Category: Essays

Blue-eyed Bianca

There’s a new girl in town. She twists and tumbles between the gravel and spiky cacti on the otherwise ordinary sidewalk outside our Sonoran door.

Bianca purrs, arches her back, and flashes penetrating blue eyes. Of course, scraps of sliced turkey, ramakins of milk, and endless strokes of her fur follow.

We might have scooped her up, but discovered Bianca belongs to a neighbor. That misfortune won’t prevent our pampering or shared shenanigans.

In Autumn

After living through four summers, autumns, winters, and springs in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve decided autumn is my favorite time of year here.

Most 100-degree temperatures are vanishing from our ten-day forecast. The monsoons have packed their bags and left town with the dusty drama and wet havoc that only unexpected and unwelcome guests incite. And large flocks of snow birds have yet to fly in.

Mornings are a notch or two cooler–in the 70s–than they were in late summer. Perfect for sipping coffee outside under the eaves.

Did you know we’re frost-free? You won’t find icy substances on our pumpkins or windshields. Ever.

You won’t witness a foliage kaleidoscope here either. Or crunch through piles of leaves. Or rake. Stay away if that’s your thing.

I didn’t intend for this to be a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce ad (though it sounds like a back-handed, bizarre one). But if you like plenty of pool days, pleasant dry mornings for hikes, warm-to-hot September and October highs, shorts, flipflops, spiky saguaros, and startling sunsets long after Labor Day is a distant memory, come to the Valley of the Sun.

Do it in autumn.

I captured this autumn sunset on September 25, 2020 at Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona, a mile from my Scottsdale home.

Breakthrough

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

It’s a classic line of conviction and desperation delivered by Peter Finch (portraying Howard Beale, a longtime evening newscaster who is losing his patience and bearings on live TV) in Network, the prophetic 1976 satirical/dramatic film.

If you’ve never seen this iconic movie, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s a must-see, spot-on harbinger of the reality-show madness and world of TV lies and sideshow illusions that flood our world and saturate our sensibilities today.

Even better, if you’re a cinephile, you must buy a copy of Tom Samp’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews. In it, he reviews Network and 50 other films through the lens of this never-ending global health crisis. The book is filled with interesting film observations and social insights. (Full disclosure. Tom Samp is my husband.) https://www.amazon.com/CoronaCinema-Diary-Pandemic-Movie-Reviews-ebook/dp/B09DLC8KY2

Now, back to the Howard Beale show. Though I’m not losing my bearings, I am “mad as hell” about the politicized state of American society in the storm of a god-forsaken health crisis. (I’m sure many of you are too.)

This occurred to me–once again–over the weekend as I stewed and reclined in the living room, watching news coverage of another few thousand COVID-19 cases in Arizona and the rising tide of the Delta variant due to the fact that only 48% percent of our residents are fully vaccinated. Apparently, the other 52% are too busy drinking the political Kool-Aid to have the gumption to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Need more context for my anger? On Saturday, a few days after returning from a lovely 25th anniversary Flagstaff getaway with Tom and visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (the view never gets old), I found myself fighting some sort of upper respiratory thing–sinus congestion, headache, mild fever.

As far as vaccinations go, I am an early adopter. I have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since April Fools’ Day and that’s no joke. Yet my anxiety raced and my temper began to simmer. I wondered if I was one of those breakthrough cases the media keeps talking about.

In these instances, the virus infects people who took the proper precautions. People who got vaccinated as soon as they could to protect themselves and those around them. People who are true patriots because–day-in-day-out–they have empathy for those around them, know the difference between freedoms and responsibilities, obey traffic lights, buckle their seat belts, pay their taxes, and abide by the tenets of a civilized society.

Cruelly and tragically, in breakthrough cases the virus vaults over and through the protective coating of the vaccine. This is happening in a small percentage of occasions and is likely due to the fact that too many Americans are simply too ignorant, obstinate, or uninformed to follow the science, to get vaccinated, to wear masks indoors and in large/close gatherings, to stop the spread of the virus by reducing the number of hosts it can jump to and transform on, to put aside their political differences and save lives.

By Sunday, I had had it. After resting most of the morning, I drove to an urgent care facility in Scottsdale to get tested for COVID-19. I needed answers and peace of mind. Whatever the outcome, I needed to regain some sense of control.

The process at the Next Care center went smoothly. An efficient technician took my vital signs and swabbed my left nostril. A pleasant and professional physician’s assistant examined me. She told me I did the right thing by getting tested. She confirmed that, though it is rare, breakthrough cases are occurring.

She listened to my lungs and reported they were clear, but my sinuses were definitely enflamed. She told me to keep drinking lots of fluids and to get plenty of Vitamin C. She would call with the test results in a few days. Though I didn’t have all the answers at that point, I was beginning to feel better physically and emotionally.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. By Monday, my mild fever was gone. The fluids–lots of hot herbal tea and water–were helping. My contact at Next Care called Tuesday morning to say my COVID-19 test was negative. Instantly, relief raced from my smartphone into my ear drum. Through my thankful brain. Through my congested head. Through my sound heart that survived a mild attack four years ago. Through my clear lungs.

It’s now Tuesday evening. Though I’m still “mad as hell” at the state of our country’s social discourse, the good news is I am healthy. I’m on the mend. I’m free of this round of traumatic COVID-19 possibilities. My energy is back. I will overcome this chapter of sinus congestion.

***

If there is a breakthrough to be derived from my story, it is this. If you aren’t yet vaccinated, get it done. Do the right thing. Protect yourself and those around you. Limit the chances that this horrible virus will end your life and upend the lives of those you love. Of those who love you.

By getting fully vaccinated, I stacked the cards in my favor. Sure, I am one of the lucky ones, but–good or bad–each of us has the ability to shape our fortunes.

Think of getting vaccinated as the best and most meaningful gift you can give those who love you. They’ll be “mad as hell” if you don’t.

Counting Life’s Numbers

Writing is my thing. Not arithmetic. It has never been my forte. Going way back to 8th grade, I was lost in algebra class. That precipitated a math do-over in 9th grade.

Nonetheless, I realize we live in a number-centric society. Keeping track of and understanding numbers allows us to measure progress or lack there of.

Of course, the most obvious and disheartening example these days is the accelerating number of COVID cases and deaths, thanks to the Delta variant and a disturbing number of Americans who are still unwilling to get vaccinated for their sake and those around them.

But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the personal side of math–when you find yourself counting life’s numbers and celebrating the love, commitment, and longevity they represent.

Today marks 25 years since Tom and I met. In this ever-changing society, I’m proud of that significant number, though it pales when compared with the total our neighbors Mary and Earl have accumulated. They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary in October.

At any rate, Tom and I are thankful to be together for a quarter of a century. We’re escaping the summer heat of Scottsdale to spend a few cooler nights in a cozy B&B in Flagstaff, a mountain community we love.

We’re like a lot of gay couples in the sense that we remember and celebrate 2 anniversaries: the day (August 17, 1996) we met and the day (September 6, 2014) almost 7 years ago when we were married in an outdoor courtyard on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in Illinois, surrounded by 60 friends and family members.

In 1996, we didn’t imagine it would ever be legal in the United States for same-sex couples to marry and receive equal rights to those of straight ones. The idea of marriage equality was barely a whisper. Less than 2 decades later it became a reality thanks to a movement we fully endorsed … proof of an astonishing, positive shift supported by a majority of American people.

In the time since Tom and I met at a northwest suburban Chicago gay bar, we have emerged from a hidden life to an open one. Along the way, we have counted life’s numbers.

Collectively, in the past 25 years we have: raised and counseled my 2 boys into adulthood; loved and lost 1 adorable basset hound and 1 crafty cockatiel; cared for and buried 3 of our parents; endured 36 years in the workforce; vacationed in 4 European countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and 10 or 12 American states; watched our favorite baseball teams win 3 World Series (2 for my St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011; 1 for Tom’s Chicago Cubs in 2016); written and published 5 books; and survived 1 mild heart attack during 1 cross-country move. As I write this, we continue to navigate our way through 1 global pandemic that won’t end.

Of course, the glue that keeps our relationship going isn’t really about the numbers. It’s in the love and laughter we share, the relationships we’ve formed with friends and neighbors, the hundreds of movies we’ve watched together, the countless Scrabble games we’ve played over coffee, the unexpected hospital visits we’ve negotiated, the quieter moments reading and writing we protect; and the sense of day-in-day-out respect, comfort, and security we provide one another.

When it comes to the most important relationship in my life, it makes perfect sense why I’m not a math guy. I simply can’t put a number or value on the love Tom and I share, the hurdles we’ve cleared, and the successes we’ve realized.

Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Tom and me in October 1996 enjoying a Wisconsin weekend.
Tom and me in June 2021 during our Montana vacation.

Crossing Lakes of Consciousness

Every time Tom and I cross the wash at Vista del Camino Park, we inhale the distinctive, earthy bite of three sycamores planted in a sea of palms and eucalyptus.

It’s a pleasant surprise to learn sycamores survive in the desert. Hybrids growing by lakes and streams are like midwestern transplants: leaner, smoother, tanner. Don’t be fooled. Their roots are one-hundred-percent sycamore.

***

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1971, I traveled for the first time to a much wetter region of the country with my father, mother and sister. We left St. Louis for a week to explore the Great Lakes.

Our vacation was by no means a full immersion. It was more like motel-and-diner hopping on a shoestring budget as we headed north and then east.

Dad insisted we stop on the north side of Chicago just long enough to dip our toes in frigid Lake Michigan. From there, we continued on in our Chevy Biscayne to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to board a car ferry and cross the same lake together.

In the eyes of this fourteen-year-old passenger, the ferry was faster and far more intriguing than the prospect of driving a few hundred miles on congested highways past Illinois’ and Indiana’s stained ports, steel mills, and smoke stacks.

Under a bright sky, we squinted at the lake’s choppy waters and stood on the top deck of the boat with other passengers, while below attendants squeezed vehicles into the hull for ballast. Gulls danced and dipped in the air above.

Our destination? Ludington, Michigan … a town I knew nothing about on the eastern shore. I remember Ludington as a quiet, clean community with deep beaches. We didn’t stay long. Dad wanted to drive us north to Sleepy Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where I would climb more steep midwestern piles of sand than I could imagine.

Eventually, we made our way farther north to Sioux Ste. Marie and zipped up our jackets. A cool summer breeze buffeted our hair as we watched international vessels line up and pass through the Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

Toward the end of our weeklong Michigan adventure, we found our way south to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. I felt the sense of history there, but none of it compared with the exhilaration of the ferry ride near the start of our trip.

Fifty years later, it is the lake Dad and I crossed together–and the real and metaphorical channels we navigated as father and son–that I remember most.

Dad and me on the ferry crossing Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan in July 1971.

Desert Friendships and Roses

If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.

Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.

My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.

I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.

Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.

Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.

Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.

As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.

No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.

From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.

Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Read Me?

The title of this post is a shameless ripoff of the old Beatles song, When I’m Sixty-Four. But my bastardization of the lyrics is appropriate. Today I turn sixty-four and I’m a writer who wants you to read my books. When you do, you will feed my desire to stay relevant.

Ask Tom. He’ll tell you. At this stage of life, I’m generally contented and thankful for good health, a comfortable home, and a loving husband. It is remarkable that we share the same birthday … same year too.

In 1957, our mothers never imagined their newborn sons–delivered three hundred miles and thirteen hours apart–would meet one day and marry. It certainly feels like a miracle to me.

Back to my writing. Whenever I wear my literary hat–which is frequently–I find myself questioning why my book sales have dried up like a sun-drenched Arizona river bed.

Of course, I promote my books online and do a little advertising here and there. I also market my stories on a personal basis, but when you’re an independent writer it’s easy for your books to get lost in the stacks of Amazon’s metaphorical bookshelf.

This concern I have is not quite an obsession, though it borders on it. I put a lot of thought and creativity into my writing. I want to share it with a wider circle of readers.

Perhaps my advancing age and occasional forgetfulness–did I tell you I turned sixty-four on July 6?–is what drives me to keep writing, to keep sharing my impressions and reflections of the world, to keep checking progress (or lack there of) on book sales, to keep wondering if readers will still read me.

The good news is I feel spry most days. (Of course, I wouldn’t consider using the word spry unless I were at least six decades old.) Anyway, I still have a lot to say and plenty of energy. So, on my sixty-fourth birthday, I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.

As a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, I observed how hard my mother worked to provide for our family and to prepare meals that we all liked … even after working long days in an office.

Frequently, Mom bought Sealtest Neopolitan ice cream and wedged it into the freezer portion of our avocado-colored refrigerator next to the Swanson’s TV dinners.

Why Neapolitan? Because she and Dad liked strawberry ice cream, while my sister and I preferred chocolate and vanilla. If you aren’t familiar with Neapolitan (I rarely see it in the supermarket these days), it included all three flavors in a carton stacked side-by-side. So, theoretically, Neopolitan offered something for everyone in our family in one container.

This ice cream recollection captures precisely the creative thrust I wanted to achieve as I wrote my Arizona-based essays. I must have been channeling my mother’s shopping sensibilities.

I wanted my book to include something for everyone … humor and sincerity, social relevance and frivolity, truth and fantasy … and to comment on the relevance of every personal and geographical chapter in my life: Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and Arizona.

Now that summer is upon us and the heat has arrived, I strongly encourage you to consume your favorite flavor of ice cream to cool off and to buy a paperback or Kindle version of my Neopolitan book.

In the thirty-nine essays that appear in the book, you will enjoy lapping up several flavors. For instance, there are stories about: citrus and lizards; a hummingbird and a boxer; time travel; an eavesdropping barrel cactus; a return to Tucson through the looking glass of an authentic gay life; reflections on an extended visit to that dreaded place we all lived–Coronaville; the musings of an incredible shrinking man; a wayward Viennese waiter/writer struggling to tell his heart-wrenching story; a mid-century St. Louis custodian who bonded with a famous scrub woman; alliterative observations of flickers and fedoras; the golden hours of living in the Sonoran Desert; and much more.

When you read my book (and I hope you’ll review it too), you’ll be feeding your own creativity and doing this sixty-four-year-old writer a big favor. Yes, even after writing this long-winded essay, I still need to feel needed.

Now, back to the musical portion of my post and the final verse of a pop song that feels especially personal today.

***

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four
*

*The Beatles released When I’m Sixty-Four (lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Coronaville

The COVID-19 traumas that spun endlessly in 2020 and early 2021 have spawned a mountain of stories bursting with pain and uncertainty. But rays of clarity and creativity have begun to emerge as we try to make sense of the pandemic that will forever shape those of us who survived it.

I devoted part of my latest book to Coronaville–that crazy town we still live in–because I think it’s important to remember the fear and examine it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. What a shame it would be if we didn’t learn from the madness this plague has perpetrated. Here is a sampling of what I wrote one year ago this week:

***

Monday, June 15, 2020 began with congestion in my chest, mild nausea, and an occasional headache. I did not have a temperature, sore throat, or experience a loss of sense of smell or taste that may accompany the dreaded virus.

Nonetheless, I was worried enough to call my doctor, who prescribed a chest x-ray at a nearby diagnostic center that afternoon and a COVID-19 test the next morning at an HonorHealth urgent care facility.

Fortunately, my chest x-ray came back normal. There was no sign of pneumonia or any abnormalities. More than likely, I was dealing with a sinus condition or allergy to an air-borne culprit than the dreaded COVID-19. But still I waited. I was afraid the other shoe might drop.

On Tuesday, I imagined the desert dust from an adjacent construction site–fumes from our recent bedroom painting project or particles I had ingested from the smoke of a wildfire that raged in the hills sixty miles northeast of us–could be the problem. But I worried about the worst as Tom and I drove to Mesa for the swab test at 11 a.m.

***

To read the rest of the story (and all thirty-nine essays set against the warm and rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert) click on the link below and purchase a copy of my book in paperback or Kindle.

Thank You, Science

Like this image, life has been more than a little blurry for the past fifteen months. I have tried to keep smiling, but the outrageous number of deaths due to COVID-19 (more than 580,000 in the United States at this point), endless Zoom interactions, mind-numbing-worry-filled hours, and angst-ridden social and political moments have made it difficult at times.

Add in the daily masked encounters in contact-free zones to protect ourselves. There have been too many of those to enumerate, but through 2020 and the first four months of 2021 I never questioned the need to wear a face covering, though it certainly created an emotional barrier to contend with.

What would you have said if I told you this on January 20, 2021, (the day Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office)?

“By the middle of May more than 47 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 37 percent of all Americans (more than 120 million including my husband and me) will be fully vaccinated. Oh, and CDC masking guidelines will be substantially relaxed as a result of the greater numbers of protected citizens. For instance, if you live in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I do, you will be free to exercise in a community gym without wearing a mask on May 15.”

You probably would have responded like this:

“You’re crazy, Johnson!! Stop building my hopes and spreading unrealistic half-glass-full-but-dreamy conspiracy theories.”

But I’m not crazy. Think about what we have accomplished in less than four months as a nation. Where would we be without the vaccines, a compassionate and hard-working president, and science? Nowhere.

I realize there is a sizable chunk of Americans who will never get vaccinated, and as a result we will likely not reach herd immunity. If you are an anti-vaxer, it is your choice not to get the shots, just as it was mine to consent to receive the inoculations.

However, I see the “no vaccines for me” choice as a short-sighted and selfish one. I view the approved, no-charge COVID-19 vaccines as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. (If you’ve played Monopoly, you get my drift.)

Without the vaccines (two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for me) I would have felt forever afraid and vulnerable. I would have continued to be worried about my well-being, not to mention paranoid about spreading the virus to others. All of us would be going nowhere … figuratively and literally.

Now, with the vaccine coursing through my veins, I am happier, freer, and less afraid than I’ve been in fifteen months. I can plan a trip with my husband to visit friends in Montana this summer, sing again unmasked in the same space with my friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, and work out at Club SAR, the community gym I frequent, without wearing a covering over my face. None of that would have happened without the amazing science of epidemiology and vaccines.

Best of all, blurry or not, with the boosting benefit of two shots in my right arm and some mild discomfort for a few days, I get to see the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances, and mingle with them again. That’s something I have missed dearly.

Thank you, Science.