March 17: I stepped out of the airport into a movie set. Swiveling my head to find my friend’s car, I saw a muscle-ripped mountain range posing over my left shoulder and a saguaro cactus waving brightly. Yellow poppies winked in the Hollywood sunshine and mesquite brushed the desert. Lights! Camera! Action! My idyll in Tucson with dear friends Anne and Nina was starting to roll.
March 18: The fragrance of fry bread drew us into the shade of a beckoning canopy. Constructed of mesquite limbs and branches, the canopy brushed against a pop-up lunch stand and overlooked the sanctuary of San Xavier del Bac Mission. The church, completed in 1797, is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona and rests on the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation. We had already gaped at the extraordinary colors, gilding and statuary of the church interior. Now Anne and I imagined the iridescent beautify of a Christmas Midnight Mass there. Someday.
March 19: Squadrons of old U.S. Air Force planes stand shoulder to shoulder in columns and rows, tail fins stair-stepping across an enormous field. This is the Boneyard, also known as the Pima Air & Space Museum, where nearly 400 historic aircraft rest on 80 acres of hangars and grounds. White patches protect each vent against desert winds, giving the planes a slightly ragamuffin appearance. We didn’t walk among them, but for nearly half a mile the highway breezed by all this aviation history — and I craned my neck skyward hoping to catch a glimpse of a Thunderbird saluting its stalwart kin.
March 20: My old Mission-style rocking chair whispered on the tiled front porch. Yesterday, Anne, Nina and I visited old friends and their 122-acre ranch near the San Pedro River. We had already hiked Miller Canyon along a shaded snowmelt stream and picnicked in the dappled shade of the canyon’s friendly trees. Now, with languid movements, I watched the high desert grassland drift to the foot of the nearest mountain range. And I watched the birds drawn to our friends’ seed and suet: cactus wrens, mockingbirds, hummingbirds, and quail, while hawks sailed overhead. My favorites were the resplendent red Northern Cardinal (brighter than those in my backyard) and its cousin the Pyrrhuloxia, with its red crest and a necktie over its buff belly. I closed my eyes to listen to the birdsong, the murmur of the cottonwood trees, and my friends’ soft conversation.
As I write this, my heartbeat slows and my muscles relax. I will find a way back to this porch and this chair again and again.
March 21: I laced up my hiking boots for the Great Gila Monster Hunt in nearby Saguaro National Park. Home of the largest (and I’d say friendliest) cacti in the United States, the park is also home to Gila monsters; perhaps we would get lucky. (I actually defined lucky as not seeing a rattlesnake.) We admired majestic saguaro cacti, plump barrel cacti, sunny prickly pear cacti, and palo verde trees just beginning to leaf. We crossed a dry stream bed and gazed at others marking the place of monsoon cascades. At all times, we were surrounded by sweeping vistas framed by mountains and saguaro. We did’t spy a Gila monster, but I saw a landscape I’ll never forget.
March 22: We watched reports on the news last night about tornadoes swirling through Dallas, Texas. This morning, the tornadoes were still there, which meant that my connecting flight between Dallas and Tucson was still there too. My dear friends dropped me off at the airport, imploring me to stay an extra night. I soldiered on. IF my plane left at the new departure time, and IF I could struggle out of the crowded plane with my luggage, and IF I could catch the shuttle between terminals at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, and IF I could run to the gate in my hiking shoes (now flopping its right sole), THEN I would get home tonight.
Awaiting my fate, I write this now at the Tucson gate, playing Spelling Bee from the New York Times. Can I find one more 5-letter word from the letters P-C-N-G-I-A? Yes: “panic.”
. . . Now that I’ve put that word in its place, I feel so much better.
March 23: Thanks to Jeremiah’s extraordinary airport taxi service, I reached home at 2 am today. Each of those “IF’s” fell into place and I fell into bed. I think I’ll find a way to add stacks of chocolate chip pancakes and a fluffy cheese omelet to Jeremiah’s well-earned tip.
March 24: When I walked through Oak Street Elementary School this morning, I heard a saxophone slowly intoning “Jingle Bells.” When I walked back down the hall, I heard three more saxophones puffing the “Star Wars” overture. Perhaps they should have been playing “Darth Vader’s Theme,” because soon I found myself TEACHING MATH. And this was the advanced 5th grade section, so they certainly knew more than I did.
Happily, however, the unit was entitled “Payday,” and I definitely knew something about that. We pretended we ran our own businesses — bookstores! cafés! NBA teams! — and needed to pay our employees. After several rounds of applause (“my sons would be astonished that I am standing before you today” and “I get paychecks”), I stood in front of the white board waving a fuchsia marker and demonstrating Gross Pay, Net Pay, Withholdings (!), rates of regular pay and overtime, and how to convert hours and minutes into decimals.
I checked their time-card calculations and helped them understand how paying taxes advances the common good. (“That playground! This fuchsia marker!”) And when, amid the din and energy, the clock signaled Brain Break on the playground, I was the first one in line.
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