Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.
Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.
But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.
It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.
Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.
If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).
My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.
When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.
He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.
“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.
Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.
Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.
The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.
Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.
Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.
All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.
While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.
I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m more of a late bloomer (better than never blooming at all). A more apt description might be slow mover. If I were a dog, I’d be categorized as a Great Pyrenees (affectionate, gentle, sensitive, occasionally strong willed).
Each morning, I emerge slowly from my side of the bed. Usually around 6:30. Compare that with Tom’s Jack Russell Terrier “I’m-ready-to-go” demeanor (intelligent, energetic, social, occasionally strong willed), and you won’t be surprised to learn he’s usually up and around for at least thirty minutes before I begin to stir.
Moving more slowly doesn’t meant I don’t go places … today I walked 13,959 steps … it just means it takes me longer to get where I’m going than my husband. The inner workings of his clock wind tighter. My circuitry sweeps wider. I find it interesting that Tom is three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, yet his strides are substantially longer. How can that be?
These are the sorts of inane observations two sixty-two-year-old men can have as they lumber/saunter down sun-bleached Arizona paths (a slower pace all its own as compared with most of the world).
But these trivialities only spring into our conversation after we’ve dispensed with the more typical aggravating current event topics: the lack of COVID-19 testing in Arizona; the lack of positive stories in the media about people who’ve survived the virus; the lack of leadership in the White House.
If you’re over fifty (sixty, for sure), I imagine you’ll nod knowingly when I tell you a secret: my slowness is only getting slower with age. The blood pressure medication I take doesn’t help my lack of alacrity. Although two tiny pills–one with breakfast and a second with dinner–certainly protect my heart and keep my cardiologist happy.
Still, life in the slow lane isn’t that bad. It’s better than no lane at all (which might have happened if I hadn’t had the wherewithal to tell Tom to pull into the ER entrance at Barnes-Jewish Hospital nearly three years ago in St. Louis as doom and breathlessness washed over me).
I suppose moving more slowly is the right speed, too … the right sensibility … for this COVID-19 world, this alternative Alice-in-Wonderland universe we all seem to have fallen into. It’s better to deliberate about our next steps in society than to run back out of the rabbit hole carelessly and into the streets impulsively.
I’m not slow in every way. I’m actually itching wildly to get back to the gym sometime this summer. Starved for more socializing with my Phoenix-area friends again. Ready to reestablish those connections and circles in whatever ways I can. (Sorry, Zoom doesn’t do that for me.)
I’m also resigned to the fact that my love for choral singing … someday again standing side-by-side on stage with my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus rather than having makeshift rehearsals online … will require a much slower reentry process.
It will be a longer wait–something sad this slow poke will have to endure as I stare wistfully back through the looking glass–until this blissful escape in my artistic life resurfaces and I can once again raise my voice without a care in this unforeseen world.
You know me by now. My propensity to slide back and forth in time. I see an object or hear a sound and I find myself suddenly tumbling through space. Perhaps, I’ve fallen for a Irwin-Allen-directed remnant from my childhood: the 1966-1967 TV show, Time Tunnel.
The series begins in 1968. The U.S. government has given a group of scientists–devotees of Project Tic Toc–one final chance. After years of research, a U.S. senator tells them they have a mere twenty-four hours to prove their untested time tunnel works and will allow man to travel safely through time. (Incidentally, it’s located deep beneath the Arizona desert … possibly not far from where my desert rose is poised to bloom in the searing heat.)
In a last ditch effort to save the project, Dr. Tony Newman (dashing James Darren in a tight green turtleneck) and his sincere scientific sidekick Dr. Doug Phillips (tall, dark and handsome Robert Colbert) spin from one time period to another.
Their colleagues beneath the ground at mission control work breathlessly to “get a fix” on their location and beam them back home. This becomes the team’s quest after Tony’s attempt to salvage their time tunnel goes terribly wrong. He lands on the deck of the Titanic in April 1912, just before it hits an infamous iceberg.
As you may have guessed, Doug travels back in time to rescue Tony. He succeeds and they escape before the ship sinks. But each week we stay tuned because they are destined to be catapulted into another time frequency fraught with disaster and drama.
This lengthy backstory is my way of telling you I’ve felt myself spinning through time (albeit above ground in Arizona) over the past six weeks during this pandemic.
To help alleviate our anxiety and keep our bodies and minds in shape, Tom and I have fashioned a primitive, throw-back, 60s-style home gym.
Our hand weights, yoga mats and basketball might as well be at-home props–a chair, a broomstick, a couple of cans of green beans–which Jack LaLanne (the original modern fitness and nutrition guru) might have suggested my mother use at home in 1960 if she didn’t have the right equipment.
At any rate, in 1960 three-year-old me sat cross-legged, sucking my thumb and transfixed. The organ music on The Jack LaLanne Show blared. Jack smiled, twisted and shouted wearing his zip-up, one-piece jumpsuit and ballet slippers. Inhale, exhale.
My thirty-seven-year-old mother leaned back to the floor in her pedal pushers and began kicking her heels up and down toward our suburban St. Louis ceiling. She was following Jack’s lead. A bicycle to the sky. Peddling from a tripod position.
Sixty years later, I imagine Jack would be proud of us all. Though our beloved gyms and fitness centers are closed, we’ve cobbled together stay-at-home fitness tools to keep some semblance of our pre-COVID-19 physiques. The ones that have expanded a little in the middle due to sumptuous meals consumed at safe distances behind closed doors.
Oh well. If the gyms stay closed for too much longer and the girth of our bodies gets out of control, there’s an easy solution. All we have to do is keep walking and continue our yoga practice on the sun room floor. Inhale, exhale … Namaste.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll channel Tony and Doug. “Get a fix” on 2019. Step into the time tunnel. Prepare for a trip back to the world we once knew … gainful employment, physical closeness, dining out with friends, life without masks … far away from the trauma of 2020 and the mind-numbing news that keeps us spinning through time.
At 4:00 p.m. on April 25, thousands of area Phoenicians, including one blogging enthusiast (me), wait with breathless anticipation. For the first time in 2020, we are about to cross over into the often-visited land of oven-like temperatures in the Valley of the Sun … the one-hundred-degree mark.
This is no sweat. It’s a dry heat. An annual, excessive-heat-warning rite of passage we desert rats are accustomed to. However, when we see the mercury climb above 110 degrees … probably sometime in June … that will be a different story.
As the thermometer rests at a chilly ninety-nine degrees, I have other numerical news. I’m just shy of triple digits in followers. Ninety-eight, to be precise.
When I began this descriptive writing odyssey on May 4, 2018, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would write about or who in the world might be interested in frequenting this destination on a regular basis.
The good news is apparently almost one hundred people (and maybe others who haven’t found this site yet) enjoy creative nonfiction, poetry, storytelling, and silly word play enough to make it habitual. Your interest in coming here makes me as happy as this colorful concrete coyote that adorns a neighbor’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, this is my one-hundred-and-fifty-third blog post. Over the past several months, I’ve been weaving together what I consider to be the best ones (along with other state-forty-eight tales that haven’t appeared here) into a book of true Arizona stories and Sonoran Desert fantasies.
My goal is to publish it … book number four … by the end of 2020. Stay tuned!
I wasn’t fantasizing about Sting, the legendary English singer and songwriter, or even remotely humming a tune of his as I jogged along the Crosscut Canal early Friday afternoon in Arizona. But a gust of wind shifted my trajectory. It swept my safari hat from my head. As I swatted to grab it, I crashed face-first into the path of an oncoming honey bee.
In keeping with the theme of this story, the innocent insect stung me on the middle of my lower lip. That’s when I began to screech for Tom (running six-feet away beside me) to pull out the blasted stinger, which I could feel dangling from my numbing and fattening lip.
At this point, I might have opted to call for the police (not Sting’s rock band, but the Scottsdale police) to intervene. To see if they might rescue me. Because every breath I took … every move I made, every step I took … led me to believe that all the bees of the world were watching me. I’m not really a prissy sort, but I kept cryin’ baby, baby, please … stop hurting me.
Fortunately, with Tom as my husband, it’s almost like having the police (not a rock band, but an emergency medical technician) on hand twenty-four hours a day. Though he’s not medically trained, I like to call him Mr. Science. He always seems to have readily available common knowledge to share. For instance, how a dog drinks water. Or what causes the monsoons in Arizona to boil over the mountains and into the Valley of the Sun in the summer.
Of course, he also passed the ultimate science exam, when he got me to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital emergency room entrance in St. Louis when my heart was aching (not my lower lip) and I wondered if every breath I took … that July 2017 day in the Midwest humidity … might be my last.
Anyway, Tom was able to calm me down on April 17, 2020. He pulled out the stinger without the assistance of any police, as a handful of other desert rats strolled and biked by at safe distances … far enough away during any neighborhood bee catastrophe or global pandemic.
One can only imagine the under-the-breath giggles that ensued along the path, as Tom and I (two non-straight Arizonans) made a beeline home for ice and (no-sting) first aid antiseptic spray, which I envisioned on the top shelf of our medicine chest.
A few minutes later we unlocked the backdoor of our abode. I went into the bathroom and found the spray. Tom dashed to the kitchen, where there was no ice in our freezer. Fortunately, in this day and age, we have plenty of frozen vegetables to ride out the apocalypse. So he handed me a sixteen-ounce bag of frozen corn kernels and ordered me to apply it to my face.
Mr. Science failed to tell me that the bag was open. Therefore, when I applied the cold corn compress to my lip, a shower of kernels scattered across our living room floor. I proceeded to ball up the remaining corn in the bag, while Tom grabbed a broom to police the area and sweep up the runaway pieces of corn.
A few moments later he reached into the freezer and handed me an unopened bag of frozen spinach. That, a few spritzes of the antiseptic on my lip, and two acetaminophen caplets were all I needed to recline in comfort and return to my pre-bee state.
A day has passed. All is well. Just a slightly swollen lip and a few laughs remain. But there’s one thing I have to say to the bees of the world that may be buzzing nearby the next time I venture out for a walk, run or hike.
Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.
Perhaps you’re feeling isolated and afraid. Like me, you’re worried about the implications of this global pandemic. In need of a creative escape from the closing walls. Concerned for loved ones and friends, who live in places that are feeling the brunt of this crisis.
You’re tired and queasy from the daily Tilt-A-Whirl of news bulletins. Searching for truth. Dealing with loss. Texting with daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers to see how they’re coping. Craving a retreat into the comfort of family connections and the healing properties of nature.
I’m here to help relieve the pain with this reading stimulus offer. From Saturday, March 21, through Wednesday, March 25, Kindle copies of all three of my books are FREE on Amazon.
I’ve figured out why our fire barrel cactus is leaning to one side. It’s more than the fact that it’s stretching south, craving the heat of the sun after a month of chilly mornings. It’s because when you live in tight quarters in a yellow ceramic pot in a condo community, you can’t help but overhear everything and find yourself either numb to it all or straining to hear more as the soundtrack of life passes by.
For instance, the start of a neighbor’s engine before he heads off to work. The breezy exchange between snowbirds as they march ahead for a morning walk to the canal. The rhythmic alternate drilling of a diligent woodpecker and construction worker digging two holes: one in a palm tree thirty feet up; the other fifty yards over the western wall. That’s where still another village of town homes will soon rise on the footprint of an evacuated auto dealership.
In other words, our sly fire barrel cactus is eavesdropping as we owners prattle on about another trip to the local gym. Grab our keys and water bottles (gotta stay hydrated in the desert). Fling the bags holding our laptops over our shoulders to feed our writing fetishes. Dash out the door and coo about the much-anticipated arrival of a kitschy book-themed tablecloth (just released from an Amazon box), designed to attract attention at the upcoming 7th Annual Local Author Book Sale.
Enough of this gibberish. Tom and I will be peddling books on Saturday, February 1 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) at the Civic Center Library in Scottsdale, Arizona, with about a hundred other writers and countless readers … while our cactus holds down the fort and listens for the drum of desert gossip.
Generations have insisted there is something wrong with lemons: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In other words, stop your whining and make the best of a bad situation.
I remember my demonstrative dad, a long-time salesman, declaring this in the 1960s. Perhaps he picked up this phrase from Missouri-born author and salesmanship lecturer Dale Carnegie’s 1948 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
Although, according to Wikipedia, writer Elbert Hubbard originally coined the phrase in 1915 for an obituary he wrote to honor Marshall Pinckney Wilder, an actor who overcame physical disabilities to lead a fruitful life.
Anyway, I know lemons are sour, but what’s so horrible about having a luscious lemon tree outside your front door? Nothing as far as this Midwestern boy can tell. It’s laden with ripe-and-ready fruits every January, cascading a clean citrus scent (think Lemon Pledge furniture polish), whenever I walk past it.
Last Saturday, I snagged eight lemons from our condo complex tree, reached to the top shelf in our kitchen cabinet for our juicer, found a lemonade recipe on line and made fresh lemonade. (By the way, in my previous lives … in Missouri, Illinois or even on my grandfather’s North Carolina From Fertile Ground farm … the climate would have never permitted this.)
Of course, I added more than a gallon of water and a cup and a half of sugar to the lemon juice to neutralize the sour fruit flavor. I poured it all into our retro Kool-Aid-style glass pitcher and found space in our refrigerator to let the liquid contents cool.
Then on Sunday, Tom and I, along with Nick and Aida (my older son and his girlfriend), each enjoyed a tall glass of cold lemonade to celebrate the fruits of our fortunate Valley of the Sun existence.
I love luscious lemons. When life gives you them (on neighborhood trees in January or otherwise), make lemonade.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with me in 2019. We’ve begun our descent into 2020. Please turn off all electronic devices, stow your tray, and return your seat to its upright position. Be sure your seat belt is fastened tightly across your lap, because we may encounter turbulence in the new year.
In case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop down and lighting will illuminate the floor to guide you to the nearest exit. Remember, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device in the event of a water landing.
As your faithful blogging pilot, I don’t have a clue what the next year or new decade will bring. But as a seasoned sixtyish storytelling survivor, in 2020 I will continue to write about the meaningful, magical and mundane moments. I imagine I will board my dusty desert time machine occasionally if you care to join me. Why? Because this is my blog and that’s what I do.
Before we land (safely, I hope) and deplane in 2020, I have a belated holiday gift waiting for you on Amazon. Until December 31, download a FREE Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator. It’s my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. (If you decide to accept my gift and read it, please consider posting your review on Amazon or Goodreads.)
The final story, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life. It’s a tribute to the citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing on a frosty St. Louis morning on January 1, 1962. I witnessed it through four-year-old eyes. Almost sixty years later, perhaps it’s also a good reminder that each of us has the power to help another human being in need.
Once again, thank you for visiting markjohnsonstories.com throughout the year. I know you have a choice of website destinations. I greatly appreciate all of my loyal followers, who have chosen to travel with me on life’s journey.