Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight by the Pool

 

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I’m fortunate to live in a charming, mid-century condo community in South Scottsdale with a gorgeous pool and rich history. Traditions and ripples run deep here at Polynesian Paradise. From memories of grandparents, close cousins, great aunts and uncles living under the slanted-and-peaked roofs of their Googie-style architecture.

Many early residents, Chicagoans with Italian heritage, discovered their desert hideaways in the 1960s and 70s. Others came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada. They all traveled south or west to escape brutal winters and forge a new life in their twilight years.

During the day, Lucy (my husband’s soft-spoken grandmother) and her friends gathered by the pool to soak up the sun, unwind on a lounge chair, read a book under a kitschy umbrella, sip a cool drink or play cards in the clubhouse while their laundry flapped on the clothesline in the dry breeze.

At night, as palm trees painted sunsets over western skies, these westward-ho pilgrims dined on pasta and cannolis lovingly prepared by good-hearted neighbors like Sam (my husband’s grandfather). He spent his working years making cookies at the Nabisco factory back in Chicago and needed an outlet for his boundless energy. He found it in the condo clubhouse kitchen.

From January through April each year, as the rest of the world shivered on frosty Wednesday nights, the warmest stars aligned over the desert. Delighted residents and their guests shouted BINGO, collected their winnings, and sauntered home down sidewalks to their modest desert dwellings illuminated by porch lights.

Of course, Lucy and Sam are gone. So are most of their friends and neighbors. Like Connie and Sam who lived a few doors away. They were surrogate parents who coached us on the dos and don’ts of closing down our desert home when we were still fresh snowbirds straddling two worlds: one in Illinois; one in Arizona. Both of them died a few years ago, though their last name still hangs on a wall plaque outside what was once their door.

And Anita, another long-time resident, who passed away early in April. She was a familiar-and-friendly fixture at the pool. Tanning on her lounge chair with her extended, manicured nails. Listening contentedly to her favorite oldies on her transistor radio. Though I didn’t know her well, I miss her presence. I miss her connection to all the others.

Sadly, the soaring prow on the clubhouse façade is gone too. The condo association decided to remove it a few years ago, because the wood had begun to rot. It posed a safety concern for those walking beneath and the cost was too prohibitive to repair it.

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Life goes on at Polynesian Paradise. With a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new generation of residents (grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, singles and couples) the community spirit lives on. There are still social gatherings in the clubhouse each month. Donut and hot dog days. Holiday parties. Yoga on occasional mornings. Bingo has moved from Wednesday to Tuesday nights when the snowbirds are in town.

Many in our community are over sixty, like my husband Tom and me. Living our twilight years in a pleasant condo community with an inviting pool. But there are a growing number of younger, full-time residents living here too. Infusing the community with new energy. Remodeling and updating their condos. Heading to work and school each day. Walking to their cars past cooing doves that nest under our eaves.

We’re all neighbors. Some of us enjoy a regular dip in the pool. Some of us don’t. But we’re all in the same boat. Finding our way in the world as new condo communities rise up around us in South Scottsdale. Doing what we can to live the best versions of our own lives in the Sonoran Desert. Just like the Sams, Lucys, Connies and Anitas who’ve come and gone before us.

 

 

Love is in the Air

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Don’t let anyone tell you the Sonoran Desert is dead in the Spring. While it’s true that there are no daffodils, tulips, peonies or crocuses to speak of or admire, the Palo Verde trees are ablaze in yellow. The bougainvillea are burgeoning. The cacti are blooming in abundance. Splashes of white, pink, purple, orange and red abound. Oh, and love is in the air. I mean that literally.

I was a snowbird visiting Arizona from Illinois five years ago, when I encountered my first two lovebirds under open skies. They were a couple of diminutive, rosy-faced parrots huddling and chirping in a palm tree high above, as my husband Tom and I played Scrabble near our condo pool. I was captivated by their vivid, multi-colored feathers and the tender way they preened each other.

Now that I’m a full-time resident of the Sonoran Desert, I’m still smitten. So much so that I felt my adrenalin surge recently as I captured this image with my telephoto lens:  another fanciful flock of lovebirds holding court high atop a palm tree in Vista del Camino Park near my home.

In the past week or so, I’ve come to realize that these gorgeous birds aren’t originally from Arizona. The lovebirds are natives of Africa. Namibia to be precise. According to several sources online, in the 1980s two colonies of them were cast aloft into Phoenix-area neighborhoods. One was the result of a monsoon storm that destroyed a local aviary. The others scattered when an owner decided he didn’t want to keep them anymore. He released them into Sonoran skies.

The good news is the lovebirds don’t pose a threat to native Arizona birds. They simply add to the color palette and have adapted to life in the Valley of the Sun over the past three decades. Apparently, the palm trees and temperatures here are similar to those in their African home. So, the lovebirds are comfortable living in the Sonoran Desert.

Coincidentally, last Saturday–with the lovebirds front and center in my psyche–I was wearing my “Love is Love” t-shirt. (Imagine the silhouettes of a herd of six rainbow-colored elephants–red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple–with their trunks happily intertwined above the three words and you’ve got the right idea.)

Anyway, Tom and I were strolling up and down the aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market. I was shopping for vegetables and fruits in my diversity-loving t-shirt. A woman I didn’t know, a vendor named Elizabeth, jumped out from behind her booth. She approached me with a loving, beaming smile. She insisted upon taking my photo in the “Love is Love” shirt. She wanted to send it to a friend back in Chicago, whose sixteen-year-old daughter had just come out to her.

Of course, I was happy to oblige since I’m gay and had lived in Chicago for most of my adult life. I told her I’d even bought the t-shirt at a Banana Republic store in Chicago on North Michigan Avenue. But more importantly, I know how frightening and challenging it is for a young person who’s gay, lesbian or transgendered to find their way. They need all the support they can get.

Yes, it’s Spring 2019, but even if you have a loving mom or dad, and community of people around you who believe “love is love” and treat you with respect, the world is still a complicated and often judgmental place.

Perhaps all of us–now as much as ever–need all the love and lovebirds we can get.

A New High Point

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There is a definite rhythm to writing. When it’s working, it’s as if you are conducting the full breadth of a finely tuned orchestra. But, when you are out of rhythm, you might as well be stomping on the toes of your favorite dance partner. It’s that painful.

At any rate, in January 2016—eighteen months before my husband and I moved to Scottsdale permanently—we escaped suburban Chicago to snowbird in the warmth of Arizona for a few precious months. I remember being concerned about messing up my writing rhythm. To complicate matters, I was fully immersed in the editing of my first book, From Fertile Ground, and unwinding the unending grief for Helen Johnson, my mother. I didn’t yet have a defined space for my writing or Helen’s past influence in our Arizona condo. I needed a trusty desk, like the one that supported my laptop in Illinois, and a few artifacts that would remind me of the mother I loved.

My husband Tom was sensitive to my dilemma. So, on a Tuesday morning a few days after we arrived in Scottsdale, we set out to find a suitable writing surface. We didn’t want to spend much. So, we opted to explore thrift stores in the area for a wooden desk that could fit under the window in our sunroom. It faces south.

I suppose I felt a little like Goldilocks as she searched for the right bed. Our first few stops produced nothing promising. The desks we encountered were too clunky, too small, too rickety, too ugly, too … wrong. I hadn’t found the one that was just right. But we decided to try one more place before calling it quits. We pulled into the Goodwill store on North Scottsdale Road.

Once inside, we filed our way up and down aisles of discarded ceramics, leftover lamps and sagging upholstered chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slightly scuffed, mid-sized, mid-century wooden desk. It was just the right size to fit in my creative space. The right price too—twenty dollars.

Tom and I flagged down a clerk. He helped us process the order and arrange for the delivery of our newfound desk. I paused to run my fingers across the desk’s smooth finish and pull open the top drawer. That’s where I discovered a small embossed plate with an ironic identifying inscription: Alma Desk Company, High Point, North Carolina.

In case you aren’t familiar with High Point, the town is the home furnishings capital of the United States. It also happens to be the birthplace of my mother. Here’s the remarkable part. At the time I found the desk in a resale shop more than two thousand miles from her birthplace, I was in the midst of completing a book about grieving Helen’s loss. Certainly, this was a prophetic signpost I couldn’t ignore. It was the right desk, blessed by the writing gods and—perhaps in some cosmic way—endorsed by my furniture-loving mother from the south.

I was convinced that this connection to Helen’s past would be the injection of continuity I needed to complete my book about her in Arizona, even though she never visited the Valley of the Sun. She never stood in awe of the spiky Sonoran saguaros. She never ambled down a quiet path at the Desert Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning to hear the mourning doves coo on crooked branches of Palo Verde trees. She never saw bighorn sheep climb to the top of this butte in the Phoenix Zoo and gaze east.

In this season of renewal, it feels right to acknowledge that my mother’s undaunted spirit and a sturdy High Point desk have helped sustain my creativity in Arizona. They–and a bighorn sheep standing tall in a much too complicated world–are with me on my writing journey.

Nothing Too Straight or Taxing

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Last Thursday, when my husband Tom and I greeted our Chicago friend Todd at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, we didn’t know if we’d have time to squeeze in a tour of Taliesin West during his week-long stay. We wanted to give Todd plenty of time to relax, read in the sun, swim in our condo pool, and watch our favorite movies together. But, because Todd is an architecture buff on vacation, an excursion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic desert laboratory in North Scottsdale was near the top of his “to do” list.

I’m happy to report that today–on Tax Day in the U.S.–we fulfilled Todd’s and our architectural cravings. We drove north to immerse ourselves in Wright’s organic architecture. Fortunately, there was nothing too taxing about the experience. Only fascinating historic anecdotes from Harriett our trusty guide, grand horizontal lines connecting common-sense design with rugged nature, peace-inducing Asian artifacts from Wright’s travels, and expansive Sonoran Desert views from his functional living space and bedroom that faced west.

We three gay men didn’t witness too many straight angles during our ninety-minute immersion into Wright’s desert home and design school either. Instead, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the geometric patterns that surrounded us … like these three triangles that line the entryway to the Cabaret Room where Wright and his third wife entertained guests in their mid-century oasis near the foot of the McDowell Mountains.

I can imagine a roomful of wide-eyed architecture students gathered there in 1950. Wright holding court with grateful guests. Telling stories and sipping drinks with left legs crossed over and right arms resting on long rows of theatrical red seats placed at acute angles.

Witness Taliesin West for yourself next time you visit the Valley of the Sun.  It’s a design treat in the desert. Best of all, you won’t find it too taxing.

 

 

 

 

My Slargando World

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April ushers in a slower pace in Arizona. Following the departure of their favorite major league baseball teams that train in the Valley of the Sun, most snowbirds have already packed their bags and flown back to their primary homes. Now, as ninety-plus temperatures descend upon us, there’s more room to dine in restaurants. Fewer scooters to dodge on Scottsdale streets.

To borrow the Italian musical term slargando (a word I learned last night as my husband Tom and I played a rousing game of Balderdash with friends Carolyn and John from Alaska and Adele and Len from New York), I feel the onset of a gradually slowing tempo … a widening sense of time and space on the threshold that coincides with see-you-again-in-the-fall-or-winter conversations we’ll have as our friends depart next week.

All four of them are kind and interesting people we didn’t know five years ago. Now they are friends who walk and laugh beside us. Crave the next movie night in our cozy condo. Cringe with us at breaking news. Share our home for wine and pasta dinners. Treat us to trips on boats, a ready supply of salmon spread, and stories of their future plans.

In other words, they are our sixties comrades in our condo community. Friends who are just as comfortable leading the charge up a trail to the Desert Botanical Garden, following us into a different circle for one of my choral concerts, tagging along for Blarney Bingo on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Phoenix, or picnicking at a table under a Palo Verde tree at a local hangout in Tempe.

Needless to say, Tom and I are grateful for their friendship and the moments we share. Though we will miss seeing our part-time neighbors for the next several months, Tom and I will have each other and our creative aspirations to keep us busy through spring and summer. And, despite the heat, the coos of mourning doves nearby and the enchanting calls from mockingbirds and desert wrens outside our backdoor will keep us company.

Through it all, I’ll be content to walk and exercise in the morning with my husband, swim laps to keep my heart strong, and write my stories in my slargando world.

 

 

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through April 8

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In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, more than four decades later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From April 5 through April 8, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my way of celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of my amusing amusement park experience and other vivid Baby Boomer recollections, including: discovering the joys of a first pet; loading up the car and heading to the drive-in theatre; embarking on a quest to wrangle World Series tickets with my dad; working at the top of the Gateway Arch; and witnessing the wonder in a brand new year after a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger.

Perhaps my stories will make you smile and light your desire to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood. Wherever you were born. Wherever you grew up. Wherever you called home.

A Sense of Belonging … No Foolin’

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It’s April Fools’ Day. But there’s nothing foolish about recognizing the sense of belonging we all need. In fact, I think the safety and support of a circle of friends and a welcoming community are essential for us to bloom in a world of controversy and thorny problems.

All of this crossed my mind Sunday. I had just left the stage with my gay friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We were one of several LGBTQA choral and instrumental groups that performed at the We Are One concert. It was a rousing afternoon of uplifting music at the beautiful new Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix. I felt warm and loved there performing in front of an appreciative audience. To be clear, it wasn’t just the applause. It was because I knew I belonged singing on stage with sixty new friends.

I know I’m fortunate. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced the love and support of a circle of friends. In fact, I’ve felt a sense of belonging in many aspects of my life with my husband, my sons, my extended family, my neighbors in Arizona … and certainly with friends, neighbors and colleagues in the Chicago area before moving to Arizona almost two years ago.

But if you are different or disadvantaged in any way, you know this to be true: a loving community is paramount. Strangely–even in 2019–LGBTQA folks are rejected for who they are by their immediate family members. So, they are left to cobble together the families of their own choosing. This is especially troubling at a time when our own government officials seem determined to roll back rights and protections for American citizens in many circles.

So last night, after the We Are One concert, I needed to share the love I feel for my new circle of friends. I sent them a message. I told them how proud I am to sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. I told them how important they are to my husband and me. I told them that because of the music we sing and the friendships I’m making with all of them, I’m feeling their love and developing my own sense of belonging again.

To be honest, in 2017 when I said goodbye to another close group of friends at the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago–people I loved and performed with for seven years–I wasn’t sure I’d find that sort of community connection a second time. Especially after surviving a heart attack on the way west.

But I’ve found it again. I feel the love in Arizona. In my new home town. No foolin’.

 

 

 

 

 

A Good Editor … A Good Friend

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In late 2015, as I worked to complete From Fertile Ground, I began to search for a seasoned editor and proofreader. I needed someone to review my book thoroughly and objectively. Someone expertly equipped to offer constructive criticism without constraining my artistic voice.

About that time an Illinois friend recommended I contact Anna Floit. She and her business, The Peacock Quill, are based in Nashville, Tennessee. After a few phone conversations with Anna, my intuition told me she was the right person for the job. I sent Anna my manuscript from my Illinois home.

Over the next several weeks, I worked closely with Anna to polish my book from my desk in Arizona, where my husband and I had escaped from another bitter Chicago winter. Miraculously, in late March 2016, I published my first book. It was three years ago this week.

Since that time, Anna has edited and proofread my second and third books—Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator  in 2017 and An Unobstructed View in 2018. But we never had the opportunity to meet in person. The distance was too great. Until today.

Over the weekend, Anna flew from Nashville to Phoenix to watch a few Cactus League baseball games with a close friend here in the Valley of the Sun. In the middle of it all, we exchanged text messages. Somehow we managed to carve out a little time to get together, and my husband Tom and I met Anna this morning at a local coffee shop in Scottsdale.

Ironically, Anna is someone I didn’t know four years ago. Yet she’s someone significant in my life, who helped me achieve a life-long dream of publishing my stories. Seeing her in person was more than a chance to put a face and voice with a name. It was my best opportunity to say thank you to a good editor … a good friend.