Between the Leaves

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I wait and watch for a streak of color. Darting from orange trees to palms, teasing me with a burst of playful chatter an octave higher than the rest.

In early mornings and late afternoons their love is on patrol. Campaigning for an end-of-summer fling before racing past the pool, back to school, purely from a distance.

Their tweets are the only ones I care to hear or ponder. For they live unencumbered, flying above the fray, pausing briefly to whisper true stories between the leaves.

Hold Your Breath … Breathe

Tom and I arrived at the Cardiovascular Consultants office in Glendale at 10:30 a.m. on August 5. About fifteen minutes ahead of my scheduled echocardiogram.

Though my vital signs during my regular checkup two days before looked good (110/70 blood pressure, normal EKG) I’ve been feeling a little fatigued. That’s likely a byproduct of my medication and the world we’re living in, but Dr. B. prescribed the procedure just to make sure my heart is pumping as it should.

As I entered through the glass doors, Tom hugged me. Only patients with masks were allowed inside the office space. His plan was to find a safe coffee spot nearby and wait until I called him.

I checked in at the front desk and answered all the expected questions. The attendant scanned my forehead. No temperature. No COVID-19 symptoms of any kind. When she asked, I told her I hadn’t traveled outside the country lately (though I wish I had) or gone on a cruise.

Laney, the technician, called me in promptly. She asked me to remove my shirt and lay on my left side on the exam table with my arm folded under my head. She pasted nodes to eight or ten places on my chest, smeared gel across my upper torso and began to apply a wand to various spots.

Hold your breath … breathe.  She scanned one area. I heard my heart pound and echo through a machine. Glub glub … glub glub. Over the next twenty minutes we repeated this rumba at least twenty times–Laney scanning and prompting like a teacher, my heart responding like an obedient student reporting for class and waving his hand (“I’m here. I’m here!”) on the first day of school. The device danced across my chest.

Then, after a few moments of shifting on the table to find a comfortable position reclining on my back, Laney’s magic wand scanned a few new places. Down to my upper rib cage and up to my throat with my head extended back.

Through it all, there was no physical pain. By 11:15, I had dressed, called Tom to pick me up and checked out. I’ll see Dr. B. again on August 17. He’ll have the results.

Of course, I feel anxious. Who wouldn’t? Especially because this experience brought me back three years to a hospital gurney in St. Louis and a similar echocardiogram procedure with Jacob, a different technician. Fear and apprehension ensued. But, I need to remind myself, my heart was experiencing trauma in July 2017. It isn’t today.

Now, thirty-seven months later and twenty-five pounds lighter, I’m a leaner, healthier guy with An Unobstructed View and a quieter life. Even so, I wait and wonder. I’ve been having strange dreams like many of you.

Two recent ones had me back in the corporate world working without a clue of what to do. Or shuffling around the condo searching for my misplaced blended bifocals, normally reasonable perspective and vision of clarity.

Such is the trauma of COVID-19 in a country with a president who doesn’t want to take responsibility for any of it. Still I’m fortunate when compared with most of the world. I swim. I walk. I write to stay whole. I don’t have to worry about the demands of a traditional job. I stretch out on my yoga mat and unwind. I keep breathing. I listen to the regular rhythm of my beating heart. Tom and I are there everyday to love and reassure each other.

Climbing out of bed at 6 am. on August 6, somehow I felt more rested. Out the door by 7, walking in Vista del Camino Park in 84-degree temperatures, the air felt cooler and lighter than the previous two torrid months. Miraculously, there was a break in the oppressive heat overnight. Could this be a harbinger of hope in an otherwise grey world?

Strolling with Tom, it felt like a September school day morning in the early 60s back in suburban St. Louis. When I carried a lunch box to the bus on some days or thirty cents in the pocket of my jeans to buy a hot meal in the cafeteria. The days were longer. Life was simpler. Or at least my childhood memory tells me so.

But in reality, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and our duck-and-cover drills in our classrooms in case of a nuclear attack. Then, later, JFK’s assassination. Then, Martin’s and Bobby’s. Those worries, the unrest in the streets, and the anxieties in the recesses of our consciousness kept us occupied after completing our spelling and math workbooks.

Now we have the unrelenting pain of a global pandemic. Our COVID-19 children and grandchildren will always remember social distancing, hand sanitizing, that displaced feeling of not knowing when/if/how school would resume, and the masks they wore in 2020.

No generation gets by unscathed. We scrape by through difficult times and do the best we can. We relax and reflect through more tranquil years. When we’re strong, we go on  without ever feeling ill or vulnerable. We work long hours and make everyday sacrifices for those we love. We say goodbye to parents who lived full lives and friends who died too young.

Then life shifts for no apparent reason. We find ourselves visiting doctors, bonding with cardiologists behind masks, waiting for the heat and oppression to lift. We find ourselves hoping for fewer casualties, more job opportunities and financial aid for the disenfranchised, a lower infection rate, normal echocardiogram results, a trustworthy president, and a reliable vaccine that nearly everyone will agree is the right thing to do.

We find ourselves taking each day as it comes, waiting impatiently for the good news we deserve.

 

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

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The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.

 

 

 

 

 

Movies, Mannequins and Mall Walking

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July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix, Arizona.

To beat the heat, on the first day of August, with another day of 110-plus-degree temperatures looming, Tom and I retreated indoors to Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale to accumulate five thousand steps.

This is the same mall where in any other year we could have imagined taking in a matinee on a similar scorching summer Saturday.

But not in 2020. Even though the sign above the escalators declares “See You at the Movies!”, the only bodies standing near the entrance to the Harkins Camelview multiplex were a cluster of zombie-like faceless and maskless mannequins in a nearby store window. Everyone else in the mall knew better. They were wearing masks.

The good news is Tom and I are the proud owners of about three hundred of our favorite films. We can watch any one of those in our living room or select something online, via Netflix or cable to occupy our time in the comfort and air conditioning of our home.

But we still miss the experience of sitting in a movie theater together. Sharing a medium-size popcorn (no butter, please). Guessing how many trailers will run across the screen before the featured film plays.

It will likely be at least a few more months before that happens again. I miss the regularity of these sorts of mini-escapes at the movies away from life’s painful breaking news.

I’ve also longed for the return of major league baseball. Now, only a week into the abbreviated season, at least six members (three players and three staff members) of my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, have tested positive for COVID-19.

The league postponed the Cardinals/Brewers games in Milwaukee on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. After an outbreak on the Miami Marlins squad a week ago, the 2020 season appears to be in jeopardy.

In the life-and-death scheme of things, I realize movies and baseball games pale when compared with 155,000-plus deaths in the United States and historic job losses.

But we need entertaining escapes to keep us all sane. Otherwise, I fear we’ll end up like the mannequins in the store window. Stiff. Still. Staring blankly into an empty space.

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Nine Years Ago in Italy

It’s been a while since I’ve boarded my dusty desert time machine. I figure we can all use a summer holiday escape. Away from daily reports of emerging COVID-19 hot spots, social unrest, and the grind of our shrunken stay-at-home lives.

Join me as I travel back nine years to late July 2011. When our resourceful guide and friend Yvette (a Canadian living in Tunisia), led six men (five Americans and one Canadian) on an eleven-day, Outgoing Adventures tour of Italy.

It was my first European odyssey. Six years before our 2017 Ireland immersion. Eight before Tom and I made a delicious 2019 dash through Germany and Austria.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Italy. The architecture, ancient history, hum and handsome men of Rome. The mystery and magic of Siena.

The countrysides and cooking of Tuscany. The alleys and alabaster of Volterra. The cliffs and colors of Cinque Terra. The style and silk of Florence.

Most of all, the enduring exuberance of the Italian people we met all along the way … lovers of art, pasta, wine, afternoon strolls and evening gelato.

Consider this my tribute to beloved Italy. A splendid sampler of nine representative images I captured that–nine years later–continue to feed my creative consciousness, spirit of adventure, and wonder about a nameless Florentine boy with a blue umbrella who followed his mother’s red shoes.

 

Echo

Like many of you, I feel my life has shrunk over the past six months. Collateral damage of this pandemic. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, but now it is resonating with a new spin.

There was a period yesterday afternoon when the sadness of all the personal losses and societal disruption (physical, social and psychological … exacerbated by the leadership vacuum in this country) brought me to tears.

Today I’m feeling better. Just typing these words helps. Writing and sharing my thoughts always seems to alleviate the pain. Yet, strangely, I have to constantly remind myself of this need to bring voice to my observations and worries.

I’ve been concerned about losing my voice … literally and figuratively. I’m not singing right now. I’m hoping that will change in the fall again with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. But it’s too soon to say. The wait may be longer. Much longer.

I also see what our current administration has attempted to do over the past three-plus years to muffle our voices, discredit the media and diminish our first amendment rights.

This isn’t the America I grew up in. But this is where we are now. Ugly. Divided. Fighting for our lives and our democratic existence. I can only hope there are enough of us outraged citizens, who will vote for a change in the White House in November.

Even in all the turmoil, Tom and I are managing to get by here in our Arizona community. We walk and swim before the heat rolls in. We wear our masks. We go out sparingly. To the store. To Walgreens for our prescriptions. I went to the Scottsdale library yesterday for a change of scenery.

I thought my mini field trip would lift my spirits, but when I saw all three of my books on the Local Author shelf it left me feeling sad and disconnected, because I remembered standing in front of my books at the Local Author Book Sale in February.

When life was different. When people could converse and share ideas in person. Smile. Shake hands. Hug even. I suspect it will be months (years?) before that will happen again.

In our shrunken sphere of influence, there is one other place Tom and I frequent. Echo Coffee, an independent coffee shop in south Scottsdale.

It makes us happy to go to Echo for carry out. We love their coffee, ice tea and delicious chocolate chip scones and feel good about supporting this local business.

We feel a personal connection to the place, because our friend Rob is the owner. He bought Echo in December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic descended on all of us.

Tom and I have watched as Rob has gallantly and adeptly adjusted on the fly to keep his business afloat and open, while refashioning the feel of the place to reflect his personality and values.

Rob donates one percent of all sales to an Echo Grant program that awards “ambitious and incredible creators the funding they need” … helping the artists and musicians in our community sustain themselves and thrive.

The sound of Echo is a quiet, comfortable, unobtrusive vibe … a coffee shop inspiring art, compassion and humanity … where local students, artists, musicians, readers, writers and caring citizens go for a cup of Joe, to reconnect with themselves, or chat with the friendly staff … even if it needs to be behind masks and at greater distances than before.

This morning Tom and I drove to Echo. We bought a few drinks for take-out. From behind our respective masks, we exchanged pleasantries with Lydia and Kallie. They were working the counter.

Previously, Rob told me he liked my writing. So, I told him I wanted to donate a few of my books to Echo. I handed Lydia a bag containing three of them, which she immediately added to the Echo bookshelf.

Though the tables at Echo are fewer now and spread out at more comfortable distances, customers can still pull a book from Rob’s shelf and read a chapter or two if they choose as they sip their coffee on a weary Wednesday or sunny Saturday.

For Tom and me, visiting Echo (as well as checking on Rob and his team) gives us an added purpose to our shrinking lives. Plus there is the satisfaction of knowing we are supporting a business we believe in, helping a friend in need, adding to the local artistic flavor of our community, and leaving an impression that will echo in a place we love.

Iridescent Scales

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You survive … no, thrive … scampering from shadows to shade, shimmering across scorched soil, ignoring what lies and lurks before you, replacing fears and pitfalls with truth and tenacity, imploring less reptilian ones to follow the flicker and flight of your iridescent scales.

 

Bosco Days

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I was Walter’s only son: four-year-old Bosco.

It was an endearment my gregarious father 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 as he gulped his coffee and savored his soggy Shredded Wheat. We loved each other, our playfulness, and kitchen table excesses.

Since Tom and I arrived at our Arizona home three years ago today–six days after a heart attack in St. Louis in 2017 on my sixtieth birthday–I’ve walked frequently with Walter’s memory.

Especially when I step aboard the treadmill to strengthen my heart muscle and consider that we both survived heart attacks in the same city.

In addition to Walter’s World War II army trunk, uniform, dog tags, Army Good Conduct Medal, honorable discharge papers, and war-time letters he saved from his parents and sisters, I am fortunate to possess disparate pages of my father’s poetry … along with the American flag from his funeral.

I’ll never forget the December day in 1993 when two stone-faced soldiers folded and pressed it into a triangle and handed it to my mother. In turn, she gave it to me.

There is one more keepsake from Walter, which Tom and I carried with us when we came west: this electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign. Walter the salesman salvaged it from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement.

Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs at my mother’s Missouri home. Then later, on top of my refrigerator in my Mount Prospect, Illinois kitchen.

Strangely, somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona in 2017–as I was mending from my heart attack on the passenger side–the wheel disengaged. Probably one too many bumps on the road, though it was cushioned in our backseat.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but in 2018 I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to tell me the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him and thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home.

We found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale high above my desk.

I plugged in the sign. I turned on the switch. The wheel turned. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced.

Just as Walter had in our Bosco days.

Advanced Degrees

It’s July. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s the Sonoran Desert. No surprises there.

But one-hundred-eleven? One-hundred-eleven again? One-hundred-thirteen? One-hundred-fifteen? One-hundred-seventeen?

These are the forecast high temperatures for Scottsdale, Arizona for Wednesday through Sunday of this week.

I’m not sharing this information to inspire pity or compassion. After all, I chose to live here.

Plus I won’t ever have to worry again about snow removal. Or icy sidewalks. Or digging decaying leaves out of gutters.

Or shoveling two-to-three feet of drifting snow. Or the cilia in my nostrils freezing solid in winter. Or driving down the street to discover that the snowplows have come through and blocked our driveway.

These are Chicago memories. November. December. January. February. March. April can be cold too. So can May.

Anyway, back to July in Arizona. It will rain again in the Valley of the Sun … some day.

Probably a vengeful monsoon or two in late July and August. The washes will fill up. And when they do, the thermometer will dip below 100. Sweater weather?

The local weather forecasters will have another monsoon story to tell. How to prepare for the next storm.

They’ll send their TV news crews out on the roads. To show us that actual rain is falling.

That the pavement on streets is wet. That windshield wipers are swooshing back and forth across glass. Only in Arizona will these ever be considered newsworthy.

Tom and I have figured out ways to manage in the Arizona heat. Early morning walks or swims or masked trips to the store. Reading and writing and yoga in the middle of the day in the AC of our condo.

Lighter meals. Fruit smoothies for lunch. Complements of the new Ninja we bought.

Scrabble. Game shows. Reruns of old sitcoms. That Girl and The Brady Bunch are our latest fixations.

Quiet dinners at home. Late evening strolls to the canal after the sun is down and the temperature is closer to 100 again.

This is the life of a desert rat. Living under the radar. Thinner. Tanner. Dryer. More tolerant of our advanced degrees.