Splash

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It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.

 

 

May’s Bouquet

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May crept in under the cover of disease and darkness. By late morning, after an hour of restorative outdoor yoga under the shade of an Arizona pine, she sped past spring and delivered summer beauty and floral comfort: our first desert rose bloom of the season.

Cue Midwestern years, purple-iris moments with mother, pink peonies that drooped over the driveway after it rained, and this poem. I penned it four years ago when I still called Illinois my home.

***

May’s Bouquet

Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.

Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.

Blooming lilacs, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.

Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled in 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.

 

Time Tunnel Fitness

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You know me by now. My propensity to slide back and forth in time. I see an object or hear a sound and I find myself suddenly tumbling through space. Perhaps, I’ve fallen for a Irwin-Allen-directed remnant from my childhood: the 1966-1967 TV show, Time Tunnel.

The series begins in 1968. The U.S. government has given a group of scientists–devotees of Project Tic Toc–one final chance. After years of research, a U.S. senator tells them they have a mere twenty-four hours to prove their untested time tunnel works and will allow man to travel safely through time. (Incidentally, it’s located deep beneath the Arizona desert … possibly not far from where my desert rose is poised to bloom in the searing heat.)

In a last ditch effort to save the project, Dr. Tony Newman (dashing James Darren in a tight green turtleneck) and his sincere scientific sidekick Dr. Doug Phillips (tall, dark and handsome Robert Colbert) spin from one time period to another.

Their colleagues beneath the ground at mission control work breathlessly to “get a fix” on their location and beam them back home. This becomes the team’s quest after Tony’s attempt to salvage their time tunnel goes terribly wrong. He lands on the deck of the Titanic in April 1912, just before it hits an infamous iceberg.

As you may have guessed, Doug travels back in time to rescue Tony.  He succeeds and they escape before the ship sinks. But each week we stay tuned because they are destined to be catapulted into another time frequency fraught with disaster and drama.

This lengthy backstory is my way of telling you I’ve felt myself spinning through time (albeit above ground in Arizona) over the past six weeks during this pandemic.

To help alleviate our anxiety and keep our bodies and minds in shape, Tom and I have fashioned a primitive, throw-back, 60s-style home gym.

Our hand weights, yoga mats and basketball might as well be at-home props–a chair, a broomstick, a couple of cans of green beans–which Jack LaLanne (the original modern fitness and nutrition guru) might have suggested my mother use at home in 1960 if she didn’t have the right equipment.

At any rate, in 1960 three-year-old me sat cross-legged, sucking my thumb and transfixed. The organ music on The Jack LaLanne Show blared. Jack smiled, twisted and shouted wearing his zip-up, one-piece jumpsuit and ballet slippers. Inhale, exhale.

My thirty-seven-year-old mother leaned back to the floor in her pedal pushers and began kicking her heels up and down toward our suburban St. Louis ceiling. She was following Jack’s lead. A bicycle to the sky. Peddling from a tripod position.

Sixty years later, I imagine Jack would be proud of us all. Though our beloved gyms and fitness centers are closed, we’ve cobbled together stay-at-home fitness tools to keep some semblance of our pre-COVID-19 physiques. The ones that have expanded a little in the middle due to sumptuous meals consumed at safe distances behind closed doors.

Oh well. If the gyms stay closed for too much longer and the girth of our bodies gets out of control, there’s an easy solution. All we have to do is keep walking and continue our yoga practice on the sun room floor. Inhale, exhale … Namaste.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll channel Tony and Doug. “Get a fix” on 2019. Step into the time tunnel. Prepare for a trip back to the world we once knew … gainful employment, physical closeness, dining out with friends, life without masks … far away from the trauma of 2020 and the mind-numbing news that keeps us spinning through time.

 

 

Ninety-eight, Ninety-nine …

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At 4:00 p.m. on April 25, thousands of area Phoenicians, including one blogging enthusiast (me), wait with breathless anticipation. For the first time in 2020, we are about to cross over into the often-visited land of oven-like temperatures in the Valley of the Sun … the one-hundred-degree mark.

This is no sweat. It’s a dry heat. An annual, excessive-heat-warning rite of passage we desert rats are accustomed to. However, when we see the mercury climb above 110 degrees … probably sometime in June … that will be a different story.

As the thermometer rests at a chilly ninety-nine degrees, I have other numerical news. I’m just shy of triple digits in followers. Ninety-eight, to be precise.

When I began this descriptive writing odyssey on May 4, 2018, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would write about or who in the world might be interested in frequenting this destination on a regular basis.

The good news is apparently almost one hundred people (and maybe others who haven’t found this site yet) enjoy creative nonfiction, poetry, storytelling, and silly word play enough to make it habitual. Your interest in coming here makes me as happy as this colorful concrete coyote that adorns a neighbor’s doorstep.

Meanwhile, this is my one-hundred-and-fifty-third blog post. Over the past several months, I’ve been weaving together what I consider to be the best ones (along with other state-forty-eight tales that haven’t appeared here) into a book of true Arizona stories and Sonoran Desert fantasies.

My goal is to publish it … book number four … by the end of 2020. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

From a Distance

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We can still see each other if we squint. You teetering on the mountain top looking west. Me gazing east from the other side of the valley. Absorbing a few morning rays of sun before the heat rolls in. Shielding ourselves from the most harmful elements that lurk out of our control.

Coexisting from a distance is what we do now. Not knowing what will come next. Wondering when we may be close again.  If only we could fly away together. Begin a new life as unencumbered mockingbirds or desert wrens. No longer afraid. Nesting in the saguaros. Dancing in the sky.

Chaparral High

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enchanted by the seductive sound of certain nouns and adjectives:  amethyst, magenta, grandiose, vivacious, lavender, conundrum, veranda, gardenia, daffodil, chaparral.

I can’t explain it, but feeling the rhythm of these three-syllable descriptors and seeding them in a story lightens my spirit. It must be the same high–a chaparral high (not High Chaparral, the exotic, dusty and remote TV western of my youth)–that a  mathematician realizes the moment he or she solves an equation.

Imagine my glee, having the word chaparral appear as the name for a road, pool and nearby park. Home of tanned and true Arizonans. Firm and flabby. Shirtless and sumptuous. Lithe and leathery.  Geese and goslings.

During this prolonged pandemic pandemonium, Tom and I have ventured to Chaparral Park to get our steps in on numerous occasions. We like the warm neighborhood atmosphere–singles and couples working out at safe distances framed by both palatial palms and small-leaved evergreen shrubs you might actually see if we lived on a chaparral.

Psychologically, strolling there also reminds us of our diligent days working out just down the street. Mounting the treadmill and elliptical at the local gym, Club SAR, which we typically would frequent if we and it weren’t shuttered by COVID-19.

Based on visible signs, adorable ducks and geese also feel fortunate to live in the warmth and kindness of our community. It’s written on cardboard for the world to see that someone certainly cares about our critters.

“For the baby geese … Please do not remove.”

Yes, the young ones that began to appear recently, just east of Hayden Road and the shadows of Camelback Mountain, need a ramp to get there steps in. To achieve their chaparral high.

 

Sting

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Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

 

I wasn’t fantasizing about Sting, the legendary English singer and songwriter, or even remotely humming a tune of his as I jogged along the Crosscut Canal early Friday afternoon in Arizona. But a gust of wind shifted my trajectory. It swept my safari hat from my head. As I swatted to grab it, I crashed face-first into the path of an oncoming honey bee.

In keeping with the theme of this story, the innocent insect stung me on the middle of my lower lip. That’s when I began to screech for Tom (running six-feet away beside me) to pull out the blasted stinger, which I could feel dangling from my numbing and fattening lip.

At this point, I might have opted to call for the police (not Sting’s rock band, but the Scottsdale police) to intervene. To see if they might rescue me. Because every breath I took … every move I made, every step I took … led me to believe that all the bees of the world were watching me. I’m not really a prissy sort, but I kept cryin’ baby, baby, please … stop hurting me.

Fortunately, with Tom as my husband, it’s almost like having the police (not a rock band, but an emergency medical technician) on hand twenty-four hours a day. Though he’s not medically trained, I like to call him Mr. Science. He always seems to have readily available common knowledge to share. For instance, how a dog drinks water. Or what causes the monsoons in Arizona to boil over the mountains and into the Valley of the Sun in the summer.

Of course, he also passed the ultimate science exam, when he got me to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency room entrance in St. Louis when my heart was aching (not my lower lip) and I wondered if every breath I took … that July 2017 day in the Midwest humidity … might be my last.

Anyway, Tom was able to calm me down on April 17, 2020. He pulled out the stinger without the assistance of any police, as a handful of other desert rats strolled and biked by at safe distances … far enough away during any neighborhood bee catastrophe or global pandemic.

One can only imagine the under-the-breath giggles that ensued along the path, as Tom and I (two non-straight Arizonans) made a beeline home for ice and (no-sting) first aid antiseptic spray, which I envisioned on the top shelf of our medicine chest.

A few minutes later we unlocked the backdoor of our abode. I went into the bathroom and found the spray. Tom dashed to the kitchen, where there was no ice in our freezer. Fortunately, in this day and age, we have plenty of frozen vegetables to ride out the apocalypse. So he handed me a sixteen-ounce bag of frozen corn kernels and ordered me to apply it to my face.

Mr. Science failed to tell me that the bag was open. Therefore, when I applied the cold corn compress to my lip, a shower of kernels scattered across our living room floor. I proceeded to ball up the remaining corn in the bag, while Tom grabbed a broom to police the area and sweep up the runaway pieces of corn.

A few moments later he reached into the freezer and handed me an unopened bag of frozen spinach. That, a few spritzes of the antiseptic on my lip, and two acetaminophen caplets were all I needed  to recline in comfort and return to my pre-bee state.

A day has passed. All is well. Just a slightly swollen lip and a few laughs remain. But there’s one thing I have to say to the bees of the world that may be buzzing nearby the next time I venture out for a walk, run or hike.

Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.