I took a walk this afternoon. I brought my digital camera and telephoto lens. We didn’t venture far. We simply observed nature in our immediate neighborhood for thirty minutes. This is what we brought home.
We can’t deny the numbers, the visible signs of pain. As I write this, there are upwards of 1.2 million documented COVID-19 cases globally (64,580 dead … 246,110 recovered). More than 311,000 cases here in the United States (8,452 dead … 14,471 recovered). Endless stories of inadequate supplies and presidential lies.
Though I live in a less populated area of Arizona and have been fortunate (so far) to dodge this global pandemic in a physical sense, the emotional challenge is more problematic.
On a daily basis, I worry about the welfare of my husband, my sons, my friends, my neighbors, myself. I feel my anger, anxiety and sadness abound as the gaps in social distancing widen. All of my churning emotions live close to the surface like the Hole-in-the-Rock buttes that pile upon each other in Papago Park. Trails there are now closed indefinitely. As is the normally crowded outdoor pool in the center of our condo community. That expected, but new, wrinkle in the stay-at-home order from Governor Ducey took effect tonight at 5 p.m.
Though with each passing day our normally vibrant community becomes more desolate and cordoned off, Tom and I realize we’re luckier than most Americans. We live in a warm, wide open space. We’re finding creative ways to communicate, cope and release the negative energy.
Free weights and yoga in our sun room to replace past workouts at the community gym. A jigsaw puzzle of neon hotel signs constructed on a large piece of cardboard on our kitchen table. Daily walks and conversations along the canal or at a nearby Scottsdale park. Endless home-cooked meals. Today, that included a batch of chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies.
So, not all of our visible signs tell stories of death or inactivity (2,000 COVID-19 cases in Arizona so far, including another 250 today). Nature sets the best example. Hawks and ospreys still soar unrestrained high above the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape. Lizards scamper in the afternoon sun. Cactus blooms burst with April color.
A mourning dove nests with her newborn in the crux of a neighbor’s bush. A gaggle of Gambel’s quail skitter down the sidewalk. I wonder what could prompt them to be in such a hurry. Perhaps they’ve discovered a ready supply of masks and ventilators.
It helps calm my nerves to see these signs of nature, these visible truths mixed with my own creative storytelling. Because I know the alternative. What it meant to spend a significant portion of my adult life in my twenties, thirties and early forties … inauthentic and invisible to the world as a closeted gay man.
Of course, that’s all ancient history now. I’ve been happily living out of the closet for quite some time now. But it helps to remind myself of my truth and the visible signs that got me here.
Like a moment about fifteen years ago here in Arizona. Tom and I were visiting Scottsdale in May. Staying at the Fire Sky resort (which no longer exists). My kind and generous husband reserved a room for us there for several nights because the pool near our condo (the one we usually enjoy and now live near permanently) was closed for repairs.
Magically, it seemed, we found ourselves sipping frilly drinks in lounge chairs by the luxurious Fire Sky pool. Without much notice, two rather gregarious, somewhat attractive and smartly accessorized women with sex in their eyes approached us. One leaned in with her husky Suzanne Pleshette voice and offered this inquiry … “Where are your wives?”
It felt as if I pondered her question for a considerable time. Perhaps fifteen minutes? Eventually, I smiled up at her and replied … “He’s sitting next to me.”
“Oh, you’re a couple,” she acknowledged without judgement. A few moments later, we concluded our brief, yet authentic, conversation. Suzanne and her friend Daphne (not their names) walked away. Perhaps to pursue another possibility or two.
After they left … proud of my May outing … I smiled at my future husband seated at my left. I sipped on the sweet nectar of my Pina Colada, astonished at the words I had blurted more boldly than I could have imagined.
With fire in the sky and love in my heart, I had somehow mustered the courage to set the record straight. There was no doubt. I was most definitely gay. It was a positive visible sign. I hadn’t allowed another inauthentic opportunity to pass uncorrected.
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.
This catastrophic day began innocently and pleasantly enough. At 8:55 a.m. Tom and I pulled up to my dermatologist’s office. I returned for a follow-up visit with Dr. R … seven weeks after the last of my twenty superficial radiotherapy treatments designed to heal my left hand.
After I waved to Amanda, his assistant who I bonded with three times a week for the second half of December and two-thirds of January, Dr. R. scanned my left hand and pronounced it healed. Sweet relief. Happily, his recommended course of action eradicated the evil invasive squamous cancer cells that set up shop in November.
Tom and I celebrated with a walk along the nearby cross-cut canal. We inhaled the desert air, saturated with the scent of blooming orange blossoms. At one point, we crossed paths with an Australian shepherd named Ozzie and his walker. (The Baby Boomers in us joked and wondered if her name might be Harriet.) No matter. The adorable tri-colored pooch had one brown and one blue eye. I should have known the day would deliver mixed results.
The tide turned. I received an ominous text from a friend. He’s a healthcare professional. Over the weekend, one of his clients tested positive for COVID-19. I texted back. “I’m here for you. Let me know if you need or want to talk.” Earlier in the day, I sent a similar message of support and encouragement to another friend, quarantined in his home with symptoms and a horrible week-old story about his inability to get tested in a broken healthcare system.
As the day progressed, I worried about them both. I tried to maintain some sense of normalcy. Tom and I–teetering on a tightrope between our colossal canal experience and the pandemic realities of our day–squeezed in a game of Scrabble at a local coffee shop.
Though it may sound ill-advised, a trip to our community gym followed to release our anxiety and strengthen our hearts and surrounding muscles. We wiped down the machines before and after our workouts, kept our distance from a smattering of other familiar patrons, and slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer on the way out the door.
This is what a global pandemic will do for you. Chaotic and cataclysmic. Stunning and surreal. News you can’t deny or escape. A hoarding society of empty shelves of toilet paper. An ill-equipped nation trying to flatten the curve. An under-qualified-and-over-inflated president (that’s the kindest description I can offer).
More bad news every moment. Rising numbers of infections and death. Endless lists of school and work closings. Restaurant and bar closings. Church and gym closings. No yoga classes for the next three Fridays. No in-person choral rehearsals on Tuesdays with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus until April 5. We’ll try singing via telecommuting. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of its season to no earlier than mid-May. That’s the least of our problems, though we would welcome the late-arriving national pastime.
Of course, these are all sound decisions. Life and death decisions. Declarations to hunker down and distance ourselves–groups of less than ten only please–as more than ten “leaders” stand in two rows in front of common microphones. A plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped another 3,000 points before the bell finally rang today.
What does it all mean? We’re told the worst is yet to come. This feels awful enough. Indeed, most Americans would prefer to forget March 16, 2020. But we’d better remember it when we vote in our general election in November.
Better news later in the afternoon here in the desert. A ray of natural beauty appeared outside our front door. Hopefully, a hand-delivered harbinger of love. Delivered by the month of March.
The ice plant bloometh.
Oh profoundly-prickly-and-possibly-prophetic pandemic,
Though our protectors should have prepared painstakingly,
We plan to protect our petals from your thorny problems,
We promise to follow nature’s prescription to bloom in place.
On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.
S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.
On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.
But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.
Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.
But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.
During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.
There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.
This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.
As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.
Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.
But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.
They are all with me on my journey.
I suppose local meteorologists would tell you we have four seasons in the Valley of the Sun. But I wouldn’t characterize them as the same qualifying quadrants most residents of the northern hemisphere experience.
We don’t really have spring, summer, fall and winter in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instead, after living here year-round for the past two-and-a-half years, I would describe our seasons as spring (February and March), summer (April and May), mega-summer (our 100-plus oven existence of June through September), and autumn (October through January).
Nothing approaching arctic sensibility occurs here in February or anytime for that matter. Though, like this transformation of the seasons, I acknowledge that living in the Sonoran Desert I have become a different version of myself. I have shed my larger epidermis and middle-aged Midwestern fat deposits and reemerged as a trimmer-and-thinner-skinned desert rat.
Whenever I grab my hoodie on the way out the door on a sixty-degree day, after plucking another daily dose of Plavix generic substitute from my pill tray and gulping it with juice, it is evidence of my lighter persona. Now, my more swiftly-flowing, sixty-something blood often requires an extra man-made layer.
In addition to the physical changes in my Arizona existence, most assuredly February in the Sonoran Desert is nothing like the sled-riding, snow-blowing scenes of my past. It is sweet-and-sparkling spring time when the Acacia trees bloom. Cool forty-degree temperatures in the mornings. Bright seventy-degree afternoons. Just the right combination for wildflowers, which have suddenly decided to display their blossoms along roadsides, arid avenues and neighborhood yards.
Even our container of snapdragons is getting into the spring fling act. Tucked under the eaves of our front window, the elongated yellow blooms have begun to emerge from seedling skulls, which we dried and saved from the previous batch the year before.
In a few weeks, I expect our entire pot of snapdragons will be ablaze in color. Then, when the temperatures rise and April becomes May, the stalks will begin to dry and wither in the torrid summer sun.
Never fear. Tom and I will salvage the seeds. Save them for the next cycle. Wait for them to bloom again in a future February in Scottsdale, Arizona.