Notes from a Lyricist

Nothing is certain, but it appears my debut as a lyricist will actually happen.

In January, I oozed with excitement when I told you about my new creative wrinkle. As background, in the fall of 2021 I teamed with David (another member of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) to create several original tunes for a Mosaic of Voices concert, scheduled for March 2022.

I wrote the lyrics. David composed the music. I was psyched for the debut of these pieces. Then, the concert was postponed. It was another Covid-related casualty.

Thankfully, the chorus has resurrected the program. On October 8 at the Kroc Center in Phoenix, we will perform the suite of pieces David and I created to capture the essence of original-and-triumphant stories submitted by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community.

***

On Tuesday evening, as our chorus of seventy or so rehearsed two of the Mosaic of Voices pieces (Hope’s Trail and Our Second Act), I saw a few tears. As I sang in the back row of second tenors, I felt the gravity of emotion rise in the room with our voices.

I was reminded of the healing power of music and the important role that choral communities–first the Windy City Gay Chorus and now the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–have played in my renaissance and in the lives of so many gay men.

Especially now in our chaotic country–divided, threatened, and deconstructed–we need this joyful music, this personal support, this hopeful oasis in the desert.

Without it, many of us would feel trapped and lost.

Off to School

The elementary and middle schools in Arizona were back in session this week.

Compared to my 1960s’ experience as a crew-cut kid of the St. Louis suburbs, it feels awfully early to return to the classroom. In those days, the first day of school arrived right after Labor Day.

Nearly sixty years ago, in September 1962, Jimmy and Karen posed on either side of me. Staring into the suburban sun, the three of us were off to school for our first day of kindergarten in Affton, Missouri.

Maybe I was atypical, but I was ready for school to start. I craved the structure and creative possibilities. Learning new things, reconnecting with classmates, and meeting my teacher propelled me into an annual, educational orbit.

I give my parents credit for promoting the importance and fun aspects of school. They made sure I slept enough every night and ate some sort of breakfast every morning (even when I resisted), before I caught the bus at the corner of South Yorkshire Drive and Laclede Station Road.

They also did their part to prompt me about homework assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, and encourage good grades.

The rest was up to me.

As I write this, it all sounds rather innocent, systematic, and idyllic. It was far from perfect, but definitely safer and less complicated. There were fewer distractions. Fewer problems. Fewer troublemakers. Fewer threats.

In that era, it felt like teachers, parents, community leaders, and kids were rowing in the same direction in the same boat.

Of course, there were conflicts, but generally I observed adults behaving with a modicum of mutual respect.

Certainly, that isn’t the case in 2022 in the United States of America.

I’m not giving up. I know there are excellent parents and teachers out there–guiding the adults of tomorrow, working to shield them from harm.

However, our educational institutions have frayed under societal pressures. Too often, we forget that our impressionable children and grandchildren are watching. We forget that they need guide rails, consistency, advocates, nurturing, and discipline to grow.

As we send our youngsters off to school again, we must teach them the truth–that science, math, history, literature, and the arts really do matter.

We must distinguish facts from lies. We must open their minds to the possibilities of life, so that they will develop the critical thinking skills they will need to function effectively in this ever-complicated world.

In the Pink

August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.

If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.

Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.

According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.

Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.

I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.

And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.

I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.

At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.

In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …

“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”

What Lingers

She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.

My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.

Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.

As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.

Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.

Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.

***

July 11, 1999

Dear Mark,

I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!

The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …

Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.

Mom

***

Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.

Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.

Never Too Late

Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.

On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.

Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.

Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.

If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.

Over and Over

We live in an over-inflated, over-heated, over-zealous world.

There is plenty of blame to go around. In my mind, greedy politicians and media conglomerates are two of the biggest culprits. The worst of them scream at us through our screens to woo us over and over. All for the sake of personal swagger and the almighty dollar.

I do my best to follow the important developments in the world and tune out the bluster, though–in this summer of 2022–that is virtually impossible in the United States of America.

That’s why I typically pepper my blog with stories of sweet cats, eavesdropping cacti, brilliant sunsets, lazy lizards, and personal reflections. However, I’m over-exposed and need to rant.

A simple drive down the street here in Scottsdale, Arizona (and I imagine in most American communities) snaps me back to the realities of the day.

We are surrounded by political signs and crack-pot endorsements on street corners in advance of our August 2 primary. Unfortunately, a fierce monsoon storm here on Sunday night didn’t obliterate them all. The best thing I can do is vote. My husband and I performed that democratic duty–early–on Monday.

Of course, the bluster of our society isn’t confined to politics. On Tuesday night, I tuned in to watch a few innings of the MLB (Major League Baseball) All-Star Game. The over-produced coverage on Fox assaulted my sensibilities. Over-hyped celebrity ballplayers wearing mics for in-game interviews over-shadowed the action on the field. It bored me.

That’s saying a lot, because–if you follow me–you know I’m a die-hard baseball fan. More specifically, I root for the St. Louis Cardinals. This passion flows back to the 1960s, sitting in the bleachers with my dad with my transistor radio and watching legendary players perform on the field.

My fascination and fixation with baseball was all about the relative innocence of escaping into the strategy of the game, wondering what might unfold next. In 2022, that sense of mystery has vanished.

Maybe this is really a story about what it feels like to grow older. To see the world through wiser, more questioning eyes. To demand more from our polarizing politicians, fragmented society, and ever-posturing media outlets … while the world I once knew evaporates before me.

I’ve always known I am overly sensitive–overly aware of my fair skin and frailties. According to my dermatologist on Tuesday, a cancerous patch of squamous cells (removed from the top of my left hand in mid-June through minor surgery) has over-healed.

Evidently, I was too good at smearing Aquaphor lotion on the wound, so he froze the scar tissue. It will fall off in a few weeks, and my life in the desert will go on with another chapter of survival in the books.

On Wednesday evening, I joined a group of my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends at a funeral home in Mesa, Arizona.

We sang a beautiful arrangement of Over the Rainbow. It was our way of saying goodbye to Cy, our friend and long-time chorus member, who passed away recently.

It was an evening of tears, funny stories, and reflections–a tribute to a man who lived well, sang beside us, and fought hard.

It was also a good reminder for me to do my best to tune into the important stuff of life. To embrace what really matters each day. To keep doing it over and over again as long as I can. Because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

Hexed

Mid-July numbers on the trail at 6 a.m. in the Sonoran Desert don’t lie. Ninety-one degrees, heading for a sizzling Saturday high of 115.

Eleven lizards, three hummingbirds, two Gambel’s quail, and one cottontail endure in the heat. They skitter by before Tom and I complete our 4,200 steps along the canal and drain our water bottles to stay hydrated.

When we arrive back home, two lovebirds greet us. They add a splash of color on the feeder I gave my husband one year and ten days ago on his sixty-fourth birthday. Soon they fly off for another adventure.

Have we been hexed by the heat? Not in the way you might think. Unless you consider one adorable, black-as-midnight kitty the protagonist. Her name is Hex.

An exclusively indoor cat, she lives down the lane. My husband and I are caring for her until tomorrow, while our neighbors Bri and Steve cruise in the Caribbean.

Ironically, sitting for Hex has been a pleasure cruise on land–without cocktails. She tumbles and dances on the cool tile of our neighbor’s condo. We feed and water her daily … and play lots of games. She chases curly doodads, bouncy balls, and a wire thingy with wooden bars attached to the end. What a life!

I’m certain she muses in her tiny brain … “Let’s play more. Toss that. Oh, and I want to curl around your legs and run the gauntlet through my flexible tunnel before you leave. Then, I’ll be sure to eat what you left. I’ll find my way back to the tray by the window. I’ll pass the time. I’ll dream. I’ll watch the birds fly by.”

Yes, it’s summer. I’m definitely ready for it to be over. But at least I have this cat tale to share. It’s a reminder that we can never allow the hexes happening in the heat of the moment all around the world to overshadow the joy of animals–inside and out.

Though sometimes the critters that cross our paths may appear dark like Hex, they brighten our days. They conjure our best instincts. They ignite hope for a better tomorrow.

Verde Canyon Railroad

It had been decades since I’d traveled by train for pleasure. All those Illinois years (on and off from 1980 to 2014) riding the Metra to jobs from my homes in the northwest suburbs to Chicago’s Loop don’t count.

But for four hours on July 6, 2022–our sixty-fifth birthday–Tom and I rode the rails for fun on the Verde Canyon Railroad in central Arizona.

Close your eyes and imagine twenty miles of track, trestles, curves, Cottonwood trees, Verde River bends, one tunnel, and a stretch of close quarters near jagged cliffs between two small towns: Clarkdale and Perkinsville.

Along the way, we moved back and forth from the cool comfort of our coach (featuring a champagne toast in a plastic cup and nifty snack pack of fruits, meats, cheese and crackers) to an open-air car.

The amenities were a nice touch, but not enough to keep us contained. We spent most of our ride outside. That’s where we welcomed unfiltered access to stunning views and stimulating conversation.

Dianne, our assigned interpreter, and Austin, an operations coordinator, provided color commentary as Tom and I guzzled small bottles of water to forestall dehydration in the ninety-plus-degree heat.

With Dianne’s direction, I managed to snap a photo of a Mastodon footprint in the rocks below on my Sony digital camera.

It is evidence of prehistoric life in the old, old west … many centuries before copper smelting and mining, and even longer before one smooth glide through nature carved its initials on the memory of our milestone birthday.

Sixty-Five Thoughts

I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).

Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.

Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.

In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.

These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.

***

#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.

#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.

#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.

#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.

#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.

#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.

#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.

#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.

#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.

#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.

#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.

#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.

#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.

#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.

#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.

In 1972, Dad, Mom, and Diane joined me on the St. Louis riverfront to celebrate my fifteenth birthday.

#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.

#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.

#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.

#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.

#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.

#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.

#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.

#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.

#24: I was always meant to be a writer.

#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.

#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.

#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.

#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.

#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.

#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.

#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.

#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.

#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.

#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.

#35: We all deserve love.

#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.

#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.

#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.

#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.

#40: Ice cream always makes life better.

#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.

#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.

#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.

#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.

#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.

#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.

#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.

#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.

#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.

#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!

#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.

#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.

#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.

#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.

#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.

#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.

#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.

#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.

#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.

#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.

#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?

#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.

#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.

#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.

#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.

On the threshold of our sixty-fifth birthday, Tom and I captured this moment outside our Arizona home.

Just the Start

Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.

It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.

Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.

The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.

Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.

I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.

Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.

That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.

If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.

Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.

In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

Hate has no home here.