Tag: A Writer’s Life

Visible Signs

 

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We can’t deny the numbers, the visible signs of pain. As I write this, there are upwards of 1.2 million documented COVID-19 cases globally (64,580 dead … 246,110 recovered). More than 311,000 cases here in the United States (8,452 dead … 14,471 recovered). Endless stories of inadequate supplies and presidential lies.

Though I live in a less populated area of Arizona and have been fortunate (so far) to dodge this global pandemic in a physical sense, the emotional challenge is more problematic.

On a daily basis, I worry about the welfare of my husband, my sons, my friends, my neighbors, myself. I feel my anger, anxiety and sadness abound as the gaps in social distancing widen. All of my churning emotions live close to the surface like the Hole-in-the-Rock buttes that pile upon each other in Papago Park. Trails there are now closed indefinitely. As is the normally crowded outdoor pool in the center of our condo community. That expected, but new, wrinkle in the stay-at-home order from Governor Ducey took effect tonight at 5 p.m.

Though with each passing day our normally vibrant community becomes more desolate and cordoned off, Tom and I realize we’re luckier than most Americans. We live in a warm, wide open space. We’re finding creative ways to communicate, cope and release the negative energy.

Free weights and yoga in our sun room to replace past workouts at the community gym. A jigsaw puzzle of neon hotel signs constructed on a large piece of cardboard on our kitchen table. Daily walks and conversations along the canal or at a nearby Scottsdale park. Endless home-cooked meals. Today, that included a batch of chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies.

So, not all of our visible signs tell stories of death or inactivity (2,000 COVID-19 cases in Arizona so far, including another 250 today). Nature sets the best example. Hawks and ospreys still soar unrestrained high above the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape. Lizards scamper in the afternoon sun. Cactus blooms burst with April color.

A mourning dove nests with her newborn in the crux of a neighbor’s bush. A gaggle of Gambel’s quail skitter down the sidewalk. I wonder what could prompt them to be in such a hurry. Perhaps they’ve discovered a ready supply of masks and ventilators.

It helps calm my nerves to see these signs of nature, these visible truths mixed with my own creative storytelling. Because I know the alternative. What it meant to spend a significant portion of my adult life in my twenties, thirties and early forties … inauthentic and  invisible to the world as a closeted gay man.

Of course, that’s all ancient history now. I’ve been happily living out of the closet for quite some time now. But it helps to remind myself of my truth and the visible signs that got me here.

Like a moment about fifteen years ago here in Arizona. Tom and I were visiting Scottsdale in May. Staying at the Fire Sky resort (which no longer exists). My kind and generous husband reserved a room for us there for several nights because the pool near our condo (the one we usually enjoy and now live near permanently) was closed for repairs.

Magically, it seemed, we found ourselves sipping frilly drinks in lounge chairs by the luxurious Fire Sky pool. Without much notice, two rather gregarious, somewhat attractive and smartly accessorized women with sex in their eyes approached us. One leaned in with her husky Suzanne Pleshette voice and offered this inquiry … “Where are your wives?”

It felt as if I pondered her question for a considerable time. Perhaps fifteen minutes? Eventually, I smiled up at her and replied … “He’s sitting next to me.”

“Oh, you’re a couple,” she acknowledged without judgement. A few moments later, we concluded our brief, yet authentic, conversation. Suzanne and her friend Daphne (not their names) walked away. Perhaps to pursue another possibility or two.

After they left … proud of my May outing … I smiled at my future husband seated at my left. I sipped on the sweet nectar of my Pina Colada, astonished at the words I had blurted more boldly than I could have imagined.

With fire in the sky and love in my heart, I had somehow mustered the courage to set the record straight. There was no doubt. I was most definitely gay. It was a positive visible sign. I hadn’t allowed another inauthentic opportunity to pass uncorrected.

 

I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.

***

At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.

Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show.  My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.

Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)

Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.

Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.

At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.

But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.

To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.

As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.

I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.

Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.

In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.

In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.

“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”

At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.

I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.

Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.

Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.

Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.

FREE to Read as You Shelter in Place

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Perhaps you’re feeling isolated and afraid. Like me, you’re worried about the implications of this global pandemic. In need of a creative escape from the closing walls. Concerned for loved ones and friends, who live in places that are feeling the brunt of this crisis.

You’re tired and queasy from the daily Tilt-A-Whirl of news bulletins. Searching for truth. Dealing with loss. Texting with daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers to see how they’re coping. Craving a retreat into the comfort of family connections and the healing properties of nature.

I’m here to help relieve the pain with this reading stimulus offer. From Saturday, March 21, through Wednesday, March 25, Kindle copies of all three of my books are FREE on Amazon.

From Fertile Ground

Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator

An Unobstructed View

All you need to do is click on the links, go to Amazon, download the books and curl up in a cozy corner of your home.

Once you finish each book, please take a few minutes to post your reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads … especially if you feel my stories have helped to rejuvenate your spirit or soothe your soul.

One more thing. I’m thinking of you. Stay well and happy reading!

 

 

Nesting

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Peace and solitude nestled near a neighbor’s door. Mourning dove moments we crave under the eaves. Nesting. Perfectly prescribed for the first day of spring.

 

Express Yourself

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020, was a quiet morning at disc park in south Scottsdale. Vista del Camino Park is its official name, but Tom and I prefer this less formal identifier. It’s more like the scruffy disc golfers and white egrets who play and troll there.

This is the same park we walked (slowly and gingerly for me) in August 2017, just a month after my mild heart attack, when darkness descended and science produced a confirming solar eclipse for a short while.

Now the darkness is back for a more lengthy stay it appears, under global pandemic circumstances, but (despite our growing anxiety and the reported numbers of COVID-19 cases) we try to focus on the brightness in the southern sky peeking through the clouds after a morning shower.

All of us are living within newly defined parameters. The headliner is social distancing, characterized by taps of the elbow with people we would rather embrace. At worst, it feels as if we are existing in a Petri dish in some vast and diabolical experiment. At best, these new rules and regulations challenge us to find new ways to connect and express ourselves.

Last night was a perfect example. My Tuesday evenings are normally devoted to rehearsing with friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus (PMMC). It’s a community of sixty or seventy diverse and talented gay men. Given the threats of the present pandemic, our regular, in-person singing sessions have been cancelled for the next few  weeks. Possibly longer. We don’t know what the future will bring.

But on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, what would normally have been a raucous Tuesday of singing and mingling, became an online vocal experiment. Our choral leaders hatched a scheme to rehearse through Facebook Live.

In the face of social distancing we’re using social media to assemble first and second tenors on Tuesday evenings–baritones and basses on Thursday nights–to fine-tune and polish our selection of twenty-two, gay-anthem tunes for our still-planned Born This Way performances in June. We’re also attempting to maintain our sense of community in these uncertain times.

Last night at 7 o’clock we began to travel and sing down this new virtual road together. I sat in front of my laptop in Scottsdale with my music close at hand. The other tenors did the same from their respective homes. Marc, our artistic director, and three other PMMC leaders took turns singing the music. They asked us to do the same from our remote locations.

Don’t go for second best baby; put your love to the test. You know, you know you got to make him express how he feels and maybe then you’ll know your love is real … 

If you love Madonna (and, honestly, who doesn’t?), you’ll recognize these lyrics from Express Yourself, her 1989 smash hit. It was the first song we sang together in our virtual vocal experiment.

By the time rehearsal ended at 9:30, we had run through another six or seven other numbers and exchanged countless constructive and snarky comments online. All that really matters is the experiment worked. We stayed connected. We kept our voices oiled. Our spirits soothed.

This morning on my walk with Tom, I wasn’t ready to let St. Patrick’s Day 2020 go just yet. As we stepped out of our car, I decided it was perfectly fine and appropriate–within social distancing guidelines–to unveil my shamrock socks for all the pandemic world to see.

To express myself. To keep my voice and spirit alive here in the Valley of the Sun.

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Three Writers and a Birthday

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On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.

S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.

On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.

But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.

Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.

But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.

During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.

There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.

***

This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.

As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.

Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.

But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.

They are all with me on my journey.

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No Drone Zone

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I never want to be that guy. The bore who tells the same stories at a party. The one you can’t escape in the corner of the room when all you want to do is wipe that silly-and-smug smile off his face. More specifically, the writer who drones on about subjects that don’t matter to anyone but himself.

I certainly wonder from time to time if the things I have to say are truly meaningful to others. If my synchronistic, slice-of-life stories and observations about universal subjects like family, fatherhood, friendship and flowers–not to mention love, loss, and late-in-life dreams and adventures–are fresh enough for followers or those who happen to read one of my books or stumble upon this page.

I’m not sure this classifies as a fear. But at the very least I have my creative doubts and vulnerabilities. I imagine it’s a condition other writers experience. Particularly when they’ve been diligently honing their craft for a while (i.e., written and published three books and nearly two years of bi-weekly blog posts) and strive to remain relevant in a culture that too often tweets and discards people, their ideas and historical perspectives more quickly than a wrapper around a fast-food sandwich.

Who knew this entire thread of creative questioning would be stimulated by a hike this morning in Papago Park? Where Tom and I amassed ten-thousand steps by eleven o’clock and a “No Drone Zone” sign caught my eye before today’s round of alliteration and wordplay could begin to take flight.

It was all the confirmation I needed. That remote-controlled, pilot-less aircraft or missiles are prohibited in this quiet corner of Phoenix (home to the nearby Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo), where rugged buttes are patrolled by bighorn sheep.

That every book or post that bears my name is prepared with love, authenticity and good intentions.

That I’m doing my best to honor the meaningful and meaningless moments here in the “No Drone Zone” of my post-Midwestern life.