I’m convinced. Long after the American Southwest has curled to a crisp–scientists reported this week that we are experiencing the driest two decades in 1,200 years–cats will roam the Sonoran Desert and reign supreme.
I have no scientific proof to support my theory. Just a small sampling of feline friends–feral and domestic–in my Polynesian Paradise focus group.
With a flick of their tails and a few meows at our door, they cavort in our community, roll in the rocks, climb the walls and roofs, slink down the sidewalks, and generally get what they need and want to survive–above and below the eaves, but under the radar.
They appear magically each day. Goldy (she lives down the lane), Blanca (she lives kitty corner) and Poly (she lives everywhere in trees, on roofs, and under stars) plot to pounce on unsuspecting doves and finches.
Later they connive and clamor to devour Friskies Party Mix and ramakins of milk offered by we residents (suckers), who enjoy the show and the reasonably-priced (free) admission.
The three (and others yet to be catalogued) twist and glide in independent circles, careful to dodge owners with dogs on leashes that glance and sniff as they stroll by.
Blue-eyed Blanca, the friendliest of the bunch, has been known to hop into this reporter’s lap and purr. This leads me to wonder if she is really a dog trapped in a cat’s body.
Or maybe she is a long-lost relative, desperately trying to communicate. In any case, she enjoys kneading dough on my leg, catnapping on our loveseat, and (I suspect) worming her way into another story.
In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.
Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, as I think about it more than forty-seven years later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.
The last essay in the book is especially timely. It celebrates a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger nearly sixty years ago on New Year’s Day 1962.
As 2021 draws to a close, perhaps my stories will make you smile. Maybe even inspire you to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood–wherever you were born, wherever you grew up, wherever you called home.
No writer wants to be known as a one-trick pony. Yes, to this point I’ve written mostly creative nonfiction, but each of my four books includes flashes of poetry. And, in my latest book of essays–home grown on the metaphor of pruning a lemon tree in my desert community–I also dabble in fiction.
In other words, I have no problem branching out into the great beyond of fruit trees. Grapefruits, for instance.
Here in our Polynesian Paradise condo community we live among lemon, tangelo, orange, fig, and lime trees … even a lone pomegranate. But we are surrounded by a bumper crop of pink and white grapefruits that will be ready to pick in late December. They are a far cry from the maple, elm, magnolia, oak, and gingko trees of my Midwestern past, which will be bare soon.
I’m not a fan of grapefruits. They’re too tart for my palette. Plus, if I ate them they would counteract the positive effects of the statin medication I take to keep my cholesterol count in the normal range.
However, Nick–my older son who lives near us–craves these tangy softball-size citruses. (I remember my dad loving grapefruits too. In fact, Nick resembles him. It’s funny how certain likes, physical qualities, and personality traits skip a generation.)
This afternoon I texted Nick this photo with a grapefruit update: “You’ll be happy to know the grapefruits are shaping up. They’ll be ripe in a month or so.”
“Oh nice” was Nick’s laconic response.
As the citrus-plucking season draws nearer in Arizona, here’s a snippet from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of whimsical and serious essays available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.
Nick is especially enamored with the citrus trees—most notably, the plethora of grapefruits that dominate our condo complex grounds. In December and January each year, Nick the Citrus King contacts me frequently concerning the status of the ripening citrus crops. His texts or phone conversations begin something like this:
“Hey there. Are the grapefruits ripe enough to pick?” There is no preliminary happy talk such as “How are you feeling, Dad?” before the citrus cross-examination.
Aware of Nick’s citrus sensibilities and no-frills communication style, in January 2020—as a belated Christmas present—Tom and I surprised him with his own fiberglass fruit picker. We gave him one with a durable steel trap and extendable arm, which would extend his reach to grab the largest orbs clinging to the highest branches in a galaxy far beyond low-hanging fruits.
Upon receiving his gift, Nick’s smile grew three sizes. With the flexible picker in one hand and a few empty bags in the other, he and I set out to corral a selection of the sweetest and juiciest citrus delicacies we could find in the common areas of our complex.
Twenty minutes later, we returned to the condo with a mix of white and pink grapefruits, tangelos, lemons, and oranges. Harry & David would have been proud to grow, pick, and ship them to Vitamin-C-starved customers in cold-and-gray winter climates.
Without a crystal ball or a notion of where to find a citrus psychic, I have no way of knowing where Nick’s quest for fresh grapefruit will lead. But I am gratified to see him plucking fruits from the sky and flourishing in his Arizona life despite the heat.
October is renovation month in our household. We’re remodeling our Sonoran bathroom: installing a walk-in shower to replace our clunky-and-outdated shower/tub combo; raising our ridiculously low ceiling; putting in a new toilet; upgrading the sink, vanity and mirror; laying mosaic tile to accent existing porcelain squares; wiring and connecting contemporary lighting; the works. It will be beautiful when everything is done next week.
The guy Tom and I hired to install and update everything is skilled and thorough, it’s just that the project is taking longer than expected–longer than it should in our book for a variety of reasons I won’t belabor here.
Suffice it to say, that each morning when our remodeling guy arrives we discuss the work ahead with him and what we expect to be completed that day.
This morning, I escaped the mayhem of our modest and ordinarily quiet condo for a few hours. I needed a swim away from our immediate community. (Tom and I are taking turns doing this to keep our sanity.)
Enter Frank. He’s a friend I see at Eldorado Pool (two miles from our home) on occasion. Whenever I see Frank, we have topical and lively conversations … about the state of the world, our past lives in the Midwest, the plight of our favorite sports teams, his job as a nurse in the behavioral health wing of a nearby hospital, my life as a writer. Frank has read at least one of my books.
As I changed into my swim trunks in the locker room this morning, Frank asked “What’s new with you guys?”
“We’re trying to survive our bathroom remodeling project,” I sighed.
“Rich-people problems.” He responded matter-of-factly as he fumbled with the contents of his locker.
What happened next surprised me. I laughed so hard, more loudly than I have in a long time. Why? I suppose it was some sort of release. Also, I realized in a flash that Frank gave me the reality check and perspective I needed.
People are dying of Covid. Others are struggling financially and/or dealing with the untenable and unreasonable demands of work, child-rearing, and elder care in a crazy and politically polarized society.
Through that lens, my life at sixty-four is relatively steady, simple, and manageable … notwithstanding an annoying remodeling project that would fluster you too if you were standing next to me gazing into the disarray of our condo.
Back to Frank. Let me be clear. His “rich-people problems” comment wasn’t referring to my financial status (we live comfortably, but aren’t wealthy), trivializing my concerns about the bathroom inconveniences that Tom and I are living through, forgetting the past challenges we have faced as a same-sex couple who survived a heart attack on the way west, or discounting the numerous other losses and heartaches we have endured.
The nut of this story is this: today Frank crossed my path to remind me I am a “rich” person with a “rich” life … a loving husband, two adult sons who enjoy spending time with their dad, and a “golden” (Frank’s word, not mine) life living in Scottsdale, Arizona in our retirement years.
Yep … “rich-people problems” sums it up nicely. Thank you, my friend, for being so authentic. For being so Frank.
After living through four summers, autumns, winters, and springs in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve decided autumn is my favorite time of year here.
Most 100-degree temperatures are vanishing from our ten-day forecast. The monsoons have packed their bags and left town with the dusty drama and wet havoc that only unexpected and unwelcome guests incite. And large flocks of snow birds have yet to fly in.
Mornings are a notch or two cooler–in the 70s–than they were in late summer. Perfect for sipping coffee outside under the eaves.
Did you know we’re frost-free? You won’t find icy substances on our pumpkins or windshields. Ever.
You won’t witness a foliage kaleidoscope here either. Or crunch through piles of leaves. Or rake. Stay away if that’s your thing.
I didn’t intend for this to be a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce ad (though it sounds like a back-handed, bizarre one). But if you like plenty of pool days, pleasant dry mornings for hikes, warm-to-hot September and October highs, shorts, flipflops, spiky saguaros, and startling sunsets long after Labor Day is a distant memory, come to the Valley of the Sun.
The title of this post is a shameless ripoff of the old Beatles song, When I’m Sixty-Four. But my bastardization of the lyrics is appropriate. Today I turn sixty-four and I’m a writer who wants you to read my books. When you do, you will feed my desire to stay relevant.
Ask Tom. He’ll tell you. At this stage of life, I’m generally contented and thankful for good health, a comfortable home, and a loving husband. It is remarkable that we share the same birthday … same year too.
In 1957, our mothers never imagined their newborn sons–delivered three hundred miles and thirteen hours apart–would meet one day and marry. It certainly feels like a miracle to me.
Back to my writing. Whenever I wear my literary hat–which is frequently–I find myself questioning why my book sales have dried up like a sun-drenched Arizona river bed.
Of course, I promote my books online and do a little advertising here and there. I also market my stories on a personal basis, but when you’re an independent writer it’s easy for your books to get lost in the stacks of Amazon’s metaphorical bookshelf.
This concern I have is not quite an obsession, though it borders on it. I put a lot of thought and creativity into my writing. I want to share it with a wider circle of readers.
Perhaps my advancing age and occasional forgetfulness–did I tell you I turned sixty-four on July 6?–is what drives me to keep writing, to keep sharing my impressions and reflections of the world, to keep checking progress (or lack there of) on book sales, to keep wondering if readers will still read me.
The good news is I feel spry most days. (Of course, I wouldn’t consider using the word spry unless I were at least six decades old.) Anyway, I still have a lot to say and plenty of energy. So, on my sixty-fourth birthday, I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.
As a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, I observed how hard my mother worked to provide for our family and to prepare meals that we all liked … even after working long days in an office.
Frequently, Mom bought Sealtest Neopolitan ice cream and wedged it into the freezer portion of our avocado-colored refrigerator next to the Swanson’s TV dinners.
Why Neapolitan? Because she and Dad liked strawberry ice cream, while my sister and I preferred chocolate and vanilla. If you aren’t familiar with Neapolitan (I rarely see it in the supermarket these days), it included all three flavors in a carton stacked side-by-side. So, theoretically, Neopolitan offered something for everyone in our family in one container.
This ice cream recollection captures precisely the creative thrust I wanted to achieve as I wrote my Arizona-based essays. I must have been channeling my mother’s shopping sensibilities.
I wanted my book to include something for everyone … humor and sincerity, social relevance and frivolity, truth and fantasy … and to comment on the relevance of every personal and geographical chapter in my life: Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and Arizona.
Now that summer is upon us and the heat has arrived, I strongly encourage you to consume your favorite flavor of ice cream to cool off and to buy a paperback or Kindle version of my Neopolitan book.
In the thirty-nine essays that appear in the book, you will enjoy lapping up several flavors. For instance, there are stories about: citrus and lizards; a hummingbird and a boxer; time travel; an eavesdropping barrel cactus; a return to Tucson through the looking glass of an authentic gay life; reflections on an extended visit to that dreaded place we all lived–Coronaville; the musings of an incredible shrinking man; a wayward Viennese waiter/writer struggling to tell his heart-wrenching story; a mid-century St. Louis custodian who bonded with a famous scrub woman; alliterative observations of flickers and fedoras; the golden hours of living in the Sonoran Desert; and much more.
When you read my book (and I hope you’ll review it too), you’ll be feeding your own creativity and doing this sixty-four-year-old writer a big favor. Yes, even after writing this long-winded essay, I still need to feel needed.
Now, back to the musical portion of my post and the final verse of a pop song that feels especially personal today.
Send me a postcard, drop me a line Stating point of view Indicate precisely what you mean to say Yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form Mine for evermore Will you still need me, will you still feed me When I’m sixty-four*
*The Beatles released When I’m Sixty-Four (lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I’ve been feeling murky lately–grumpy too. It’s been one of those uncertain periods in life. We all have them.
Two weeks ago, the engine in our nine-year-old Sonata seized. It went kaput as Tom was returning from the gym, initiating a domino effect of frustrating phone calls and texts, AAA tows, car rentals, dealer discussions, loaner agreements, missed connections, and moving deadlines.
Fortunately, Tom is okay and our car is still under warranty … barely. (Ten years or 100,000 miles.) Our odometer read 98,500 when everything shut down. The engine was replaced and paid for by Hyundai. We picked up our rejuvenated car yesterday. It’s now running smoothly.
Despite the relatively fortunate personal and financial outcome, my patience has worn thin. My creativity is scattered. It’s as if a Sonoran wind blew in, swept my disparate ideas (literal and figurative scraps of paper on my desk) into the sky, and scorched them into a cloud of embers, precipitated by a drought-induced Arizona fire. (Yes, it’s fire season here again.)
As a result, my writing schedule is off. My temper is short. The temperature outside is rising fast in the Phoenix area (110 degrees here we come).
Oh, book sales have fallen off the map. Do people read anymore? This is one of those moments when I need to remind myself of the joy I felt in March when I was basking in the publishing afterglow (not the flames of a hillside fire) of reading passages from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree before a group of thirty-five friends and neighbors.
Through it all, I’m aware I am living in the undefined space between writing projects. If you are also a writer, you know what that feels like. It feels like crap. Why? Because writing (for us, at least) serves as a personal compass, a guiding light, an organizing principle that keeps us feeling passionate, centered, connected, relevant, and whole.
Now that I’ve had a chance to whine a little, I should also tell you that a new possible creative project has begun to surface. It may materialize this fall. At this point, I don’t want to jinx it by describing it any further.
Instead, I’m better served by resting my brain a little, praying for monsoon rains in Arizona, and focusing on a much-needed, ten-day vacation/road trip to and from Montana, which Tom and I will embark on in a few weeks.
Of course, we couldn’t go anywhere a year ago. But, because we are fully vaccinated, we’ll be able to explore and absorb the majestic scenery of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho with a clear conscience and visit friends in Bozeman, Montana.
More than a shameless ripoff of the Tennessee Williams play and the ensuing 1958 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this is a story about our community cat and the Sonoran Desert heat. Both are staring down at us on May 1.
Early this morning, Tom and I spotted Poly on our neighbor’s roof. (Poly is the name I’ve given the bright-eyed feline that has made our enclave her home; we aren’t sure who she belongs to, but she is everywhere in our retro Polynesian Paradise condo complex).
In pursuit of Saturday’s breakfast, persistent Poly was stalking a mourning dove and her baby nesting safely (they thought) under the eaves. Tom’s response was to worry about the well-being of the birds. Mine was to grab my digital camera and to stumble outside in my robe to document the moment.
Eventually, Poly slinked away without a catch. She pattered across the roof to find mischief elsewhere, perhaps on a back patio somewhere down the row. We likely won’t see her for a few days. That’s her pattern, at least. Appear. Disappear. Resurface. At dusk later this week, I expect she will reemerge and patrol the sidewalk in search of an evening snack.
The dry heat is more constant, less whimsical than Poly. Once it appears in early May (we expect a high of ninety-eight degrees in Scottsdale today), we know triple digits aren’t far away. But Tom and I have learned to adapt to the “oven” that is the Sonoran Desert from May through September. In a strange way, it’s become a familiar, returning friend.
In the Phoenix area, early morning and late evening walks or swims are the solution in the summer months … along with a few strategically planned escapes into the cooling pines of northern Arizona. This June we expect to venture even farther north to spend a few days with friends in Bozeman, Montana.
After a year of relative hibernation, I expect driving on the open roads and discovering new vistas in Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana will feel like a real adventure. It will certainly be welcome relief after the fright and disorientation of a pandemic year.
But even if we were forced to stay put another year and tough it out indoors away from the midday sun, the summer months are relatively peaceful in Scottsdale, because visitors leave to avoid the heat. For that reason, I give them high marks. I look forward to the quiet, to more time to reflect and write, and to hearing the potential pitter-patter of Poly’s cat paws pacing down our scorching sidewalk or across our hot (not tin) roof.
With all the energy and enthusiasm I’ve bestowed upon my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, Tom and I are certain our middle-aged fig tree has been feeling sad and neglected.
We first observed signs of this in the fall as I labored to complete my manuscript. Tears began to appear on the trunk. (Actually, the moisture was wetwood-causing bacteria and/or sap leaking from several spots.) This was likely a byproduct of messy sewer-related digging outside our front door that disrupted the roots in the July of 2020. It was one more irritant provided by a despicable year that was supposed to offer us perfect clarity.
Fortunately, the oozing didn’t deter our beloved fig from bearing fruit or producing its typical canopy of green and welcome shade from the Sonoran sun. Even so, we were worried. So, in the fall, I bought some fruit tree spikes and planted them at various places around the circumference of the tree. This deep-root nourishment–along with more frequent watering and an occasional bath of bleach (which Tom has provided on the leaky spots)–seems to have solved the leakage problem.
Pruning the gnarly fig tree is another matter. It’s something that must be attended to every winter. In previous years, a few of our neighbors (Mario and Yolanda, who winter here from their home in Italy) have supervised and completed this task. Not in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented them from returning this year.
To fill the gardening void, Tom and I decided to step in and offer our services. If you read my book, you’ll discover this isn’t the first time we’ve trimmed fruit trees. We researched the best way to prune fig trees and paired that with our previous gardening knowledge and the love of plants and flowers that runs through my DNA.
On the morning of Thursday, February 4, we gathered our gardening gloves, two ladders, and three pairs of clippers. We cleared the area of potted plants beneath the tree. We pruned the fig tree.
This was a big job that involved climbing on a ladder, trimming the smallest branches first, and sawing off or lopping the medium-sized ones. The goal? To trim the fig down to a stump of its previous likeness, so that it will return with gusto and a new crop of branches, leaves and delectable fruits–remarkably all within six months.
After reaching, snipping, and sawing for two hours, we gathered the debris from the ground, deposited it in our condo community dumpster, guzzled a few bottles of water, and stretched our sore back and neck muscles.
Now, a mere skeleton of the fig remains. In a month or less, new growth will appear. That will be followed by longer branches, dozens of ripe figs in July, and a bouquet of green stretching toward the Sonoran sky.
Never fear, this annual haircut was just what the tree doctor ordered. It’s all for the sake of the fig tree. I don’t want its sense of neglect to intensify and become full-blown jealousy when that avalanche of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree sales I fantasize about starts rolling in.
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.