Category: Literary Life

The Island of Misfit Boys

I’m not a sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist or cultural anthropologist. Just an observant, sensitive and reasonably intelligent sixty-two-year-old, gay American male author living, who is concerned about the plight of our boys and young men.

I should also tell you I am an ardent supporter of gender equality. Equal rights. Equal opportunity. Equal pay for the same job. In fact, I think women are at least as qualified as men to capably fulfill the requirements of most any position… including that of President of the United States, though–regrettably–we have yet to elect our first female Commander-in-Chief.

During the course of my thirty-four-year communication career, many of my best bosses and mentors were smart, savvy and successful women. I had a few decent male managers too, but looking back, it’s the women from who I learned the most. They were the ones who encouraged me to take on projects that enhanced my skills, rewarded me for my contributions, and made the greatest positive difference in my career.

I don’t have any empirical data to draw from, but now that I have more time to ponder the “what ifs” of life, I’m seeing a disturbing trend. In the past few years, I’ve encountered a disproportionate number of bright young men (straight and gay) in their twenties and thirties, who are lonely, disenfranchised and struggling. Fighting for their lives as they face their addictions. Trying to launch and differentiate authentic lives in a society that still clings to narrow views of masculinity and offers few accessible male role models.

What worries me is the lack of meaningful structure and focus I see in the lives of young American males. (By the way, in my mind, a passion for fantasy football leagues, video games or binge drinking doesn’t count. As a rule, I don’t view these activities as life affirming or mind expanding, though they can be fun diversions.)

I was discussing this topic with my husband and a close male friend recently, and suddenly found myself transported back to sixth grade in suburban St. Louis. I had just received a writing award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for a piece I had written about the Stamp Act. I don’t recall the focus of my paper. Just the fact that I received recognition for my writing.

I remember that most of the other award recipients were girls. Somewhere in a dog-eared scrapbook from 1968, there is a photograph of all of us standing with our adoring teacher. She, my parents and the female students were proud of our accomplishments. But the other boys? Not so much. The feeling I got from them was:

“Writing is for girls. It’s not something a real boy should be proud of. What really matters is your athletic prowess, your ability to tie Boy Scout knots or cut and polish hard wood with your hands in shop class.”

I realize how ridiculous this sounds, but the feelings that stung my ten-year-old psyche were real. They were also never heard or validated.

As a sixth-grader, what price did I pay for internalizing the notion that writing was a less-than-masculine endeavor? Did this and other similar experiences discourage me from pursuing a literary life until my mid fifties? When did it become uncool for boys to be smart?

In 2020, could it be that as we’re beginning to realize and remedy all the ways American girls have been undervalued in our society, we’re still duping our boys and young men into believing that reading and writing are “softer skills” that might lead someone to suspect they are gay?

Are we sending the message to our boys that it isn’t acceptable within our masculinity framework to be smart, creative and artistic in the United States? Have we boxed our boys into believing some sort of myopic masculine mythology? Is this why some of them are lost or adrift? Is this why some of them snap?

I don’t have answers to any of these difficult questions. But I think we could start by listening to our boys, letting them voice their fears, loving them for their strengths and frailties, and encouraging them to follow their dreams whether it leads to refining the inner workings of an airplane engine, nursing a segment of our aging population or writing the next great American novel.

Have we created a metaphorical place for our young men, which they are desperately trying to escape?

What more can we do to help guide, challenge and mentor the young men in American society so that they can find their bliss and leave the island of misfit boys?

 

 

 

 

Field of Possibilities

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We live a block from this blaze of yellow and orange. It’s really not a field. It’s a swatch of a neighbor’s front yard filled with wildflowers that thrive on February opportunities, which the Valley of the Sun affords.

One of the things I’ve learned since leaving corporate life six years ago is that capturing images of nature lights my creative fire. Doing so, reminds me of the field of possibilities that await in life. Even for a guy who’s sixty-two.

Perhaps especially for a guy who’s sixty-two, because I still have a lot of observations to share. Things I need to say about my world, my nation, my state, my community, my family, my marriage, my individuality. Ideas I need to extract and plant out of my brain, water and nurture … just so I can give them light and see them appear and bloom on a page.

The fascinating part of the creative process is that when I sat down in front of my laptop this morning I had no clue what I would write about. But then I saw this photo on my phone and it spoke to me. In some way, the larger message I heard was “Keep writing, Mark. Write about what you know. What you observe. What you feel. What you dream of and worry about.”

So that’s what I do. A little every day. Sometimes I share it here. Other times I put it in a file with notes of other raw or unrefined observations that quickly blossom and fade in the desert sun.

But it’s the field of possibilities that continue to be my source of motivation. That prompt me to push ahead with my collection of true Arizona stories and desert fantasies, which I hope to publish in the next year. That connect me to a few fabulous followers who come here to read what I have to say.

I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel that impulse.

 

 

February, Fathers and Sons

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I am forever a father. A son too, though the earthly connections to my parents ended seven years ago. Still, I choose to embed the themes of both father and son dynamics in my writing. I believe those roles and identities are rich with possibilities and pitfalls. They remind us of our past, our present, our place in the world.

Knowing my thematic propensities, recently Tom gave me a thoughtful, funny book that explores both sides of the equation. I’ll confess Michael Chabon’s stories Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces captivated me from the start–chronicling the escapades with his style-conscious, adolescent son Abe on their Paris Men’s Fashion Week odyssey–until the end when we learn of Pops, the doctor, and the author’s observations of his dad. That left me in tears.

It reminded me of my own father, Walter. How he coaxed me to tag along in 1962 when he got his hair cut. I was his number one son. At least that’s the way he introduced me to waiting patrons at the cosmetology college. Each time we went I feared Walter would force me to agree to a buzz cut from a boisterous barber, who snapped his cape like a matador and plucked black combs from tall jars of blue disinfectant.

I went along with Dad’s scheme anyway. I cowered behind his high-waisted, pleated pants before he stepped up into a swiveling chair for a cheap trim, a quick shave, and a dose of baseball banter between square-headed men wearing starched white shirts and boxy black-framed glasses.

In reality, I was Walter’s only son–four-year-old Bosco. It was an endearment he bestowed upon me, because I painstakingly pumped and stirred chocolate syrup of the same name into tall glasses of cold milk. In exchange, I sat in awe of my gregarious father as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.

Though Walter has been gone for more than twenty six years, I was thinking of him as I finished reading Michael Chabon’s book last weekend. Then, in the same two-day period, along came a fresh chapter of my own fatherhood. Both of my sons, Kirk from Chicago and Nick from Tempe, came to support me on Saturday in my literary life at the 7th Annual Local Author book sale in Scottsdale.

Behind the scenes, they’ve been there since 2014 when I waved goodbye to corporate life. Rooting me on to explore this late-in-life literary fantasy that has become a reality. But Saturday was different.

I stood before Tom. First he took my photo in front of my table. Behind my three books. Later when Kirk and Nick arrived, I stood between my two adult sons. I remembered how far we’ve come since February 1992 … when my own fatherhood felt it had shattered in pieces … when their mother and I told them we were divorcing. I was moving into a new home. They would spend half of their lives with each of us.

Fortunately, in 1992 I had the gumption to stay in their lives and love them. We built a life together. Then Tom came along in 1996 and, over time, they learned to love him too. Together we stood by Kirk and Nick as they grew.

And then, suddenly on Saturday, they were standing by me.

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Just One More Measly Treatment

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Arizona’s Crosscut Canal connects Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. Depending on the day and the immediate weather, it can carry a trickle of water or channel a deluge of monsoon storm drainage into a network of other canals that irrigate surrounding communities in the Valley of the Sun.

One stretch of the canal winds between Camelback Mountain on the north and the east-west artery of Indian School Road on the south. It’s just steps from the office of Omni Dermatology where, since December 9, I’ve been meeting Amanda (and Claudia, her holiday replacement) three times a week for superficial radiotherapy treatments to bombard the invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand.

Today was treatment nineteen. I’ll be happy to see it end Thursday morning with session twenty. Certainly, I was ecstatic to hear Dr. R tell me yesterday that my hand has healed beautifully. Still, I’ll admit a strange sense of sadness is creeping into my soul. That’s because I will no longer share stories and perspectives with Amanda.

During each session, we’ve chatted as she applied gel to the back of my hand, rolled a detection device across my skin to monitor the regeneration of healthy cells, taped a square of metal with a hole in the middle over the suspicious spot, placed the blue flak jacket, matching collar and protective goggles on me, and lowered the radiotherapy “gun” until it was secured against my skin.

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps Amanda’s stories were designed initially to distract me from the real reason I was there, the real anxieties I felt at the end of last year. But, over time, we’ve gotten to know each other intimately.

For instance, we’ve engaged in conversations about her son’s ski team excursions to northern Arizona, the identifying southern lilt in her voice that came from her Georgia roots, her part-time job as a real estate agent, my passion for writing and staying relevant in my sixties, and her hope to celebrate her approaching fortieth birthday in Hawaii with her husband. Just today, she told me she purchased my first book From Fertile Ground and was excited to read it.

Shortly after her book-buying revelation, Amanda excused herself for a minute. She left the room. Left me to my devices. Hit the radiotherapy switch. Then, forty-five seconds later–after the quiet hum of the machinery had ended–she reentered the room.

“Just one more measly treatment,” I muttered as she gathered my protective gear.

“It’s so funny you would say that,” Amanda laughed. “Measley, with an additional “e”, was my maiden name.”

At this juncture, I realized the connections before me. The mystical and idiosyncratic language of our lives. The canals in the desert. The tributaries that run through our human interactions without us really ever understanding how and why.

I felt the same synchronicity in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. That’s when Jacob, an EKG technician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, ran a device and cool gel across my chest. As he performed his duties to determine the magnitude of the obstruction on the left side of my heart, I felt safe in Jacob’s hands. Evidently, he felt secure too, because in the following thirty minutes that day he shared his life story with me … that of a new father protecting his infant son and trying to adjust to a sleep-deprived schedule.

Perhaps because I’m more aware of my mortality in my sixties, I’m predisposed to pondering these present moments … what it felt like to connect with Jacob with my life hanging in the balance … what it will feel like to meet Amanda for just one more “measly” or “Measley” superficial radiotherapy session.

No matter the reason for my acute awareness, I’m ready to put this cancer scare behind me. I’m grateful for what lies ahead along the canal that trails through my desert life.

 

 

A Writer’s Plight and a Dog Named Lassie

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I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)

Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.

For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.

When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.

Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.

I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.

So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.

We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a  Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.

But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.

As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.

Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.