Category: Essays

They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They?

Late yesterday afternoon–a mid-April throwback Monday squeezed in before the Sonoran heat arrives in full force–I met John and Len, my full-time, sixty-something friends and part-time Polynesian Paradise neighbors, at the north edge of our community. We played horseshoes.

Two sandy, part-sun-part-shade horseshoe pits (spaced about fifty feet apart) have existed in our condo complex since the early 1960s. In 2021, residents and guests seldom use them. It’s more common for folks to walk by and not think twice about the horseshoe pits and their history on the way to their mailboxes.

That didn’t stop John, Len, and me from reclaiming the space and recapturing a practice that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed more frequently in the twentieth century. The primitive, low-stress gaming experience was just my speed: slow, nostalgic and gentlemanly. It was a light-hearted, jovial hour of tossing, joking, clinking, clanking, and male bonding. (By the way, John won on Monday. He came from behind with a well-tossed ringer. Len and I will survive. We will live to throw horseshoes another day.)

Anyway, the activity rekindled a memory I wrote about and published in 2017 in a story titled They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They? from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri recollections from the 1960s and 70s. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

What follows are excerpts. The setting? Babler State Park and the rolling rural countryside thirty miles west of St. Louis in October 1961. While the men were throwing horseshoes that day, I discovered a primitive-and-glassy nirvana: marbles.

***

Clink clank clink. Clink clank clink. It was the sound of metal on metal. The men in our family–Dad, Uncle Ralph and Uncle Harry–were hammering stakes into two sand pits about fifty feet apart. They sure do like to fling horseshoes, don’t they, I thought. Within minutes, they were tossing the U-shaped irons from one end to the other, hoping to catch the right angle and rack up a ringer …

On this particular occasion, while the women in our family unfurled the tablecloth and unpacked the meat for grilling, and the men settled into their game and passed cold bottles of Falstaff between throws, I wandered down a path to investigate the picnic area. That’s when I found a vacant campsite nearby and an abandoned plastic bag of multi-colored glass marbles wedged into a gap between the flat rocks of a stone bench.

In my visual memory, this was a To Kill a Mockingbird moment. You know, like when Jem and Scout found Boo Radley’s toys and trinkets buried in the trunk of a big ole tree. In hindsight, I suppose Boo had nothing to do with my glassy discovery. Another child had simply and accidentally lost his or her marbles. For some period of minutes, hours, days or weeks, these multi-faceted marbles were no one’s. They were lost in an unassigned gaming galaxy. But in the universe of fair play, it was Finders Keepers. This treasure was mine …

When I pulled Dad away from his pitching and showed him what I had found, his smiled doubled instantly. It felt like we had discovered a whole new language mined from an archeological dig … In a flash, Dad and my uncles suspended their horseshoe tossing, reverted to their childhoods, and surrounded me with explanations and names for the different marbles–many of them laced with swirls of colorful strands …

Marbles became my forever home of circular undisrupted creative possibilities. After our 1961 picnic was over and the sun began to set, we snuffed out the campfire, folded up the red gingham tablecloth, and packed away our picnic basket. I stepped up into the back seat of our Plymouth with my new marbles in tow.

Over the coming weeks and months, Dad pitched more horseshoes at the farm of Ed and Ollie Puetz near Gray Summit, Missouri, where we picnicked with family and friends and I watched the men drink another round of brews and play the game they loved.

Meanwhile, I added marbles to my glassy collection: aggies (made of agate) swirling with various ribbon patterns inside, tigers (clear with orange-yellow stripes), opaques (milky green, blue, and gray marbles) and cat’s eyes (they look like what they sound like).

All of my marbles became a creative extension of me. I played my instant-game-in-a-bag any time and any place–mostly at home on our basement floor on ordinary rainy days after kindergarten. All I had to do was obey one rule: “Mark, don’t leave your marbles in the middle of the floor.”

Metamorphosis

This week marks five years since I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground. In celebration of the anniversary of my entry into this literary life, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from March 24 through 28. What follows is the story of what brought me to this moment. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope reading this will provide a little added encouragement.

***

If you look and listen closely—and breathe deeply—you will find spring stirring in the Sonoran Desert. Sweet and fragrant orange blossoms dance through the air. Lizards and ground squirrels reemerge to scamper and soak up the sun. A hummingbird darts and twitters in a Palo Verde tree. I imagine a lone loon, descending from a blue sky, is practicing for his pilot license. He receives clearance from nearby Sky Harbor Airport traffic control and lands with a graceful whoosh that ripples in the Crosscut Canal. A monarch butterfly flits and rests on a bud near the fence of the Desert Botanical Garden, pausing long enough for me to creep in for a closeup of nature’s transformation. 

This central Arizona winter-to-spring progression is a warmer, dryer, more gradual shift—a far cry from the flurry, upheaval, and calm of a midwestern lion-to-lamb experience I had been accustomed to for my first sixty years. Nonetheless, it is a March metamorphosis.

Five years ago, like a clumsy butterfly, I emerged from my own cocoon. At age fifty-eight, I launched my first book From Fertile Ground. I remember the anticipation and anxiety of March 24, 2016—the day my book emerged—as I moved from wannabe writer to published author.

I felt exhilaration. It was as if I were boarding a rollercoaster, gripping the bar tightly, grinning ear to ear, throwing my arms in the air, and shouting “Look over here” as my book entered the literary universe. Maybe I sound immodest, but it was and is such a thrill to have discovered this better-late-than-never renaissance.

Previously, as a busy single dad and on-the-go communication professional, the idea of writing on my own terms seemed like a faraway neverland of creative euphoria. But slowly, as I drifted from the gravitational force of my previous orbit, I felt the magnetic pull of an artistic life.

This literary life sprung from a personal void, molded from the fog of my grief after my mother died in January 2013. At that point, I was lost with plenty of tears, but without the language of emotion that normally came easily for me.

Fortunately, I was not alone on my journey. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my husband and a skilled therapist, I forged ahead, jotted notes in my diary, took a few nature photography classes, and slowly stepped away from a thirty-four-year advertising, PR, and consulting career. It had sustained my bank account and carried me through leans years of single fatherhood, but ultimately drained my energy and creativity.

Early on, after my corporate “retirement” there were moments of doubt and uncertainty to contend with. Even so, the more I wrote in my journal, the more I felt my voice begin to emerge. Within a few months, my writing and reading led me out of the darkness into the light.

A litany of wisdom-filled letters my mother sent me—along with a boxful of more than fifty years of diaries my grandfather left behind—spurred my creative impulses. I sequestered myself and perused them all. They spoke to me and my love of family, heritage, and history.

One day in 2014, as I turned the yellowing pages of my grandfather’s rural life—his spartan existence—an idea surfaced in my brain. It told me to weave a tale of three writers telling their stories across the generations, leaving behind a trail of their own words. In that moment, I found a new passion. From Fertile Ground was born. So was my life as an author. I prepared to emerge from my cocoon.

A year of daily soul-searching, writing and editing passed. In late 2015, I finished my manuscript. With the help of a friend, I found an editor and graphic designer—Anna and Sam—who came highly recommended. They both lived and worked in Nashville, Tennessee.

Instinctively, I liked hiring professionals with connections to the South, because much of my story shared a border with Tennessee to the east—in the rolling red earth of rural North Carolina. That is where my mother was born, where my grandparents owned a farm, and where my sister and I frolicked and spent parts of our summers in the 1960s.

Anna provided me with her recommended edits in January 2016. Following that, I collaborated with Sam. With my input, he created the cover for my book, designed the interior pages, formatted the text, and loaded it into the Amazon self-publishing software.

By late March 2016, I held the first copy of my book in hand. Friends and acquaintances began to send notes telling me they enjoyed reading my book and were moved by it. It was a joyous period in my life, far from the tears and fog that had preceded it just a few years before.

***

Five years have passed. I keep nurturing and practicing my passion for writing. It remains a priority in my life. I write a blog and have published three more books–Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, An Unobstructed View, and I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree–about the people and places that have influenced me.

I take long walks in the desert and collect photos to stir my imagination. I marvel at the beauty and continuity of nature that surrounds me. I give thanks for the gift of life in a warm and rugged place.

This metamorphosis continues.

The Texture of Our Lives

What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.

But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.

My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.

Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.

Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.

Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.

As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.

A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.

Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.

Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.

Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.

While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.

After Our Stories Set Sail

I feel the pain and glory of every writer. We build the frames of our books, chapter by chapter. The process takes years. It is the culmination of time, art, and commitment.

We begin in the darkness in front of an empty page or a blank screen. We write a sentence or two that makes sense. We add and subtract in words. We rinse and repeat. We submerge ourselves to find the deepest meaning in the mundane and the spectacular.

One day, after months of determination and doubt, our rough draft is done. But we pause only briefly. We don’t want to lose our momentum. We dive back in for round after round of edits, because we want our stories to adhere to each other and to every reader who spends time with them.

Finally, the rewriting and polishing reveal the stories we intended. We invite a few trusted professionals, an editor and graphic designer, to join us in the literary chase. They stand by us on shore as we rewrite and polish passages, as we search for and discover the perfect cover, as we tweak phrases one final time, as we launch our true and false stories into the world.

As I watch my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, begin to bob on the waves of the reading world in the middle of a global pandemic, I wonder. What will happen next? Who will read my book? What will it mean to them? What will readers have to say about it?

These are just a few of the questions we independent writers ask after our stories set sail. We are brimming with ideas, but also uncertainties. We have little control over where our stories land. All we can do is breathe life into them, guide them from afar, send a little money their way, push trade winds in their direction, and wait to hear about our creations once they have landed.

Only then is a writer’s journey complete.

My Lemon Tree Book is Live!

The trail of my literary life has led here. The Kindle version of my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, is now available on Amazon. (Paperbacks are in production and will be available for purchase at this same location on Amazon in the next few days).

The rush of adrenaline I feel today is at least as satisfying as books one, two and three, because I’ve devoted more than three years to this creative endeavor–imagining, developing, polishing, and agonizing over it.

In that sense, today is a combination of the exhilaration of unwrapping Christmas presents, skipping out the door on the last day of school, feeling weak in the knees the first time I approached the edge of the Grand Canyon, and hoping for a clean bill of health from my cardiologist. It’s all of that rolled into a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies.

In this anthology of Arizona stories, I dig deeper into themes that are important to me: the lasting love and comfort of family and friends; the humor, irony, and poetry in everyday situations; the profound beauty of nature and how it shapes us; the joy of realizing a literary life; and the conviction required to be an authentic gay man–a real gay couple–in a world often rife with ignorance.

As you might expect, the upheaval we have all faced in Coronaville (my name for our shared global address of uncertainty) is present here too. How could it not be? The pandemic has dominated our lives and–at its core–this is a non-sequential personal and societal 2017-to-2020 slice of life.

All of these themes–and flights of fancy (backward and forward in time) to visit familiar and new people and places–run through my book. They are the threads in this tapestry that has become my writing style. They are the elements of the sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-serious voice I have unearthed in my life with Tom in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.

As we wait for our vaccinations and continue to hope we will recapture the most important strands of our disrupted lives, I think you will find comfort, honesty and humor in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. I also think it is a testimonial to the importance of our families, communities, and human connections as we strive to sustain ourselves no matter where we live, no matter where this journey leads us.

From Crab Apples to Lemon Trees

In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.

In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.

As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.

Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.

I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.

In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.

If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.

Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.

Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.

The Pledge of Allegiance

Because I am a writer, you might imagine it would be easy for me to put my anger and pain into words.

You might think it would be simple enough for me to describe the brutality our current president has brought to our country for the past four years or the shame and frustration I felt as I watched a mob of misguided lemmings follow his lead, storm the U.S. Capitol, and pillage it on January 6, 2021.

But it is not.

It appears (to at least half of us and the rest of the world) that we have lost our bearings, sense of righteousness, and humility. The rest (some of whom smashed windows, dishonored our House and Senate chambers, and scaled walls for a selfie) are content to wallow in lies, deception and misinformation.

Most of this destruction was perpetrated by a man who has no moral compass, no interest in the well-being of our nation’s citizens as we wander for another day through the darkness of this pandemic, as we watch the death toll grow, as we wait for a vaccine that is slow to arrive.

It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to examine The Pledge of Allegiance–something I learned and recited in first or second grade as I stood by my desk with my hand over my heart back in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s time to ask: Do these words mean anything anymore? Do we still believe and adhere to these words that open our congressional sessions and have served as guideposts for our children, adults and–most important–government officials to follow?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

If they do, we need to hold all of those involved–including the current president and his enablers– accountable for their treasonous and criminal behavior. We need to remove them from their offices, fire them from their jobs, convict them of their crimes.

We need to uphold our civil rights and liberties for the masses. We need to ensure there is justice for all.

The Warmth of a Good Story

Our best and worst memories have a way of softening and sharpening as we age. Like photos pressed in the pages of a family scrapbook, some of them fade and crack. Others, through the lens of our selective memory, grow more brilliant.

I don’t know what it will feel like to look back on 2020 in ten or twenty years. But, as we work to survive the entirety of this preposterous year, I suspect our memories will follow the same unpredictable pattern.

On the morning of December 25, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and English muffins, my husband and I watched A Christmas Story.

Like many of you, I have seen this satirical and nostalgic film countless times. It’s one of my holiday favorites. The 1983 movie, directed by Bob Clark, is narrated by author Jean Shepherd and based on his stories of growing up in the Hammond, Indiana area (near Chicago) in the 1940s.

The writing is witty and the editing superb, but what I love most about the film (starring Melinda Dillon, Daren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley) is the sense of time and place it captures.

Like the endless scarves, hats, gloves, and buckled boots the kids wear to protect themselves from the cold and piles of snow, the film produces layer upon layer of lasting humor, warmth and comfort … told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. It is an exaggerated ode to a lost era in the United States. For all of these reasons, it is imminently watchable despite its constant availability.

In hindsight, warmth also was the feeling I intended to capture in my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, published in 2017. I wanted to leave behind a record of what it felt like to grow up in the hot St. Louis, Missouri suburbs in the 1960s and 70s.

It was an age when kids ran barefoot, chased ice cream trucks, played with marbles, watched dads toss horseshoes, cuddled with puppies in backyard pools, performed tricks for Halloween treats, banged pots and pans outside to celebrate New Years Eve, sucked on popsicles to beat the heat with the neighborhood kids on scorching summer afternoons, and (in my case, at the age of sixteen in 1974) learned to operator a rollercoaster.

This was my front porch (circa 1960) in Affton, Missouri: Jimmy; Marianne; Diane; Suzy; Carol; and me. My mother sealed the moment with the help of her Brownie camera. Now the image lives forever in my light-hearted book of Missouri memories.

It certainly was a more innocent time. But, as we grew, the world became more complicated. We watched and listened to Walter Cronkite. We believed everything he told us through our black-and-white TVs. That included images and stories of JFK’s assassination, the first steps on the moon, Watergate, and the raging Vietnam War.

At any rate, if you’re looking for a little warmth and nostalgia to get you through the winter, I have an antidote. Download a free copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator through the end of 2020.

As we prepare to cross into a new year and hope for brighter days ahead, maybe my stories of a bygone period in American life will inspire you to laugh a little, revisit your youth, dust-off your favorite memories, and find new meaning in the indelible moments that stay with you for a lifetime.

Important Things to Say

It is one of my earliest vivid memories. I was standing alone in June 1962. Outside the west side of my childhood home in Affton. Looking north toward the street. Wearing my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. One month shy of my fifth birthday. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom brick ranch in south suburban St. Louis, Missouri appeared nearly identical to two dozen others on South Yorkshire Drive. With one exception. Ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb and droppings that stained our driveway.

At that moment, a clear and welcome thought jumped unannounced to the forefront of my brain and lingered for a few minutes. It swirled through my consciousness.

“I am also different. I have important things to say.”

As I look back at that memory, I realize that on some level I must have known I was gay. Not the same as most of the rest of the boys. Maybe even special. It was an intuition. A gut hunch without empirical data.

I was a shy child. I stayed out of trouble mostly. I didn’t rock the boat. I obeyed my parents. Later, I listened to my teachers and dodged bullies in middle school halls. I had lots of fears and creative ideas. Unfortunately, I never voiced many of them.

Now–nearly sixty years later–the voice that was never fully realized in my developing years has found a forum of its own. This is my two hundredth blog entry since launching my site in May 2018. For you who follow me frequently–especially the handful who comment regularly–thank you for taking the time out of your busy life to read what I write.

Recently, the pace of my postings has slowed so I can devote my attentions to another creative endeavor. I am currently finalizing a collection of essays and fantasies about my life in Arizona. My goal is to send these to my editor in November and publish my fourth book early in 2021. Rest assured, I will keep you posted on the delivery date of my newest arrival.

I suppose my writing commitment (in blog and book form) is my way of making up for lost time. When I sit before my laptop, spin my stories, enter my words, and press the “publish” button, I feel as if on some level I am speaking for that “different” little child who stood on his St. Louis driveway and pondered the world’s possibilities and problems.

I keep writing because he and I have important things to say.

Fall Colors

Back in March, when news of the pandemic began to assault our senses, Tom and I agreed we wanted to introduce a splash of color into our home. To bring a fresh bunch of store-bought flowers into our haven each week. To ease the pain of 2020 by creating our own bouquet of happiness.

Now that October is with us, I’ve been craving fall colors. Though I smile every time I see the scarlet bougainvillea blooms swaying in a gentle breeze outside our back door, we don’t enjoy crisp apple-picking days in the Sonoran Desert or a traditional array of autumn leaves.

This week we brought home burnt orange roses to ogle over. As I freed them from the plastic wrap, the interior designer in me recommended placing them in my mother’s canary yellow Fiesta pitcher from the 1940s.

Full disclosure. In the past week, I also have bought and consumed organic pumpkin spiced applesauce, transferred two decorative harvest dinner plates (Mom also left those behind) from the hutch in our sun room to our kitchen cabinet, positioned our plastic jack-o-lantern on top of our living room bookshelf, and rescued two orange-black-and-white, witchy-and-batty cupcake dish towels from the cupboard.

After all, it’s October. Even if it is 2020, we have to manufacturer our own of version autumnal happiness and humor our Halloween hankerings. Our lives are more than COVID-19 results and election prognostications. We must maintain some sense of stability and go on living.