Sunday, April 14, 2013


With all traveling adventures there is the final leg, the trip home. From the air I surveyed the red rock country's deep canyons and snowcapped mountains. We followed the winding course of the Snake river before turning east. We crossed the great, flat plains that are the center, some say the heart of the country. Pressed out by the immense weight of ancient glaciers their soil is among the richest in the world. Much of what feeds the U.S. comes from the farms and fields that passed beneath me.

I continue to Chicago and home, that small warm place I have carved out for myself within my cities muscular street grid. That place where I can shut the door and feel safe. Where I can rest when I grow weary of the chaos of live.

My apartment overlooks the neighborhoods on the west side of the city. There I can look across them and be happy that I am a part of them and also be thankful that I have a place where I can find respite when it all just seems too much.  I yearn for travel because it broadens my soul, I yearn for home because it restores it.

Just Outside of Phoenix - Ancient Lives and Natural Wonders

I had requested, prior to my arrival, a visit to the ruins of a cliffside dwelling in the desert outside of town know as "Montezuma's Castle." As in many newer U.S. cities it takes quite a while to get "out of town", but after a time I found myself looking at a desert landscape of odd, austere beauty. We climbed out of the valley where Phoenix is located, the rain had turned the mountains surrounding the city were more verdant than I had ever seen them, into a land of mesquite, the broad leafs of prickly pears and saguaro cactus with their branched arms raised upward resembling an attitude of prayer.

We passed small creeks and rivers, on their banks thin lines of trees took advantage of these rare water sources in the otherwise dry enviorment. As we began to reach the mountains peaks I was treated to a breathtaking vista. The mountains dove down to the valley floor below. On the far side of the valley cliffs bearing bands of red, white and pale yellow revealed themselves. Further in the distance snowcapped mountaintops were visible, standing majestic and tall above the straited cliffs. The sky was a brilliant cloudless blue.

Reaching our destination and stepping out of the car we were greeted by air that was refreshing, pleasantly cool and pure.We paid our fee and entered the site. A minor disappointment was that we were not in the line manned by the adorable, red haired, bearded park ranger but in the line of the older, more grizzled one. Over the years, however, I have come to not dwell on opportunities missed and we moved on. The cliff dwelling is one of the best preserved of such sites in the Southwest. Accessed from the valley floor in ancient times by ladders, it stands several stories tall. An equally impressive structure once stood on the floor of the valley to one side of the cliff dwelling. It has long since deteriorated and only the outline of the buildings foundation remains. Holes in the rock wall where posts were secured to hold up the structures several levels suggest it's impressive original size. The plants in the area are marked with signs containing information about them and what the ancient people living here used them for such as making twine or medicines. Information on how they were prepared as food sources is also displayed. Some fruits and berries were made into delicacies. The desert of the era. The sap of one tree was used as a form of adhesive. We wondered as we read the signs how the people discovered how these plants could be used in what were often ingenious ways. A surprisingly large river in this desert setting provided an abundant water source for both drinking and irrigating crops.The surviving examples of the cloth woven by these people is beautiful bearing intricate patterns.

We returned to the car and headed to Sedona. Although it is a location I have never felt particularly compelled to visit, this, it being in the area, seemed and opportune time to take a look at what I have heard so many people rave about. It is as I imagined it to be, a place of stunning natural beauty marred by the excesses of tourism. The red rock formations are towering, impressive examples of the sculpting capabilities of weather and time. We drove to a high point overlooking the valley. I marveled at the russet pinnacles and the hues the elements have exposed in the sides of the rock walls. The flawless blue sky against the rock spires and walls created a crisp, vivid kaleidoscope of colors.

We continued on to Jerome. Perched high on a mountainside, romantically named Cleopatra Hill, it was once know as the "wickedest town in the west". A copper mining town, at it's height in the 1920's it boasted a population of 15,000. By the early 1950's the population had dwindled to between 50 and 100 people. These remaining residents began to promote the Jerome as a historic ghost town. In 1967 it was designated a National Historic District. Today it has a population of about 450. After suffering fires in the late 1800's, it's streets are now lined with the reconstruction from that era as well as buildings dating from the early portion of the 20th century. The buildings have been turned into shops, bars and restaurants. There are also a handful of historic hotels and bed and breakfasts. The town affords the visitor incredible views across the valley to the multihued cliffs beyond. We lunched at the "Mile High Grill", so named because it stands 1 mile above sea level. We wandered the streets, stepping into the lobby of a silent move house built during the towns heyday, and delighted at the look and feel of the venerable structures which climb up the hillside.

Passing through the desert returning to Phoenix the saguaro stood like sentinels overlooking and guarding the harsh terrain as hawks floated overhead surveying the arid, forbidding landscape in search of their next meal. 



Thursday, April 11, 2013

Phoenix - More Gym, More Drinks and Find a Grave

The expected Phoenix sun had finally appeared. Once again we made our way to the gym, a recurring theme during my visits to Phoenix. As I worked out I once again enjoyed the assortment of eye candy on display. I'm certain that were I a regular habitue of this particular facility the view would become more routine, however, since I was a visitor passing through there was still a novelty factor in play.

I was, at last, able to enjoy the spring time, southwest rays in the back yard. Our plan was to take in the local Sunday afternoon gay bar scene, starting with, at my request, an establishment with a sizable outdoor space. Enjoying a drink outdoors, indeed enjoying anything outdoors, can be challenging in Chicago in March. We ended up visiting 3 bars that afternoon. Cocktails were also a recurring theme during this visit.

One of my hosts has been active on a networking web site called "Find a Grave". Online memorials are created and requests are sent out for photos of grave markers or memorabilia celebrating the life of the deceased. On this day he was going out to the nearby Veteran's Cemetery to locate and photograph grave markers.

As a child traveling with my family visits to cemeteries were often on our itinerary. Not only did my mother have a fondness for gothic horror and the macabre, she also understood the lessons in history that could be learned by these cemetery visits, particularly older ones. Viewing the resting place of one who is particularly admired or historically important can often instill a feeling of connection with them. In some cases it may spark interest in further study and exploration. I remember going through cemeteries on a trip to the east coast visiting the graves of the founders of the U.S., and later, on a trip to Dayton as an adult, visiting the gravesites of the founder of the Huffy bicycle company and the Wright Brothers.

The day was bright and sunny but the sun had not yet reached it's full height and heat. Our time was concentrated on the columbarium. While my host took photos of the memorials behind which rested the cremated remains of those who had served in the Armed Forces, I spent my time reading the epitaphs.

There were the ones you would expect to encounter, husbands and wives sharing a space with the word "Together Forever" carved on the memorial plaque. Others remembered the deceased as "Beloved Father", "Beloved Mother", Beloved Son, or "Beloved Daughter". Some were whimsical, "Gone Fishin"or "Lining up on the First Tee". There must have been quite a pair of mouths on the couple who were remembered with "Cursing Together Forever". Some were poetic, "2nd Star to the Right, Straight on Till Morning". One that had a particular effect on me read "Now You Can Dance Again". There was the unexpected, a memorial to the Mayor of Phoenix from 1964 to 1970.
I was saddened by memorials to the young men and women killed in our senseless conflict in the Middle East. Many of them decades younger that I, I pondered what their future would have held.
I tried to imagine the lives lived alone after the death of a spouse of many years or the history that had been witnessed by those who lived to see 90 years of change.

I tried to imagine a utopia where places like these would no longer be necessary. A time when mankind could learn to live without armed conflict. I tried to imagine a time when respect and tolerance would result in a world at peace.

Phoenix - A Trip to Oz

 Dateline - Phoenix - Saturday - oddly cold.

The temperature did not break 70 all day. Gray clouds hung overhead, a dark, pendulous hand blocking out the warmth and sun. When we awoke it was only 7 degrees warmer than Chicago.

A return trip to the gym proved somewhat amusing as the workout crowd, in their sleeveless shirts, unsuitable for such cold conditions, moved from their cars to the gym's doors at what almost amounted to a dead run. The weekend gym rat eye candy was a little more age diverse than the weekday eye candy consumed over our previous visit. Some pushed 40 with an occasional 50 something among the crowd.

Our plan, due to unfavorable climactic conditions, was to see the new Disney feature "Oz, The Great and Powerful". Returning to the house and and looking online we were assaulted with a dizzying array of viewing choices. IMAX with 3D, 3D without IMAX or viewing the movie on a regular screen,without any gadgets, baubles, bangles or beads. My personal feeling about IMAX is that when it was first introduced 40 years or so ago, it was an interesting novelty. I recall, I believe it was at Disneyland, sitting in a theatre watching an oversized view of the Grand Canyon. Today it seems it is used for virtually everything. Perhaps it is my age talking but feeling as if I could walk into an actors nostril and stroll about in his sinus cavity is just not my cup of tea. We chose the old fashioned, unadorned version, much like the movies my grandmother may have watched in her youth.

The movie is a mixed bag. James Franco's smarmy, stoner boy persona works....occasionally. Rachel Wieze is reliably brilliant and lovely, Zach Braff voices the winged monkey character of Finley nicely and director Sam Raimi wisely chooses to focus on the remarkable face of Mila Kunis, as opposed to her limited acting abilities. It has a wonderful, ambitious, almost continuous Danny Elfman penned musical score. Granted it is difficult for me to be objective about this since I have been a major fan of his since his days as frontman for Oingo Boingo. I once exchanged exactly three words with him at a champagne reception after a concert in Chicago. My "Nice show" was answered with a rather surly "Thanks". This brief, unprepossessing, verging on rude, encounter did nothing to dim my appreciation for his musical abilities, or for that matter the impressive biceps he sported in that era. The CG effects are universally excellent, some of the best I've seen and the story serves as a good prequel to the older, more familiar Judy Garland version of the story.

We returned home, had dinner....and more drinks. My personal contribution to the evening was guacamole and chips, a homage to the Southwest environs I was enjoying. We sat around the table deciding what to do next, settling on watching "Chicago"....while having yet more drinks. It is somewhat ironic that a movie which bears the title of my beloved home town was, up till then, a movie I had not seen. I had been cheating myself. The wonderful Kantor and Ebb score, Bob Fosse inspired choreography and excellent performances, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifa are particular standouts, make for a sublime viewing experience. It also brought me and my host back to the time we had seen it onstage during his days living in Chicago.

My personal prayer that evening as I went to bed was that my hangover in the morning would not be too severe. It is something I have prayed for before, with varying degrees of success.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Phoenix - Random Observations on a Friday Night

We once again whiled away the time before heading out to pick up my other host and partake of happy hour at a gay bar located, by Phoenix standards, near his office. The drinking establishment opens onto a long narrow space the bar running along one side. In the back there is a more open area with high tables surrounded by stools. There is also an outdoor area, more thinly populated that usual due to the rain, wind and cold. We quickly copped a table and placed our orders with the dimple faced, rather cute, although refreshingly not self consciously so, waiter. His tweed driving cap served to accentuate his youthful adorable quotient. The deep v of his sweatshirt revealed a thin but taut and tanned chest. My host ran into someone he knew from Scruff, a gay networking phone app. He was there with a friend of his visiting from...Chicago. As I've stated in other posts I often meet people either from, of with a connection to, Chicago when I travel.

As it was 7:00 on a Friday night we had to wait 20 minutes at the restaurant we chose for dinner, partly due to the outdoor seating area being closed on account of the climactic conditions. The rain was once again upon us, heavy and wind driven. 

I sometimes enjoy observing people in situations where they are engaged in a particular activity for an extended period of time. I observe the straight boys greeting each other with fist bumps and spotting each other while working out at the gym. Mentally, sometimes almost physically, circling one another to determine who is the alpha dog. Or men in a store unsure of what they can purchase that will keep their wife's ire at bay. I create in my mind various scenarios suggested by the actions of the people surrounding me. At dinner that night across from us sat a party of 4. A younger man, extremely handsome, black baseball cap on his head, his tight gray tee shirt nicely displaying his large muscular physique, his thick arms heavily tattooed. Beside him a woman of the same age. Tiny, almost wizened, her hair caught up on top of her head in a severe tight bun. Her hands were constantly on the bodybuilder's shoulders arms or neck, almost as if protecting her territory. They both wore what appeared to be wedding rings. Across from them sat 2 older men. They appeared to be a gay couple. Who were they? What was their relationship to the 2 young people? The younger man seemed to be quite at ease with them, often flashing a disarmingly cute smile. The girl looked uncomfortable and out of her element. Were they the uncle along with his partner of the young man? Was the girl uncomfortable with gay men, hence her constant pawing of the large boy? Was this an initial meeting with these men, perhaps the boys relatives, with all the anxiety which can sometimes accompany those first encounters? Sometimes I wish I had the answers to these questions, other times it is more fun to just make stuff up.

Running through a cold, heavy rain, to the car we returned to the house and determined that, despite a hearty dinner we had been overserved. We retired early and passed a peaceful night, if you discount the massive hailstorm that passed over at 2:00 in the morning.

Phoenix - Day 2 - Caution! Eye Candy Will Sometimes Melt in the Rain

I usually awake at 6 in the morning. This is true even on my days off as I generally have a laundry list of things I need to accomplish. Unfortunately, this also seems to hold true on vacations, unless I find myself out carousing until the wee hours of the night. It was raining, intermittently. This was forecast and expected. As the day was supposed to continue cool and wet we decided we would embark on a quest. My partner ha suggested, after her performance on the Oscars, that we needed to have a Shirley Bassey CD in our musical library. I decided that this would be a great idea for his Easter Basket this year. We engaged in some online research and came with several possibilities for places in Phoenix where we could obtain one. We also planned to go to the gym. As the majority of places seem to be located near it we decided we will shower there, as opposed to before leaving the house.

One of the convenient parts of these visits is that my hosts and I hold memberships to the same gym chain. My gym at home is rather working class in nature. It is clean and functionable but has not been remodeled or updated in a number of years. Their gym, by comparison, is modern and upscale almost to a fault. It is large, with separate rooms for cardio and weight training. The white weight machines are so new and clean that they almost gleam in the ample light. At home the gym is lit by bare florescent bulbs and modified schoolhouse fixtures. At my home gym in Chicago form decidedly follows function.

I find weight training to be an excellent form of stress relief. It is, for me, almost meditative in nature. I will also admit that, as a gay man, there is a certain prurient element to being among men in sleeveless shirts and shorts with buff bodies picking heavy things up and putting them down again. It seemed the inhabitants of the Phoenix gym on that late weekday morning were pushing 30 or pushing 70 with not alot of variants in between. There was a reasonable amount of eye candy, which, after years spent in gyms, I have learned to consume discretely. I am not certain that it was any better or worse that my gym sugar diet at home, just different, therefore novel.

Outside it was gray, cool and rainy. Showers popped up and disappeared. It was excellent weather for CD shopping as that is generally an indoor activity. A brief search was conducted at Target, essentially because it was in the same strip mall as the gym. Target, I've discovered over several visits there, has a fairly sizable CD assortment. I procured a CD titled "Etta James Greatest Hits", basically because it was $5. My host suggested that outside of "At Last", he would be hard pressed to name another song made famous by the singer and wondered what then would constitute "Greatest Hits"? We visited 2 other stores before scoring a used version of "Shirley Bassey's Greatest Hits" ( Yes,I see a pattern developing). The used CD/vinyl/book stores resembled the shops along Telegraph Avenue outside of UC Berkeley I use to peruse in my youth. They were manned by young people with a romantic vision of the 60's and early 70's, adopting the hair and fashion of that era. It was somewhat sobering to realize that they, and most probably their parents, were not yet born during my long haired, tye dyed, patched jeans teen years.

The showers came and went, then came again. By the time we returned to the house there were torrents of rain. Water poured off the eaves of the tiled roof and collected in pools in the yard. For the first time in my visits there I saw water rushing down the rock lined arroyos.  


Friday, April 5, 2013

Phoenix - Day One - A Tale of Early Arrivals, Classical Music and Scotch

I found myself at O'Hare airport waiting for my flight for my annual trip to visit with my friends in Phoenix. The relationship goes back 2 decades now and I always relish the few days I get to spend with them each year.

Chicago's fabled winter arrived late this year but made up for it's tardiness with constant cold and frequent snow. Although there were never sustained periods of below zero temperatures and we never experienced a single outlandish snow storm, there was a consistency to this winter. Thermometers held fast below freezing for weeks at a time and 6 to 7 inch snowfalls appeared on an almost weekly basis. A brief respite of 70's and sun is sorely needed. This coupled with the steep learning curve of a new job leaves me yearning for this break from my day to day routine and change of scenery.

My down jacket is in my suitcase in the baggage hold, I am in my seat, my seat belt securely fastened and will soon be in the air. Ironically, our most significant snow occurred just two days earlier. 8 to 12 inches, depending on location, fell over a period of 24 hours. The roofs and yards of the houses lining the sinuous streets of the suburban subdivisions are covered in a winter mantle of white. In the forest preserves clustered around O'Hare the flat white blanket is broken by the irregular brown shapes of bare trees. Soon clouds are beneath me obscuring the landscape. In a little over 3 hours I will find myself in a topography of sand, cactus, mountains and the austere beauty of the Arizona desert.

I wake up from an unexpectedly deep nap and find the clouds no longer block my view. Below me are red rock canyons topped by a layer of pale yellow, the color of a cantaloupe shell. It is an amazing perspective. It tells the story of the ages spent building the earth up and then the ages spent by rivers and wind creating the deep crevices, revealing the striated colors. High snow covered peaks appear, late season ski meccas. Newer, yellow canyons begin to mix with the red in the pale brown desert beyond the snowy mountains. The plane begins to descend over Phoenix. It is low slung and spreads out for miles.

The pilot comes over the PA system. "Sometimes you get lucky" he announces "We have arrived early!" 25 minutes early to be exact. This is only lucky if the person you are expecting to pick you up is not still on the road as you are getting off the plane. I call and find my "wheels" are, indeed, 15 to 20 minutes away. The online info he looked up says that I am several thousand feet over New Mexico. I assure him that is false and I am on the ground in Arizona. By the time I get my bag we are mere minutes apart and all ends well as I chuck my bag into the trunk. We depart for lunch at on outdoor restaurant, a rare treat in March for a winter challenged Midwesterner like myself. We while away a couple of hours before leaving to pick up my other host at work en route to the symphony that night.

The guest conductor that evening is a small, highly animated Asian woman. Not only is she highly skilled she was a joy to watch. Her delight in music and her work was evident in every move. The main piece that evening was a work for cello involving a guest musician who, were it not for the mastery of his instrument, would verge on pretentious. He seemed to be infatuated with flinging his slightly shaggy hair about as he performed. During this piece the orchestra is essentially background to the cello. The conductor was extremely adept at maintaining them at the proper level of both volume and energy level, not an easy feat.

Prior to the symphony we stopped at a bar down the street from the hall. One of my hosts has been on a year long exploration of scotches, whiskies and bourbons. This bar vends a number of different varieties, some of them rather exotic. It's previous incarnation as a men's clothing store is evidenced by it's showcase windows and the signs still hanging on the wall noting the men's clothing designers formerly carried there. In the basement, within a wire mesh enclosure, is a homage to Di Vinci's "Last Supper" recreated using a collection of, mostly female, children's dolls. It is an imaginative and witty installation.

Upon returning to their home I sampled a white whiskey, a brew unbeknowst to me up until that point. It tasted like whisky, although seemed somewhat lighter. It was a pleasant night cap to my day.