The Ultimate Curveball

Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.

Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.

Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.

Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:

“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.

Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”

After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.

#242 and a Rose for You

I began this blogging odyssey three years ago today by publishing my list of memoir writing tips. I had no grand plans or notions of what this would become, who I might meet in the blogosphere, or how frequently I would post. (This is #242. That’s more than eighty posts a year since May 4, 2018.) I simply wanted to exercise my voice, promote my books, and share observations about my new life in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

But this experience has turned into much more than a lengthy chronicle of disparate topics. It has become a public place for me to examine the beauty of nature, the geographic grandeur and social diversity of the Grand Canyon State, the importance of family and community, the realities of aging and grief, the fright and implications of a global pandemic, the humor and irony of everyday occurrences, and the creative possibilities of a literary life.

Some of you have followed this space for multiple years, left frequent and encouraging comments, and even read a few of my books. Others have joined this journey recently. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am grateful for the time you have devoted to my writing and connections we’ve made. Thank you. This rose is for you.

There have been days since February–especially after completing my latest book–when I have realized my brain needed a rest. Given the energy and time commitment required, I wondered if this blog had run its course. However, today as I write this, I can’t imagine living without this forum. It is a strand of my life that keeps my vital and relevant.

Composing and sharing stories from my laptop–and peppering them with images and poetry from time to time too–is an important part of my identity. It is my passion. I need this authentic (though remote) social connection. I want to continue to be a part of the dialogue. Most important, I want to call attention to the simple joys of living and the healing aspects of nature, which often are overlooked.

Going forward, I don’t know how often I will post. But, as in the past, I will speak my mind, test story ideas, pay tribute to a rare person or defining moment, dabble in short fiction (which I began to do in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree), and explore the implications of everything from a personal joy to a national sorrow.

I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey and comment when the mood strikes … no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.

Cat on a Hot (Not Tin) Roof

More than a shameless ripoff of the Tennessee Williams play and the ensuing 1958 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this is a story about our community cat and the Sonoran Desert heat. Both are staring down at us on May 1.

Early this morning, Tom and I spotted Poly on our neighbor’s roof. (Poly is the name I’ve given the bright-eyed feline that has made our enclave her home; we aren’t sure who she belongs to, but she is everywhere in our retro Polynesian Paradise condo complex).

In pursuit of Saturday’s breakfast, persistent Poly was stalking a mourning dove and her baby nesting safely (they thought) under the eaves. Tom’s response was to worry about the well-being of the birds. Mine was to grab my digital camera and to stumble outside in my robe to document the moment.

Eventually, Poly slinked away without a catch. She pattered across the roof to find mischief elsewhere, perhaps on a back patio somewhere down the row. We likely won’t see her for a few days. That’s her pattern, at least. Appear. Disappear. Resurface. At dusk later this week, I expect she will reemerge and patrol the sidewalk in search of an evening snack.

The dry heat is more constant, less whimsical than Poly. Once it appears in early May (we expect a high of ninety-eight degrees in Scottsdale today), we know triple digits aren’t far away. But Tom and I have learned to adapt to the “oven” that is the Sonoran Desert from May through September. In a strange way, it’s become a familiar, returning friend.

In the Phoenix area, early morning and late evening walks or swims are the solution in the summer months … along with a few strategically planned escapes into the cooling pines of northern Arizona. This June we expect to venture even farther north to spend a few days with friends in Bozeman, Montana.

After a year of relative hibernation, I expect driving on the open roads and discovering new vistas in Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana will feel like a real adventure. It will certainly be welcome relief after the fright and disorientation of a pandemic year.

But even if we were forced to stay put another year and tough it out indoors away from the midday sun, the summer months are relatively peaceful in Scottsdale, because visitors leave to avoid the heat. For that reason, I give them high marks. I look forward to the quiet, to more time to reflect and write, and to hearing the potential pitter-patter of Poly’s cat paws pacing down our scorching sidewalk or across our hot (not tin) roof.

Thorns and All

Life is a mysterious mosaic of beginnings and endings, hellos and goodbyes, births and deaths, marriages and divorces, successes and failures.

It is human to create and nurture vivid memories within the confines of these wins and losses. Yet, in reality, we spend most of our time existing before and after the highs and lows.

Nature displays a different path to follow. It encourages us to savor the space between budding and deflating events. It reminds us to live in the present, thorns and all.

Yours for Ninety-Nine Cents

It’s time to dig out the loose change that’s fallen between your couch cushions and put it to good use! From April 23 to 30, you can download a Kindle copy of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, for just ninety-nine cents on Amazon.

Set against the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, my anthology of thirty-nine essays (some whimsical, some serious) explores the themes of family, community, authenticity, creativity, and uncertainty before and during COVID-19.

Here’s what one reader had to say: “Focusing on stories from his recent relocation as a full-time Arizona resident, Mark mines his past for insights into his new life, reflects deeper into the after-effects of surviving a health crisis, and even includes poems and works of short fiction. A great new collection from a distinctive contemporary voice.”

Happy reading!

Star of the Show

Hawks soar in a stiff breeze, palm leaves flutter, bougainvilleas bloom, and palo verde trees dab the blue sky in tufts of green and yellow.

Out-performing them all, under the shade of a fig tree, an unassuming amaryllis reappears outdoors in April. She is the star of the show.

They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They?

Late yesterday afternoon–a mid-April throwback Monday squeezed in before the Sonoran heat arrives in full force–I met John and Len, my full-time, sixty-something friends and part-time Polynesian Paradise neighbors, at the north edge of our community. We played horseshoes.

Two sandy, part-sun-part-shade horseshoe pits (spaced about fifty feet apart) have existed in our condo complex since the early 1960s. In 2021, residents and guests seldom use them. It’s more common for folks to walk by and not think twice about the horseshoe pits and their history on the way to their mailboxes.

That didn’t stop John, Len, and me from reclaiming the space and recapturing a practice that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed more frequently in the twentieth century. The primitive, low-stress gaming experience was just my speed: slow, nostalgic and gentlemanly. It was a light-hearted, jovial hour of tossing, joking, clinking, clanking, and male bonding. (By the way, John won on Monday. He came from behind with a well-tossed ringer. Len and I will survive. We will live to throw horseshoes another day.)

Anyway, the activity rekindled a memory I wrote about and published in 2017 in a story titled They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They? from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri recollections from the 1960s and 70s. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

What follows are excerpts. The setting? Babler State Park and the rolling rural countryside thirty miles west of St. Louis in October 1961. While the men were throwing horseshoes that day, I discovered a primitive-and-glassy nirvana: marbles.

***

Clink clank clink. Clink clank clink. It was the sound of metal on metal. The men in our family–Dad, Uncle Ralph and Uncle Harry–were hammering stakes into two sand pits about fifty feet apart. They sure do like to fling horseshoes, don’t they, I thought. Within minutes, they were tossing the U-shaped irons from one end to the other, hoping to catch the right angle and rack up a ringer …

On this particular occasion, while the women in our family unfurled the tablecloth and unpacked the meat for grilling, and the men settled into their game and passed cold bottles of Falstaff between throws, I wandered down a path to investigate the picnic area. That’s when I found a vacant campsite nearby and an abandoned plastic bag of multi-colored glass marbles wedged into a gap between the flat rocks of a stone bench.

In my visual memory, this was a To Kill a Mockingbird moment. You know, like when Jem and Scout found Boo Radley’s toys and trinkets buried in the trunk of a big ole tree. In hindsight, I suppose Boo had nothing to do with my glassy discovery. Another child had simply and accidentally lost his or her marbles. For some period of minutes, hours, days or weeks, these multi-faceted marbles were no one’s. They were lost in an unassigned gaming galaxy. But in the universe of fair play, it was Finders Keepers. This treasure was mine …

When I pulled Dad away from his pitching and showed him what I had found, his smiled doubled instantly. It felt like we had discovered a whole new language mined from an archeological dig … In a flash, Dad and my uncles suspended their horseshoe tossing, reverted to their childhoods, and surrounded me with explanations and names for the different marbles–many of them laced with swirls of colorful strands …

Marbles became my forever home of circular undisrupted creative possibilities. After our 1961 picnic was over and the sun began to set, we snuffed out the campfire, folded up the red gingham tablecloth, and packed away our picnic basket. I stepped up into the back seat of our Plymouth with my new marbles in tow.

Over the coming weeks and months, Dad pitched more horseshoes at the farm of Ed and Ollie Puetz near Gray Summit, Missouri, where we picnicked with family and friends and I watched the men drink another round of brews and play the game they loved.

Meanwhile, I added marbles to my glassy collection: aggies (made of agate) swirling with various ribbon patterns inside, tigers (clear with orange-yellow stripes), opaques (milky green, blue, and gray marbles) and cat’s eyes (they look like what they sound like).

All of my marbles became a creative extension of me. I played my instant-game-in-a-bag any time and any place–mostly at home on our basement floor on ordinary rainy days after kindergarten. All I had to do was obey one rule: “Mark, don’t leave your marbles in the middle of the floor.”

Sonoran Sunday Magazine

Are you missing your favorite monkey? Are you searching for a bridge to a higher plain? Do you need to be reminded that you are beautiful? You’ll find them all here along the Crosscut Canal between Scottsdale and Tempe.

On Uneven Ground

Now that I have a little more distance from Good Friday, it’s clear how painful it was to witness Gary, my neighbor, die of congestive heart failure right outside my front door. Especially because Gary and I see/saw the same cardiologist. (In case you don’t know, I had my own heart trauma nearly four years ago. My husband Tom was the one watching the calamity unfold that day, rushing to get me to an emergency room in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday.)

At any rate, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced the wide swings of life. Joy and sorrow. Victory and defeat. Jubilation and devastation. I think the secret to contentment is expecting and accepting both ends of the spectrum, then finding your balance somewhere between the two extremes.

On Palm Sunday, I found myself savoring an author’s dream come true. I was reading passages from my latest book to an attentive audience and signing copies in our community clubhouse. Five days later on Good Friday, Gary collapsed outside his and my condo. A few minutes later, he died in my grasp.

For the next two days–through Easter Sunday–I felt out of sorts and sick to my stomach. I was searching for my equilibrium, battling side effects of shock, and absorbing the protective properties of my second COVID-19 vaccination, as more requests for my book came via texts and front-door visits.

On Monday, I began to find some semblance of my equilibrium. I knocked on my neighbor Bob’s door. He and I had been there with Pat (Gary’s wife) when her world came crashing down. “Milwaukee Bob” (Pat calls him that because that’s where he and his wife Barb live most of the year) is adjusting to what he witnessed too.

Though it is the fig tree Bob and I stood beside, giving Gary and Pat comfort and support in the trauma of that Good Friday moment, he and Barb bought a copy of my book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. They weren’t able to make it to the book signing and reading on Palm Sunday.

On Tuesday morning, I exchanged hugs with Gary’s daughter, Andrea. She had flown in from Chicago with her husband and three children to comfort her mother Pat. Through tears, Andrea thanked me for being there for her mother and father. Her family’s spring Arizona vacation (planned before her father’s demise) was transformed into a mix of grieving, coping, swimming, and horseback riding. Her dad’s remains will be interred in Illinois at a later date.

It is Wednesday night now. I feel stronger again. I realize the tender result of Gary’s sudden death … that, through care and happenstance, I will be bonded to Bob, Pat, Andrea, and her family for life. This morning Tom and I joined a handful of friends for yoga in the park. Between ten and eleven o’clock, we stretched and posed on our mats. I felt the caress of a cool southern breeze under the shade of a tall pine tree. I heard the needles of the pine whisper and the call of the mockingbirds above us. I assumed my tree pose. I felt nature cradle me. I swayed, but found my footing on uneven ground.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Gary was a fixture in our community. Nearly every day, through our kitchen window, Tom and I spotted him beyond our fig tree. He sat contentedly on the park bench in front of his condo, wearing his favorite cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette. Our neighbor–an eighty-six-year-old-man with a wry sense of humor and perpetual cough–died last week.

Over the past few years, Tom and I watched Gary’s slow slide and the constant care Pat (his devoted wife of fifty-three years) provided. In recent weeks, Gary’s decline had become more precipitous. We knew it was only a matter of time–days, hours, minutes, seconds–before he left. That happened on Good Friday right outside his front door … and ours.

On Friday afternoon, after receiving our second Pfizer vaccinations the day before, Tom was napping in the sunroom. I was feeling fine, writing in our den. Around three o’clock, I heard a thud followed closely by a shriek. Gary had fallen. Pat had just seen it happen. I raced outside. I found Gary crumpled on the ground in the ninety-degree heat next to his Chicago Bears cupholder.

Pat, Bob (another neighbor), and I did our best to lift Gary and situate him in a chair in the shade near the fig tree right outside our door. But, the color in Gary’s face slowly drained and his breathing stopped just as the Scottsdale paramedics and police arrived. They worked to resuscitate him, but Gary was gone.

For the past few days, I’ve been feeling the trauma of that moment and the side effects of the second vaccine. I remember telling Pat to call 911. I remember my heart racing. I remember consoling Pat briefly, then–after the EMTs arrived–reaching out to hug Danny, a long-time friend of Gary’s who had heard the commotion and looked on in amazement. I cried in his arms. Though Danny and I don’t know each other well, I am certain we both needed to feel some comfort in that frightening moment.

Until last Friday, no one–not even my mother or father–has died in my arms. It’s going to take a while before I can fully process the meaning behind all of this. But, you know me. I needed to write about it.

The reality is this: Pat, Bob, and I did what most people would do. We tried to help ease the pain of a husband, a neighbor, a friend, a dying man. As a result, we will be forever bonded by the personal gravity and trauma of the experience.