Tag: Arizona

All That Jazz

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.

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.

Bare Bridge

February is the shortest sister, who reveals the tallest truths. She is the forsaken, lovelorn link between what was and what may be.

She may look like less, but she will never be more. She prefers to expose what hides in summer’s shadows than to impress with leafy grandeur.

She won’t be bothered with producing figs to entice or dazzle. Those juicy baubles that dangle in gusty monsoons will come soon enough.

She stands and waits outside your door to tell it to you straight: “I am the bare bridge from January to March. I keep the world spinning forward.”

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.

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.

A New Creative Wrinkle

I am especially conscious of my age and vulnerability right now. There is nothing worrisome to report. I feel well. It’s just that–early in 2022–Tom and I are focusing on important administrative tasks to protect ourselves and our families.

Specifically, we will move to Medicare later this year, because we turn sixty-five in July. We have begun to do research. We’ve met with a third party. She explained how it works. She has helped to cut through the mystery. (By the way, I used to help organizations communicate about complicated health care and retirement programs, but that background doesn’t make this transition any easier.)

We also are updating our estate plans to make certain they reflect our Arizona status and latest wishes. The pandemic isn’t the driver, but it certainly has amplified our efforts to make sure our affairs are in order. As much as I hate dwelling on my mortality, it makes sense to plan ahead.

All of this technical and legal blather has clogged my brain lately, leaving me feeling a little dim. Is it a coincidence that the light in our refrigerator should go out yesterday? I don’t think so.

We tried replacing the old bulb with a new one, but it appears we have an electrical issue. Fortunately, the appliance is doing its job. It’s keeping our food cold (and frozen in the upper compartment). It’s just that we need a flashlight to find the yogurt, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

I digress. That’s not what this story is about. Ironically, in the relative darkness of early 2022–the pandemic and our refrigerator–there’s a bright and new creative wrinkle to my writing that I want to talk about. One which changes the landscape of my past experience. One that goes beyond my blogging, memoir writing, poetry, and occasional forays into fiction.

About eight months ago, Marc–the artistic director of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–blindsided me with this question: “Would you be interested in writing lyrics for a suite of songs for one of our concerts in 2022? It will be a celebration of diverse voices.”

Hearing these words, I think my jaw may have dropped. Once I closed my mouth and opened it again, “of course!” was my immediate response.

I could feel my smile grow ten sizes. I never imagined having an opportunity of this sort, especially concerning a topic that is so important and personal … turning the painful, transformative, and triumphant stories of Phoenix-area LGBTQA citizens into something more. Into poetry and music.

Since that early, exploratory conversation with Marc, I’ve collaborated with David (another member of the chorus) who is composing the music. I’ve written lyrics for four songs, which will be performed on March 12, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The concert will be part of Tempe’s Pride celebration.

On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, this will all become more real. Marc and David will pass out the music to members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (including me sitting in the back row and singing second tenor).

For the first time, we will begin to rehearse the music David and I have created. I know I will feel a surge of pride and energy when I see the words “Lyrics by Mark Johnson” in the upper right corner of the score.

Sometimes life serves up happy surprises. It reminds us that our existence is more than needling administrative responsibilities, the darkness of a pandemic, or the frustrations of a burned-out light bulb.

Sometimes the outcome is brighter, more hopeful; we find ourselves exploring a new creative wrinkle, doing something we are passionate about, taking on a role we never saw coming.

Yes–remarkably at the age of sixty-four–I am a lyricist.

Egg Custard Pie: A Holiday Favorite

If you follow my blog, you know that–in addition to being a writer–I am the baker in our family. One of my favorite desserts for the holidays is egg custard pie.

If you’re looking for a simple-to-bake-and-creamy pie recipe, this one is a keeper. It definitely qualifies as comfort food at a time in the world when we could all use a heaping helping of that.

This recipe was passed to me via the southern branch of my family tree … from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Martha Jane Matilda Simpson Miller. She lived in rural Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the early 1900s.

* * *

Ingredients: 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 stick butter, 4 large eggs, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 2/3 cups milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Directions: Cream sugar and butter until light. Beat eggs and add to sugar/butter mixture. Add flour and beat until smooth. Add vanilla to milk. Mix milk into other ingredients gradually until smooth. Pour into an unbaked pie crust (deep dish) and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until custard is set and crust is brown. (The original recipe didn’t call for cinnamon, but I like it. If you do too, sprinkle the pie liberally before you place it in the oven.)

***

Incidentally, this egg custard pie recipe also appears in From Fertile Ground, my first book. which I wrote and published in 2016. It’s not a cookbook, but a memoir about love, loss, and grief … and the healing power of the written word across three generations of my family. If you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll check it out.

Most important, as 2021 comes to a close, I wish you good health. As we continue to endure this global health crisis, I encourage you to find comfort in your creative passions in 2022.

We Remember

Last night my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends and I rehearsed at the Parsons Center for Health and Wellness surrounded by AIDS quilts. In a moment of silence, we remembered the suffering and all of the lives lost to a despicable disease. Today, on World AIDS Day, “we remember all those lost to AIDS who had no one to memorialize them. They live in our hearts.”

As December Approaches

No flurries to be found, few leaves on the ground. It is morning sweatshirt weather as December approaches the desert from beyond mountain peaks.

Without ice to navigate, bighorn sheep shimmy down opposing buttes. Ducks paddle away the hours. A lone kingfisher trolls the canal for a morsel or two.

This is not the forecast for Decembers I remember. It is a warmer one I wish not to relinquish; the beginning of the last round of desert rose buds.

As November lapses and the twelfth month unfolds, nature delivers beauty and hope to our doorstep with the promise of blooms through Christmas.

Late October in the Valley of the Sun

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?