a one-room school in Mecklenburg County. Six years later, they married at Georgia’s home in the same community. She was sixteen; he was nineteen.

A generation before I appeared, Georgia’s ordinary rural existence–tending to family, home, meals, and livestock–took an extraordinary toll on her body and emotional wellbeing. She bore four children: Helen (my mother) and Richard in the mid 1920s; James and Frances in the early 1930s.

In between, Georgia suffered a double whammy of grief and pain. Richard died of meningitis in 1926 one month before his first birthday. Not long after, cervical cancer compounded Georgia’s trauma. She was bedridden for an extended period. Helen grew up quickly and helped care for her mother.

Even with Georgia’s burden and her heavy body that contributed to arthritic knees and misshapen feet, my grandma maintained a girlish southern giggle into her late fifties and beyond.

In the summer of ’62, during one of our family visits to the farm, I absorbed the scene like a ready sponge as she prepared ham, grits, and biscuits for breakfast.

I loved Georgia and her jolly nature. As she toiled and told rambling stories over the sink, rolls of laughter shook her stout body. If she were here, she would describe it as the “gift of gab” handed down through her Irish descent.

Intermittently, she tossed table scraps and leftovers into a slop bucket for a trio of hungry hogs that waited impatiently in their pen.

On occasion, I accompanied her whenever the contents came close to sloshing over the sides of the dented metal pail. Together we squealed as the pigs poked their large snouts through wooden slats to explore what concoction was on the menu.

Like a southern-stitched patchwork quilt handed down through the generations to keep them warm, this moment remains cordoned off in my 1960s Carolina consciousness. It lives next door to Georgia’s humid hugs.

When I was a toddler, I begged for her to scoop me into the lap of her tattered periwinkle dress … churn butter or crank ice cream on the sagging back porch … venture into the earthen cellar where she stored pickled fruits and vegetables … or gather eggs from the chicken coup and cradle them in her apron on the return trip.

A victim of heart disease and decades of early mornings and long days working the farm, Georgia died nearly forty-eight years ago on July 4, 1974.

Two days later (after we drove through the night from St. Louis to attend her funeral), sprays of gladiolas surrounded her casket.

I can still envision the tacky floral arrangement–sent by a neighbor–with a plastic telephone teetering on top. Three words were written in ribbon: “God has called.” Ironically, my grieving grandpa loved it most.

Through our tears, Frances and I laughed about it. Georgia would have liked that and the image of my aunt and me consoling each other on my seventeenth birthday. We stood over her fresh grave in Huntersville, North Carolina, at a little cemetery outside Asbury United Methodist Church.

It was the center of the universe in “Ferrelltown”–where my southern family worshipped, married, gathered as a community, celebrated birthdays, consumed countless cakes and delectable pies, buried the beloved, and grieved for those who left early and stayed late.

***

Years later, it is the thought of Georgia’s gentility and kindness that endures. It is the love and laughter she planted in my heart that will never die.

As I began to write From Fertile Ground after my mother died–and later when I returned from North Carolina after another round of consoling with Frances and visit to my grandparents’ graves in the church yard–Annie Lennox’ soaring voice from her CD Nostalgia inspired me.

It was her stirring, melancholy rendition of the Ray Charles’ classic Georgia on My Mind that captivated me most. Listening to it, I channeled my grief and reconstructed my southern memories before they landed on the pages of my book.

Every child should be so lucky to spend a few weeks every other summer with a grandparent who simply smothers them with goodness and genuine love. That and the bucolic snippets of a farm populated with kittens, puppies, cows, chickens, pigs, and peacocks are forever stitched in my psyche.

When you add them all up, what do all these vivid memories mean? That in the course of any life, it is the collective music of a simple-but-extraordinary grandma’s unconditional love that keeps us hoping, that keeps us dreaming, that keeps us living, that keeps us singing.

Long after she is gone.

***

I said Georgia
Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
.

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
.

I said Georgia
Oh Georgia, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia at age fifty-three on the steps of my parents’ apartment during a rare visit to St. Louis in 1956. About a decade later, she and S.R. enjoyed the company of six of their seven grandchildren in rural NC.

Get Happy

Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.

***

Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.

Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.

For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.

As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.

Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.

Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.

Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?

***

2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!

On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.

About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.

Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.

The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.

As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.

Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.

We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.

Fallout

We sat–quietly and obediently–in rows facing the front of the room. Most of the girls wore frilly dresses, bangs, and patent-leather shoes; the boys sported bold-striped shirts, crew cuts, and bright-white Keds.

Our mornings and early afternoons were occupied with simple math, spelling, reading, recess, and cartons of cold milk on lunch trays. The American flag draped over the alphabet border above the blackboard.

Images of George, Abraham, and John–Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy–stood guard. I suspect they were there to ease our minds and protect our American innocence.

If only it were that simple.

***

I don’t remember feeling fear, when our teacher told us it was time for another drill. We knew the routine and followed instructions.

A voice on the public address system told us when to practice hiding under our desks, when to duck and cover, when to escape to fallout shelters in hallways if a bomb were dropped.

It lasted but a few minutes. We covered our heads and faces until the all-clear signal came from our teacher. We absorbed the fear–the height of the Cold War–without knowing what it was.

This was what we knew in the early 1960s in middle America. We were fortunate these were merely practice drills, false alarms.

I imagine the scenes weren’t much different in schools on the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati or Cleveland. At Mesnier School in Affton–ten miles from downtown St. Louis–we aspired to a gleaming symbol. We lived in the shadow of an emerging national monument.

By its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch would soar, though across the nation the fog of pollution and social issues intensified.

As history would have it, all of the names of St. Louis school children would be stored in a time capsule in the base of the Arch. Mine is among them.

Back in the classroom, between random drills and parent-teacher conferences, we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. We tied our shoes and kept on skipping in a world where rules were prescribed narrowly for girls and boys.

This was the credo for boys: Get good grades in school. Be prepared. Keep your eye on the ball. Run faster. Jump higher. Find a decent job. Don’t be a sissy. Meet and marry a woman. Buy a house. Have kids. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Pass the baton to the next generation.

But what about those of us who are different? Where do we fit into the story? We had to figure that out for ourselves.

***

The sixties weren’t pretty. Assassinations reigned. The Vietnam War raged. Poverty and racism amplified. People felt trapped, ready to shed the remnants of restrictive gender roles and sexuality, sealed in the repressive 1950s.

But the world is exponentially more complicated now. The latest madman is hellbent on ravaging innocent people in Ukraine. Though love appears in abundance in many circles across all continents, ignorance and hate manifest themselves next door and around the world.

Once again, sixty years later, we find ourselves living in fear of the fallout. We must find ways to duck and cover, to speak the truth while standing as tall and mighty as the Gateway Arch.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to put politics aside, to protect our planet, to uphold individual rights and civil liberties, to teach them about black and white, but also the color and grayness of the world and all its permutations. Pandemic or not, they are watching.

Even if they don’t know it, the youngest members of our society are counting on us to speak the truth, denounce racism and hate, celebrate gay and straight lives, and to teach them that every generation has a responsibility to remember and honor the seminal moments in history, and–hopefully–carry the best of humanity forward.

FREE Through Friday

Need a warm escape? Download my latest book–FREE–through February 25.

Set against the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape, it’s an anthology of whimsical and serious stories about a little bit of everything: hot rods, high points, climbing up, growing old, coming out, pruning trees, eavesdropping cacti, pool rules, sand dollars, shrinking men, tiny lizards, literary life, fanciful flights, fresh lemons, pandemic truths, desert fantasies, and much more.

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