Sad Saturday

I don’t normally dive headlong into political and social issues, but I feel a sense of doom and anger percolating inside me tonight after the acquittal of our previous president. I won’t mention his name here. I wish I had the power to encourage every media outlet to do the same, because what he wants more than anything is attention.

Today forty-three pathetic, posturing Republican senators disavowed a mountain of evidence presented by the impeachment managers, who connected the dots. They directly linked his unconscionable actions to an insurrection that caused death and destruction at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But our unnamed ex-president has slithered away unpunished once again.

I know the past twelve months have been difficult all around the world. Families have lost loved ones: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. But what we have endured in the United States has been monumentally horrible.

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from complications of COVID-19. As the numbers continue to mount, we’ve witnessed countless stories of unfortunate souls–many of them minorities–who have lost their lives and their livelihoods. We’ve watched as the evil of racism and hatefulness has surfaced and been fueled by rhetoric from the White House. It was once a hallowed place.

We’ve dodged crazy conversations with neighbors and ex-friends, who believe any number of preposterous conspiracy theories, especially the big lie of a rigged election, when all the facts and evidence tell us otherwise. We’ve shuttered our lives to survive, shrunken our existences to cope, masked our faces to protect ourselves and our neighbors, covered our eyes in horror at news reports, and swallowed hard to salvage any shred of our remaining dignity and sanity.

Now we are required to suck it up once again, and watch the shameful evidence of senior governmental officials who are more concerned with securing their political futures than what they were elected to do on behalf of the American people … to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I don’t know if there is a silver lining in any of this. But, at least eighty-one million of us had the gumption to choose a forty-sixth president, who has a heart and good intentions. Joe Biden has already proven he will roll up his sleeves and fight on behalf of all of the American people, even those who didn’t vote for him. He and Kamala Harris are doing what they can to right this sinking ship and ramp up the distribution of vaccines across the country.

But here’s the biggest question of all. Even if we survive this global pandemic physically, what will be left of our democracy if we allow our past president to walk away without ever paying a price for the deep pain and intentional harm he has brought to our nation?

Book Chat

Now that I have published I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I feel like an empty-nester. All of the nurturing and sculpting is over. My purpose and attention has shifted from writer to salesman.

There is nothing too surprising about that. The frustrating part is that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. There are limited opportunities–none, really–for the face-to-face interactions I crave with readers. I don’t have a chance to talk about my books with people. Because I am mostly an extrovert–though much less so as I’ve gotten older–I miss that terribly. The only legitimate opportunities for authors to promote and sell their books are online.

Even so, on Wednesday afternoon, I manufactured a little of my own author interaction. I drove to the Scottsdale Public Library. I donated a copy of my latest book for its Local Author bookshelf. This is something I’ve done three times before.

Previously, this act was followed by a physical Local Author Book Sale, where readers and authors meet. (To replace the in-person fair, there is an online local authors talk series conducted through our library. I missed the deadline for submitting a video to participate. I was focused on finishing and publishing my fourth book.)

While at the library I spoke with Wen-Ling, a pleasant woman who coordinates some of the local author activities for the library. From one side of a glass partition I described my latest book to Wen-Ling and my passion for writing memoirs. She told me the staff hopes to reinstitute the Local Author Book Sale in 2022.

After our interaction, I found my energy. I raced back to the parking lot to my car to find a bookmark for Wen-Ling and postcard with information about my books. I returned to the library information desk, placed my printed materials on the counter, and waved to her. Wen-Ling was helping another patron, but from behind her mask she thanked me for donating my book. I smiled back and said goodbye.

It was a simple exchange, and the kind of thing I used to take for granted in our pre-COVID-19 world. But all of that has changed now. As Tom and I–and most of us in the world–wait to be vaccinated, I will continue to look for small ways to stay engaged. Whether I’m there for a mini book chat or just trying to stay healthy on the treadmill of life, I will always need to find ways to connect with those around me.

For the Sake of the Fig Tree

With all the energy and enthusiasm I’ve bestowed upon my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, Tom and I are certain our middle-aged fig tree has been feeling sad and neglected.

We first observed signs of this in the fall as I labored to complete my manuscript. Tears began to appear on the trunk. (Actually, the moisture was wetwood-causing bacteria and/or sap leaking from several spots.) This was likely a byproduct of messy sewer-related digging outside our front door that disrupted the roots in the July of 2020. It was one more irritant provided by a despicable year that was supposed to offer us perfect clarity.

Fortunately, the oozing didn’t deter our beloved fig from bearing fruit or producing its typical canopy of green and welcome shade from the Sonoran sun. Even so, we were worried. So, in the fall, I bought some fruit tree spikes and planted them at various places around the circumference of the tree. This deep-root nourishment–along with more frequent watering and an occasional bath of bleach (which Tom has provided on the leaky spots)–seems to have solved the leakage problem.

Pruning the gnarly fig tree is another matter. It’s something that must be attended to every winter. In previous years, a few of our neighbors (Mario and Yolanda, who winter here from their home in Italy) have supervised and completed this task. Not in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented them from returning this year.

To fill the gardening void, Tom and I decided to step in and offer our services. If you read my book, you’ll discover this isn’t the first time we’ve trimmed fruit trees. We researched the best way to prune fig trees and paired that with our previous gardening knowledge and the love of plants and flowers that runs through my DNA.

On the morning of Thursday, February 4, we gathered our gardening gloves, two ladders, and three pairs of clippers. We cleared the area of potted plants beneath the tree. We pruned the fig tree.

This was a big job that involved climbing on a ladder, trimming the smallest branches first, and sawing off or lopping the medium-sized ones. The goal? To trim the fig down to a stump of its previous likeness, so that it will return with gusto and a new crop of branches, leaves and delectable fruits–remarkably all within six months.

After reaching, snipping, and sawing for two hours, we gathered the debris from the ground, deposited it in our condo community dumpster, guzzled a few bottles of water, and stretched our sore back and neck muscles.

Now, a mere skeleton of the fig remains. In a month or less, new growth will appear. That will be followed by longer branches, dozens of ripe figs in July, and a bouquet of green stretching toward the Sonoran sky.

Never fear, this annual haircut was just what the tree doctor ordered. It’s all for the sake of the fig tree. I don’t want its sense of neglect to intensify and become full-blown jealousy when that avalanche of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree sales I fantasize about starts rolling in.

My Lemon Tree Book is Live!

The trail of my literary life has led here. The Kindle version of my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, is now available on Amazon. (Paperbacks are in production and will be available for purchase at this same location on Amazon in the next few days).

The rush of adrenaline I feel today is at least as satisfying as books one, two and three, because I’ve devoted more than three years to this creative endeavor–imagining, developing, polishing, and agonizing over it.

In that sense, today is a combination of the exhilaration of unwrapping Christmas presents, skipping out the door on the last day of school, feeling weak in the knees the first time I approached the edge of the Grand Canyon, and hoping for a clean bill of health from my cardiologist. It’s all of that rolled into a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies.

In this anthology of Arizona stories, I dig deeper into themes that are important to me: the lasting love and comfort of family and friends; the humor, irony, and poetry in everyday situations; the profound beauty of nature and how it shapes us; the joy of realizing a literary life; and the conviction required to be an authentic gay man–a real gay couple–in a world often rife with ignorance.

As you might expect, the upheaval we have all faced in Coronaville (my name for our shared global address of uncertainty) is present here too. How could it not be? The pandemic has dominated our lives and–at its core–this is a non-sequential personal and societal 2017-to-2020 slice of life.

All of these themes–and flights of fancy (backward and forward in time) to visit familiar and new people and places–run through my book. They are the threads in this tapestry that has become my writing style. They are the elements of the sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-serious voice I have unearthed in my life with Tom in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.

As we wait for our vaccinations and continue to hope we will recapture the most important strands of our disrupted lives, I think you will find comfort, honesty and humor in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. I also think it is a testimonial to the importance of our families, communities, and human connections as we strive to sustain ourselves no matter where we live, no matter where this journey leads us.

January’s Gift

Tonight there was more than a January chill in the air in the Valley of the Sun. As we returned home from our walk along the Crosscut Canal, we looked skyward. I scampered home to grab my telephoto lens.

Even as we stumble through the dark of a global pandemic, there is more to investigate and admire than what’s trending on Netflix. There is January’s gift. There is the beauty of nature.

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

A New Day in History

As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.

No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.

Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.

Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.

But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.

Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.

From Crab Apples to Lemon Trees

In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.

In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.

As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.

Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.

I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.

In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.

If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.

Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.

Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.

The Pledge of Allegiance

Because I am a writer, you might imagine it would be easy for me to put my anger and pain into words.

You might think it would be simple enough for me to describe the brutality our current president has brought to our country for the past four years or the shame and frustration I felt as I watched a mob of misguided lemmings follow his lead, storm the U.S. Capitol, and pillage it on January 6, 2021.

But it is not.

It appears (to at least half of us and the rest of the world) that we have lost our bearings, sense of righteousness, and humility. The rest (some of whom smashed windows, dishonored our House and Senate chambers, and scaled walls for a selfie) are content to wallow in lies, deception and misinformation.

Most of this destruction was perpetrated by a man who has no moral compass, no interest in the well-being of our nation’s citizens as we wander for another day through the darkness of this pandemic, as we watch the death toll grow, as we wait for a vaccine that is slow to arrive.

It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to examine The Pledge of Allegiance–something I learned and recited in first or second grade as I stood by my desk with my hand over my heart back in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s time to ask: Do these words mean anything anymore? Do we still believe and adhere to these words that open our congressional sessions and have served as guideposts for our children, adults and–most important–government officials to follow?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

If they do, we need to hold all of those involved–including the current president and his enablers– accountable for their treasonous and criminal behavior. We need to remove them from their offices, fire them from their jobs, convict them of their crimes.

We need to uphold our civil rights and liberties for the masses. We need to ensure there is justice for all.

The Warmth of a Good Story

Our best and worst memories have a way of softening and sharpening as we age. Like photos pressed in the pages of a family scrapbook, some of them fade and crack. Others, through the lens of our selective memory, grow more brilliant.

I don’t know what it will feel like to look back on 2020 in ten or twenty years. But, as we work to survive the entirety of this preposterous year, I suspect our memories will follow the same unpredictable pattern.

On the morning of December 25, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and English muffins, my husband and I watched A Christmas Story.

Like many of you, I have seen this satirical and nostalgic film countless times. It’s one of my holiday favorites. The 1983 movie, directed by Bob Clark, is narrated by author Jean Shepherd and based on his stories of growing up in the Hammond, Indiana area (near Chicago) in the 1940s.

The writing is witty and the editing superb, but what I love most about the film (starring Melinda Dillon, Daren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley) is the sense of time and place it captures.

Like the endless scarves, hats, gloves, and buckled boots the kids wear to protect themselves from the cold and piles of snow, the film produces layer upon layer of lasting humor, warmth and comfort … told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. It is an exaggerated ode to a lost era in the United States. For all of these reasons, it is imminently watchable despite its constant availability.

In hindsight, warmth also was the feeling I intended to capture in my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, published in 2017. I wanted to leave behind a record of what it felt like to grow up in the hot St. Louis, Missouri suburbs in the 1960s and 70s.

It was an age when kids ran barefoot, chased ice cream trucks, played with marbles, watched dads toss horseshoes, cuddled with puppies in backyard pools, performed tricks for Halloween treats, banged pots and pans outside to celebrate New Years Eve, sucked on popsicles to beat the heat with the neighborhood kids on scorching summer afternoons, and (in my case, at the age of sixteen in 1974) learned to operator a rollercoaster.

This was my front porch (circa 1960) in Affton, Missouri: Jimmy; Marianne; Diane; Suzy; Carol; and me. My mother sealed the moment with the help of her Brownie camera. Now the image lives forever in my light-hearted book of Missouri memories.

It certainly was a more innocent time. But, as we grew, the world became more complicated. We watched and listened to Walter Cronkite. We believed everything he told us through our black-and-white TVs. That included images and stories of JFK’s assassination, the first steps on the moon, Watergate, and the raging Vietnam War.

At any rate, if you’re looking for a little warmth and nostalgia to get you through the winter, I have an antidote. Download a free copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator through the end of 2020.

As we prepare to cross into a new year and hope for brighter days ahead, maybe my stories of a bygone period in American life will inspire you to laugh a little, revisit your youth, dust-off your favorite memories, and find new meaning in the indelible moments that stay with you for a lifetime.