Tag: A Writer’s Life

Get Happy

Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.

***

Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.

Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.

For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.

As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.

Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.

Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.

Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?

***

2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!

On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.

About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.

Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.

The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.

As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.

Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.

We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.

Eight Days on the Emerald Island

There is no better time than St. Patrick’s Day to pay tribute to the Emerald Island.

In late August 2017–just six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack–Tom and I boarded a flight for Dublin, Ireland.

It was an excursion we had planned months before. But on July 6th (our shared sixtieth birthday) the trip and our future felt very much in doubt as I lie on a gurney in a St. Louis hospital.

Remarkably, my health improved considerably in a month. Doctors in Scottsdale, Arizona–my new hometown–encouraged us to proceed with our plans. The journey to Ireland would help us heal.

Looking back five years, both of us were anxious about traveling abroad, but we also needed to reclaim our joy. As I wrote in An Unobstructed View, Tom and I spent eight days with forty other travelers from around the world. Brian, our capable guide with CIE Tours, led us clockwise around the island.

It’s a bit of a blur now. But in one week’s time we moved from Dublin to Waterford, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, the sheepdogs in Sligo, the Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland, and the Titanic Museum in Belfast … before returning to Dublin and riding atop a double-decker bus with the wind racing through my hair.

Along the way, on our farewell dinner with the tour, we enjoyed an evening of Irish songs and music at the Glyde Inn just south of Dundalk.

In the spontaneity of the experience, I was pulled onto the floor to join in a broom dance. For a few fleeting moments, I rediscovered my spark away from the worries of the previous month.

I also spotted a little old Irish lady, singing her heart out across the room. She resembled my Scotch-Irish mother, who never had the opportunity to return to her ancestral home country. Seeing her there was an important step in my healing process.

In 2019, I wrote The Irish Mist. My poem is a tribute to the comfort I felt looking out over the Atlantic Ocean across the vast Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland as the clouds rolled in on August 27, 2017.

***

I’ll always remember you, rolling in over the gaelic green.

I felt cool comfort knowing the veiled intentions you whispered in my ear wouldn’t be denied.

No matter how much I wanted to gaze beyond the moss and ferns you shrouded, you held me there.

You knew I needed to stand strong above the craggy cliffs of my past.

You knew I needed to feel rooted to the emerald island, thankful for the mystery of my mending heart.

The Rituals

Sherrell Richardson Ferrell, my farming and writing grandfather, posing in the 1930s.

As a writer and gardener, I’ve learned there is constancy and comfort embedded in the rituals of life.

Each time I sit before my laptop to tell another story I feel a sense of grounding. My hard-working grandfather, the North Carolina farmer, must have understood that. He kept a journal every day for fifty-two consecutive years–from 1933 until the day he died in 1985.

Less about his personal reflections, much of what S.R. Ferrell wrote was about the day-in-day-in responsibilities of farm life. For instance, forty-nine years ago on his seventy-second birthday, this is what he had to say:

I did my farm chores in cloudy foggy wet morning. The mud is getting deeper by the day. I mopped the kitchen after I got my outside work done. I changed my clothes and went to Huntersville to get prescriptions filled. My 72nd birthday. Jimmy, Frankie and Frances came and ate lunch with us today. Mamma and Zelma called and talked to me. Cloudy, wet, muddy, mild all day. More rain expected tonight. 54 degree low; 60 degree high.

There is nothing spectacular in these words until you consider that he wrote down his thoughts for more than five decades. Little did he know that–long after he was gone–I would read every page of his journals and (after my mother and his daughter died) write a book about the writing DNA that runs through my blood.

Now that I’m a desert rat, I keep a speckled rock from S.R.’s farm in our Arizona garden. At this moment, it’s wedged in the ground under our fig tree. Every time I water the tree, I see the stone. It reminds me of my southern roots and connection to the earth.

In keeping with the ebb and flow of nature and lineage, I do this ceremonial gardening dance twice a year. In early December, I lug my beloved desert roses (aka, adeniums) inside away from winter’s chill. They hide dormant in the darkest corners of our condo until March, when I haul them back outside to face the world again.

Yesterday morning, one day before S.R.’s 121st birthday, I renewed part two of this desert rose ritual. This year, it also happened to be the day Tom hired Chem Dry to clean our carpet.

Before Drew from Chem Dry arrived, my husband and I hoisted our slumbering desert rose and situated it outside our backdoor. We didn’t want to spill any soil on our freshly manicured carpet.

All of that went without a hitch. Neither of us strained our backs and Drew finished his job in less than an hour. The carpet even dried more quickly than expected.

By early afternoon, we were able to walk on the surface without wearing blue booties. By 3 p.m., we had moved all of our furniture back to where it belonged.

The blooming cycle for our prized adenium will take quite a bit longer. Rest assured, new leaves will appear this spring, prompted by warmer, longer days. Though S.R. never traveled to Arizona, I can imagine him sitting with his sleeves rolled up between farm tasks, nodding in his rocking chair as I write these words.

By June (maybe sooner) when the temperatures have reached 100-plus again here in the Valley of the Sun, this remarkable plant will produce several gorgeous double-red blooms. With it all, once again, I will have physical proof that natural beauty is constant.

Even though it feels like the rest of the world has gone mad, I draw strength from fertile ground and the knowledge that these rituals help me feel hope is always on the horizon.

Soulful Eyes

You are an emerging gentle giant, a loyal Sonoran duchess ready to frolic among the thorns in a land far from your kingdom.

Your soulful eyes tell a simple truth: that the blazing sun rises and sets on every life, every civilization. But we must soldier on.

While the madness in the front yard of life drains us, it is these tender backyard moments that fill our hearts and restore our spirits.

Through it all, nature reigns. You are supreme.

Katie is the inspiration for my poem. She is Glenn’s and Peggy’s lovable Newfoundland puppy. On March 1, 2022, Tom and I stopped by for an hour or so to keep her company while our friends were away.

What I Feel

In addition to writing four memoirs, I’ve been blogging for nearly four years. A few of you have joined me for every twist and turn. I feel humbled by your interest and loyalty.

In my first post (May 4, 2018), I shared ten tips for writing a meaningful memoir. I believed then (as I do today), that each of us has at least one story to tell. If you are an aspiring writer, who is searching for a little inspiration, you may find these tips helpful.

#4 on the list is especially important if you are looking to engage readers, because feelings–fear, disappointment, grief, joy, excitement, anticipation, etc.–are universal:

Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.

Often when I sit down to write a new blogpost–and my fingertips touch the keyboard of my laptop–I’m uncertain what I want to write. But from the beginning of this odyssey, I’ve vowed to follow my own advice to tell and show you what I feel about personal and global issues.

That has included the emotions connected to creating an authentic life as a gay man and father of two sons; recovering from a heart attack; building a new life in the Sonoran Desert with my husband; aging in a predominately youth-focused society; surviving a global pandemic; and simply observing the healing properties of animals and nature.

Even in our uncertain American society–still hamstrung politically and dealing with the ravaging effects of COVID-19–I feel fortunate to have a safe home, good health, enough food to eat, and a community of family and friends nearby.

However, I also feel a strange mix of anger, anxiety, and sadness. I attribute that to the frightening stories and images of what’s happening in Ukraine.

I won’t pretend to understand the politics of it but can imagine the tremendous pain that is occurring as Russian troops invade and thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians are threatened.

The deceptions and power-hungry antics of certain world leaders–rooted in lies and insatiable egos–are unacceptable to me. So is the growing level of American ignorance and intolerance for the truth of what history and provocative literature can teach us.

Yet we have too many “adults” in communities clamoring for the removal of books, which might help teach our children to become critical thinkers. On that note, what I feel today is the excruciating pain of what our world has become.

Rest assured, I will continue to write and voice my concerns, but I feel it’s best if I set aside my laptop for the moment. Here in the Valley of the Sun, I’m going to lace up my sneakers on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and take a hike to Papago Park.

I’m certain the sun is shining there, and the saguaro cacti are standing tall.

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Scissor Cities?

Me pruning the fig tree outside our front door in Scottsdale on February 8, 2022.

I’m at it again, pairing the random recent pruning of our fig tree with a story of my first haircut in a land far away but never forgotten.

***

In the arc of life, St. Louis, Missouri, was my first hometown; Scottsdale, Arizona, will likely be my last. Beyond this personal connection, they have little in common.

They certainly aren’t Sister Cities. The former is a muggy midwestern city shrinking in population on the banks of the Mississippi River; the latter, a dry western town growing exponentially in the Sonoran Desert.

Though, if you follow NFL franchise history, you know the present-day Arizona Cardinals made their home in St. Louis from 1960 through 1987. As a kid, I rooted for the Big Red there.

Now I cheer for this iteration of the Cardinals here. Regrettably, the team’s promising 2021-22 season faded in December and January. They won’t appear in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and Rams will be featured instead on Sunday.

At this stage of life–when I’m not writing or singing or swimming or exercising or baking or eating or sleeping or following my baseball and football Cardinals (the first still resides in St. Louis)–you might find me giving or getting trims.

Let me be clear. The giving involves me manipulating large garden shears and a hand saw to prune (only occasionally) a few of the fruit trees in our condo community. I even wrote and published a book of stories a year ago, which alludes to this activity in the title.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Tom and I were outside giving trims again. We pruned the fig tree near our front door. It’s an annual thing we do in February. It keeps the tree healthy.

We actually enjoy doing it. It’s a way for us to contribute to the well-being of our condo community and pamper the gnarled tree that provides shade on our hottest summer days.

On the other hand, the getting part of this is a different story. It equates to me sitting in a chair and having a stylist trim my hair with clippers and scissors every six weeks.

Most recently, I had this done two weeks ago at a Super Cuts in Scottsdale. But the first time was August 13, 1958, in St. Louis. I was a little over one year old. Someone named Frank Goetz did the trimming.

How do I know the who, what, when and where of this? My mother kept a detailed baby book of photos and anecdotes from the first seven years of my life.

Inside is a treasure trove of memories: things I would never have known or remembered if she hadn’t taken the time to maintain this personal record. She even kept a lock of my cut blond hair from that day, sealed it in a small envelope, and pasted it on a scrapbook page.

This morning, a day after Tom and I finished giving our fig tree its annual haircut, I pulled out the baby book from our hallway closet. In short order, I stumbled upon this photo.

Isn’t it funny and magical how a grainy black-and-white photo can transport you to another era and instantly pair the scissor cities of your imagined and true-life experiences?

On August 13, 1958, my sister Diane posed with me in St. Louis moments after I got my first haircut.

2-2-22

Dad was a twin, who loved twin digits. Today’s lineup of numerals would have sent him into orbit.

I don’t often think of my father; he’s been gone since 1993. But, whenever I remember the best of him–his numerology fascination, the proud way he stood at attention and saluted the American flag when it passed at parades, his WWII trunk and possessions I keep–it makes me smile.

In spite of what’s happening in the news–growing unrest and tension in eastern Europe, a pandemic that has dominated our lives for two years, and another Midwestern winter storm on Ground Hog Day that’s causing havoc–there is evenness and continuity in today’s numbers, 2-2-22.

Just as there is peace and beauty blooming in two forms in my home in mid-winter; in an air plant inside, stationed on our Arizona windowsill; and in a red geranium outside, soaking in the morning sun on our southern-facing patio.

Missing

It was just after 8:30 a.m. on February 1, 2020.

I was number fifteen or twenty in a line of nearly a hundred local authors. Dragging our supply of books behind us like proud parents ready to push our kids on stage, we snaked outside a side entrance to the Scottsdale Public Library at Civic Center Plaza.

As Tom and I waited for the doors to open at 9 a.m. to set up my table for the Local Author Book Sale, I felt anticipation filter through the cool desert air. It was a moment I cherished, but not as much as I should have.

An hour later, my table was set with my three books in front of me. I brought a sign-up sheet, so readers could provide their contact information. I wanted to keep in touch, so I could tell them when book four was published.

Me hawking my books on February 1, 2020, at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library.

At that moment, like most of the world, I was naive, ignorant or unaware. Call it what you like. I didn’t imagine such in-person opportunities would be stripped away by a pandemic for two years and counting.

Through it all, the losses have accumulated for all of us, and I’ve been missing you.

Our library has no immediate plans to reinstitute events of this sort. I understand they’ve cut staff. There have been a few online programs to keep patrons informed of local literary happenings, but nothing can replace actual human interaction.

I’ve been dreading writing about this. But I need to. The pandemic has hit all of us–young and old–hard. It’s sucked the life out of our passions. I’m angry that so many people are opposed to vaccinations and have not taken the proper steps to protect themselves and society. This poor judgment has prolonged the agony of lives lost and hollowed out.

It’s true, I am fortunate to have this platform to air my grievances. For now, I will continue to blog, but I’ve been questioning my commitment to this page lately.

It is common for all of us writers to have doubts. I appreciate those of you who follow this page and comment regularly. I’m not sure which creative path to take at this point, but I know I need something more … something that’s missing.

Coach Nick

Like the shape of the last two digits in the number of this post–300 since I began blogging in May 2018–life has a way of bringing me full circle.

No matter how much I’ve changed, it’s uncanny how frequently I find myself redeposited into situations that remind me where I’ve been. I’ve learned the secret is recognizing and marveling at the serendipity.

Case in point: throughout the 1990s, I spent most winter Saturday mornings watching my two boys–Nick and Kirk–play basketball in northwest suburban Chicago at the RecPlex. It’s a community recreational facility in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

Back in those Michael Jordan years–when number 23 led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships–my older son Nick found his stride on the basketball court.

Typically, Nick played point guard in his grade school years. He was adept at handling the ball, shooting three-pointers, and making clutch decisions on the court. When the game was on the line, his coach wanted Nick to have the ball. I was his proud dad cheering from the stands.

Nick went on to play basketball for two years in high school. After he graduated in 2002, it became more of a hobby. Through his twenties and early thirties, he enjoyed the spontaneity of pick-up games whenever he could find the time. It was his escape from the grind of the world.

In January 2015, Nick moved to the Valley of the Sun for a fresh and warm start away from cold winters. He loves it here, but in September 2017 (just two months after my mild heart attack), my son suffered a severe knee injury on a Saturday while playing basketball.

Nick was out of commission for an extended period. I remember Tom and I escorted him to buy crutches, so he could navigate the stairs of his second-floor apartment. After surgery and months of therapy, he regained his mobility. He no longer presses his luck on the court, but Nick’s love for the game continues.

Two years ago, in the earliest days of Covid, Nick met Tom and me to shoot baskets and play H-O-R-S-E on an outdoor court in Tempe. It was one of the things the three of us did to stay sane. Soon that went away. All of the courts were roped off for most of 2020. It was one of many losses. You’re a citizen in this Covid world. You know the drill.

I’ve always imagined my son would end up coaching at some point. In fact, I’ve encouraged him to do so. About a month ago, he told me he had contacted the Boys and Girls Club in Scottsdale. They were looking for a coach for fifth and sixth graders. So, Nick has found a new route back to the court.

In early January, it all came full circle for Nick. The player became the coach and began to lead practices with the kids after school on Tuesdays. They lost their first game on January 15, but he and the kids had fun anyway.

Though I’m now in my sixties, I will always be a dad. In fact, I find the role richer now. When Nick’s younger brother Kirk called from Chicago in December to tell me he would start a new full-time role as a counselor in January, I cheered from afar.

I’ve watched Kirk grow, stood by him, encouraged him when he joined the Peace Corps, applauded when he flew to the other side of the world in 2014, and worried when he endured a cyclone that ravaged his island in Vanuatu in 2015. Fortunately, he made it through safely.

I know my endorsement of Nick’s new venture is just as important. It doesn’t have to be a trip to a remote island. I’m thrilled for him and intrigued where this latest gig might lead.

Last Saturday–nearly thirty years since I watched Nick swish baskets on the courts in Illinois–Tom joined me in the bleachers of a Scottsdale community center to root quietly for Coach Nick.

We got to see Nick walk through a new door and find new light (like what you see in this photo I captured on Saturday), at a time when all of us are searching for something that relights our hope and passion.

Tom and I were there for Nick’s first win. The final score was 35-10. His squad of ten- and eleven-year-old boys got trounced in the second game on Saturday, but Nick was still happy with his team’s progress.

Tonight, Tom and I are taking Coach Nick out for dinner to celebrate. It’s his thirty-eighth birthday. I’m not sure where all the years went, but I know fatherhood is sweeter in these twilight years.

Then and now, I treasure every moment.