Where can you watch promising, future major league ball players perform outdoors in seventy degree temperatures in November, while spending just seven dollars a piece for two seniors to sit behind home plate?
At Arizona Fall League games at Sloan Park in Mesa. Consider it the perfect spot for baseball purists, major league scouts, western hat wearers, avid autograph seekers, foul ball hawks, and anyone simply wanting to chill in the shade and eat peanuts under the radar on a glorious afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.
Final score on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 (as if it really mattered): Glendale Desert Dogs 3, Mesa Solar Sox 2.
No writer wants to be known as a one-trick pony. Yes, to this point I’ve written mostly creative nonfiction, but each of my four books includes flashes of poetry. And, in my latest book of essays–home grown on the metaphor of pruning a lemon tree in my desert community–I also dabble in fiction.
In other words, I have no problem branching out into the great beyond of fruit trees. Grapefruits, for instance.
Here in our Polynesian Paradise condo community we live among lemon, tangelo, orange, fig, and lime trees … even a lone pomegranate. But we are surrounded by a bumper crop of pink and white grapefruits that will be ready to pick in late December. They are a far cry from the maple, elm, magnolia, oak, and gingko trees of my Midwestern past, which will be bare soon.
I’m not a fan of grapefruits. They’re too tart for my palette. Plus, if I ate them they would counteract the positive effects of the statin medication I take to keep my cholesterol count in the normal range.
However, Nick–my older son who lives near us–craves these tangy softball-size citruses. (I remember my dad loving grapefruits too. In fact, Nick resembles him. It’s funny how certain likes, physical qualities, and personality traits skip a generation.)
This afternoon I texted Nick this photo with a grapefruit update: “You’ll be happy to know the grapefruits are shaping up. They’ll be ripe in a month or so.”
“Oh nice” was Nick’s laconic response.
As the citrus-plucking season draws nearer in Arizona, here’s a snippet from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of whimsical and serious essays available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.
Nick is especially enamored with the citrus trees—most notably, the plethora of grapefruits that dominate our condo complex grounds. In December and January each year, Nick the Citrus King contacts me frequently concerning the status of the ripening citrus crops. His texts or phone conversations begin something like this:
“Hey there. Are the grapefruits ripe enough to pick?” There is no preliminary happy talk such as “How are you feeling, Dad?” before the citrus cross-examination.
Aware of Nick’s citrus sensibilities and no-frills communication style, in January 2020—as a belated Christmas present—Tom and I surprised him with his own fiberglass fruit picker. We gave him one with a durable steel trap and extendable arm, which would extend his reach to grab the largest orbs clinging to the highest branches in a galaxy far beyond low-hanging fruits.
Upon receiving his gift, Nick’s smile grew three sizes. With the flexible picker in one hand and a few empty bags in the other, he and I set out to corral a selection of the sweetest and juiciest citrus delicacies we could find in the common areas of our complex.
Twenty minutes later, we returned to the condo with a mix of white and pink grapefruits, tangelos, lemons, and oranges. Harry & David would have been proud to grow, pick, and ship them to Vitamin-C-starved customers in cold-and-gray winter climates.
Without a crystal ball or a notion of where to find a citrus psychic, I have no way of knowing where Nick’s quest for fresh grapefruit will lead. But I am gratified to see him plucking fruits from the sky and flourishing in his Arizona life despite the heat.
Today I will march (and sing) in the Phoenix Pride parade with other members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. As an open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–married to another open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for.
I remember the unactualized, closeted version of me in my thirties, the sense of isolation I felt after my divorce in 1992, the challenges of single parenthood as I sat alone in the bleachers (in a sea of suburban straight couples) watching my sons play ball, the pain and anxiety that ruled my life as I moved from job to job and tried to find my way.
Fortunately, by the mid-90s, I found friends and colleagues who supported me. They cheered when I came out and began to speak my truth.
In hindsight, knowing what it felt like to be ridiculed for who I am sharpened my empathy. It gave me strength and insight that–more than two decades later–I parlayed into my writing. In all four of my books, especially my latest, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I tell the story of my personal and gay evolution.
Telling my truth has proven to be cathartic and healing. I am the happiest when I give voice to my experiences and opinions, whether they relate to my sexual orientation or not.
In 2021, I rarely find myself confronted with blatant homophobia. But there are occasional “teachable” moments when I encounter someone who is ignorant or unaware that gay people seek the same love, understanding, and sense of belonging that straight people receive unconditionally.
I don’t have a problem getting up on my soapbox to defend that right, though I also don’t crave controversy. I prefer simply living honestly and openly, and letting those around me observe how I lead my life … versus the pitfalls of social media exchanges.
The key is visibility. The more of us who are out–and proud–in our daily lives, the more individuals in all circles will realize we have the same hopes and dreams: a loving spouse and family, a safe and secure home, gainful employment, personal freedom, a sense of community and belonging.
As I march in the Phoenix Pride parade today, I’m sure I will see all sorts of people in the crowd: Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Native American. Many of them will be lesbian or transgendered or gay like me. Others will be straight allies cheering us on. There is power and creativity in our diversity.
Yes, we’ve come a long way in American society since I struggled along in the 1990s. But hatefulness has seen a resurgence. There are still instances of gay teens being kicked out of their homes or individuals losing their jobs, simply for being who they are.
What can we do as a society? Teach our children to love each other and embrace our differences. Because kindness is a choice; sexual orientation is not.
Pride postscript. It’s Saturday evening in Arizona. Though the parade is over, I will always remember the sense of freedom and inspiration I felt today. Shouting “Happy Pride” to exuberant strangers three deep along the parade route … all of us survivors of a frightening pandemic. Skipping down Third Street and singing Born This Way with my gay friends.
Rejoicing at the large number of young children in the crowd with gay and straight couples twirling rainbow flags. Waving to my smiling husband wearing his floppy hat. Celebrating the day with a rainbow umbrella that colored my world and protected my fair skin from the blazing sun.
Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.
Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.
The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.
When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining 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.
For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.
On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.
When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.
Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.
But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.
To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.
Late October days are warm here; nights and early mornings cool and invigorating.
Fall is far more subtle in the Valley of the Sun than most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. October doesn’t flash across the horizon and announce its presence in burnt orange, blood red and sunflower yellow.
You need to be a non-traditionalist to observe and appreciate autumn in the Sonoran Desert. To watch the tangelo, grapefruit and lemon fruits transition slowly from green to yellow. They will be ripe for the picking by late December or early January, and we will have juicy citrus and fresh lemonade once again.
As a crew of two arrived to put the finishing touches on our bathroom remodeling project inside, outside Blanca played troubadour, curling and rolling on the sidewalk.
With her frolicking assistance–and the more obvious aid of my telephoto lens–I captured these golden images on a quiet late Wednesday morning in our Polynesian Paradise community.
To be sure, Arizona’s desert is alive with distinction in late October. Where else might feline shenanigans, the promise of citrus, blooming hibiscus, and Halloween coexist?
October is renovation month in our household. We’re remodeling our Sonoran bathroom: installing a walk-in shower to replace our clunky-and-outdated shower/tub combo; raising our ridiculously low ceiling; putting in a new toilet; upgrading the sink, vanity and mirror; laying mosaic tile to accent existing porcelain squares; wiring and connecting contemporary lighting; the works. It will be beautiful when everything is done next week.
The guy Tom and I hired to install and update everything is skilled and thorough, it’s just that the project is taking longer than expected–longer than it should in our book for a variety of reasons I won’t belabor here.
Suffice it to say, that each morning when our remodeling guy arrives we discuss the work ahead with him and what we expect to be completed that day.
This morning, I escaped the mayhem of our modest and ordinarily quiet condo for a few hours. I needed a swim away from our immediate community. (Tom and I are taking turns doing this to keep our sanity.)
Enter Frank. He’s a friend I see at Eldorado Pool (two miles from our home) on occasion. Whenever I see Frank, we have topical and lively conversations … about the state of the world, our past lives in the Midwest, the plight of our favorite sports teams, his job as a nurse in the behavioral health wing of a nearby hospital, my life as a writer. Frank has read at least one of my books.
As I changed into my swim trunks in the locker room this morning, Frank asked “What’s new with you guys?”
“We’re trying to survive our bathroom remodeling project,” I sighed.
“Rich-people problems.” He responded matter-of-factly as he fumbled with the contents of his locker.
What happened next surprised me. I laughed so hard, more loudly than I have in a long time. Why? I suppose it was some sort of release. Also, I realized in a flash that Frank gave me the reality check and perspective I needed.
People are dying of Covid. Others are struggling financially and/or dealing with the untenable and unreasonable demands of work, child-rearing, and elder care in a crazy and politically polarized society.
Through that lens, my life at sixty-four is relatively steady, simple, and manageable … notwithstanding an annoying remodeling project that would fluster you too if you were standing next to me gazing into the disarray of our condo.
Back to Frank. Let me be clear. His “rich-people problems” comment wasn’t referring to my financial status (we live comfortably, but aren’t wealthy), trivializing my concerns about the bathroom inconveniences that Tom and I are living through, forgetting the past challenges we have faced as a same-sex couple who survived a heart attack on the way west, or discounting the numerous other losses and heartaches we have endured.
The nut of this story is this: today Frank crossed my path to remind me I am a “rich” person with a “rich” life … a loving husband, two adult sons who enjoy spending time with their dad, and a “golden” (Frank’s word, not mine) life living in Scottsdale, Arizona in our retirement years.
Yep … “rich-people problems” sums it up nicely. Thank you, my friend, for being so authentic. For being so Frank.
Scottsdale, Arizona is alive again. September’s scorching heat has been replaced with cooler October mornings, ideal-and-swimmable-eighty-degree afternoons, shorter days, and dazzling sunsets framed by palm trees gazing west.
Tourists are back too–in relative abundance, in posh pools, in surviving restaurants, in newly-minted hotels, on mountain bikes, on sidewalk scooters, on rolling streams of Segways.
It’s a far cry from the desolation of April 2020 when Old Town Scottsdale was first shuttered by a raging pandemic that persists eighteen months later, though many imagine it has vanished.
My love of major league baseball qualifies as an obsession, especially when my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–appears in the playoffs.
Tonight I’ll be glued to the TV, hanging on every pitch of the National League winner-take-all wildcard game between the redbirds and the defending 2020 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
This love of Cardinals’ baseball runs deep through my bloodline. From memories of my father and me sitting together in the Busch Stadium bleachers in St. Louis in the 1960s to similar moments with my sons Nick and Kirk a generation later, watching the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs renew their rivalry from Wrigley Field’s upper deck.
Whether the Cardinals win or lose on October 6, 2021, my husband Tom (a lifelong Cubs fan) will endure this evening with Nick and me (on pins and needles) seated next to him in our living room in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nick is joining us for the game and a dinner Tom has offered to prepare at our condo; Kirk will be rooting for the team wearing red from his apartment in Chicago; my cousin Phyllis (also a die-hard Cardinals’ fan) will be cheering from her home in St. Charles, Missouri.
This is just another chapter in October baseball and the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinals that has included eleven World Series championships (1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, and 2011.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to be alive for five of them … and even attended a game in the 1982 World Series, which I wrote about in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
Will tonight’s game (with gutsy-and-crafty Adam Wainwright on the mound for the Cardinals vs. the Dodgers’ phenomenal pitcher Max Scherzer) be the first step toward #12 for the Cardinals in 2021 or simply an abrupt finale to a remarkable season that included seventeen consecutive September wins (a franchise record)?
Only time–and the actions of the players on the field–will tell. No matter the outcome, I’ll do my best to enjoy the game as it evolves at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
October 7, 2021 postscript: The journalist in me requires that I report that the Dodgers defeated the Cardinals 3-1 last night. Los Angeles outfielder Chris Taylor hit a game-winning, two-run home run off of Cardinals’ relief pitcher Alex Reyes in the bottom of the ninth inning. The dramatic hit broke a 1-1 deadlock and sent Dodger fans into a frenzy.
Thus, the St. Louis Cardinals 2021 season is over. Naturally, I’m disappointed the team I love and follow isn’t advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, Tom and I enjoyed the evening with Nick. My older son ensured we could “stream” the game from his phone to our TV when that was in doubt just prior to game time.
If your team is still in the hunt for the 2021 World Series title, I wish you the best as you continue on your October odyssey.
I’m packing away my red St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt (with the birds balancing on the bat) until 2022. Or, in the words of my younger son Kirk who sent me this text after the game, “on to the next fun thing.”