Category: United States

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.

Along the Back Fence

It’s not unusual for the proximity of neighbors to cause conflicts.

But often the bonds we forge with those next door–or in this case along the back fence–can add more texture and meaning to our lives than we once imagined.

Shortly after Tom and I moved west, I wrote Along the Back Fence about Millie–our Illinois neighbor from 1996 to 2017.

I’ve been thinking of her again recently, because the fifth anniversary of selling my Midwestern home is approaching.

This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View, a book about my personal journey from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and an unexpected detour that awaited in the city where I was born.

In this world of turmoil and uncertainty, our best neighbors deliver color, comfort, and continuity.

I bet there’s a Millie in your life worth remembering.

***

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence.

But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it–too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess.

When she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here or there as I pushed my mower around my yard, and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage.

Eventually, we broke the ice. From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. One summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis.

Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature salad of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents–Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015.

But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health–her own surefootedness–declined …

***

Rest assured, I’ll share part two of this story later this week.

Reentry

On Tuesday, April 26, 2022–the day Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for Covid without symptoms–I did too. But with symptoms: fever, headache, congestion, and fatigue.

Ironically, it was also about the same time Dr. Anthony Fauci declared we had crossed the pandemic bridge and entered an endemic world, where the disease rate is at an acceptable or manageable level.

At that moment, I don’t think I believed him. There was nothing acceptable about the situation for Tom or me. As you might suspect, my husband soon developed the same symptoms.

For the following week, Tom and I took turns playing nurse, while pumping a flurry of fluids, acetaminophens, decongestants, and attaboy encouragements.

We slept sporadically, texted my sons and our sisters, cancelled plans with friends reluctantly like two men waving from a desert island, and zapped each other endlessly with our digital thermometer–up to 102.3, down to 99.6, up to 101.2, down to 100.2, finally back to 98.6.

We rode out the storm together, quarantining in the privacy of our cozy desert condo. Two kind friends left wonton soup outside our front door, as they were dealing with their own trauma of repairing their car so they could drive east. Back to their home in New York.

Another sweet neighbor placed a bar of chocolate on the mosaic tile table between our two wicker chairs. I snatched it as soon as she left. She knows about Tom’s dark chocolate addiction and my wedding vow in 2014 to keep him supplied with a bottomless supply of it.

Through it all, I think you could characterize our Covid cases as mild, though my anxiety flew through the roof for seven days. I shuddered to think what the outcome might have been.

What if we hadn’t been fully vaccinated and boosted twice? What if I could never see Tom’s smiling face again or gaze into his beautiful blue eyes that nearly match the bluish-gray t-shirt I gave him that doesn’t fit me anymore?

***

About a million Americans have died of Covid complications.

We are two of the lucky few. But this isn’t a story about luck. It’s about truth and science.

The vaccinations we lined up for protected us, kept us out of the hospital, and forestalled any notions of two more premature deaths. By following the science and getting inoculated, we dodged two bullets. The universe rewarded us exponentially by giving us more time together.

This morning it feels like we are both back to normal. We’ve been symptom free for several days. We returned to the gym for the first time in nearly two weeks. I mounted the treadmill. Tom opted for the elliptical. I smiled as I watched Tom exchange his hellos with a community of patrons and familiar faces.

But earlier in the morning–when I leaned out the front door to water our succulents under the fig tree–there was a defining moment with an extraordinary animal, which I won’t soon forget.

Our feral friend Poly, the community cat that has lived on the fringe of life for a long time, meowed and came closer to me than she ever has. After a brief photo opportunity, Tom handed me the bag of cat treats and I sprinkled a dozen or so on the sidewalk.

Once I closed the door, Poly left the shelter of our eaves–safe in her own moveable, quarantining bubble–and approached the kitty kernels.

Unceremoniously, she glanced up at me as if to say, “I understand how you feel, all worried and frayed. But you’ve made it through. You’ll get by. You’re a survivor. Just like me.”

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.

Pivot Point

As friends flock north and east, mockingbirds replace them. Stationed high in palms, they announce April is ending. Below, something bright is blooming.

We have reached our annual pivot point. We teeter between welcoming warmth and undeniable heat. There is no turning back to milder yesterdays.

Even in this age of escalating temperatures and worries, nature reminds us we are strong survivors. In a vast, blurry land of thorny problems, we shine.

On April 28, 2022, the Moroccan Mound cactus outside our door bloomed for the first time.

Ablaze

Through the weekend, the Tunnel Fire has burned 21,000 acres just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. But a few hundred miles south, the Valley of the Sun is ablaze in a kaleidoscope of color. In April’s final week, blooming wildflowers, cacti, and desert roses–and a resilient reptile–answer an age-old question. Yes, despite our warming planet, rare beauty remains in the Sonoran Desert.

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.

***

What you just read is a portion of the prologue from An Unobstructed View. If you find yourself intrigued and pondering your own personal transformation, my third book will have special meaning for you. Download a free copy on Amazon through Monday, April 18.

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.

Georgia on My Mind

I have Georgia on my mind today. Not the Peach Tree state, but my peach-ice-cream-loving grandmother. April 7 would have been my maternal grandma’s 119th birthday.

Warm-hearted and hard-working, Georgia lived most of her seventy-one years in North Carolina.

In 1914, Georgia Evabell Miller met Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell. Both attended a one-room school in Mecklenburg County. Six years later, they married at Georgia’s home in the same community. She was sixteen; he was nineteen.

A generation before I appeared, Georgia’s ordinary rural existence–tending to family, home, meals, and livestock–took an extraordinary toll on her body and emotional wellbeing. She bore four children: Helen (my mother) and Richard in the mid 1920s; James and Frances in the early 1930s.

In between, Georgia suffered a double whammy of grief and pain. Richard died of meningitis in 1926 one month before his first birthday. Not long after, cervical cancer compounded Georgia’s trauma. She was bedridden for an extended period. Helen grew up quickly and helped care for her mother.

Even with Georgia’s burden and her heavy body that contributed to arthritic knees and misshapen feet, my grandma maintained a girlish southern giggle into her late fifties and beyond.

In the summer of ’62, during one of our family visits to the farm, I absorbed the scene like a ready sponge as she prepared ham, grits, and biscuits for breakfast.

I loved Georgia and her jolly nature. As she toiled and told rambling stories over the sink, rolls of laughter shook her stout body. If she were here, she would describe it as the “gift of gab” handed down through her Irish descent.

Intermittently, she tossed table scraps and leftovers into a slop bucket for a trio of hungry hogs that waited impatiently in their pen.

On occasion, I accompanied her whenever the contents came close to sloshing over the sides of the dented metal pail. Together we squealed as the pigs poked their large snouts through wooden slats to explore what concoction was on the menu.

Like a southern-stitched patchwork quilt handed down through the generations to keep them warm, this moment remains cordoned off in my 1960s Carolina consciousness. It lives next door to Georgia’s humid hugs.

When I was a toddler, I begged for her to scoop me into the lap of her tattered periwinkle dress … churn butter or crank ice cream on the sagging back porch … venture into the earthen cellar where she stored pickled fruits and vegetables … or gather eggs from the chicken coup and cradle them in her apron on the return trip.

A victim of heart disease and decades of early mornings and long days working the farm, Georgia died nearly forty-eight years ago on July 4, 1974.

Two days later (after we drove through the night from St. Louis to attend her funeral), sprays of gladiolas surrounded her casket.

I can still envision the tacky floral arrangement–sent by a neighbor–with a plastic telephone teetering on top. Three words were written in ribbon: “God has called.” Ironically, my grieving grandpa loved it most.

Through our tears, Frances and I laughed about it. Georgia would have liked that and the image of my aunt and me consoling each other on my seventeenth birthday. We stood over her fresh grave in Huntersville, North Carolina, at a little cemetery outside Asbury United Methodist Church.

It was the center of the universe in “Ferrelltown”–where my southern family worshipped, married, gathered as a community, celebrated birthdays, consumed countless cakes and delectable pies, buried the beloved, and grieved for those who left early and stayed late.

***

Years later, it is the thought of Georgia’s gentility and kindness that endures. It is the love and laughter she planted in my heart that will never die.

As I began to write From Fertile Ground after my mother died–and later when I returned from North Carolina after another round of consoling with Frances and visit to my grandparents’ graves in the church yard–Annie Lennox’ soaring voice from her CD Nostalgia inspired me.

It was her stirring, melancholy rendition of the Ray Charles’ classic Georgia on My Mind that captivated me most. Listening to it, I channeled my grief and reconstructed my southern memories before they landed on the pages of my book.

Every child should be so lucky to spend a few weeks every other summer with a grandparent who simply smothers them with goodness and genuine love. That and the bucolic snippets of a farm populated with kittens, puppies, cows, chickens, pigs, and peacocks are forever stitched in my psyche.

When you add them all up, what do all these vivid memories mean? That in the course of any life, it is the collective music of a simple-but-extraordinary grandma’s unconditional love that keeps us hoping, that keeps us dreaming, that keeps us living, that keeps us singing.

Long after she is gone.

***

I said Georgia
Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines
.

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
.

I said Georgia
Oh Georgia, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia at age fifty-three on the steps of my parents’ apartment during a rare visit to St. Louis in 1956. About a decade later, she and S.R. enjoyed the company of six of their seven grandchildren in rural NC.