Tag: Creative Non-Fiction

Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

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It’s a frightful moment from the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and Toto are flanked by the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. The new friends are stepping ahead. Walking down the yellow brick road. Making their way toward Oz. Preparing to cross a dense forest. Suddenly aware of previously unforeseen dangers. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for life in your sixties. You’ve earned every bit of progress along the yellow brick road with the ones you love at your side. You can see the trees before you on the path you’ve chosen. But collectively the tall, sturdy and majestic trees form a dense forest. It’s often beautiful. Sometimes daunting. It can cloud your ability to know what’s coming next. Without notice, you find yourself fending off all sorts of maladies. Cardio and Dermo and Gastro, Oh My!

Quickly, you discover how important it is to build trusting relationships with crackerjack doctors and specialists. In my case, this happened in a new city. I still remember the first step. Tom and I had just left St. Louis in July 2017. While he drove us to our new home in Arizona, I sat on the passenger side with two fresh stents in the left side of my heart and a brand new cell phone in my right hand.  From somewhere in Oklahoma, I was calling potential cardiologists in Scottsdale, Arizona. Searching to find the right person to help me recover from a mild heart attack.

That was just the beginning. Eventually, I found the right guy. He was covered under my new insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act (thank you, Barack Obama). I see him (not Barack … my cardiologist) and my primary care doctor every six months.

But I don’t like playing favorites. Since then, I’ve also found a dentist, ophthalmologist, dermatologist and gastroenterologist to round out my preventive healthcare SWAT team, poke me in uncomfortable ways on a frequent basis, and brighten my days. I believe they are all doing their best to keep me healthy for another day. Another year. Hopefully two or three more decades of moving down the yellow brick road in Scottsdale.

You can see why I identify with Dorothy’s dilemma. Of course, I try to relax, remain optimistic and mindful in the face of a family history of heart disease and the latest colonoscopy results. That’s why, beyond the positive effects of my regular exercise routine (walking, hiking, treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical, swimming) Tom and I participate in a “gentle yoga” class every Friday morning.

This morning, when I approached the mirror on the wall in the room at the Scottsdale Senior Center where the yoga magic happens, I saw two familiar faces on either side. Nancy, one of my new Scottsdale friends, on the left. Tom, my husband, on the right.

We each stretched our muscles. We assumed our tree poses. We did our best to stand tall in the unknown forest. To find our edge against all odds. To push our limits without wavering on the yellow brick road of life.

 

 

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

Sand Dollar Days

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Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I have a good life. Warm, simple and true.

Exhibit A: though it’s late October (more than a month since most outdoor pools in the U.S. closed for the summer), today I completed my morning swim as I usually do at our Olympic-size community pool … thirty lengths under blue skies and eighty-degree temperatures.

Despite this frequently idyllic scenario, every locale has its drawbacks. For us in the Sonoran Desert, it’s the unforgiving heat in June, July and August … especially in the summer of 2019 when monsoon storms mysteriously didn’t materialize … and the fact that we live a few hundred miles from the closest beach on the Pacific Ocean. Put another way, we have plenty of sand, but no sand dollars to dazzle our days.

Unless, of course, you have a thoughtful friend such as Glenn. On Monday, having just returned from a week in San Diego, our neighbor and gentle-yoga comrade surprised Tom and me with a little beauty from the west coast: a handful of bleached skeletons of dead sand dollars.

Unfortunately, we weren’t home when Glenn stopped by, so he left them in a transparent tray near our back door. Who knew these sandy gems would one day wash up on the shore in land-locked Scottsdale, Arizona?

According to folklore and Wikipedia, sand dollars have come to represent all sorts of things. For instance, coins misplaced by mermaids or the lost citizens of Atlantis. Christian missionaries saw symbolism in the five-fold radial design, comparing it with the Star of Bethlehem.

I prefer to think of the sand dollars simply as a gift of nature. A reflection of grand, infinite, and ever-radiating design. Something like ripples of water on the surface of the ocean or individualized snowflakes that fall and decorate the sky and then the streets (not in Scottsdale, but surely back in my previous hometown of Mount Prospect, Illinois).

Better yet, I see sand dollars as a symbol of the interconnected way friends like Glenn enter and influence our lives. At first they may appear on the periphery. But over time they make their way on shore. They begin to leave their own personalized mark. They remind us to be grateful for the kindnesses of neighbors and friends who grace our lives. They teach us to be thankful for the goodness of our sand dollar days.

 

The Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree

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Ordinarily, pruning branches in our condo complex is something our landscape crew attends to. But they haven’t appeared lately. So, last week Tom and I dusted off our hedge trimmers. We gave haircuts to the fig and orange trees in our row. We didn’t mind. We had the time, energy and motivation.

Today, I stood in front of our mid-century condo. Gazing east as the morning light forced me to shield my eyes. Surveying the overgrown boughs of a luscious lemon tree that shrouded the sidewalk to our parking lot. Hands on hips, I uttered these seven words:

I think I’ll prune the lemon tree.

Yes, a guy born and raised in the Midwest, near towering oaks and majestic maples that abandon their leaves every October, now trims fragrant citrus fruits in autumn and says these peculiar things. Who is this crazy person? Where did this new language come from?

Let me be clear. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of newfangled, desert phraseology.  In the fall of 2017, just a few months after my husband and I left Illinois and moved into our Arizona condo, he shouted the following previously undocumented sentence as I wrote at my desk:

There’s a lizard in the sink.

As calmly as possible, I pressed “save” on whatever I was writing and scampered into the kitchen to see what Tom had discovered. Indeed, there was a lizard in the trap of the sink. He was no more than two inches long and frozen like a tiny statue exhumed from an archaeological dig. I’m sure he was frightened by the two giant heads peering down at him.

If you’re an animal lover like we are, you’ll be delighted to learn that we didn’t freak out and smash him in the sink. Instead, we kept our wits. We scooped him onto a piece of paper and carried him outside to safety.

Slowly, he slithered off into the desert landscape to resume his natural existence. Just a few yards away from where the freshly shorn fig, orange and lemon trees live in this sun-drenched land of sand and saguaros.

I never thought I’d live here. Oh, lemon trees and lizards, I never thought I’d say and hear such things.