Tag: Social Distancing

I’m Coming Out … Again

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Like butterflies ready to spread our wings, yesterday Tom and I emerged from our protective cocoon and took flight. Actually, we drove, but for the first time in three months left the confines of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

North two hours climbing the switchbacks on I-17 out of the valley into the mountains. Past stately saguaros and wild-west warning signs … Deadman Wash, Horsethief Basin, Big Bug Creek, Bloody Basin, Trump 2020, Emergency Curfew 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Fire Danger High … before landing safely on Carolyn and John’s driveway in the shade of their pines. Twenty degrees cooler in the mile-high bliss of Prescott, Arizona.

I didn’t make this psychological connection until this morning. But cocooning in a condo for three months to dodge a global pandemic … albeit a cozy two-bedroom desert unit that’s about to get a fresh coat of paint to brighten our internal space … is rather like living in a closet for one quarter of the year.

Sure, since March we’ve ventured out on numerous occasions. Daily walks and weekly trips to the grocery store behind masks. More recent outings to our community gym to stay fit and Super Cuts for haircuts that didn’t occur over our bathroom sink. But nothing on the order of an actual day trip away from our immediate community.

Ask any previously or currently closeted gay man. He’ll tell you. There is misery in physical and metaphorical confinement.

I’m not suggesting that the stay-at-home order in states across this country and around the world has been a breeze for straight people. But I have a number of friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago, who don’t have partners. They live alone. They’ve been missing the camaraderie of the gay community. People who would normally be available to sing, hug and laugh in person are unavailable except on Zoom. Gay people are missing their lifeline and the reassurance that comes with an open life in a freer society.

This wasn’t going to be a story about coming out. When Tom and I returned home late yesterday afternoon from an idyllic day with Carolyn and John to see their lovely new home in Prescott, I had grand plans to write a quieter piece about breathing the pine-scented mountain air two hours northwest of Phoenix.

It really was grand. Spending several hours with our adventurous and compassionate friends, previous residents of Anchorage, Alaska, whom we would see sporadically at their Scottsdale condo. In 2019, they uprooted and transplanted their lives to become full-time Arizonans … fortuitously landing in a home filled with loads of charm, unlimited possibilities, carved wood character, and window seats that reach into the tall pines.

Tom and I had intended to drive up to see them in their new home before now. Of course, that nasty COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Fortunately, we endured. It was worth the wait. Our much-anticipated celebration–clinking glasses outdoors under a blazing red patio umbrella–finally happened on June 4, 2020. It was a day in a year none of us will forget.

Today, Tom and I resumed our life in Scottsdale. I boarded a treadmill around 9:30 at our community gym. A pleasant older woman, smiling from a safe distance (eight feet to my right on her own treadmill), said good morning. I returned the favor. We had exchanged hellos before.

She asked me if Tom and I were relatives. I said no. She told me we look a lot alike. Then, came the moment. The one every gay person knows. Should I out myself and speak my truth or just let this pass?

You probably know what happened next. I came out … again. The first time was with my ex-wife, then my sister, sons and mother … all in the 1990s. There have been dozens of times since. With neighbors, colleagues, clients, acquaintances, store clerks who asked “Are you guys brothers?” as they scanned our groceries … the list goes on. The coming out process is lifelong. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a one-time episodic event.

At any rate, you guessed it. On June 5, 2020, I told a friendly lady on the adjacent treadmill at Club SAR that Tom is my husband. That we’ve been a couple for nearly twenty-five years (actually, it will be twenty-four in August). That I didn’t see the resemblance, though couples do often take on similar characteristics and gestures.

She kept smiling. Told me she was a retired nurse. Asked if I was retired. I told her I had left behind my corporate job years ago and now write. The conversation ended rather quietly. It was cordial.

I know there will be countless times in my life, when this will happen again. When I will out myself in an innocuous place. It doesn’t have to be Pride month in a year when our current president is hell bent on rolling back the rights of all Americans.

Living my life as an openly gay man is a commitment I’ve made to myself and other gay people. We need to remind ourselves we aren’t alone in this frightening world. We need to remember that happiness comes with visibility.

Whether I’m breathing the pine-filled Arizona mountain air with dear friends and allies like Carolyn and John or down in the valley with people I’ve yet to meet, there’s no turning back. The truth will set us free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.

 

From a Distance

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We can still see each other if we squint. You teetering on the mountain top looking west. Me gazing east from the other side of the valley. Absorbing a few morning rays of sun before the heat rolls in. Shielding ourselves from the most harmful elements that lurk out of our control.

Coexisting from a distance is what we do now. Not knowing what will come next. Wondering when we may be close again.  If only we could fly away together. Begin a new life as unencumbered mockingbirds or desert wrens. No longer afraid. Nesting in the saguaros. Dancing in the sky.

Chaparral High

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enchanted by the seductive sound of certain nouns and adjectives:  amethyst, magenta, grandiose, vivacious, lavender, conundrum, veranda, gardenia, daffodil, chaparral.

I can’t explain it, but feeling the rhythm of these three-syllable descriptors and seeding them in a story lightens my spirit. It must be the same high–a chaparral high (not High Chaparral, the exotic, dusty and remote TV western of my youth)–that a  mathematician realizes the moment he or she solves an equation.

Imagine my glee, having the word chaparral appear as the name for a road, pool and nearby park. Home of tanned and true Arizonans. Firm and flabby. Shirtless and sumptuous. Lithe and leathery.  Geese and goslings.

During this prolonged pandemic pandemonium, Tom and I have ventured to Chaparral Park to get our steps in on numerous occasions. We like the warm neighborhood atmosphere–singles and couples working out at safe distances framed by both palatial palms and small-leaved evergreen shrubs you might actually see if we lived on a chaparral.

Psychologically, strolling there also reminds us of our diligent days working out just down the street. Mounting the treadmill and elliptical at the local gym, Club SAR, which we typically would frequent if we and it weren’t shuttered by COVID-19.

Based on visible signs, adorable ducks and geese also feel fortunate to live in the warmth and kindness of our community. It’s written on cardboard for the world to see that someone certainly cares about our critters.

“For the baby geese … Please do not remove.”

Yes, the young ones that began to appear recently, just east of Hayden Road and the shadows of Camelback Mountain, need a ramp to get there steps in. To achieve their chaparral high.

 

Sting

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Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

 

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.

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

In the middle of April … at what may be the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States … I feel the psychological toll. Though I am fine physically—and so is Tom—there are only so many reports of confirmed Coronavirus cases, death projections, presidential posturing, curve flattening, and social distancing I can tolerate. Oh, by the way, I turned off the news long ago.

As it has for millions of Americans, the anxiety of buying groceries … surrounding oneself with a slow stream of catatonic shoppers in surgical masks … has infected something I once enjoyed. More than that, it’s sucked the joy from it.

For nearly a month, “going to market”—as my grandfather the North Carolina farmer would have described it—has become a dystopian quest for toilet paper, eggs and hand sanitizer … followed by a postmortem play-by-play with neighbors, walking by at safe distances, assessing the relative viability of nearby stores.

“The shelves at Fry’s are virtually empty … but we bought frozen vegetables.”

“We had luck at Target on Tuesday … found paper products and disinfectant.”

“Sprouts has a good selection of meat and chicken … eggs, too, if you shop early.”

“Albertson’s has plenty of produce … and they installed protective dividers at each register.”

Worse are the missed human connections—casualties of social distancing, such as a month of in-person choral rehearsals, gym workouts, impromptu dinners out, films at our favorite cinemas, and—most important—informal gatherings with friends. When I last checked, weren’t these the types of things that made life rich and rewarding?

One by one, we’ve replaced these face-to-face interactions with poor substitutes, slapped together with Zoom technology. (I’m sorry, though I value the online connections I’ve made with friends and bloggers around the world, nothing online comes close to true human contact for this sixty-two-year-old. Yes, I know, it’s all we have.)

It feels as if a mysterious mist has washed over me, as it did for Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams) in the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Each day, his size diminished. Thanks to the effects of social distancing, I’m watching my personal dimensions and influence—and that of every other desperate person around me—shrink.

I understand and accept the medical rationale … to flatten the curve and keep the heads of our medical community above water … but social distancing is pulling us away from the lives we’ve carefully constructed or, at the very least, become familiar with or fallen into.

No matter the number of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths on a chart, it may be years before we learn what the psychological price is for the loss of human contact we’re currently experiencing.

Like many of you, I’m angry. With the virus. With the media. Mostly, with the president. Now, left with the harsh realities of social distancing, I’m asking myself “What can I do to keep myself from becoming Scott Carey and shrinking away from the person I am?”

I don’t have revolutionary answers. Unless it’s to keep doing what I’m already doing. Writing, loving my husband and sons, praying for friends and neighbors, tending to my garden, solving puzzles, baking delectable cookies, taking long walks in a warm climate far enough away from those who stroll by, and enduring every Zoom encounter.

In the meantime, like Scott Carey, the best I can do is to rummage through my metaphorical over-sized basement. To search for tools to give me strength. To outrun the spiders that chase me in the night: a global plague; a bombastic, heartless president; an uncertain future.

What we need is a little reassurance that one day, when it no longer threatens our existence, we’ll be able to manage our way through an ordinary household situation … like inviting a friend over for a drink or a cup of coffee.

Ah, if only we could have our loved ones socially near, and our current president long gone and far away where he could no longer hurt anyone.

Far and Away

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When I look around me, it feels as if I’ve popped the lid off my space craft, poked my head outside, and discovered that I’ve landed on the face of the moon. How is it possible that this warm and dry space, these buttes and saguaros, this vast sky and terrain exist just steps from my modest home?

This is … far and away … a better life than the one I imagined. Especially when I recall a doctor in St. Louis telling me he’d discovered a blockage on the left side of my heart in 2017 on the way west. I couldn’t have predicted that personal scare. Or the global fright of this pandemic that has suddenly increased the value of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, protective masks, social distance and personal space.

What’s my point? Rarely does life turn out the way we expect it will. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s just different. Like five years ago this week. Kirk, my younger son, was on the other side of the world volunteering for the Peace Corps on the Vanuatu Islands. I was worried about his safety and well being, because a natural phenomenon was swirling and creating havoc. This is what I wrote on April 9, 2015:

Kirk is on a plane heading back to the U.S. from his Peace Corps assignment in Vanuatu. It’s been a wild ride for him — and even more so for the citizens of Vanuatu — since Cyclone Pam made a direct hit on the islands in mid March.

Perhaps there is a blessing in all of this. Kirk was able to go back to the island of Tanna, where he had been living and teaching children for the past 15 months. Sadly, much of the island was decimated and seven of the villagers lost their lives. However, he reconnected with his host family, whom all survived, and shared an Easter service with them before saying goodbye.

I can’t begin to express how proud I am of Kirk for the positive differences he has made in the lives of people on the other side of the world. This Peace Corps experience will live with him forever and though I will never meet his host family I am certain they were touched by his generous spirit, warmth and kindness.

Fortunately, since returning to the United States, Kirk’s built a good life. He received his Master of Education degree in 2019. Last fall, he landed a job in the Chicago area as a school counselor. In late March, the day before he began to shelter in place like thousands of other Chicagoans, he moved into a new apartment. He’s even kept in touch with some of his Peace Corps friends, who’ve scattered across the country since 2015.

Like all of us, Kirk is now living through another round of upheaval. The good news is I can connect with him online, over the phone, and via text. Last weekend, he took Tom and me on a virtual tour of his new space. Like five years ago, I am relieved to know he is okay physically and doing his best to adapt to this precarious situation. But, I still worry about his well being and that of his older brother Nick, who lives near us in Arizona with his family.

Tom and I see Nick more frequently. Before the world went on lockdown, we were able to squeeze in a few impromptu episodes of basketball at a safe distance at an outdoor court in Tempe. But now Nick might as well be living on the moon. We don’t expect to be with each other for a while. We’re all sheltering in place. Clamoring for the close-range contact. Hankering for the hugs, handshakes and high fives. Remembering the movie nights and mostaccioli. When will we be able to share those again?

With all that we’re missing and the Easter holiday coming this weekend, I felt the need to be together in some fashion with my immediate family … Kirk in Chicago … Nick, Aida, Mia and Tony in Tempe … Tom and me in Scottsdale.

So, on Sunday night, we’re having a virtual, non-traditional gathering. I call it Pie Time, but we’ll be sharing our favorite desserts … fruit pies and carrot cakes … from our respective homes. Thanks to Zoom, we’ll be able to see each other’s faces online. Hear our laughs. See our smiles on the screen.

It won’t be a perfect Easter, but we’re alive and well. We’ll be together in 2020. Like every other family, celebrating or not, we’ll be doing what we can to get by. Far and away. Hoping and praying for good health without knowing what tomorrow will bring.

I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.

***

At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.

Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show.  My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.

Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)

Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.

Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.

At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.

But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.

To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.

As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.

I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.

Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.

In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.

In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.

“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”

At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.

I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.

Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.

Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.

Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.

On the Other Side

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On the other side of the glass,

I see neighbors pass.

We keep our distance,

At the world’s insistence.

To make amends,

I grab my telephoto lens.

The moment is fleeting,

But this one’s worth keeping.

Better get the curve flatter,

Though silhouettes matter.

Especially when left,

By those we love best.

 

 

 

Express Yourself

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020, was a quiet morning at disc park in south Scottsdale. Vista del Camino Park is its official name, but Tom and I prefer this less formal identifier. It’s more like the scruffy disc golfers and white egrets who play and troll there.

This is the same park we walked (slowly and gingerly for me) in August 2017, just a month after my mild heart attack, when darkness descended and science produced a confirming solar eclipse for a short while.

Now the darkness is back for a more lengthy stay it appears, under global pandemic circumstances, but (despite our growing anxiety and the reported numbers of COVID-19 cases) we try to focus on the brightness in the southern sky peeking through the clouds after a morning shower.

All of us are living within newly defined parameters. The headliner is social distancing, characterized by taps of the elbow with people we would rather embrace. At worst, it feels as if we are existing in a Petri dish in some vast and diabolical experiment. At best, these new rules and regulations challenge us to find new ways to connect and express ourselves.

Last night was a perfect example. My Tuesday evenings are normally devoted to rehearsing with friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus (PMMC). It’s a community of sixty or seventy diverse and talented gay men. Given the threats of the present pandemic, our regular, in-person singing sessions have been cancelled for the next few  weeks. Possibly longer. We don’t know what the future will bring.

But on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, what would normally have been a raucous Tuesday of singing and mingling, became an online vocal experiment. Our choral leaders hatched a scheme to rehearse through Facebook Live.

In the face of social distancing we’re using social media to assemble first and second tenors on Tuesday evenings–baritones and basses on Thursday nights–to fine-tune and polish our selection of twenty-two, gay-anthem tunes for our still-planned Born This Way performances in June. We’re also attempting to maintain our sense of community in these uncertain times.

Last night at 7 o’clock we began to travel and sing down this new virtual road together. I sat in front of my laptop in Scottsdale with my music close at hand. The other tenors did the same from their respective homes. Marc, our artistic director, and three other PMMC leaders took turns singing the music. They asked us to do the same from our remote locations.

Don’t go for second best baby; put your love to the test. You know, you know you got to make him express how he feels and maybe then you’ll know your love is real … 

If you love Madonna (and, honestly, who doesn’t?), you’ll recognize these lyrics from Express Yourself, her 1989 smash hit. It was the first song we sang together in our virtual vocal experiment.

By the time rehearsal ended at 9:30, we had run through another six or seven other numbers and exchanged countless constructive and snarky comments online. All that really matters is the experiment worked. We stayed connected. We kept our voices oiled. Our spirits soothed.

This morning on my walk with Tom, I wasn’t ready to let St. Patrick’s Day 2020 go just yet. As we stepped out of our car, I decided it was perfectly fine and appropriate–within social distancing guidelines–to unveil my shamrock socks for all the pandemic world to see.

To express myself. To keep my voice and spirit alive here in the Valley of the Sun.

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