As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.
No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.
Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.
Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.
But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.
Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.
In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.
Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.
In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.
As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.
Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.
I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.
In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.
If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.
Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.
Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.
Because I am a writer, you might imagine it would be easy for me to put my anger and pain into words.
You might think it would be simple enough for me to describe the brutality our current president has brought to our country for the past four years or the shame and frustration I felt as I watched a mob of misguided lemmings follow his lead, storm the U.S. Capitol, and pillage it on January 6, 2021.
But it is not.
It appears (to at least half of us and the rest of the world) that we have lost our bearings, sense of righteousness, and humility. The rest (some of whom smashed windows, dishonored our House and Senate chambers, and scaled walls for a selfie) are content to wallow in lies, deception and misinformation.
Most of this destruction was perpetrated by a man who has no moral compass, no interest in the well-being of our nation’s citizens as we wander for another day through the darkness of this pandemic, as we watch the death toll grow, as we wait for a vaccine that is slow to arrive.
It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to examine The Pledge of Allegiance–something I learned and recited in first or second grade as I stood by my desk with my hand over my heart back in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.
It’s time to ask: Do these words mean anything anymore? Do we still believe and adhere to these words that open our congressional sessions and have served as guideposts for our children, adults and–most important–government officials to follow?
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
If they do, we need to hold all of those involved–including the current president and his enablers– accountable for their treasonous and criminal behavior. We need to remove them from their offices, fire them from their jobs, convict them of their crimes.
We need to uphold our civil rights and liberties for the masses. We need to ensure there is justice for all.
Our best and worst memories have a way of softening and sharpening as we age. Like photos pressed in the pages of a family scrapbook, some of them fade and crack. Others, through the lens of our selective memory, grow more brilliant.
I don’t know what it will feel like to look back on 2020 in ten or twenty years. But, as we work to survive the entirety of this preposterous year, I suspect our memories will follow the same unpredictable pattern.
On the morning of December 25, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and English muffins, my husband and I watched A Christmas Story.
Like many of you, I have seen this satirical and nostalgic film countless times. It’s one of my holiday favorites. The 1983 movie, directed by Bob Clark, is narrated by author Jean Shepherd and based on his stories of growing up in the Hammond, Indiana area (near Chicago) in the 1940s.
The writing is witty and the editing superb, but what I love most about the film (starring Melinda Dillon, Daren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley) is the sense of time and place it captures.
Like the endless scarves, hats, gloves, and buckled boots the kids wear to protect themselves from the cold and piles of snow, the film produces layer upon layer of lasting humor, warmth and comfort … told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. It is an exaggerated ode to a lost era in the United States. For all of these reasons, it is imminently watchable despite its constant availability.
In hindsight, warmth also was the feeling I intended to capture in my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, published in 2017. I wanted to leave behind a record of what it felt like to grow up in the hot St. Louis, Missouri suburbs in the 1960s and 70s.
It was an age when kids ran barefoot, chased ice cream trucks, played with marbles, watched dads toss horseshoes, cuddled with puppies in backyard pools, performed tricks for Halloween treats, banged pots and pans outside to celebrate New Years Eve, sucked on popsicles to beat the heat with the neighborhood kids on scorching summer afternoons, and (in my case, at the age of sixteen in 1974) learned to operator a rollercoaster.
This was my front porch (circa 1960) in Affton, Missouri: Jimmy; Marianne; Diane; Suzy; Carol; and me. My mother sealed the moment with the help of her Brownie camera. Now the image lives forever in my light-hearted book of Missouri memories.
It certainly was a more innocent time. But, as we grew, the world became more complicated. We watched and listened to Walter Cronkite. We believed everything he told us through our black-and-white TVs. That included images and stories of JFK’s assassination, the first steps on the moon, Watergate, and the raging Vietnam War.
At any rate, if you’re looking for a little warmth and nostalgia to get you through the winter, I have an antidote. Download a free copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator through the end of 2020.
As we prepare to cross into a new year and hope for brighter days ahead, maybe my stories of a bygone period in American life will inspire you to laugh a little, revisit your youth, dust-off your favorite memories, and find new meaning in the indelible moments that stay with you for a lifetime.
Jupiter and Saturn owned the winter solstice sky tonight over Phoenix. About 6:30 p.m., Tom and I were fortunate to capture the duo shining side-by-side, forming the Christmas Star between two saguaros in Papago Park.
As we prepare to say goodbye to the pain and heartache of 2020, there is no better way for me to wish you and your family a healthy and happy Christmas and a new year of hope, peace and bright possibilities.
In spite of the promise of a new presidency here in the U.S., we live in the shadows of the pandemic. Even so, Tom and I choose to hang wreaths on our front and back doors to brighten our space and give thanks for all we have as Christmas approaches.
Like many of you, we do our best to help people in need. Sometimes our assistance comes in the form of a small end-of-year check to a worthy charity or a card for a neighbor who’s lost her father. But what do you do when the pain of an unexpected moment shakes you to the core?
Recently, we were driving to our community gym for our typical, masked hour-long workout. On the way there, we noticed a familiar figure on the side of the road. It was a young man walking toward us. He was pulling his suitcase on rollers behind him.
After we passed, we realized it was Nathaniel (not his real name) trudging south down Hayden Road in Scottsdale. He is a friend. Someone who has hiked with us, shot baskets with us at the gym, and (before the pandemic) visited with us at our home.
Nathaniel–a smart, sensitive, handsome guy–has endured several tough years. He’s fighting a drug addiction and has been in and out of treatment for it.
About six months ago, he fell off our radar. He no longer has a phone, so we lost touch with him. Now, unexpectedly, he reentered our lives, lugging the weight of his existence and his world in a two-by-three-foot container.
Immediately, Tom slowed down. We turned on a side street. We found our way back, pulled up next to Nathaniel, got out of the car, and approached. Nathaniel was worn and disoriented, but happy to see us. Over the following fifteen minutes, he told us he had been in jail for several days after an altercation with his family. He wouldn’t or didn’t describe the details. Whatever happened, the year is ending with him roaming the streets.
Tom and I offered to give him a lift to a friend’s home (where he said he was walking). But, after repeatedly asking if we could drive him there, Nathaniel insisted he needed to get there on his own. Eventually, Tom handed him several disposable masks for his protection and a slip of paper with our contact information, so he could reach us when and if he is ready. I gave him twenty dollars for food. He thanked us both and continued on his way.
After we drove off, the sadness and horror we felt materialized. I began to cry for Nathaniel. I imagined the sketchy existence ahead for him, wandering with a fierce addiction, flying solo without the security of a family, home or path to a reasonable future.
How devastated Nathaniel’s mother and father must be, watching their son’s life unravel. What if one of my sons were in the same predicament? What would I do to help him recover? I think the answer is everything, but I don’t walk in the shoes of his parents. I don’t know the history of Nathaniel’s trauma that has led him to a life on the edge.
After this episode and the constant uncertainty we all carry into the new year, it is impossible for me to put a pretty red bow on 2020. Yet the wreaths Tom and I bought remind me how fortunate I am to have a modest, comfortable home in a warm climate. There are so many like Nathaniel who don’t. They are hurting, lost, hungry and homeless.
None of us know what the new year will bring, but I try to maintain a half-glass-full perspective. I hope–under the guidance of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and a kinder, gentler and more humane administration–we can turn the corner as a nation in 2021. Because only when and if we address the growing needs of the Nathaniel’s of our world, our disenfranchised and discouraged citizens, will we begin to escape the darkness and emerge from the shadows of 2020.
We were all spaced out in Phoenix last weekend. Recording tracks for our Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus holiday concert that will appear on YouTube on December 20.
For safety sake, Marc, our artistic director, divided us into groups of ten or so. Group A had the morning slot Saturday. Group C the evening. I was one of two tenor twos singing in the afternoon in Group B in the “big box” room at the Parsons Center.
There I was. Standing in my blue hoodie in front of a mike, my binder of music, and a music stand. Wearing a safety shield and headphones with ear condoms. Gathering (loosely) with my gay comrades in the space where forty or fifty of us ordinarily rehearse collectively on Tuesday nights in a non-pandemic year.
Certainly, I felt strange, sanitized, and scattered. Like a sketchy character in a Ray Bradbury novel. Wandering and wondering where I would fit in the sci-fi story line. But as we began to run through our set–We Need a Little Christmas, The Nutcracker in About Three Minutes, Let It Snow, Feliz Navidad, and so on–an ounce of sweetness surfaced in the moment.
As we sang, I felt a twinge of the giddiness, excitement, and adrenalin of performance day appear. If you are an actor, singer or instrumentalist, you know that feeling of exuberance on stage. Of course, there was no one in the audience to applaud or validate what we had to offer musically. But that will come with time.
Magically, the sounds we produced on Saturday–and individual images we manufactured and projected in front of a green screen the previous week–will meld in the editing room in the next two weeks. Soon after, the end product will be unveiled. People will watch (or not), smile (or not), applaud (or not).
Some of us will even shed a tear or two. Because we know what losses we have endured in 2020. Now, more than ever, we need a little music. We need a little Christmas.
Sonoran Desert December days dazzle. Gone are dreary skies, icy gusts, swirling flurries, clanging Salvation Army bells, and busy Windy City sidewalk years wearing topcoats and backpacks. Still earlier, shedding St. Louis jackets and stocking caps. Hanging them on cloak room hooks before school started. Dreaming of holiday cupcakes and Santa’s flight trajectory.
Arizona’s anonymous set designer has replaced them. Sparkling sun burns off the chill of the morning. A neighbor’s pink rose blooms and brightens the walk. A flock of chirpy lovebirds dash away on cue like pent-up kids scampering out the door for recess. Playful palms shimmer and brush the sand from the sky. Granting the splendor of December revisited.
Four-thirty on the last Sunday afternoon of November. Sliced turkey breast, roasted root vegetables and ramekins of mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce await in the fridge. Remnants of a holiday weekend.
Neither Tom or I feel like cooking dinner. We exercise and write instead. We will rely on the convenience of leftovers as sun-crafted silhouettes dance across the windowsill of our sunroom.
I just completed an hour-long walk along the Crosscut Canal that winds through Phoenix. I’m one of the lucky ones. Healthy (so far, at least). Thankful for the love and companionship of my husband. Close to a wide open outdoor space.
Today I walked the Crosscut Canal alone. It was just a few bicyclists, joggers, hikers, fishermen, and me. Scattered along the Papago Park trails. Some folks wore masks. Some didn’t. There was plenty of distance between us.
On the way back to our condo I paused to admire a group of cottonwood trees on the other side of the fence. They swayed near a shallow pond inside the Desert Botanical Garden. Brittle from the drought. But still they survive.
The cottonwoods have become a benchmark for Tom and me. Majestic, tall reminders of life on the edge. “Let’s walk to the cottonwood trees and back.”
Today as I strolled past them, their shiny yellow and green leaves flickered in the fading Sonoran sunshine. I shaded my eyes and gazed up looking for reassurance beyond the breadth of their branches. It was the same comfort the cottonwood trees provided in March, May, July, September and October.
I left the canal path with the certainty that the cottonwood trees will be there in December and beyond. Because that’s what nature does. It endures past holidays and pandemics. It reminds us to do the same.
As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.
Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.
Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.
Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.
On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.
Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.
As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.
In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.
I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.