Category: Literary Life

All That Jazz

Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.

Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.

It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)

I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.

Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.

Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”

I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.

Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.

Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.

It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!

It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.

This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.

On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.

I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.

Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.

I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.

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.

It All Began in April

In this season of rebirth, I am reminded of my transformative journey that began five Aprils ago.

***

I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey.

I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground.

Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.

By the fourth month of 2017, Tom and I had drawn up the details of our dream. We would sell our home in northern Illinois; escape the cold; move to Scottsdale, Arizona; and live in the desert permanently. We wouldn’t be denied.

It all began in April with the physical trappings of certainty. We were locked into a familiar pattern of cool and damp Lake Michigan air with only a ray or two of sun filtering through the clouds. But as we prepared to leave behind the permutations of our past, we also knew there was heavy lifting to be done.

Before we could leave the Midwest and say goodbye to our Illinois family and friends, we needed to sell our home in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

***

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One simple request: once you are through, please take a few moments to post your review.

Over the Barrel

Imagine what woodpeckers see when they drill in palms above, or mockingbirds as they whistle their tunes through news that clouds fair skies.

What unfolds is merely a sharp, silent slice–brave blooms by thorns–to inspire this story, to dazzle and penetrate those who dare to partake.

Remembering the Magic

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I need more private time. This feels like an odd thing for me to admit, because–at one time–I would have considered myself a strong extrovert.

Now that I’ve been away from my consulting career for more than eight years, I realize I was more of an introvert all along. One who was good at solving problems, facilitating outcomes, and wearing a multitude of hats. I was required to be “on” far more than I wanted.

Finding the magic as a writer has been the result of tunneling in versus extending out. It’s been an exercise in spelunking … getting lost in caves of consciousness … then exploring that space.

This creative cocooning is an activity I love, and one I have become protective of. (Translated, that means I get grumpy when there are too many social demands on my time. I can imagine my husband nodding knowingly as I write this.)

Even so, there have been times over the past two years, when I’ve missed the human connections that many of us took for granted in a pre-pandemic world. For instance, reaching out to engage with readers in person or simply being in the same room with others to experience the impromptu moments of life.

On Friday night, I got a dose of the creative community I craved during the depths of the pandemic. Tom and I attended a Storyline SLAM event at Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix. The theme of the evening was Magic, so each story needed to include that component in one form or another.

The process was pretty loose. Organic might be a better word. Eight people–four before intermission, four after–took turns telling stories on stage in six-minute segments.

When each storyteller finished, five judges (sprinkled in the audience of one hundred) held up mini tote boards with a score. Thirty points were the most possible, because the highest and lowest scores, raised high by the judges, were tossed out.

Driving there, Tom and I knew there was an outside possibility that members of the audience could volunteer to tell their stories in the moment. So, I brought one of my books, An Unobstructed View, in the car–just in case I summoned the courage to get up on stage. The idea intrigued and petrified me.

I’ll cut to the chase. I wrote my name on a slip of paper when we got to the event. I dropped it into a box, where it might be drawn. And it was. As I chugged a glass of pinot noir and squirmed in my seat, I learned I would be number three on stage to tell a story.

When my turn arrived, the anxiety I felt was palpable. Still, I walked to the stage and stood before the mic. I opened my book to page 41 and began reading from a chapter titled The Best Ears of Our Lives. Here’s an excerpt of what I shared that night.

… in October 1998, I became a dog owner again. We found our family dog in an Arlington Heights pet store. A high-pitched bell at the top of the door jingled, signaling our arrival as we pushed through the entrance. Tom and I walked past a wall of cages containing an assortment of critters with doleful eyes tracking our every move. The noisiest of the bunch was a tri-colored basset hound puppy with a white-tipped tail, brown-and-white face, and voluminous black velvet ears. She barked, yelped, and wiggled near the latch of her cage as if to shout, “Look over here. Take me home. You will never find a better dog than me!”… I knew we had turned the page and a dog-eared corner. This tenacious pup had cast a spell on us.

For most of the next decade, Nick, Kirk, Tom, and I would write a chapter together, featuring our shared love for Maggie as the glue that would help us all bond. As Maggie’s body grew, her limbs spread, and her breathing deepened at night, our basset hound further infiltrated our lives. We would never be prepared for the day we’d have to let her go.

The crowd applauded. I smiled, exhaled, walked back to my chair, and sat next to Tom. He kissed me on the cheek. Moments later, my score appeared … 27 out of a possible 30. But the numbers really didn’t matter. It was simply the act of sharing my story and getting an immediate response that fueled happiness and relief.

When the evening ended, an exuberant lady (she told a fun and charismatic story about the magic of motherhood) won the Storyline SLAM event with a perfect score of 30. I finished third out of eight. Not bad for a last-minute decision by an introvert to take the stage.

Most of all, the experience reminded me to live for today in this uncertain world, but also to find the time and space to embrace and remember the magic. It can appear in any form–long velveteen ears on an autumn day or an improbable six minutes on stage in the spring–when we least expect it.

Our magical Maggie, posing in our Illinois backyard in October 1998.

The Rituals

Sherrell Richardson Ferrell, my farming and writing grandfather, posing in the 1930s.

As a writer and gardener, I’ve learned there is constancy and comfort embedded in the rituals of life.

Each time I sit before my laptop to tell another story I feel a sense of grounding. My hard-working grandfather, the North Carolina farmer, must have understood that. He kept a journal every day for fifty-two consecutive years–from 1933 until the day he died in 1985.

Less about his personal reflections, much of what S.R. Ferrell wrote was about the day-in-day-in responsibilities of farm life. For instance, forty-nine years ago on his seventy-second birthday, this is what he had to say:

I did my farm chores in cloudy foggy wet morning. The mud is getting deeper by the day. I mopped the kitchen after I got my outside work done. I changed my clothes and went to Huntersville to get prescriptions filled. My 72nd birthday. Jimmy, Frankie and Frances came and ate lunch with us today. Mamma and Zelma called and talked to me. Cloudy, wet, muddy, mild all day. More rain expected tonight. 54 degree low; 60 degree high.

There is nothing spectacular in these words until you consider that he wrote down his thoughts for more than five decades. Little did he know that–long after he was gone–I would read every page of his journals and (after my mother and his daughter died) write a book about the writing DNA that runs through my blood.

Now that I’m a desert rat, I keep a speckled rock from S.R.’s farm in our Arizona garden. At this moment, it’s wedged in the ground under our fig tree. Every time I water the tree, I see the stone. It reminds me of my southern roots and connection to the earth.

In keeping with the ebb and flow of nature and lineage, I do this ceremonial gardening dance twice a year. In early December, I lug my beloved desert roses (aka, adeniums) inside away from winter’s chill. They hide dormant in the darkest corners of our condo until March, when I haul them back outside to face the world again.

Yesterday morning, one day before S.R.’s 121st birthday, I renewed part two of this desert rose ritual. This year, it also happened to be the day Tom hired Chem Dry to clean our carpet.

Before Drew from Chem Dry arrived, my husband and I hoisted our slumbering desert rose and situated it outside our backdoor. We didn’t want to spill any soil on our freshly manicured carpet.

All of that went without a hitch. Neither of us strained our backs and Drew finished his job in less than an hour. The carpet even dried more quickly than expected.

By early afternoon, we were able to walk on the surface without wearing blue booties. By 3 p.m., we had moved all of our furniture back to where it belonged.

The blooming cycle for our prized adenium will take quite a bit longer. Rest assured, new leaves will appear this spring, prompted by warmer, longer days. Though S.R. never traveled to Arizona, I can imagine him sitting with his sleeves rolled up between farm tasks, nodding in his rocking chair as I write these words.

By June (maybe sooner) when the temperatures have reached 100-plus again here in the Valley of the Sun, this remarkable plant will produce several gorgeous double-red blooms. With it all, once again, I will have physical proof that natural beauty is constant.

Even though it feels like the rest of the world has gone mad, I draw strength from fertile ground and the knowledge that these rituals help me feel hope is always on the horizon.

What I Feel

In addition to writing four memoirs, I’ve been blogging for nearly four years. A few of you have joined me for every twist and turn. I feel humbled by your interest and loyalty.

In my first post (May 4, 2018), I shared ten tips for writing a meaningful memoir. I believed then (as I do today), that each of us has at least one story to tell. If you are an aspiring writer, who is searching for a little inspiration, you may find these tips helpful.

#4 on the list is especially important if you are looking to engage readers, because feelings–fear, disappointment, grief, joy, excitement, anticipation, etc.–are universal:

Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.

Often when I sit down to write a new blogpost–and my fingertips touch the keyboard of my laptop–I’m uncertain what I want to write. But from the beginning of this odyssey, I’ve vowed to follow my own advice to tell and show you what I feel about personal and global issues.

That has included the emotions connected to creating an authentic life as a gay man and father of two sons; recovering from a heart attack; building a new life in the Sonoran Desert with my husband; aging in a predominately youth-focused society; surviving a global pandemic; and simply observing the healing properties of animals and nature.

Even in our uncertain American society–still hamstrung politically and dealing with the ravaging effects of COVID-19–I feel fortunate to have a safe home, good health, enough food to eat, and a community of family and friends nearby.

However, I also feel a strange mix of anger, anxiety, and sadness. I attribute that to the frightening stories and images of what’s happening in Ukraine.

I won’t pretend to understand the politics of it but can imagine the tremendous pain that is occurring as Russian troops invade and thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians are threatened.

The deceptions and power-hungry antics of certain world leaders–rooted in lies and insatiable egos–are unacceptable to me. So is the growing level of American ignorance and intolerance for the truth of what history and provocative literature can teach us.

Yet we have too many “adults” in communities clamoring for the removal of books, which might help teach our children to become critical thinkers. On that note, what I feel today is the excruciating pain of what our world has become.

Rest assured, I will continue to write and voice my concerns, but I feel it’s best if I set aside my laptop for the moment. Here in the Valley of the Sun, I’m going to lace up my sneakers on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and take a hike to Papago Park.

I’m certain the sun is shining there, and the saguaro cacti are standing tall.

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Cat Tales

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.

Missing

It was just after 8:30 a.m. on February 1, 2020.

I was number fifteen or twenty in a line of nearly a hundred local authors. Dragging our supply of books behind us like proud parents ready to push our kids on stage, we snaked outside a side entrance to the Scottsdale Public Library at Civic Center Plaza.

As Tom and I waited for the doors to open at 9 a.m. to set up my table for the Local Author Book Sale, I felt anticipation filter through the cool desert air. It was a moment I cherished, but not as much as I should have.

An hour later, my table was set with my three books in front of me. I brought a sign-up sheet, so readers could provide their contact information. I wanted to keep in touch, so I could tell them when book four was published.

Me hawking my books on February 1, 2020, at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library.

At that moment, like most of the world, I was naive, ignorant or unaware. Call it what you like. I didn’t imagine such in-person opportunities would be stripped away by a pandemic for two years and counting.

Through it all, the losses have accumulated for all of us, and I’ve been missing you.

Our library has no immediate plans to reinstitute events of this sort. I understand they’ve cut staff. There have been a few online programs to keep patrons informed of local literary happenings, but nothing can replace actual human interaction.

I’ve been dreading writing about this. But I need to. The pandemic has hit all of us–young and old–hard. It’s sucked the life out of our passions. I’m angry that so many people are opposed to vaccinations and have not taken the proper steps to protect themselves and society. This poor judgment has prolonged the agony of lives lost and hollowed out.

It’s true, I am fortunate to have this platform to air my grievances. For now, I will continue to blog, but I’ve been questioning my commitment to this page lately.

It is common for all of us writers to have doubts. I appreciate those of you who follow this page and comment regularly. I’m not sure which creative path to take at this point, but I know I need something more … something that’s missing.