I took a walk this afternoon. I brought my digital camera and telephoto lens. We didn’t venture far. We simply observed nature in our immediate neighborhood for thirty minutes. This is what we brought home.
Rare rain falls and pings against carport roofs. Such a solar sabbatical allows time for sun worshipers to pause and reflect on echoes ordinarily unheard.
Nature’s water droplets are like Cosanti bronze windbells. No two are identical. They hang and wave in the air at the whim of the wind.
Chiseled workmen clad in protective suits, gloves, helmets and visors pour 2,200-degree molten metal into sand-shaped molds in Paradise Valley.
A day later, they will extract cooled chimes handcrafted in burnished and patina finishes. The heat will forge the artistry. The wind will do the rest.
Eventually the melodious bells will leave the foundry, carefully wrapped in designed boxes for unknown destinations out of their control.
Some will ring in desert breezes on sun-scorched, palatial-or-postage-stamp patios in optimistic Arizona towns like Gold Canyon or Fountain Hills.
Others will fly with snowbirds to reign and ring above concrete back porches or cedar decks in harsher climates where snow collects on spruce tree limbs.
All of them will deliver unintended, unbridled and unfiltered messages. Raining here and ringing there for all to hear who are aware.
I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)
Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.
For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.
When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.
Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.
I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.
So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.
We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.
But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.
As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.
Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.
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.
You greet me in the morning, flying under the eaves. Serene and steady. Zooming in for nearby nectar. Always aiming to adapt.
I see how you and your cautious cousins coexist. You skitter across pebbled paths. Nest atop spiky saguaros. Hoot through dusty darkness.
You are the best among us. Feathered and unfettered advocates for organic order. If only we could soar like you in this Sonoran life.
In reality, it is my bag. I just wanted to say it wasn’t, so I could quote Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery from the 1997 movie that spoofs 1960s spy films. This commemorative swingin’ sixties Woodstock bag, while not remotely vintage, was a groovy gift from a friend about ten years ago. She knew how much my husband and I love pop culture from that era. Primarily because we were children of the sixties.
Truth be told, now that we are fully ensconced in our sixties, Tom and I schlep this colorful tote bag with us on fall, winter, and spring Saturday mornings when we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Scottsdale Farmers Market here in Arizona.
By now, I’m sure you’ve realized this Baby Boomer bag is nothing more than a lame prop for me to tell a story about the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival … billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music” … a pivotal moment in popular music history which actually stretched into four days (August 15-18, 1969) of peace, rock, sex, drugs, rain, mud and traffic on and around Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.
The irony of me writing this story is that I have no personal connection to Woodstock. No substantive recollection of it either. It wasn’t so much that Woodstock wasn’t my bag. It simply wasn’t on my radar as a twelve-year-old boy living in the steamy suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1969. Perhaps I was a little too young. Or maybe just a little too out of touch with what was happening outside my immediate world.
My focus was on other things closer to home. Mostly, following my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, collecting baseball cards and creating my own canvas to obsessively scribe the scores of all twenty-four major league baseball teams on it every day from April to September of 1969. As I described in my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, by the end of the regular season, I had recorded 3,888 handwritten ball scores and squeezed them onto one giant rolled up piece of paper!
You can see I had no time or inclination to join the wave of Woodstock worshipers from afar. Even if I had, my Lawrence-Welk-loving parents had different ideas of what constituted popular music … a-oney-and-a-twoy-and-a … and they controlled the TV dial in our household.
It would be another thirty years before I’d really see and hear Woodstock. The moment of enlightenment came in the form of a grainy VHS tape of the 1970 film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I sat with my future husband on the love seat in his Schaumburg-Illinois condo. Together we immersed ourselves in the actual performances, interviews with some of the artists, and candid footage of the fans.
Thanks to the film and the resourcefulness of my movie-loving husband, I got to see and hear Richie Havens open the show and Jimi Hendrix close it on the same well-traveled stage before a sea of soaked teens. Though it had taken me thirty years longer than the rest of the country, I had finally closed the gap in my knowledge about the “Three Days of Peace and Music” in mid-August 1969 that would come to define the counterculture movement of our generation.
Like millions around the world, on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the Apollo 11 coverage. We strained to watch American astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to land on the moon. It was nothing less than moonlight madness on CBS as my sister and I sat transfixed, cross-legged and sleepy-eyed in front of our grainy, black-and-white TV console.
We were all thirsty for every nuance of Walter Cronkite’s televised play-by-play, because it was a collective glorious moment for all Americans. Looking back, it was also strange redemption for the trauma we had endured less than six years before when — with a lump in his throat — Walter (the same trusted newsman) had the most painful task of all. To deliver the unfathomable news to a nation that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. That our president with the lofty goal of landing a man on the moon would never see it realized.
When Christmas 1969 arrived, one of the presents under the tree from my mother and father was this Apollo 11/John F. Kennedy medal commemorating man’s first lunar landing. On the back it reads:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
It may not surprise you to learn that at the time I received this gift, I was an unimpressed twelve year old. But fifty years later, it’s one of the items I treasure most from my parents. Not just for the sake of owning this beautiful and rare piece, designed by renowned sculptor Karen Worth.
But also because having the medal helps me to relive and cherish the memory of a remarkable moment in American history … when we reveled in a positive shared experience and were universally proud of our accomplishments as a nation.
Though darkness abounds,
There is an opening in the aftermath.
An ever-widening aperture of love and hope.
It reminds us to focus on who we are at the center.
Able captains of our bodies, minds and spirits.
Imperfect, yet free and unencumbered.
Seekers of light and truth.
By Mark Johnson
May 17, 2019
Last Thursday, when my husband Tom and I greeted our Chicago friend Todd at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, we didn’t know if we’d have time to squeeze in a tour of Taliesin West during his week-long stay. We wanted to give Todd plenty of time to relax, read in the sun, swim in our condo pool, and watch our favorite movies together. But, because Todd is an architecture buff on vacation, an excursion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic desert laboratory in North Scottsdale was near the top of his “to do” list.
I’m happy to report that today–on Tax Day in the U.S.–we fulfilled Todd’s and our architectural cravings. We drove north to immerse ourselves in Wright’s organic architecture. Fortunately, there was nothing too taxing about the experience. Only fascinating historic anecdotes from Harriett our trusty guide, grand horizontal lines connecting common-sense design with rugged nature, peace-inducing Asian artifacts from Wright’s travels, and expansive Sonoran Desert views from his functional living space and bedroom that faced west.
We three gay men didn’t witness too many straight angles during our ninety-minute immersion into Wright’s desert home and design school either. Instead, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the geometric patterns that surrounded us … like these three triangles that line the entryway to the Cabaret Room where Wright and his third wife entertained guests in their mid-century oasis near the foot of the McDowell Mountains.
I can imagine a roomful of wide-eyed architecture students gathered there in 1950. Wright holding court with grateful guests. Telling stories and sipping drinks with left legs crossed over and right arms resting on long rows of theatrical red seats placed at acute angles.
Witness Taliesin West for yourself next time you visit the Valley of the Sun. It’s a design treat in the desert. Best of all, you won’t find it too taxing.