Back in July, I wrote a story about Barnes and Noble stocking my memoirs on its shelves in Mesa, Arizona.
A month or so later Rachele, the community relations manager, invited me to sign my books there.
It will happen on Saturday, October 1, from 1 to 3 p.m. at their Dana Park store, located at 1758 S. Val Vista Drive. I’ll even have the opportunity to read a few passages.
(No, it hasn’t sunk in that this independent writer will have this blissful moment in a large bookselling space among the work of more-renowned writers.)
Anyway, I realize most of you who follow my blog don’t live in the Valley of the Sun. But if you do–and you’re looking for a creative outlet this weekend and a story or two to add to your fall reading–stop by.
A good writer can summon the right mix of words and creativity to bring any story or situation to life.
I think I’ve always believed that statement. But, in the past, I’ve been more comfortable telling true stories, derived from the vault of my memories. Less comfortable creating a set of characters and possibilities from scratch.
Recently, a voice inside has been telling me to try my hand at fiction. I decided to humor that voice. I registered for an in-person, six-week creative writing course in Scottsdale. It began in mid-September.
Twelve of us writers from all walks of life sit around an oblong table every Wednesday afternoon. Our instructor shares her experience and tools. She’s a writer, screenwriter, and editor.
She guides us through various writing prompts in the moment. We take turns reading our work to each other. Then, we disburse to craft something original for the following Wednesday.
One of our assignments was to create a detailed character inventory. To essentially build a character from the ground up–complete with personal history, physical traits, likes, dislikes, baggage, strengths, and weaknesses. The whole enchilada.
The idea might sound intimidating. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun. Now, I’m beginning to write a story that features this character. Remarkably, I can envision this person in the world, though they exist purely in my imagination.
I don’t know where this exercise will lead ultimately, but I’m open to the raw uncertainty. For the first time in about a year, I feel a surge in creative energy to explore and try new things.
Time, trial and error will tell me whether I truly have a flair for fiction. When I’m ready to disclose more, I’ll share it here.
It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.
For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.
Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.
More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.
It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.
Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.
The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.
I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.
“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.
I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.
Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …
Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.
Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”
The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.
Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.
Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.
Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.
And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.
August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.
If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.
Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.
According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.
Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.
I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.
And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.
I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.
At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.
In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …
“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”
She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.
My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.
Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.
As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.
Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.
Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.
July 11, 1999
I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!
The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …
Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.
Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.
Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.
Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.
On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.“
Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.
Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.
If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.
I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).
Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.
Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.
In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.
These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.
#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.
#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.
#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.
#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.
#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.
#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.
#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.
#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.
#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.
#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.
#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.
#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.
#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.
#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.
#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.
#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.
#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.
#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.
#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.
#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.
#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.
#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.
#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.
#24: I was always meant to be a writer.
#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.
#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.
#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.
#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.
#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.
#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.
#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.
#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.
#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.
#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.
#35: We all deserve love.
#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.
#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.
#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.
#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.
#40: Ice cream always makes life better.
#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.
#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.
#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.
#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.
#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.
#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.
#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.
#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.
#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.
#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!
#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.
#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.
#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.
#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.
#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.
#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.
#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.
#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.
#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.
#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.
#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?
#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.
#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.
#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.
#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.
Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.
If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.
Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.
It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)
I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.
Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.
Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”
I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.
Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.
Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.
It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!
It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.
This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.
On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.
I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.
Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.
I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.
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.