Author: Mark Johnson

Born in St. Louis, I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1979. In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area, where I began a successful, thirty-four-year career as a communication professional. In 2014, I retired from corporate life and began a new chapter as an author. I published my first book—From Fertile Ground: The Story of My Journey, My Grief, My Life—in 2016. It’s a three-generation writer’s mosaic that examines our desire to make sense of our heritage, find our own path, and leave our mark on the world. My second book—Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator—is a collection of twenty-six funny and poignant essays about my favorite twists and turns growing up in Missouri in the 1960s and 1970s. My third memoir, An Unobstructed View, was released in May 2018. It chronicles an ironic year of surprise and transformation when my life takes an unexpected detour and I discover my destiny on the way to a new destination. I now make my home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Early April in Arizona

I took a walk this afternoon. I brought my digital camera and telephoto lens. We didn’t venture far. We simply observed nature in our immediate neighborhood for thirty minutes. This is what we brought home.

Visible Signs

 

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We can’t deny the numbers, the visible signs of pain. As I write this, there are upwards of 1.2 million documented COVID-19 cases globally (64,580 dead … 246,110 recovered). More than 311,000 cases here in the United States (8,452 dead … 14,471 recovered). Endless stories of inadequate supplies and presidential lies.

Though I live in a less populated area of Arizona and have been fortunate (so far) to dodge this global pandemic in a physical sense, the emotional challenge is more problematic.

On a daily basis, I worry about the welfare of my husband, my sons, my friends, my neighbors, myself. I feel my anger, anxiety and sadness abound as the gaps in social distancing widen. All of my churning emotions live close to the surface like the Hole-in-the-Rock buttes that pile upon each other in Papago Park. Trails there are now closed indefinitely. As is the normally crowded outdoor pool in the center of our condo community. That expected, but new, wrinkle in the stay-at-home order from Governor Ducey took effect tonight at 5 p.m.

Though with each passing day our normally vibrant community becomes more desolate and cordoned off, Tom and I realize we’re luckier than most Americans. We live in a warm, wide open space. We’re finding creative ways to communicate, cope and release the negative energy.

Free weights and yoga in our sun room to replace past workouts at the community gym. A jigsaw puzzle of neon hotel signs constructed on a large piece of cardboard on our kitchen table. Daily walks and conversations along the canal or at a nearby Scottsdale park. Endless home-cooked meals. Today, that included a batch of chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies.

So, not all of our visible signs tell stories of death or inactivity (2,000 COVID-19 cases in Arizona so far, including another 250 today). Nature sets the best example. Hawks and ospreys still soar unrestrained high above the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape. Lizards scamper in the afternoon sun. Cactus blooms burst with April color.

A mourning dove nests with her newborn in the crux of a neighbor’s bush. A gaggle of Gambel’s quail skitter down the sidewalk. I wonder what could prompt them to be in such a hurry. Perhaps they’ve discovered a ready supply of masks and ventilators.

It helps calm my nerves to see these signs of nature, these visible truths mixed with my own creative storytelling. Because I know the alternative. What it meant to spend a significant portion of my adult life in my twenties, thirties and early forties … inauthentic and  invisible to the world as a closeted gay man.

Of course, that’s all ancient history now. I’ve been happily living out of the closet for quite some time now. But it helps to remind myself of my truth and the visible signs that got me here.

Like a moment about fifteen years ago here in Arizona. Tom and I were visiting Scottsdale in May. Staying at the Fire Sky resort (which no longer exists). My kind and generous husband reserved a room for us there for several nights because the pool near our condo (the one we usually enjoy and now live near permanently) was closed for repairs.

Magically, it seemed, we found ourselves sipping frilly drinks in lounge chairs by the luxurious Fire Sky pool. Without much notice, two rather gregarious, somewhat attractive and smartly accessorized women with sex in their eyes approached us. One leaned in with her husky Suzanne Pleshette voice and offered this inquiry … “Where are your wives?”

It felt as if I pondered her question for a considerable time. Perhaps fifteen minutes? Eventually, I smiled up at her and replied … “He’s sitting next to me.”

“Oh, you’re a couple,” she acknowledged without judgement. A few moments later, we concluded our brief, yet authentic, conversation. Suzanne and her friend Daphne (not their names) walked away. Perhaps to pursue another possibility or two.

After they left … proud of my May outing … I smiled at my future husband seated at my left. I sipped on the sweet nectar of my Pina Colada, astonished at the words I had blurted more boldly than I could have imagined.

With fire in the sky and love in my heart, I had somehow mustered the courage to set the record straight. There was no doubt. I was most definitely gay. It was a positive visible sign. I hadn’t allowed another inauthentic opportunity to pass uncorrected.

 

I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.

***

At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.

Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show.  My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.

Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)

Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.

Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.

At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.

But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.

To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.

As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.

I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.

Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.

In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.

In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.

“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”

At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.

I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.

Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.

Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.

Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.

On the Other Side

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On the other side of the glass,

I see neighbors pass.

We keep our distance,

At the world’s insistence.

To make amends,

I grab my telephoto lens.

The moment is fleeting,

But this one’s worth keeping.

Better get the curve flatter,

Though silhouettes matter.

Especially when left,

By those we love best.

 

 

 

I Was a Child of the Global Pandemic

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In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, I found myself reading the handwriting on the wall. My sister Diane and I were seated beside our mother. She had begun to slip mentally.

A physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago began to examine Mom to determine the severity of her cognitive impairment. As he proceeded to ask questions, I felt a sense of sadness and impending doom wash over me. I knew we were about to cross the threshold into a personal crisis for our family.

The doctor began. “Helen, tell me about yourself.”

She responded. “I was a child of the Great Depression.”

Those were my eighty-five-year-old mother’s first eight wise-and-weary words. I wasn’t surprised by her commencement. As her mental acuity waned and her short-term memory deteriorated, Helen always described herself as she existed near the beginning of her story.

She was proud to share her hard-working narrative. To explain how her father and mother–people of simple means and honest ambitions– somehow always found ways to put food on the table in the 1930s after the stock market crashed and some folks, overcome by their losses, jumped out of high-rise windows.

But Helen and her family survived the depths of the Great Depression in rural North Carolina. The experience forever shaped the woman she would become. She wore it as a badge of honor. Saving for a rainy day. Taking the surest path. Honing her skills. Consolidating the contents of half-empty ketchup bottles. Pulling the little red wagon up and down the hill to get groceries when the car went kaput and Dad’s heart weakened.

Building a career in Human Resources that often included working on Saturdays. Helping find government jobs for those who were disabled. Chatting about her love of gardening over the fence with neighbors. Trusting in time and patience. Squirreling away money. Parlaying it into smart investments. Turning a little into something that might someday become a lot.

***

Helen wasn’t alone. Her feelings and experiences represented those of an entire generation of Americans. Decades before she and other hearty souls like her–men and women who would also suffer one day from macular degeneration, heart disease, dementia, and more maladies–fought World War II, bought war bonds, rationed meals, moved to the suburbs to live in brick starter homes, lived the American dream, and produced a generation of Baby Boomers.

Helen passed away in 2013. There have been moments over the past few weeks when I’ve been grateful that she’s gone … not wanting her to experience the pain of this global pandemic that is consuming us, swirling over and through us, occupying every waking and nightmare-inducing moment of our lives. In other words, I’ve been thinking about  Helen’s plight from nearly a century ago and that of the young children of today.

How will the fear and anxiety spawned by this pandemic shape their lives? How will it inform their values? How will it determine the choices they make? How will it influence their destinies? How will they describe themselves and define their lives when it becomes their turn to tell their stories to doctors in the year 2100?

Perhaps they will tell these kinds of stories.

***

My name is Anna. I was born on March 22, 2013. I was a child of the Global Pandemic. Before 2020, my mother and father owned and operated a popular restaurant in the Phoenix area. Customers raved about the great food and the lively atmosphere. But after the coronarivus entered our world, my parents were forced to abandon their business.

To survive, Mom ended up starting a business to deliver food to those who were house bound. Dad was handy. A few of the local condo communities hired him to handle day-to-day mechanical problems that came up. My parents didn’t earn much, but it was enough to sustain us in the short term.

I remember the tears and the anguish in our home. Everyone was afraid of contracting the virus. The news reports and the loss of life were devastating … especially to a few of my parents’ friends and restaurant acquaintances in major cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

But Mom and Dad tried to remain strong. If anything, I loved them more during those years of hardship. For my seventh birthday, they insisted we would celebrate, though it felt as if all of us were living under a dark cloud … even here in the Valley of the Sun.

Mom and Dad always referred to me as their little princess … Princess Anna. So, Mom bought a banner with silver curls that seemed to float down from the sky. It was emblazoned with the word “princess” on it … and the three of us sat under a green metal canopy in a park in Scottsdale. They sang Happy Birthday to me and we enjoyed cake and ice cream outside. It felt like the safest place we could be at that time.

That’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget, because it happened at the beginning of all this uncertainty in the world … schools and businesses closing, the stock market bobbing and weaving, an over-worked and broken health care system fully taxed, our political system in disarray, our infrastructure crumbling. It was frightening for everyone, but most of us survived and became stronger.

The next few years were lean ones. But, with time, the economy grew strong again. People put their lives back together. Many years later, I ended up pursuing a career in health care, because I could see how desperate the world was for qualified doctors.

I never imagined I would become an epidemiologist. But it happened. Who knows what my life might have become if the health challenges of our world hadn’t become so apparent to me in 2020?

After all, I was a child of the Global Pandemic.

 

FREE to Read as You Shelter in Place

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Perhaps you’re feeling isolated and afraid. Like me, you’re worried about the implications of this global pandemic. In need of a creative escape from the closing walls. Concerned for loved ones and friends, who live in places that are feeling the brunt of this crisis.

You’re tired and queasy from the daily Tilt-A-Whirl of news bulletins. Searching for truth. Dealing with loss. Texting with daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers to see how they’re coping. Craving a retreat into the comfort of family connections and the healing properties of nature.

I’m here to help relieve the pain with this reading stimulus offer. From Saturday, March 21, through Wednesday, March 25, Kindle copies of all three of my books are FREE on Amazon.

From Fertile Ground

Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator

An Unobstructed View

All you need to do is click on the links, go to Amazon, download the books and curl up in a cozy corner of your home.

Once you finish each book, please take a few minutes to post your reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads … especially if you feel my stories have helped to rejuvenate your spirit or soothe your soul.

One more thing. I’m thinking of you. Stay well and happy reading!