Category: Arizona and the Southwest

On the move

On the move

It is a sign I have seen in front of my house only once before, in 2012, when I retired from the Boston Symphony and my wife and I sold our home in Lexington, Massachusetts. The sign tells a much larger story than its single word. But at the fundamental level, a SOLD sign means we are on the move again.

In 2010, we purchased a beautiful home in the Estrella community of Goodyear, Arizona. We knew that someday we would want to live in the southwest and that someday came in May 2012 when we left Massachusetts and moved into our home. We’ve enjoyed six years in this beautiful place. I have had a music room that I could only dream about, a place to play trombone, read, and write.


But today all of this is going away and we are moving to a new place. United Van Lines pulled up to our home yesterday and our driver, Amerigo, and his assistant, Justin, spent the afternoon taking inventory of our belongings. Today they returned, with three more men, and they are at work right now packing up a huge van with everything we own.


I have great respect for people and the work they do. Everyone does something. I play the trombone. Others pack up houses. To see Americo and his crew at work is to see people who have strength, knowledge, understanding, and creativity. It is not easy to fit 500 boxes, pieces of furniture, and other items into a rectangular truck. And get everything safely to a new destination. But as I watch them carefully wrap furniture and systematically fit things into the truck, I have to smile. These guys know what they are doing. They are, in their own way, artists.


In March, we made the big decision to leave Arizona and move to a western suburb of Chicago. Into a much smaller house. Back to winters of cold and snow. I confess that I never imagined we would leave Arizona, a place that we have loved in so many ways. But there was only one thing that could lead us to make this big decision.

Our grandchildren.


When we made the decision to purchase our home in Arizona in 2010, these two precious ones were not a part of our lives. But all of that changed a few years ago as first Hannah, and then Caleb, were born. As time has marched on, we have enjoyed many visits with them both here in Arizona and in Illinois where our oldest daughter and her family live. But several visits a year and daily FaceTime calls are not enough. Our hearts wanted more. After they visited us in March of this year for a week of Chicago Cubs baseball spring training, I turned to my wife, Pat, and dropped a big one: let’s leave Arizona and move to Illinois. I never imagined those words would come from my mouth. But it seemed that God was prompting us to do something radical, something completely unexpected but at the same time quite wonderful. At first I thought that we would consider moving near to our grandchildren at some undefined time in the future. That rapidly changed to considering doing “the snowbird thing” – living in Arizona in the winter and in Illinois in the summer. But when we ran the numbers, it just didn’t make good, prudent fiscal sense. And we concluded that if we were in Illinois for half the year, we’d miss so many things that happened there in the other half of the year. So in a short time – just a few weeks – we decided to purchase a home in Illinois just 10 minutes from Linda and her family. Since then we have done an extreme makeover of our new place and it will be ready for us when we arrive there in a few days.

So, here we go. Back to Illinois, near Wheaton, where Pat and I were undergraduates at Wheaton College in the early 1970s. Back to the land where I met my trombone teacher and mentor, Edward Kleinhammer (bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, 1940-1985). Most of all, we are heading to a place where we can be a bigger part of the lives of our precious grandchildren. Anyone who has grandchildren will surely appreciate what I am saying here.

Yes, I will miss Arizona. But we will be back. We have much more left to explore in the southwest. But no matter how much we love being here, we know that the old adage “family first” is true. We have no regrets about leaving; we are moving ahead, looking to the future with great anticipation.


This morning I watched the sun rise for the last time from the roof of our home. As it rose over the Estrella Mountains, I felt such gratitude to God for the opportunity to have lived here for the last six years. I have learned so much, and I will share some of that in future articles on The Last Trombone. By the end of the day today, our home in Arizona will be empty. Next Friday, Amerigo and his truck will pull up to our new home in Illinois and a few hours later, it will be full. Soon, the sound of the laughter of children will ring in its rooms. There are no words in the English language that mean more to me than, “I love you, grandpa. I love you, grandma.” That is why we are leaving Arizona. God is good.

The beauty of the saguaro cactus

The beauty of the saguaro cactus

My wife and I live on the southwest side of Phoenix in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains. We love living there. It is quiet and dark at night, and we are surrounded by stunning natural beauty. We live just south of the Gila River, in an area that used to part of Mexico before the Gadsden Purchase transferred 29,670 square miles of Mexico to the United States in 1853 (for a payment of $10 million dollars, roughly $270 million dollars today). Most of that land became part of the Arizona Territory and nearly 60 years later, in 1912, Arizona became the last of the lower 48 states to be admitted to the Union – State 48.

We also live in what is called the Sonoran Desert, a unique ecosystem that covers 100,000 square miles of southern Arizona, a small part of southern California, and Sonora and Baja, Mexico. It is a remarkable place with an iconic, ever changing landscape. Principal among the things that make the Sonoran Desert so interesting is the saguaro cactus.

This cactus — pronounced “soh-WAHR-oh” —along with the American bison, has become the symbol of the American west. They grow slowly and they grow tall. They usually sprout arms, and have beautiful, white, trumpet bell shaped flowers in the spring. They live for many decades. And then they die.

Today, my wife and I enjoyed a very nice four mile hike in the desert just a few minutes from our home where we were surrounded by these great cacti. It occurred to me as we were hiking that we got to see saguaro cacti in nearly their whole life cycle. So I took a few photos to share with readers of The Last Trombone.


Like every plant, the saguaro cactus starts out small. This young saguaro, above, is about three feet high. If it sprouts arms, that won’t happen for many years. The growth cycle of the saguaro cactus isn’t fully understood and some saguaros will bud arms when they are about 60 years old while others stay tall and straight with no arms for their whole lives.


Pictured above is a saguaro cactus with three small buds that have just started to grow.


In time, those buds may grow to be very large, like arms, and create the iconic image (above) of a saguaro cactus. Arizona State University’s Alma Mater sings of this:

Where the bold Saguaros raise their arms on high,

Praying strength for brave tomorrows from the Western sky,

Where eternal mountains kneel at sunset’s gate,

Here we hail thee, Alma Mater, Arizona State.


Eventually a saguaro changes as it nears the end of its life. This process may take many years. At first, the cactus will begin losing its needles and outer pulp, exposing the hard, stiff skeleton that brings water up from the ground to the entire cactus. In the photo above, you can see that water in the wash in the foreground — yes, this would be full of raging water when it rains — has eroded the bottom of the cactus and it is from the bottom that these cacti have begun to rot. Two cacti have already fallen, one remains in good condition, and one is showing the evolution of decay.


Eventually the saguaro falls. They usually break near their base and fall to the ground in the same shape in which they were standing, as seen in the photo above.


When the saguaro falls in an orderly way, its “bones” eventually are left exposed on the ground in a straight line.


Sometimes, the saguaro falls in a chaotic way, uprooted by violent wind, with parts scattered around.


Other times, the cactus begins to die from its top and as it sheds its pulp, the bones begin to form beautiful shapes as they are pushed by the wind and their own weight.


On rare occasions, the saguaro falls from its top into an elegant arch. This always reminds me of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the gateway to the west. The beauty of these fallen saguaro arches is really something to behold.


Not all saguaros that fall in the desert decompose and go back to the earth. A few years ago, we purchased these saguaro bones (pictured above) that had been collected by a talented artist who did little more to them than saw the base so they could stand up. These bones — I think they look like organ pipes — stand in our living room. They remind us every day of the beauty and ever changing nature of God’s creation that is around us in this special place, the Sonoran Desert.


Photo in the header of this article: Estrella Mountains, Arizona.

Photo at the end of this article: Sign at Hermit’s Rest, Grand Canyon National Park:

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!

In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.

  • Psalm 104:24

And below, a prayer:

Father almighty, wonderful Lord, Wondrous Creator, be ever adored;

Wonders of nature sing praises to You, Wonder of wonders –

I may praise, too!


When classical music meets sports

When classical music meets sports

Last night’s American football AFC Championship game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New England Patriots was full of high drama. Full disclosure: I lived in Boston for nearly 30 years and attended more Patriots games than I can count. Before their astounding period of success began in 2001, I went to plenty of games when the team was, frankly, terrible. Today, the Patriots are heading to another Super Bowl. Their eighth since 2002. This is remarkable. My wife and I now live in Arizona, and we hold season tickets to Arizona Cardinals football. We love the Cardinals. But we still love the Patriots. There you have it.

I’ve written about the Patriots before on The Last Trombone, particularly about quarterback Tom Brady and how he was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. Brady has used that fact – that teams passed him over repeatedly until the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round – to fuel his engine of excellence. The result: he has gone on to be what most football observers consider to be the greatest football player of all time – the G.O.A. T.

We spent yesterday afternoon with some friends who had invited us to their home to watch the AFC and NFC Championship games. When I watch TV, I rarely watch commercials. And I’m not particularly interested in pre-game commentary from talking heads. I like to watch the game. So when, before the game started, there was a segment with an actor I had never seen before, I didn’t pay much attention. Until I realized the piece was filmed in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory of Music. STOP. Rewind the DVR. I taught at New England Conservatory for 27 years. I played countless concerts and recitals in Jordan Hall. What is this?

“This” was a “teaser” for the game featuring actor John Malkovich. It is long by television standards, three and one-half minutes long. Have a look (if you can’t see the video below, click HERE to see it on YouTube):

The story about how this video came about is terrific. Recorded just a few days before yesterday’s game, students at NEC were featured in this short film. You can read how this all came together in a story in Sports Illustrated by Richard Deitsch. Click HERE to read his story.

I think the video is brilliant. It takes a little time to get going but it’s very, very clever. And bravo to the NEC students who were a part of it. I’m sure it was a thrill for them. Seeing this teaser for the game on TV reminded me of the thrill I had playing the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 as a member of the Boston Pops Orchestra, something I wrote about on my website, in my article: The New England Patriots and the Boston Pops: A Super Bowl XXXVI Diary (click here to read it). Because of that experience – and many more like it where I played the National Anthem before sporting events as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – I wanted to bring that opportunity to my students at Arizona State University. On two occasions, we played the Star Spangled Banner at an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game. To see my students on the big stage and catch their excitement and sense of wonder as it unfolded was one of the most satisfying things I did during my years as ASU’s Professor of Trombone. Have a look at this video (below) of their performance at Chase Field in Phoenix in 2014 (if you can’t see the video below, click HERE to see it on YouTube):

Sports and music. Sometimes they come together in a way that adds something to our joy of living, and when I see students benefitting from this, as the students at New England Conservatory of Music did when they were part of an exciting football game yesterday, I smile and remember the thrills I’ve had doing the same kind of thing. It’s amazing where life can lead when you have a trombone – or any musical instrument – in your hand.


Legacy: a full Windsor knot

Legacy: a full Windsor knot

Last Sunday, before the morning worship service started at our church (Phoenix United Reformed Church), my wife came to me with a necktie in her hand. “Would you please tie this for Lloyd?” Lloyd is a good friend, a retired pastor, and in this season of his life — in his 80s — some tasks have become more difficult for him. “Sure,” I said. I put his tie around my neck, tied it, then slide it over my head to give to Lloyd. It took me about 10 seconds and I didn’t give it a second thought. It was a simple thing to do to help a friend.

But that afternoon, I reflected on the very ordinary act of tying a necktie. Frankly, it’s not something I do much these days. Since moving to Arizona in 2012, I’ve switched from neckties to bolos. While I still have many ties — here’s a photo of just a few that I still have in my closet. . .


. . . bolos now hang on my tie rack:


It’s a southwest thing, and bolos appeal to my artistic sensibility.

Still, when I tied Lloyd’s necktie, I used the only necktie knot I know how to tie: the full Windsor knot. My mind turned to my father. It was he who taught me how to make this knot when I wore a tie. And every time I tie a tie, I am grateful that he taught me how to do this.

In a sense, part of my father’s legacy to me is having passed down this simple thing, the act of tying a necktie in a particular way. He gave me other gifts as well, such as a love for reading. My mind continued down that road, reflecting on the legacy that many other family members who have also gone to their heavenly home gave to me. My mother’s love of music, my grandmother’s love of adventure, my father-in-law’s love of working with his hands. All of these people and many others had lives that intersected with mine in ways large and small. And each of us is the product of the investment that others made in us. They gave me things that are with me every day. Not physical things, but things that required their investing time with me, to show me how to do something, or how to think of something, or how to recall and remember something and then put it into action.

Tying a necktie is not really such a big deal. But last Sunday morning, it reminded me how grateful I am for those who taught me things like this, and it was an encouragement to me as I have endeavored to pass things on to others. It reminded me of this: never underestimate the value of any kind of investment you make in another person. They may very well remember it long after you’ve forgotten it, long after you are gone. You may not have thought so at the time, but you made a difference; you wrote a small piece of your legacy. Like my father did when he taught his son how to tie a full Windsor knot so I could help a friend on a Sunday morning.