Category: Literary Life

Double Rainbow in the Desert

Well, not really. But it feels that way for two independent writers living under one roof, who spent most of 2020 writing just to stay sane in the swirl of a global pandemic.

Yesterday Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix (an independent, artistic haven in the Valley of the Sun) contacted Tom (my film aficionado husband) and me individually with news that each of our books, published in 2021, has been accepted for consignment and placed on their shelves.

Today we drove there to capture the moment on camera. Tom’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews, is displayed in the film section. You can find mine, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on the LGBTQ shelf.

Of course, I know that most of you who follow me here don’t live in Arizona. But this is a psychological victory and important creative validation when it happens in your home community. Now there is a local book-buying option in the Valley of the Sun, if the size and scope of a global online retailer isn’t your thing.

Happy summer reading!

July 1955: More Fertile Ground

This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.

The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.

I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.

I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.

If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.

Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.

When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.

What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.

Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.

What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.

Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.

Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.

Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.

My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.

With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.

Desert Friendships and Roses

If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.

Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.

My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.

I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.

Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.

Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.

Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.

As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.

No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.

From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.

Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Read Me?

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.

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 I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. 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.

Retooling My Engine

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.

What more could I ask for to retool my engine?

To Chase Another Thrill

I wasn’t in the crowd on June 5, 1971–fifty years ago today–when Six Flags Over Mid-America first opened its gates in the rolling countryside of Eureka, Missouri.

But I remember the feeling of unbridled anticipation when I read about it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and saw the coverage of the grand opening on local TV stations. I wondered, what would this new amusement park feel like, smell like, taste like?

Sometime in late June or early July came my inaugural visit. As I skipped through the turnstiles of the gleaming attraction with friends, I remember the exuberance I felt. It was like running out the doors on the last day of school and discovering a carefree, sparkling universe on the outskirts of St. Louis … all rolled into one.

We raced from ride to ride and show to show, devoured fried chicken and strawberry popsicles, cooled off in the splash of the Log Flume, and tossed our arms in the air when the River King Mine Train (the park’s first rollercoaster) left the station. How we screeched when the bottom of our stomachs dropped on the final plunge.

In the summer of ’71, I had no clue or premonition that I would actually learn how to drive that same rollercoaster three years later as a fresh-scrubbed seasonal Six Flags employee … or that the experience would become a metaphor and inspiration for a light-hearted book I would write in 2016 about the ups and downs of my Missouri life in the 1960s and 70s. But life is full of surprises. Both of those things happened.

On this fiftieth anniversary, I still recall the fun of those more innocent days as a guest and the thrill of landing my first job at Six Flags Over Mid-America in 1974 … not to mention the twists and turns that would follow for the next three summers as a rollercoaster operator.

As a tribute to the history of Six Flags (and all the fun and energetic cohorts who worked beside me in the mid 70s), I want to share To Chase Another Thrill. It’s a poem I wrote in June 2016, which captures the feeling of manning the rollercoaster controls. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator in 2017.

***

I am the purveyor of ups and downs, for an hour or so each day,

Standing high above the crowd, ready to guide your way.

I study the nearby dashboard, flustered faces in a row,

Itching for a two-minute joy ride, with others persuaded to go.

I see the bars locked tightly, the crew is stepping back,

Leaving the station to squeals on wheels, it’s time to ride the track.

I know just what will happen, the train will climb three lifts,

Rounding bends and taking falls, rising from the dips.

I hear the train returning, it’s climbing up the hill,

Applying brakes and coming home, to chase another thrill.

Pruning the Palms

It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.

But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.

As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.

I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.

#242 and a Rose for You

I began this blogging odyssey three years ago today by publishing my list of memoir writing tips. I had no grand plans or notions of what this would become, who I might meet in the blogosphere, or how frequently I would post. (This is #242. That’s more than eighty posts a year since May 4, 2018.) I simply wanted to exercise my voice, promote my books, and share observations about my new life in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

But this experience has turned into much more than a lengthy chronicle of disparate topics. It has become a public place for me to examine the beauty of nature, the geographic grandeur and social diversity of the Grand Canyon State, the importance of family and community, the realities of aging and grief, the fright and implications of a global pandemic, the humor and irony of everyday occurrences, and the creative possibilities of a literary life.

Some of you have followed this space for multiple years, left frequent and encouraging comments, and even read a few of my books. Others have joined this journey recently. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am grateful for the time you have devoted to my writing and connections we’ve made. Thank you. This rose is for you.

There have been days since February–especially after completing my latest book–when I have realized my brain needed a rest. Given the energy and time commitment required, I wondered if this blog had run its course. However, today as I write this, I can’t imagine living without this forum. It is a strand of my life that keeps my vital and relevant.

Composing and sharing stories from my laptop–and peppering them with images and poetry from time to time too–is an important part of my identity. It is my passion. I need this authentic (though remote) social connection. I want to continue to be a part of the dialogue. Most important, I want to call attention to the simple joys of living and the healing aspects of nature, which often are overlooked.

Going forward, I don’t know how often I will post. But, as in the past, I will speak my mind, test story ideas, pay tribute to a rare person or defining moment, dabble in short fiction (which I began to do in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree), and explore the implications of everything from a personal joy to a national sorrow.

I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey and comment when the mood strikes … no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.

Cat on a Hot (Not Tin) Roof

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.

Yours for Ninety-Nine Cents

It’s time to dig out the loose change that’s fallen between your couch cushions and put it to good use! From April 23 to 30, you can download a Kindle copy of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, for just ninety-nine cents on Amazon.

Set against the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, my anthology of thirty-nine essays (some whimsical, some serious) explores the themes of family, community, authenticity, creativity, and uncertainty before and during COVID-19.

Here’s what one reader had to say: “Focusing on stories from his recent relocation as a full-time Arizona resident, Mark mines his past for insights into his new life, reflects deeper into the after-effects of surviving a health crisis, and even includes poems and works of short fiction. A great new collection from a distinctive contemporary voice.”

Happy reading!