Tag: Nonfiction

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.

Nothing Too Straight or Taxing

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through April 8

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In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, more than four decades later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From April 5 through April 8, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my way of celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of my amusing amusement park experience and other vivid Baby Boomer recollections, including: discovering the joys of a first pet; loading up the car and heading to the drive-in theatre; embarking on a quest to wrangle World Series tickets with my dad; working at the top of the Gateway Arch; and witnessing the wonder in a brand new year after a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger.

Perhaps my stories will make you smile and light your desire to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood. Wherever you were born. Wherever you grew up. Wherever you called home.

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’.

 

 

 

 

 

A Good Editor … A Good Friend

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In late 2015, as I worked to complete From Fertile Ground, I began to search for a seasoned editor and proofreader. I needed someone to review my book thoroughly and objectively. Someone expertly equipped to offer constructive criticism without constraining my artistic voice.

About that time an Illinois friend recommended I contact Anna Floit. She and her business, The Peacock Quill, are based in Nashville, Tennessee. After a few phone conversations with Anna, my intuition told me she was the right person for the job. I sent Anna my manuscript from my Illinois home.

Over the next several weeks, I worked closely with Anna to polish my book from my desk in Arizona, where my husband and I had escaped from another bitter Chicago winter. Miraculously, in late March 2016, I published my first book. It was three years ago this week.

Since that time, Anna has edited and proofread my second and third books—Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator  in 2017 and An Unobstructed View in 2018. But we never had the opportunity to meet in person. The distance was too great. Until today.

Over the weekend, Anna flew from Nashville to Phoenix to watch a few Cactus League baseball games with a close friend here in the Valley of the Sun. In the middle of it all, we exchanged text messages. Somehow we managed to carve out a little time to get together, and my husband Tom and I met Anna this morning at a local coffee shop in Scottsdale.

Ironically, Anna is someone I didn’t know four years ago. Yet she’s someone significant in my life, who helped me achieve a life-long dream of publishing my stories. Seeing her in person was more than a chance to put a face and voice with a name. It was my best opportunity to say thank you to a good editor … a good friend.

Outside My Backdoor

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I love being a memoir writer. Telling meaningful true stories about the past can often provide clues and trends about life in the future.

But there’s a mental trap in all of it. As I hone my craft, I can get lost in a time warp. If I’m not careful, I miss what’s happening around me today. I need to be better at noticing the people, the moments, the images, and the sounds of life in the present. What it feels like to live life in March 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Maybe you’re like me. In a given twenty-four-hour period, my emotions can move from frightful to beautiful and back again, depending on the news cycle. And, though I am a critical thinker and active member of American society, I often resolve that I can make the greatest difference by focusing on the small things I can do to help my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community.

For instance, encouraging my husband to tell his story and find his niche in the Phoenix film community … serving as a sounding board and coach for my sons as they pursue their careers … cheering on a friend from afar as she begins a new life in a warmer place … picking up an elderly neighbor who’s fallen and needs help hanging his hummingbird feeder … and singing on stage with sixty other gay men to remind the world that love is love and we are one.

Today–on March 18, 2019–I decided to turn off the news for a while and turn up the volume on the real life around me. I took a long walk and worked out at the gym to keep my heart strong. I enjoyed lunch with my husband at home. I dusted off my digital camera and snapped a few photos of the cacti and pink blooms of the ice plant on our patio. And, as I write this sentence, a desert wren is chirping its heart out at the top of a palm tree on a breezy-eighty-two-degree-blue-sky day in the Valley of the Sun.

Perhaps the bird is sending me a message. That life is short. That I’d better embrace now. That beauty is right outside my backdoor.

 

 

Land of the Giants

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I’ve been a baseball fan all my life. I should rephrase that. I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan, because I grew up in St. Louis and have fond memories of watching the Redbirds with my dad. I still root for the Cardinals, but now I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the land of the Giants. You see, Old Town Scottsdale is the springtime home of the San Francisco Giants.

In March, the Valley of the Sun becomes the Valley of the Snowbirds. Primarily because baseball fans flock here to watch their favorite teams play in Cactus League baseball games. All the restaurants and streets in Old Town are filled with baseball revelers, who are grateful to be away from the cold and cloudy skies where they typically live (and are generally willing to disregard the cooler-than-normal March we’re experiencing this year).

My husband and I work out three or four times a week at Club SAR. It’s a fitness center that’s connected to one of the Giants’ practice facilities a few miles north of our home. As we were leaving the gym just before noon on Monday, I passed an imposing figure in a San Francisco Giants uniform. He was seated on a park bench. I smiled and said “Good morning.” He returned the favor as I  continued on my way.

That’s when I realized the man I had acknowledged was Lee Smith, baseball pitching legend. Lee was a real closer, a relief specialist, a true baseball giant. He’s third on the all time “saves” list and was elected to the Hall of Fame last December. Lee is now a minor league pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants.

If Lee’s personal success as a pitcher is any indication–a dominating figure and flame-thrower who played a combined eighteen years for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees and four other teams–the Giants will be thankful they have him on the field guiding their young pitching staff in the coming 2019 baseball season.

Previously in my life, I would have turned around and possibly run back for a chance of a photo with Lee. Or at least asked for his autograph. But he seemed quite content sitting there in the shady entryway to the gym. I didn’t want to disturb him.

Now that I’m sixty-one-years old, I couldn’t see the upside of hassling a Hall of Famer. He’s certainly earned the respect and any rest he can get. I was simply satisfied with my brush with greatness on a Monday morning, living here in the land of the Giants.

He Wrote Every Day for Fifty-Two Years

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Long before there were bloggers or social media mavens, there was S.R. Ferrell. He was my maternal grandfather, born March 9, 1901, in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Sturdy and steady, S.R. (he preferred the initials to his given name of Sherrell Richardson) wrote brief, daily observations in his diary for fifty-two consecutive years, until his death on April 17, 1985.

Needless to say, S.R. was a tenacious worker. At age forty-four when he bought his Huntersville, North Carolina farm–the place he loved most–it felt to him as if life had just begun. But, truth be told, in the first half of his life he’d already toiled as a WWI soldier, photographer, grocery clerk, furniture factory hand, and hosiery mill employee.

Imagine the personal commitment required to reach for your diary at the end of every day for more than half a century. To jot down something about the day after tending to your livestock and crops in extreme weather conditions. To do it over and over again.

In 2015, as I was writing From Fertile Ground, my three-generation memoir that weaves together recollections from my grandfather, my mother, and my own life, I sequestered myself and read every page of S.R.’s diary entries.

Much of his writing focuses on his observations about the weather, his output at the hosiery mill, the condition of his farm, and special moments with family members and neighbors. In S.R.’s world, most important occurrences happened within his physical reach or just down the road. Yet, on occasion, there is a reminder in his diary of the larger community in which he lived and the dramatic, history-defining moments he witnessed. For instance, these were his words on Sunday, November 24, 1963:

Lee Oswald, the man they were holding for the shooting of President Kennedy, was shot today in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail … Jimmy and Steve came over for a few minutes … Fair. Sunny. Cooler … We watched the procession moving President Kennedy’s body from the White House to U.S. Capitol Building … 41 degree low. 56 degree high.

This week, as I remember S.R. and celebrate his 118th birthday, I’m grateful for the written legacy he left behind. Thirty years after his death, his stories helped me ignite my artistic sensibilities, rediscover my southern roots, and find my path as an author.

Yet, I find myself longing for the stoic farmer to pick up his pen one more time. To tell me about the weather. To remind me of those cherished days on his beloved farm, where he raised cantaloupes, cattle and corn. Where I spent summers with him and my tender-hearted grandmother a lifetime ago … milking cows, gathering eggs from the hen house, cradling kittens and puppies, and chasing peacocks with the hope of bringing a colorful tail feather back to the Midwest as a souvenir of our adventure.

The best I can do is to gaze out my window at a pink, speckled 5 x 7-inch piece of granite stone from his farm. I’ve carried it with me throughout my life … from North Carolina to Missouri to Illinois to Arizona … and now the rock rests beneath a beautiful red bougainvillea in the Valley of the Sun.

 

 

Letting It Fly

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On Saturday, I watched Chandler let it fly. He’s a friend who’s in town participating in a Disc Golf Pro Tour event here in Arizona. Chandler is pursuing his passion. Doing everything he can to earn a living in a sport he loves. Competing in a profession in which he has quite a bit of skill.

I’ll admit it. I know little about the sport of disc golf. It appears to follow many of the rules of traditional golf. The primary difference is that you fling a round disc toward a basket, rather than drive a tiny ball with a club into a hole. The idea is to deposit the disc in the basket in as few attempts as possible.

Yesterday, on a warm and occasionally breezy Scottsdale afternoon, several of us (we dubbed ourselves Team Chandler) followed along in the gallery as the action wound its way from one end of Vista del Camino Park to another.

As with any golf competition, there were highs and lows. Birdies and bogeys. Fist bumps and sighs. But the good news is Chandler made the cut. He’s competing in the final round of the tournament today as I write this. His goal is to finish in the top ten.

No matter if he does or doesn’t, the important thing is Chandler is following his dream in the desert and pursuing his passion. Whatever the results are today, he will move on to the next stop on the tournament circuit in Texas this coming week.

After all, win or lose, life is short. It’s always better to let it fly.