Category: health and wellness

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 It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community.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.

A Gift to Ease Your Grief

As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.

Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.

Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.

Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.

Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.

As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.

In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.

I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.

Remembering Bob Gibson: The Man on the Mound

Life is a mysterious mish mash of beginnings and endings, wins and losses. Lately, the losses have been more prominent and painful for me and many of you. Yet we do what we can to endure in 2020.

Last night, Bob Gibson–one of the greatest pitchers ever and undoubtedly the most dominant of the 1960s–died of cancer at age eighty-four. Serendipitously, his team–the St. Louis Cardinals–ended their frantic, COVID-19-filled 2020 season the same night with a 4-0 playoff loss to the San Diego Padres.

As a kid growing up in St. Louis in the sixties, I followed every angle of Gibson’s story. He was a local hero, a one-time player for the Harlem Globetrotters, a flame-throwing right hander who still holds the ERA (earned runs average) record in Major League Baseball–1.12 for the 1968 season. It’s a record that will likely never be broken.

But this versatile athlete and fierce competitor was also a gifted writer. I remember browsing the local library as a kid and reading From Ghetto to Glory, his story about growing up poor in Omaha, Nebraska, and fighting his way to the top. “Gibby” was an inspiration and role model.

Bob Gibson passed away less than a month after Lou Brock, the legendary base stealer, fellow Hall of Famer and his St. Louis Cardinals teammate. The duo of Bob and Lou dazzled a generation of St. Louis fans on the field and appeared in three World Series–winning in 1964 and 1967.

Ironically, Gibson died on October 2, 2020. Exactly fifty-two years after striking out seventeen batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. To date, his record still stands.

If you enjoy reading stories about baseball, check out my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator. It includes a story about my dad and me watching Bob Gibson pitch on July 15, 1967 from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. That day, the crack of Roberto Clemente’s bat (another Hall of Famer), booming through my transistor radio, changed everything.

Almost as If

ValleyHo2_081720

Personal experience tells me that the pressure and immediacy of a frightful, life-changing moment–for instance, a mild heart attack accompanied by breathlessness and radiating left shoulder pain while traveling cross country–can make it virtually impossible to imagine a longer view, a brighter sky, an optimistic outcome.

But with the passage of three years and one month (living inside a 2017-to-2020 cradle of colluding Russian-nesting-doll years, arguably the most tumultuous and troublesome period in American history since the Civil War), I find myself crossing a metaphorical threshold into a more promising personal dimension without an obstruction in the foreground.

This realization flooded my sixty-three-year old brain and body on August 18, 2020 as I scribbled sentences on the lined pages of my emerald-colored spiral notebook. The inspiration for my ramblings was prompted by a visit with Dr. B, my cardiologist, the day before.

***

August 17 began swimmingly. Forty laps alongside Tom in our condo pool, followed closely by a thirty-minute session (yoga for writers with Adriene on YouTube) in front of our flat-screen TV. The motion and stretching were successful in quieting my mind before an 11:10 a.m. appointment with Dr. B.

At 10:30, I stepped out on my own in my flip flops into one-hundred-degree heat. Opened the driver’s side to our indigo Sonata, started the engine, and tapped the windshield wipers to remove a thin layer of grit from a dust storm the night before.

It was a short and simple journey into Old Town Scottsdale, but one I’d stewed over since a August 5 echocardiogram orchestrated by Laney on the other side of the Valley of the Sun. It was her job to test the condition and pumping capability of my heart. Glub glub … glub glub … glub glub.

Some of the sting surrounding this follow-up appointment had already subsided on August 10 or 11, because a nurse in my doctor’s office emailed saying they had uncovered “no emergent concerns” from the procedure. Dr. B would discuss my course of care moving forward at a August 17 consultation.

Still, like any once-burned patient with a history of heart disease or inquisitive journalist digging for the full scoop, I wondered if there were more variables they weren’t ready to share with me. More I needed to fret over. The phrase “course of care” left too much room–too many what ifs–for my unbridled imagination and anxiety.

Like many other moments in life, the hardest part was waiting.

***

Once I arrived at the three-story office building, I parked facing east, slid our silver sunshade across the windshield, climbed three flights of stairs in an outdoor atrium rather than trusting a slow elevator, checked in at the front desk of Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd,, and waited to be summoned.

“120/80 … couldn’t be more normal,” Dr. B’s nurse checked and confided my blood pressure, once I was situated in a straight-backed chair. As she left me alone in the room, I thought of Tom and all we had endured and accomplished in the previous thirty-seven months together.

Selling our home in Illinois. Saying goodbye to family, friends and neighbors. Moving ourselves and our essential possessions seventeen hundred miles west. Scurrying into the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday. Resuming our journey four days later with the help of a capable medical team in the city where I was born.

Buying new furniture for the living room of our Arizona condo. Traveling to Ireland and feeling the air rush through my hair on an open-air Dublin bus. Helping Nick recover from a serious knee injury on a basketball court. Cultivating new friendships in Arizona.

Finding new creative outlets and avenues to sing, write and screen our favorite movies. Climbing to the top of a church in Munich, Germany to behold Bavaria without a worry. Gazing out the window of a Vienna cafe and soaking up the baroque splendor inside The Ring.

Bonding with cardiologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists. Standing between my thirty-something sons at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library right before COVID-19 shuttered the world. Surviving the chaos and fear of a global pandemic and a misguided presidency. Doing our best to stay connected to family and friends. Escaping to the mountains of Flagstaff to breathe the pine-scented air.

All of it, and the memory of my mother and father (both long gone, but never far away) flashed through my mind’s eye in a five-minute window as I stared at the blue and green tiles in an innocuous space waiting for Dr. B.

After he knocked and entered, he delivered the news I had waited for. More than I  hoped for actually. Certainly, more than I imagined. He glanced at the July 2017 images from St. Louis and compared them with those of August 2020 in Scottsdale. He told me the Arizona echocardiogram showed my heart is functioning normally.

Though both of us wore masks, I’m sure he could see the amazement and joy in my eyes when he said, “It’s almost as if you never had a heart attack … I don’t need to see you until another year passes, unless something comes up.”

***

As I left Dr. B’s office, relief flooded my body. I texted the news to Tom and told him I was on my way home. We would celebrate with a mini-staycation at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, a vintage mid-century, sun-drenched resort flecked in tangerine and aqua. As good fortune would have it, August 17 was the day we met in 1996.

For two days and nights, we were desert rats living the high life. It was almost as if none of the trauma of three years before had happened. But we knew it had. Now we could put it further behind us in the distance of the palms in the Grand Canyon State.

All of us hope for a longer view, a lengthier life with greater possibilities. But it’s out of our control. The best we can do is love more. Hate less. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Listen to the advice of our doctors. Be grateful for today. Endure the heat of a desert day. Embrace the twilight of our fading hours. Deliberate over dazzling sunsets.

Enjoy the luscious fruits of our lives as they appear without ever really knowing what tomorrow will bring.

 

Hold Your Breath … Breathe

Tom and I arrived at the Cardiovascular Consultants office in Glendale at 10:30 a.m. on August 5. About fifteen minutes ahead of my scheduled echocardiogram.

Though my vital signs during my regular checkup two days before looked good (110/70 blood pressure, normal EKG) I’ve been feeling a little fatigued. That’s likely a byproduct of my medication and the world we’re living in, but Dr. B. prescribed the procedure just to make sure my heart is pumping as it should.

As I entered through the glass doors, Tom hugged me. Only patients with masks were allowed inside the office space. His plan was to find a safe coffee spot nearby and wait until I called him.

I checked in at the front desk and answered all the expected questions. The attendant scanned my forehead. No temperature. No COVID-19 symptoms of any kind. When she asked, I told her I hadn’t traveled outside the country lately (though I wish I had) or gone on a cruise.

Laney, the technician, called me in promptly. She asked me to remove my shirt and lay on my left side on the exam table with my arm folded under my head. She pasted nodes to eight or ten places on my chest, smeared gel across my upper torso and began to apply a wand to various spots.

Hold your breath … breathe.  She scanned one area. I heard my heart pound and echo through a machine. Glub glub … glub glub. Over the next twenty minutes we repeated this rumba at least twenty times–Laney scanning and prompting like a teacher, my heart responding like an obedient student reporting for class and waving his hand (“I’m here. I’m here!”) on the first day of school. The device danced across my chest.

Then, after a few moments of shifting on the table to find a comfortable position reclining on my back, Laney’s magic wand scanned a few new places. Down to my upper rib cage and up to my throat with my head extended back.

Through it all, there was no physical pain. By 11:15, I had dressed, called Tom to pick me up and checked out. I’ll see Dr. B. again on August 17. He’ll have the results.

Of course, I feel anxious. Who wouldn’t? Especially because this experience brought me back three years to a hospital gurney in St. Louis and a similar echocardiogram procedure with Jacob, a different technician. Fear and apprehension ensued. But, I need to remind myself, my heart was experiencing trauma in July 2017. It isn’t today.

Now, thirty-seven months later and twenty-five pounds lighter, I’m a leaner, healthier guy with An Unobstructed View and a quieter life. Even so, I wait and wonder. I’ve been having strange dreams like many of you.

Two recent ones had me back in the corporate world working without a clue of what to do. Or shuffling around the condo searching for my misplaced blended bifocals, normally reasonable perspective and vision of clarity.

Such is the trauma of COVID-19 in a country with a president who doesn’t want to take responsibility for any of it. Still I’m fortunate when compared with most of the world. I swim. I walk. I write to stay whole. I don’t have to worry about the demands of a traditional job. I stretch out on my yoga mat and unwind. I keep breathing. I listen to the regular rhythm of my beating heart. Tom and I are there everyday to love and reassure each other.

Climbing out of bed at 6 am. on August 6, somehow I felt more rested. Out the door by 7, walking in Vista del Camino Park in 84-degree temperatures, the air felt cooler and lighter than the previous two torrid months. Miraculously, there was a break in the oppressive heat overnight. Could this be a harbinger of hope in an otherwise grey world?

Strolling with Tom, it felt like a September school day morning in the early 60s back in suburban St. Louis. When I carried a lunch box to the bus on some days or thirty cents in the pocket of my jeans to buy a hot meal in the cafeteria. The days were longer. Life was simpler. Or at least my childhood memory tells me so.

But in reality, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and our duck-and-cover drills in our classrooms in case of a nuclear attack. Then, later, JFK’s assassination. Then, Martin’s and Bobby’s. Those worries, the unrest in the streets, and the anxieties in the recesses of our consciousness kept us occupied after completing our spelling and math workbooks.

Now we have the unrelenting pain of a global pandemic. Our COVID-19 children and grandchildren will always remember social distancing, hand sanitizing, that displaced feeling of not knowing when/if/how school would resume, and the masks they wore in 2020.

No generation gets by unscathed. We scrape by through difficult times and do the best we can. We relax and reflect through more tranquil years. When we’re strong, we go on  without ever feeling ill or vulnerable. We work long hours and make everyday sacrifices for those we love. We say goodbye to parents who lived full lives and friends who died too young.

Then life shifts for no apparent reason. We find ourselves visiting doctors, bonding with cardiologists behind masks, waiting for the heat and oppression to lift. We find ourselves hoping for fewer casualties, more job opportunities and financial aid for the disenfranchised, a lower infection rate, normal echocardiogram results, a trustworthy president, and a reliable vaccine that nearly everyone will agree is the right thing to do.

We find ourselves taking each day as it comes, waiting impatiently for the good news we deserve.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Salutations from the Slow Lane

I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m more of a late bloomer (better than never blooming at all). A more apt description might be slow mover. If I were a dog, I’d be categorized as a Great Pyrenees (affectionate, gentle, sensitive, occasionally strong willed).

Each morning, I emerge slowly from my side of the bed. Usually around 6:30. Compare that with Tom’s Jack Russell Terrier “I’m-ready-to-go” demeanor (intelligent, energetic, social, occasionally strong willed), and you won’t be surprised to learn he’s usually up and around for at least thirty minutes before I begin to stir.

Moving more slowly doesn’t meant I don’t go places … today I walked 13,959 steps … it just means it takes me longer to get where I’m going than my husband. The inner workings of his clock wind tighter. My circuitry sweeps wider. I find it interesting that Tom is three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, yet his strides are substantially longer. How can that be?

These are the sorts of inane observations two sixty-two-year-old men can have as they lumber/saunter down sun-bleached Arizona paths (a slower pace all its own as compared with most of the world).

But these trivialities only spring into our conversation after we’ve dispensed with the more typical aggravating current event topics: the lack of COVID-19 testing in Arizona; the lack of positive stories in the media about people who’ve survived the virus; the lack of leadership in the White House.

If you’re over fifty (sixty, for sure), I imagine you’ll nod knowingly when I tell you a secret: my slowness is only getting slower with age. The blood pressure medication I take doesn’t help my lack of alacrity. Although two tiny pills–one with breakfast and a second with dinner–certainly protect my heart and keep my cardiologist happy.

Still, life in the slow lane isn’t that bad. It’s better than no lane at all (which might have happened if I hadn’t had the wherewithal to tell Tom to pull into the ER entrance at Barnes-Jewish Hospital nearly three years ago in St. Louis as doom and breathlessness washed over me).

I suppose moving more slowly is the right speed, too … the right sensibility … for this COVID-19 world, this alternative Alice-in-Wonderland universe we all seem to have fallen into. It’s better to deliberate about our next steps in society than to run back out of the rabbit hole carelessly and into the streets impulsively.

I’m not slow in every way. I’m actually itching wildly to get back to the gym sometime this summer. Starved for more socializing with my Phoenix-area friends again. Ready to reestablish those connections and circles in whatever ways I can. (Sorry, Zoom doesn’t do that for me.)

I’m also resigned to the fact that my love for choral singing … someday again standing side-by-side on stage with my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus rather than having makeshift rehearsals online … will require a much slower reentry process.

It will be a longer wait–something sad this slow poke will have to endure as I stare wistfully back through the looking glass–until this blissful escape in my artistic life resurfaces and I can once again raise my voice without a care in this unforeseen world.

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

In the middle of April … at what may be the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States … I feel the psychological toll. Though I am fine physically—and so is Tom—there are only so many reports of confirmed Coronavirus cases, death projections, presidential posturing, curve flattening, and social distancing I can tolerate. Oh, by the way, I turned off the news long ago.

As it has for millions of Americans, the anxiety of buying groceries … surrounding oneself with a slow stream of catatonic shoppers in surgical masks … has infected something I once enjoyed. More than that, it’s sucked the joy from it.

For nearly a month, “going to market”—as my grandfather the North Carolina farmer would have described it—has become a dystopian quest for toilet paper, eggs and hand sanitizer … followed by a postmortem play-by-play with neighbors, walking by at safe distances, assessing the relative viability of nearby stores.

“The shelves at Fry’s are virtually empty … but we bought frozen vegetables.”

“We had luck at Target on Tuesday … found paper products and disinfectant.”

“Sprouts has a good selection of meat and chicken … eggs, too, if you shop early.”

“Albertson’s has plenty of produce … and they installed protective dividers at each register.”

Worse are the missed human connections—casualties of social distancing, such as a month of in-person choral rehearsals, gym workouts, impromptu dinners out, films at our favorite cinemas, and—most important—informal gatherings with friends. When I last checked, weren’t these the types of things that made life rich and rewarding?

One by one, we’ve replaced these face-to-face interactions with poor substitutes, slapped together with Zoom technology. (I’m sorry, though I value the online connections I’ve made with friends and bloggers around the world, nothing online comes close to true human contact for this sixty-two-year-old. Yes, I know, it’s all we have.)

It feels as if a mysterious mist has washed over me, as it did for Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams) in the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Each day, his size diminished. Thanks to the effects of social distancing, I’m watching my personal dimensions and influence—and that of every other desperate person around me—shrink.

I understand and accept the medical rationale … to flatten the curve and keep the heads of our medical community above water … but social distancing is pulling us away from the lives we’ve carefully constructed or, at the very least, become familiar with or fallen into.

No matter the number of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths on a chart, it may be years before we learn what the psychological price is for the loss of human contact we’re currently experiencing.

Like many of you, I’m angry. With the virus. With the media. Mostly, with the president. Now, left with the harsh realities of social distancing, I’m asking myself “What can I do to keep myself from becoming Scott Carey and shrinking away from the person I am?”

I don’t have revolutionary answers. Unless it’s to keep doing what I’m already doing. Writing, loving my husband and sons, praying for friends and neighbors, tending to my garden, solving puzzles, baking delectable cookies, taking long walks in a warm climate far enough away from those who stroll by, and enduring every Zoom encounter.

In the meantime, like Scott Carey, the best I can do is to rummage through my metaphorical over-sized basement. To search for tools to give me strength. To outrun the spiders that chase me in the night: a global plague; a bombastic, heartless president; an uncertain future.

What we need is a little reassurance that one day, when it no longer threatens our existence, we’ll be able to manage our way through an ordinary household situation … like inviting a friend over for a drink or a cup of coffee.

Ah, if only we could have our loved ones socially near, and our current president long gone and far away where he could no longer hurt anyone.