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Confessions from 11,510 Feet

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For a few minutes last Sunday, I was up on the roof. No, I wasn’t cleaning the debris out of my gutters. My husband Tom and I, along with John and Sharon (two lifelong friends visiting from St. Louis), were on a two-day, Flagstaff sightseeing mission, seeking northern Arizona’s coolest and highest spots.

On a rare, seventy-degree-and-mostly-sunny afternoon, we boarded the Agassiz Chairlift (elevation 9,500 feet in the San Francisco Peaks) and rode above the tall pines another 2,000 feet to the top of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.

Of course, this excursion was just for summer thrills. There wasn’t any of the frozen white stuff in late July. In fact, if there had been snow, I would have been far away for two reasons:

#1 … Unlike our friends from St. Louis who learned to ski when they lived in Europe, I’m not a snow bunny. Though Tom and I are in good shape for guys in their sixties, neither of us has skied much. On a personal note, I don’t care to risk broken bones on slippery slopes. I’m not interested in more pain or tempting fate. I figure it’ll arrive soon enough without me paving the way for a new and expensive relationship with an orthopedic surgeon. Besides, I already have a cardiologist and wouldn’t want him to get jealous.

#2 … I’ve endured enough cold and snowy Chicago days and nights to last a lifetime. To be precise, thirty-seven winters back in the relative flatness of northeastern Illinois.  Think sub-zero temperatures and howling winds in December and January and repeated rounds of snow-blowing to clear your western-exposed driveway in February and you’ll have the right mental image.

In all seriousness, Tom and I enjoyed getting reacquainted with John and Sharon. It had been nearly five years since we’d seen them. And, naturally, both the chairlift ride and the mountain scenery in our home state were breathtaking.

Hmmm … now that I think about it, perhaps our Rocky Mountain experience and my choice of adjectives have more to do with the thinner air I felt pumping in and out of my lungs at a high altitude than the actual view.

Either way, you can be sure I followed the rules on this sign. I did no running on Sunday. Just some light walking and a little heavy breathing until it was time for us to board the chairlift for the return trip, descend the mountainside, and climb down from Arizona’s magnificent and majestic roof.

 

 

 

A Better Day, a Better View, a Better Path

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We all experience ghastly days that shake us to the core. Days when our inner monologue runs on a defiant loop: “Oh, if I can just get through this … if I can just beat the odds … maybe one day the light will return.”

At least, that’s how it felt for me on July 6, 2017 … my sixtieth birthday … when I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis on the way west from our old home in Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, two years have passed. Last Saturday–on July 6, 2019–my husband and I traveled two hours north from sizzling Scottsdale into Sedona’s red rock country for a hike to celebrate our shared sixty-second birthday (yes … it’s sweet, surreal and serendipitous) and (serendipity squared) the second anniversary of me (actually, us) surviving heart trauma.

Given the multi-layered significance of July 6 in our lives, it was only fitting that we chart a new course for the day in this geological wonderland. So, we packed plenty of water, slathered on the sunscreen, and stepped out on the trail toward one of Sedona’s gems: Bell Rock.

On the course of our hour-long journey, we stopped frequently to marvel at the spectacular scenery in our new home state … to acknowledge just how far we’d come in twenty-four months. From a familiar-and-comfortable suburban-Chicago life … to a frightening hospital stay in the city where I was born … to our 112-degree arrival in Arizona when our air conditioning faltered … to a well-earned, grateful life of wide open spaces, majestic sunsets and creative possibilities that have since bloomed.

At one point on our final approach to Bell Rock, I snapped this photo to capture the flight and magnitude of the moment. Just like this young mountain biker who wheeled past us, we’ve rounded the corner and transcended the story of An Unobstructed View. We’ve begun a new chapter in our journey here in the Grand Canyon State. We’ve welcomed the passage of time. We’ve found the gift of reflection in Arizona’s rejuvenating red rocks.

 

 

 

A Father’s Wish List

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It was nearly two years ago that I found myself lying on a gurney at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. It was July 6, 2017. My sixtieth birthday. I had just suffered a mild heart attack and entered the vast and unfamiliar world of emergency room doctors, cardiologists, attending nurses, and multi-syllabic medical procedures.

I had two wishes that day: to survive the ordeal with my husband; and to speak with both of my adult sons to let them know I was okay. Thankfully, both of my wishes came true.

Late in the afternoon of July 6, Jacob, an EKG technician in his early thirties, turned me on my left side. He applied a cooling gel and ran a device across my chest to record images of my heart.

At that moment, Jacob gave me an unexpected gift that carried me past the immediate task and my pain. He confided in me that he was a new father adjusting to a sleepless existence. Working to raise and protect his newborn son. Overwhelmed by the sudden changes in his life.

Strange as it was–with my health hanging in the balance–Jacob and I entered a new landscape.  We talked about something we had in common. We were both dads. It was something like staring into a painted desert of fatherhood (like what you see here in Arizona) where unexplored layers of possibilities abound.

As I spoke with Jacob, I conjured fleeting memories of my two sons as tumbling toddlers and testy teens. I told him to hang in there and relish the early years. To try to realize that the heavy lifting of fatherhood would fade over time.

I told him there would be meaningful moments ahead with his son. Moments I cherished with my sons. Moments he might cherish with his boy too when he looked back over his life.

Occasionally, over the past two years, I’ve thought of Jacob and wondered how he was coping … knowing we will likely never meet again.

Now, with Father’s Day upon us, I wish I could offer him more ideas on what it takes to be a good dad. To that end, I’ve composed the following list … friendly advice from a fellow father who’s looking out for all the Jacobs in the world who are striving to be the best dads they can be.

***

Love your son … and tell him you do.

Listen to and validate his dreams.

Provide him with an honest and safe home.

Buy him nutritious food and encourage him to exercise.

Cheer him on when he succeeds. Encourage him when he fails.

Don’t spend a lot of money buying him new things. Spend it on shared experiences instead.

Teach him the importance of lifelong learning and saving money for a rainy day.

Show him what it means to respect animals, nature and diverse people.

Explain to him that it’s a sign of strength to ask questions and show vulnerability.

Love your son no matter who he loves. Remind him you’ll always be his dad.

 

Heating Up and Cooling Off

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Here in the Valley of the Sun, 100-degree temperatures have returned. This is not a revelation. Now that I’ve become a desert rat, I’ve learned to expect they’ll be with us for the next few months.

There’s no need to worry about me. I’ve adapted to living in the heat. Early morning walks and swims before the heat sets in. Daily and repeat applications of sunscreen. Plenty of water. Broad-brimmed hats. Pop-up monsoon storms. Biannual visits to the dermatologist. A few weekend getaways to the majestic mountains and fragrant pines of northern Arizona. A trusty sunshade to cover the dashboard of our car when its parked. These are the norm in the Sonoran Desert.

I find strange comfort in all of this, because the return of triple digits reminds me of the scorching summers that defined my suburban St. Louis childhood. This 1960 image always makes me smile. It features the neighborhood kids and me (on the far right) devouring popsicles on the front porch of my home. As a tribute to the blazing days of summer, I hope you’ll enjoy this cooling excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

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The oppressive heat and humidity in St. Louis can wear you down. At times, it’s like carrying around a moist ten-pound cape on your shoulders. Or having your dental hygienist take x-rays and forget to remove the protective flak jacket before you leave the office.

One solution is a three-letter word: ice. In the 1960s, a Pevely Dairy truck driver would deliver milk and other dairy products to homes at the top of our street in the cul-de-sac. About a half dozen of us kids would scurry to catch the truck up the street screaming “ICE!” at the top of our lungs.

On occasion, the driver would pause and drop a big block of ice off the back of his truck onto the pulsating concrete, where it broke into smaller pieces. We’d grab a chunk and apply it to our skin as a soothing balm. We were in heaven.

Truth be told, the iceman didn’t cometh to deliver the goods that often, but he winked and dropped a block of ice into our path a few times each summer–just enough to give us hope that we could carry on the chase and renew the ritual.

The ice cream truck also visited our neighborhood. My sister and I begged our parents for change to buy an ice cream sandwich or dreamsicle from the Good Humor man. He even sold a “bomb pop” popsicle. It was red, white and blue and shaped like an actual bomb with a round top and fins coming out the sides.

Of course, in the Vietnam War era, we didn’t grasp the horror of buying a refreshing treat that was shaped like a weapon. We just knew it kept us cool.

 

 

 

 

Twilight by the Pool

 

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I’m fortunate to live in a charming, mid-century condo community in South Scottsdale with a gorgeous pool and rich history. Traditions and ripples run deep here at Polynesian Paradise. From memories of grandparents, close cousins, great aunts and uncles living under the slanted-and-peaked roofs of their Googie-style architecture.

Many early residents, Chicagoans with Italian heritage, discovered their desert hideaways in the 1960s and 70s. Others came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada. They all traveled south or west to escape brutal winters and forge a new life in their twilight years.

During the day, Lucy (my husband’s soft-spoken grandmother) and her friends gathered by the pool to soak up the sun, unwind on a lounge chair, read a book under a kitschy umbrella, sip a cool drink or play cards in the clubhouse while their laundry flapped on the clothesline in the dry breeze.

At night, as palm trees painted sunsets over western skies, these westward-ho pilgrims dined on pasta and cannolis lovingly prepared by good-hearted neighbors like Sam (my husband’s grandfather). He spent his working years making cookies at the Nabisco factory back in Chicago and needed an outlet for his boundless energy. He found it in the condo clubhouse kitchen.

From January through April each year, as the rest of the world shivered on frosty Wednesday nights, the warmest stars aligned over the desert. Delighted residents and their guests shouted BINGO, collected their winnings, and sauntered home down sidewalks to their modest desert dwellings illuminated by porch lights.

Of course, Lucy and Sam are gone. So are most of their friends and neighbors. Like Connie and Sam who lived a few doors away. They were surrogate parents who coached us on the dos and don’ts of closing down our desert home when we were still fresh snowbirds straddling two worlds: one in Illinois; one in Arizona. Both of them died a few years ago, though their last name still hangs on a wall plaque outside what was once their door.

And Anita, another long-time resident, who passed away early in April. She was a familiar-and-friendly fixture at the pool. Tanning on her lounge chair with her extended, manicured nails. Listening contentedly to her favorite oldies on her transistor radio. Though I didn’t know her well, I miss her presence. I miss her connection to all the others.

Sadly, the soaring prow on the clubhouse façade is gone too. The condo association decided to remove it a few years ago, because the wood had begun to rot. It posed a safety concern for those walking beneath and the cost was too prohibitive to repair it.

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Life goes on at Polynesian Paradise. With a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new generation of residents (grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, singles and couples) the community spirit lives on. There are still social gatherings in the clubhouse each month. Donut and hot dog days. Holiday parties. Yoga on occasional mornings. Bingo has moved from Wednesday to Tuesday nights when the snowbirds are in town.

Many in our community are over sixty, like my husband Tom and me. Living our twilight years in a pleasant condo community with an inviting pool. But there are a growing number of younger, full-time residents living here too. Infusing the community with new energy. Remodeling and updating their condos. Heading to work and school each day. Walking to their cars past cooing doves that nest under our eaves.

We’re all neighbors. Some of us enjoy a regular dip in the pool. Some of us don’t. But we’re all in the same boat. Finding our way in the world as new condo communities rise up around us in South Scottsdale. Doing what we can to live the best versions of our own lives in the Sonoran Desert. Just like the Sams, Lucys, Connies and Anitas who’ve come and gone before us.

 

 

A New High Point

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There is a definite rhythm to writing. When it’s working, it’s as if you are conducting the full breadth of a finely tuned orchestra. But, when you are out of rhythm, you might as well be stomping on the toes of your favorite dance partner. It’s that painful.

At any rate, in January 2016—eighteen months before my husband and I moved to Scottsdale permanently—we escaped suburban Chicago to snowbird in the warmth of Arizona for a few precious months. I remember being concerned about messing up my writing rhythm. To complicate matters, I was fully immersed in the editing of my first book, From Fertile Ground, and unwinding the unending grief for Helen Johnson, my mother. I didn’t yet have a defined space for my writing or Helen’s past influence in our Arizona condo. I needed a trusty desk, like the one that supported my laptop in Illinois, and a few artifacts that would remind me of the mother I loved.

My husband Tom was sensitive to my dilemma. So, on a Tuesday morning a few days after we arrived in Scottsdale, we set out to find a suitable writing surface. We didn’t want to spend much. So, we opted to explore thrift stores in the area for a wooden desk that could fit under the window in our sunroom. It faces south.

I suppose I felt a little like Goldilocks as she searched for the right bed. Our first few stops produced nothing promising. The desks we encountered were too clunky, too small, too rickety, too ugly, too … wrong. I hadn’t found the one that was just right. But we decided to try one more place before calling it quits. We pulled into the Goodwill store on North Scottsdale Road.

Once inside, we filed our way up and down aisles of discarded ceramics, leftover lamps and sagging upholstered chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slightly scuffed, mid-sized, mid-century wooden desk. It was just the right size to fit in my creative space. The right price too—twenty dollars.

Tom and I flagged down a clerk. He helped us process the order and arrange for the delivery of our newfound desk. I paused to run my fingers across the desk’s smooth finish and pull open the top drawer. That’s where I discovered a small embossed plate with an ironic identifying inscription: Alma Desk Company, High Point, North Carolina.

In case you aren’t familiar with High Point, the town is the home furnishings capital of the United States. It also happens to be the birthplace of my mother. Here’s the remarkable part. At the time I found the desk in a resale shop more than two thousand miles from her birthplace, I was in the midst of completing a book about grieving Helen’s loss. Certainly, this was a prophetic signpost I couldn’t ignore. It was the right desk, blessed by the writing gods and—perhaps in some cosmic way—endorsed by my furniture-loving mother from the south.

I was convinced that this connection to Helen’s past would be the injection of continuity I needed to complete my book about her in Arizona, even though she never visited the Valley of the Sun. She never stood in awe of the spiky Sonoran saguaros. She never ambled down a quiet path at the Desert Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning to hear the mourning doves coo on crooked branches of Palo Verde trees. She never saw bighorn sheep climb to the top of this butte in the Phoenix Zoo and gaze east.

In this season of renewal, it feels right to acknowledge that my mother’s undaunted spirit and a sturdy High Point desk have helped sustain my creativity in Arizona. They–and a bighorn sheep standing tall in a much too complicated world–are with me on my writing journey.

My Slargando World

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April ushers in a slower pace in Arizona. Following the departure of their favorite major league baseball teams that train in the Valley of the Sun, most snowbirds have already packed their bags and flown back to their primary homes. Now, as ninety-plus temperatures descend upon us, there’s more room to dine in restaurants. Fewer scooters to dodge on Scottsdale streets.

To borrow the Italian musical term slargando (a word I learned last night as my husband Tom and I played a rousing game of Balderdash with friends Carolyn and John from Alaska and Adele and Len from New York), I feel the onset of a gradually slowing tempo … a widening sense of time and space on the threshold that coincides with see-you-again-in-the-fall-or-winter conversations we’ll have as our friends depart next week.

All four of them are kind and interesting people we didn’t know five years ago. Now they are friends who walk and laugh beside us. Crave the next movie night in our cozy condo. Cringe with us at breaking news. Share our home for wine and pasta dinners. Treat us to trips on boats, a ready supply of salmon spread, and stories of their future plans.

In other words, they are our sixties comrades in our condo community. Friends who are just as comfortable leading the charge up a trail to the Desert Botanical Garden, following us into a different circle for one of my choral concerts, tagging along for Blarney Bingo on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Phoenix, or picnicking at a table under a Palo Verde tree at a local hangout in Tempe.

Needless to say, Tom and I are grateful for their friendship and the moments we share. Though we will miss seeing our part-time neighbors for the next several months, Tom and I will have each other and our creative aspirations to keep us busy through spring and summer. And, despite the heat, the coos of mourning doves nearby and the enchanting calls from mockingbirds and desert wrens outside our backdoor will keep us company.

Through it all, I’ll be content to walk and exercise in the morning with my husband, swim laps to keep my heart strong, and write my stories in my slargando world.

 

 

A Sense of Belonging … No Foolin’

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It’s April Fools’ Day. But there’s nothing foolish about recognizing the sense of belonging we all need. In fact, I think the safety and support of a circle of friends and a welcoming community are essential for us to bloom in a world of controversy and thorny problems.

All of this crossed my mind Sunday. I had just left the stage with my gay friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We were one of several LGBTQA choral and instrumental groups that performed at the We Are One concert. It was a rousing afternoon of uplifting music at the beautiful new Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix. I felt warm and loved there performing in front of an appreciative audience. To be clear, it wasn’t just the applause. It was because I knew I belonged singing on stage with sixty new friends.

I know I’m fortunate. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced the love and support of a circle of friends. In fact, I’ve felt a sense of belonging in many aspects of my life with my husband, my sons, my extended family, my neighbors in Arizona … and certainly with friends, neighbors and colleagues in the Chicago area before moving to Arizona almost two years ago.

But if you are different or disadvantaged in any way, you know this to be true: a loving community is paramount. Strangely–even in 2019–LGBTQA folks are rejected for who they are by their immediate family members. So, they are left to cobble together the families of their own choosing. This is especially troubling at a time when our own government officials seem determined to roll back rights and protections for American citizens in many circles.

So last night, after the We Are One concert, I needed to share the love I feel for my new circle of friends. I sent them a message. I told them how proud I am to sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. I told them how important they are to my husband and me. I told them that because of the music we sing and the friendships I’m making with all of them, I’m feeling their love and developing my own sense of belonging again.

To be honest, in 2017 when I said goodbye to another close group of friends at the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago–people I loved and performed with for seven years–I wasn’t sure I’d find that sort of community connection a second time. Especially after surviving a heart attack on the way west.

But I’ve found it again. I feel the love in Arizona. In my new home town. No foolin’.