Thursday, April 24, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - Air Travel is so Glamorous

I photos of times gone by airport terminals are portrayed as space age structures filled with smartly dressed people going to or returning from exotic destinations. I sometimes think of this as I stand in a long line waiting my turn to punch a series of numbers into a machine which will print my boarding pass. I than swipe my credit card and experience the privilege of paying $25 dollars to check my bag praying that it gets to the correct plane and is returned to me unmolested. I than join a crowd resembling a scene from a biblical epic advertised as featuring a "cast of thousands". I remove a third of my clothing and after being poked, prodded, scanned and x-rayed am allowed to proceed to my gate, walking down a stretch of stained industrial carpeting. We then wait to board sitting in chairs that seem to have been designed by practitioners of the medieval art of torture.

Aboard the plane I am seated next to someone staring at their phone or laptop, buds in their ears, determined not to speak to me or acknowledge my existence even though our knees are no more than one inch apart for several hours. Surly people walk by offering passengers a minute amount of a selection of soft drinks. A day old sandwich can be purchased at the cost of a 4 course meal.

As we land I stand up only to realize that I have lost all feeling in my legs.

God it's good to be home..........

Monday, April 14, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - Cactus Flower

There are some who view the desert as barren and ugly. I am not one of those. To me the desert contains a beauty that is defined by it's austerity. It wears it's beauty with a confidence that verges on haughtiness. Unlike the lushness of a forest or the spectacular sight of majestic mountains the desert demands that you observe it's details.

The tiny speckled lizard moving along the rocky ground, it's mottled skin providing excellent camouflage, it's cold blood allowing it to survive in the searing heat of an Arizona summer. The brown desert hare's coloring makes the little creature believe it can escape detection yet still sometimes makes a tasty meal for the roaming coyote or the hawk floating overhead displaying it's formidable wingspan.

Desert flowers do not come in fields but punctuate the sand and dry dirt with small bursts of color. When conditions are right  tiny blossoms appear on the tops of barrel cactus as the prickly pear displays it's delicately shaded pink fruit. There are the saguaros, the elders of this landscape. I have been told that it takes 60 years for a bud to form which will eventually grow into one of the plants trademark arms. The precious resource of water in these arid conditions make it necessary that these giants grow apart from one another. On hillsides they appear alone, isolated like hermit sages pondering life with the wisdom that can accompany immense age.

The terrain reveals almost imponderable history. Plates of the earth collide creating mountains. Over eons their hard rock summits, eroded by sand and wind, are sculpted into other worldly creations of cracks, crags and crevices. Where rivers cut deep canyons into the rock striations of color can be experienced. Each stripe represents a different era of existence. The crushed remains of creatures that inhabited the area when it was a sea. The mud as the sea dried. History as told by a horizontal rainbow.

Despite it's vastness the desert cannot be viewed as a big picture. To fully appreciate it you have to observe the details.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - Dogs, Cats and Creepy Crawly Things

My hosts have a dog. Although I am no stranger to them, we always had outdoor dogs growing up and several of our friends have dogs, we do not. We own a cat, or more accurately, a cat owns us. It has been a number of decades since I have lived with a dog. Being with one day to day is one of the experiences that make these visits novel for me.

Our cat has a schedule. She allows us to believe that we have set this agenda although I secretly understand that the opposite is the real truth. Each morning, promptly at 6:00 a.m., the time I wake up, her food bowl is refilled and crunchy treats, important to her dental health, are doled out. I, many mornings, find her in the hall staring at the bedroom door as I emerge. On those days where she feels that I have tarried too long in bed I can hear her scratching her paws against the door. Once in the kitchen god forbid I should attempt to brew coffee before attending to her. She makes it clear that such action will provoke an unpleasant reaction.

Dogs are more grateful. They may enjoy walks, even to the point of learning what the word "walk" sounds like, but they do not ask for them. When it is clear that a walk is in the offing they behave as if is is the greatest point in their life thus far, each and every time. A dog may beg for food, but, if it's request is ignored it will amuse itself with some other activity until it is fed. Again, the food or treat is accepted with a level of gratitude that a cat would find not only unnecessary, but demeaning and beneath it's dignity.

My hosts dog has a habit of lying it's head across one's leg while at the dining table. Apparently it's more softhearted dad will occasionally reward this action with a tidbit from his plate. Although it tried this tactic with me, she met with no success. I did admire her tenacity however since she repeated the action at every meal.

Dog's follow their people around the house, tails wagging. Cats assume you will always be there, after all you have been so far, off and on, so there is no need for such an overt display of affection. People love their dogs, cats allow themselves to be loved, up to a point and within reason. If you have the time space and schedule for a dog they are a wonderful companion. As we have none of these we have a cat. A spoiled princess whose pampered life I sometimes envy.

I enjoy this time with the dog. I watched with amusement as she interacted with other dogs at the park. There is a childlike innocence to dogs. She was sweet and wonderful company as she laid near me in the back yard, both of us soaking up the warmth of the desert's spring sunshine.

During my stay I discovered that I was not the only guest. A scorpion had taken up lodgings in the laundry rooms overhead light fixture. Judging from photos posted by my hosts on Facebook, this is not an uncommon occurrence. It became a ritual each time we entered and left through the laundry room door to check in on it and see what new portion of the opaque fixture it had chosen to explore. Sometimes it's great to live on the 9th floor, as I do, where any such visitor would pass out from exhaustion before dropping in on us.

Phoenix 2014 - A Gay Ole Time

It has become habit during these visits is to sample the gay life of this sunbelt city. Although some of the places we have been over the years have closed or changed hands three have become mainstays.

The most glamorous of these is Kobalt. A long narrow entrance opens to an area in back furnished  with high tables and stools, with an adjacent patio filled with smokers. Small video screens show an eclectic mix of music. Friday afternoon's Happy Hour draws a sizable, but not overwhelming crowd.  My hosts always seem to know, socially, not biblically, someone there each time we have gone. The crowd is as eclectic as the musical choices. A mix of ages, some of the customers attractive, some not. Some of the physiques well toned, some not. All casually attired as is the norm in Phoenix. This, even on a Friday after work, is not a suit and tie crowd.

On Sundays, at my request, we visit The Bunkhouse. There the crowd is more bear like. Not necessarily my cup of tea but it contains a large outdoor space and I enjoy the novelty of sipping an adult beverage in the open air in March. This is not an activity I can indulge in during that time of year in Chicago for fear of frostbite.

Finally my hosts enjoy Ice Picks, partially due to the show tunes they play on Sunday afternoons. On this years visit we were served by an adorable, diminutive bartender with a head shaved bald as a cueball. He was sweet, attentive, good natured and more than a little flirtatious, all important attributes of an employee in a gay establishment. Here my hosts encountered someone they knew.....socially, who was also hosting a guest from Chicago. Later I realized that I had met these same two on my previous visit, albeit at the aforementioned Kobalt. Apparently his guest and I get fed up with the Midwest cold at the same time.

Alas, due to internet chat rooms and the attrition of the gay old guard, of which I am one of the few surviving members, homosexual social life is not what it once was. I often struggle with this reality attempting to accept what is and realize that what was cannot be recreated. Understand that my memories of the time are that eras only remaining reality.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - Chihuly - Glass in a Garden

One of the activities I was most looking forward to on this trip was a visit to the Phoenix Botanical Gardens and their exhibit of glass sculptures by the artist Chihuly. The gardens are located in either Scottsdale, Tempe or Phoenix depending on whose phone GPS we were consulting at any given time. I had viewed a similar exhibit at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory some years back. My understanding is that these exhibits are created and curated to be site specific, the artwork displayed to seem integral to their surroundings, not incidental. One of my hosts mentioned on the drive over that viewing the art and gardens would be one aspect of the visit, viewing the other visitors another equally and as it turned out entertaining aspect.

The botanical gardens are unique in that, being located outdoors all specimens need to be able to withstand the sometimes harsh climactic conditions of the Arizona desert. We began in the wildflower loop. Due to the rains of the previous week the area was a riot of color. One of the state's famous red rock formations loomed above as if keeping a watchful eye on the desert blossoms.

The sculptures twisted and wound in a profusion of brilliant shades among the seemingly endless varieties of cactus and succulents. Some of the flowers and plants brought back memories of my childhood years in L.A., whose climate shares many of the characteristics of it's eastern cousin. Large mutihued globes rested on the ground in some places. Spikes of orange, purple and red glass towered above them. A boat in a small pond surrounded by reeds held a sculpture resembling a pile of impossibly colored gourds. Other works sat in the water nearby looking like icebergs resisting the urge to melt away in the bright sunlight. A hanging piece which brought to mind gaily colored children's balls stirred slightly in the gentle breeze. My host's favorite piece was located in a small plaza, a spiky white and purple tower surrounded by delicate transparent sculptures resembling blown glass Easter lilies.

As the sun set the glass artworks reflected the glow from the spotlights trained on them. A series of neon panels created a spectacle on an adjacent hillside. While the light accentuated the form of the artworks the darkness divorced them from the surroundings that they were so skillfully designed to integrate with.

The gardens were crowded, due in part to several weddings taking place that Saturday afternoon. Our people watching switched into high gear. At one reception being held in an outdoor pavilion the attendants were attired in gray and lavender. Several of the women, all of whom appeared to use the exact same shade of blond haircoloring, had tresses piled so high they rivaled in complexity the sculptures on exhibit. Some of the coiffures would have made the most skilled drag queens green with envy. One woman's hair in particular stood out so tall and wide it made me wonder how she was able to get in and out of a car door.

Another ceremony, being presided over by both a minister and a rabbi, was held in a small tree shaded alcove. The bride's dress was a simple, full length, off white affair. The groom was dressed in what, I was later to discover, was a form of "Phoenix Formal", a dark shirt, tie and vest. The look was finished off by blue jeans and motorcycle boots. Later we watched as the guests filed by on their way to the reception, being held in another portion of the gardens. Some of the men wore ties, albeit with short sleeves, blue jeans and gym shoes. We got particular amusement from the young teenage girl wearing a hoodie over her Forever 21 party dress.

There was one in the gardens that day whose appearance rose the bar so high that she almost defies description, however I will make a stab at it. Large, black and imposing she wore her hair in a series of curls atop her head making it appear almost as if she were sporting a dark tiara. Her dress had a large, full, multi layered skirt. The top layer was cinched up in places creating a row of swags encircling her. Black eyelet formed the bottom most layer. Her crowning glory was the tiny eyelet parasol edged with black lace which she carried proudly over her head. My host remarked that she looked like an African American Baby Jane in mourning. As she strode through the crowd she turned heads...not in a good way.

There was the fellow in plaid shirt and tie, jeans and sneakers whose gray hair looked as if he had removed a motorcycle helmet without smoothing it down afterwards. There was the morbidly obese woman wearing an outfit of clinging jersey. The varieties seemed as numerous as the varieties of plants exhibited in the gardens that day.

Phoenix 2014 - Choices, Choices

We moved in a full circle from the testosterone filled atmosphere of the gym to the estrogen heavy enviorment of my host's local fabric store. On of my hosts has, for some years now, produced camp style shirts for himself, his partner and his family and friends. It was mentioned that despite our long friendship I still did not own one of these now almost trademark garments. Our stop at the fabric store was to remedy this situation. There I was confronted with an almost dizzying array of choices. Tropical prints, prints with iconic images of the Southwest, Asian inspired prints and batiks rested side by side, row after row, some areas coordinated by color, many not. At one point we encountered a bolt sporting a print of muscular, bare chested cowboys. Some were pictured standing, thumbs hooked in their belts, legs spread wide. Others sat smiling, sitting astride their steads. A similar print nearby featured equally alluring, homo erotic images of firemen standing in provocative bare chested poses beside firetrucks. While I had to admit that the prints appealed to me, I for instance imagined what handsome throw pillows they might make, I did wonder how deep a market there really was for them.

I came away with a colorful print of faux tarot cards each of which bears an inscription in Spanish on a black and white background. While there my host discovered a whimsical print featuring line after line of colorful Dachshunds. Knowing of a friend who loves wiener dogs he took a picture with his phone and sent it to him. He received an immediate enthusiastic response. Our choices were measured, checked out, and, after a short search for his car, with rare exception all cars in Phoenix seem to be the same color, we headed home.

Along the way a tall man came toward us out for his daily jog. The sweat from his exertions accentuated the lines of his well defined bare torso. He looked as if his could have been the inspiration for the cowboy and firemen prints we had just seen. Sometimes, I thought, it's not so bad to be stuck at a red light.

Phoenix 2014 - Warmth, Baseball, Booze and Superman

The warm sun beat down on me, a sensation I had not experienced for several months. I was attempting to garner enough sunshine to see me through the last cold. cruel weeks awaiting me when I returned home without developing the shade of a boiled lobster. A tiny finch with a yellow head kept me company for a short while, hopping and fluttering among the cactus that inhabit my host's back yard. Baseball's spring training was in full swing evidenced by the number of small jets flying overhead, my own packed flight to Phoenix and conversations overheard, not only on the plane but also in bars and restaurants around town.

We have developed a Friday tradition of Happy Hour drinks at a particular bar in town followed by dinner to soak up the alcoholic beverages before reindulging latter. The place always seems busy at this hour. A large portion of the "action" seems to occur on the patio area, the only place where smoking is permitted. We people watch, one of my favorite activities, particularly in less familiar enviorments. A shirtless, so young as to be almost dewy, man is vending jello shots for a charity. A large, powerful, somewhat rough looking man, complete with shaved bald head and a nose ring sits nearby. From the number of men clustered around him he seems a very popular fellow. Though due to his extreme size he would be difficult to ignore. Saying "Oh, I didn't see you there" would sound implausible as an excuse for not saying hello to him. One of my hosts gets a text on Scruff from someone 124 feet away. We chatter, imbibe and generally while the evening away before retiring.

Saturday morning arrives where after hitting the local Einsteins for coffee and bagels we hit the gym. L..A. Fitness has signs in all their locations warning of the dangers of steroid use. To some, it appears, these warnings fall on deaf ears. In Chicago the back acne, a tell tell sign of the use of the muscle building substance is seen primarily, at least in my experience, on Latino men. Here young white men seem to be the major abusers. Perhaps it is the feeling of invincibility among the young that leads them down this ultimately unhealthy path. Aside from the damage to the liver and heart, there is the coarsening of the facial features resulting from the practice. Unlike the damage to the lungs caused by cigarette smoking, none of the problems disappear even if steroid use is stopped. There are several men I have known who look far older than their years, their almost ogre like appearance a result of steroid use in their youth. The final irony I find in this is that by and large, the development on many of these people is not so impressive that it could not be achieved by natural means. The drugs become a substitute for patience and dedication.

Once again I indulged in people watching. In particular the extremely short, rather cute man whose thick chest and wide back muscles narrowed down to an almost impossibly tiny waist, an indication of a small bone structure appropriate for a person of his diminutive stature. He wore a skin tight Under Armour tee shirt emblazoned with the Superman "S" symbol. His taller, older workout partner wore an identical tee shirt, albeit in a different color, somewhat less successfully. Superman tee shirts, tattoos, etc., to my mind, need to be used with discretion. They are best worn by those who, at least in part, resemble the superhero. I will give a pass to geeks who array themselves thus enroute to  Comicon. On Sunday's visit to the gym the same rather lilliputian fellow was just finishing his workout as we arrived, again wearing a Under Armour Superman tee shirt, however in a different color, making me ponder how many of them he owns. Maybe he got lucky once and hit a BOGO sale.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Phoenix 2014 - A Midwest Moment

It was Friday, late morning and a trip to the gym was planned. We arrived and I walked about for a few minutes to get an idea where the machines I would be using were located, always a challenge at an unfamiliar workout facility. During gym visits at this hour I often find myself pondering what others who are there do for a living. What profession could you be in where you would have free time at 11:45 a.m. on a weekday? Perhaps these same people are pondering a like question about me. Fair enough. Some are old enough to perhaps be retired. Some may be prosperous enough to set their own hours. Certainly people in the airline industry, or like myself, in retail, work erratic, non traditional schedules. Restaurant and bar workers are two other possibilities.

I was wearing an old tee shirt, the sleeves cut off long ago, picked up during a visit to Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, notable for it's sizable collection of roller coasters. One youngish man asked me where Cedar Point was. "Ohio" I replied, thinking nothing of my answer. He then told me his mother had a summer home at a place called Cedar Beach in Maine. I smiled, nodded politely and continued my workout.

It was only sometime later that I realized how foreign Ohio may have sounded to the inquisitive lad. From Chicago Cedar Point is a 5 to 6 hour drive away. From an Arizona perspective it could well be viewed as being on another planet.

It was a moment where those famous words echoed through my head, I'm paraphrasing here, "Toto, I don't think we're in Chicago anymore!"

Phoenix 2014 - Time Zone Shuffle

The local time in Phoenix is one hour earlier that Chicago. We landed 40 minutes early. Last year I loaded 30 minutes early. I'm beginning to think it's me. If this scenario continues I may, one day, land before I take off. I've noticed on previous visits the difference between my personal tolerance to heat and cold and that exhibited by the year round residents of a desert clime. Hence I found myself barechested in the backyard attempting to make my skin somewhat less opaque while the locals are donning sweatshirts, it being a mere 72 degrees outside.

The remainder of the day passes in a pleasant, relaxed, uneventful fashion. We take the dog to the dog park. Fenced areas divide the dogs by size and level of mischief. The dog meets and plays with her dog friends while we eye a deeply tanned, powerful looking, "hot in a serial killer sort of way" to quote my host, young man attempting to excert control over the three large white animals which accompany him, with mixed levels of success.  We stroll through the desert garden adjacent to the canine playground discussing the unique architectural detail of river rocks encased in steel mesh which form terrace retaining walls, as well as buttresses and a portion of the facade of the public building in the space. This was followed by a vet visit where the dog stoically endured a shot and probing that less well behaved animals, as well as some humans, might have viewed as somewhat personal and invasive.

Dinner involved "Bloody Mary Margaritas". Grand Manier was added to the usual tequila based beverage; and excellent mexican food was served by a waiter so impossibly young that I can scarcely recall ever being that age. The restaurant, called "The Mission", is next door to a church, with mission inspired architecture, built in 1935. It is located in "Old Scottsdale", a touristy, imagined recreation of the old west. Shops vending western wear and turquoise jewelry line the street which is crisscrossed overhead by strands of tiny white lights. The area teeters on the edge of kitsch, the oversized concrete cowboy boot adorning one corner threatening to throw it headlong into that abyss at any moment.

On the return drive home we pass through an area still held in the hands of a native tribe with the requisite tribal casino resorts. One, the "Talking Stick Resort", led me to remark, "Well, as long as their ancient traditions are remembered and treated with respect!"

Phoenix 2014 - Dark and Cold

4:30 a.m., cold, pitch dark. It was too soon in the year for the sun top be up at this hour. Standing under the heat lamp on the El platform I, gym and messenger bag over my shoulder, contemplate the icicles hanging along the edge or the platform's roof. The winter had been harsh. The worst winter in over 3 decades. Feet of snow lie in yards, mountains of it rise along the edges of parking lots, pushed there by plow owners, who are having a very good year. And then there has been the cold. Weeks where the temperatures never break out of the single digit range. Highs in the 20's become a luxury. This season has  taken it's toll on even as resilient and proud a transplanted Midwesterner as myself. Usually I laugh at cold, sticking my chin out and bearing forward, daring it to beat me down. At this point I was lying face down in the center of the ring, punch drunk and bloody.

My annual trek to Phoenix is about a precious few days with friends as important to me as, who have become to me over the years, family. Pleasant temperatures near the end of a Chicago winter is a bonus. We don't "do" anything while I am there. We may go visit museums or take a day trip to a nearby attraction. We do go to the gym together, we all have memberships at the same chain, we go grocery shopping or run errands, but it is the time spent in their company that I treasure, so I return to their gracious sunbelt home year after year.

I am accustomed to rising early, my job and commute demand it, albeit not at 3:30 a.m., as I did that day. As I moved through my flight check in and security I found myself envisioning my seat in the plane where I could close my eyes and doze, if only for a short while. Whenever I fly over the U.S. I am amazed by it's abundance of space. There is enough room and wealth for all those who live here to enjoy a rich life. But greed gets in the way. Corporate, personal, it is a human trait I attempt, mostly failing, to understand. I have a comfortable roof over my head, enough food, a few unnecessary, even if by some standards modest, luxuries, many however do not. There are the others who have more than they know what to do with. Wealth that would make a king blush in embarrassment. Yet they seem devoid of concern for those less fortunate. They appear ungrateful for what they have. They exploit labor and damage the enviorment to add to their already almost unfathomable bounty.

A mountain appears in the distance. The peaks appear whitewashed above a certain level, bare below. As we near them I realized that what seemed barren is the portion of the mountains most heavily forested. Although the mountains are completely covered in snow their summits, too cold and inhospitable for vegetation, display their mantel as an unbroken blanket of white.

I wear a suit, a black one due to my employer's strict dress code, and tie to work each day. I had worked 7 days in a row to get 6 days in a row off. The vintage polo bowling shirt emblazoned with the words "Republic Steel" on the back, jeans and gym shoes I wore on the flight felt somewhat odd and foreign to me. I hoped that when I returned to work the suit and tie would seem equally unfamiliar. After that bitter winter, I also hoped that the first blast of 80 degree warmth I was soon to feel on my body would not make it go into shock.