Category: Essays

A Better Place

“Dogs have no idea how wonderful they are. They walk all around us and make the world a better place.”

***

On a chilly, but sunny, Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona, this was Yumi’s thought of the day.

How serendipitous that our instructor should choose these two sentences as inspiration for Tom, me and six others on February 2, 2023, as we stood on our mats and began our weekly seventy-five-minute journey into yoga.

On Ground Hog Day fifteen years ago our basset hound Maggie crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

When it’s your pet, you never forget the highs and lows long after the calendar pages have come and gone.

The frolics with Kirk, Nick, Tom, and me in the lush green of our backyard … the comfort of her velveteen elongated ears as I stroked her coat … the gnaws and crunches of rawhide bones and petite carrots as she gobbled up another evening snack, after racing to welcome us home at the kitchen door.

Then along came that sad-and-snowy suburban Chicago morning in 2008 when our dog endured another–particularly horrible– seizure.

After the shaking had stopped, she looked up at me with resignation from the tile of our kitchen floor without the energy or inclination to lick the maple syrup off a breakfast plate.

Soon after, Tom and I scooped her into our sedan, arrived at our vet’s office, and whispered goodbye to her as she sprawled on a blanket on the floor.

***

Today, seventeen hundred miles and a lifetime away from the northern Illinois home she patrolled and dominated, I recall the “glue” and comic relief our dog provided (through her warm fur, misshapen front legs, and bellowing howl).

She was the antidote for our non-traditional family: two men (in a loving relationship just doing our best to coexist in a less enlightened world) with my two sons zooming in and out of our life as they grew.

Our dog simply demanded our constant attention and stood by our sides witnessing it all.

It was the love and companionship of Maggie and the litany of her daily adventures–walks, feedings, treats, medicines, rabbits, squirrels, accidents in the hall, and countless cuddles–that magically connected us all.

Certainly, from 1998 to 2008, our dog made our world a better place.

Aging Hands

I take a blood thinner; therefore, I bruise easily.

So, for instance, if I’m putting away dishes in our cupboard after dinner and bump the top of my hand on the corner of the cabinet, I am sure to leave that mundane household experience with a souvenir–an immediate red patch that will last a few days in the afflicted area.

I haven’t always been ultra-self-conscious about the condition of my extremities. It’s only lately–in my sixties with thinner skin on my thinner body–that I’ve become aware of my aging hands and, of course, my mortality. They go hand in hand.

Since I’m a writer and rely on my fingers, wrists, and hands to write these sentences on my laptop, I’m fortunate not to have arthritis in my joints–in my hands.

My sister Diane seems to be the one in our family who has inherited that painful component of our mother’s DNA. Particularly in her hips, knees, and feet.

Diane is sixty-eight-years old. She doesn’t read what I write. We live seventeen hundred miles apart. She in Illinois. Me in Arizona.

Even so, I love my sister. I always have and will. Tom and I visited her and Steve (Diane’s husband) for an afternoon last October while we were in the Chicago area. In this age of Covid, we recounted all the things we are thankful for.

Diane will always be my only sibling, my only big sister. We talk and text occasionally. I worry about Diane’s physical wellness and longevity. We’re the only two remaining in our family of origin, since Mom passed away ten years ago.

Diane also is the only other person who remembers the nuances of our St. Louis childhood, our homelife (good, bad, and indifferent), our difficult plight as a family after Dad’s heart attack in 1962, our mother’s resolve in her fifties and fragility in her eighties, our mother’s aging hands.

I came across this photo of Mom’s folded hands from Christmas Eve 2008. That night, we gathered at Diane’s home in Illinois to celebrate the holiday and open gifts. Mom would live to share another four Christmases with us.

It’s a cropped image and not the clearest, but when I saw it, I was reminded of Mom’s age spots and blemishes that grew with the passage of time on her fair, loose, thin skin. The rough patches on her hard-working hands go back in time to her rural southern roots in High Point, North Carolina, and fifty years in St. Louis, Missouri, which I chronicle in From Fertile Ground.

In her final nine years living in northern Illinois, our mother had this habit of clutching a tissue in her palms. She often hid an auxiliary one in the arm of her blouse or sweater. If you look closely, you can see it peeking out of the sleeve of her heather-flecked turtleneck.

These are the little personal idiosyncrasies that only a sibling would remember. They don’t matter in the grander scheme of things, but they do when it’s your mother and you still love and miss her after ten years of living without her. And you realize that your own mortality creeps ever closer with every blogpost.

Sure, I stay active–mentally and physically–and will continue to mount the treadmill several times each week to keep my heart strong.

But there is no denying the evolving appearance of my spotted, aging hands. They are looking more like my mother’s every day.

Light-hearted Escape

It’s been another challenging year for many. We won’t soon forget the previous twelve months … brimming with health concerns, natural disasters, social upheaval, global traumas, political shenanigans, and inflationary woes.

Why not end 2022–or start 2023–on a positive note with a light-hearted escape? From now until January 2, for only ninety-nine cents, you can download a copy of my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon.

It’s a universal collection of tales that focuses on my love of family and pop culture. A nostalgic series of twenty-six funny and poignant essays about growing up in St. Louis in the 1960s and 1970s.

The final story in the book, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm, comforting possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen.

I wrote it as a testament to the good citizenship of my father and mother, who did the right thing on a cold January morning more than sixty years ago.

Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Candy Cane Kids

In the early 1960s, the four of us–Dad, Mom, Diane, and I–preferred a natural Christmas tree.

In mid-December, we bundled up, drove to a local tree lot, and picked out a well-shaped balsam.

Money was tight, so our family’s philosophy was the cheaper the better.

One of the men at the lot usually helped Dad tie the tree to the top of our car.

Once we arrived back home, we sawed off a notch of the trunk.

Then, Dad placed the six-footer outside in a metal bucket filled with water to keep it fresh until we trimmed the tree.

In those days, these porcelain candy cane kids adorned the branches of our family Christmas in south suburban St. Louis.

Originally, there was a third sibling, but he or she broke in the years following and couldn’t be repaired.

Thankfully, these two have survived until now … traveling from Missouri to Illinois to Arizona.

This year, Tom and I nestled the remaining candy cane kids near the top of our artificial tree in the sunroom of our Scottsdale condo.

They remind us of the memory magic of Christmas, seen through the bright eyes of an exuberant child.

As 2022 draws to a close, thank you for following me on this journey.

No matter your age or whether you celebrate Christmas, my wish for you and me in 2023 is that we continue to nurture our imaginations and rekindle our sense of possibilities and wonder.

Because it is that spark–and the spirit of the candy cane kids in all of our lives–that helps us create the art to make the world a richer and more joyful place.

From Joy to Sorrow

On Saturday and Sunday, I stood on stage at the Galvin Playhouse in Tempe, Arizona, with about forty fellow members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

From the tenor two section of the top riser, I was dressed in black pants and my snazzy, solid-red holiday sweater. I was ready to raise my voice, have fun, open my heart, and bear my soul for two large, enthusiastic audiences there to see and hear us perform our ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas show.

As you might expect, I was amped up. My energy and emotions were running high. On stage or not, the holiday season can spur a range of feelings–from joy, hope, and peace to sorrow–for each of us.

Often, the music we hear or create is the catalyst for our state of being. It reminds us of who we are, who we love, who we’ve lost, where we’ve been, where we are, and maybe even foretells where we’re going.

Like life, this was a holiday concert that included a little of everything: luscious chords, soaring solos, a tribute to Hannukah, hot men wearing sparkly vests, a surprise tap dance underneath the tree (in the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas parody I wrote for the show), a caped gay superhero, a Christmas Can-Can not to be believed, sexy Santa Baby, assorted musical mash ups, and inspirational tunes.

The program was a delight to perform, and the crowds loved it. I felt thrilled and honored that about thirty family members and friends attended. One of them was Jeff.

Over the past three years, he and his husband Dave have become close friends for Tom and me. We’ve met for dinner frequently. Watched movies and played games together. Laughed and swam in their backyard pool. Shared funny stories from our past lives.

In March, Tom and I were honored to join Jeff and Dave and about thirty other friends to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. In October, they drove to Barnes & Noble in Mesa to be there for my book signing. Dave was a regular reader of my blog. He brought up my writing frequently. Each time, I was touched.

On Sunday morning, between the two holiday concerts, Jeff texted to tell Tom and me that Dave passed away Saturday night. He succumbed to complications of muscular dystrophy–a disease he lived with for many years. It confined him to a wheelchair, but–in the time I knew Dave–his disability never dampened his kind spirit, playful energy or warm smile.

I’m sad and stunned. I will miss my friend. On Sunday, as I sang Grown Up Christmas List on stage, I thought of Dave and all he must have endured. That song usually makes me cry anyway, but when I saw others in the audience tearing up, I fought hard to hold it together.

Of course, Jeff knows Tom and I are there for him as he grieves the loss of his long-time husband and loving companion. We will check in on him frequently.

This is just the latest personal reminder to sing and dance. Hug and kiss the ones you love. Fight hard for your convictions. Stand tall in the face of adversity. Raise your voice. And, if you are dealt a difficult hand, find a way to accept the unacceptable.

As a tribute to Dave, what follows is the full text of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story), which I wrote for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus in July 2022.

It’s a parody, which Tony Crane and Tim Gorka (who played Uncle Gabe and Nephew Jay respectively) performed masterfully during our show in Tempe over the weekend.

Had he seen it, Dave would have laughed out loud and loved it.

Rest in peace, my friend.

***

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story)

Copyright ©️ Mark Johnson, 2022

Nephew Jay:

Uncle Gabe, tell me a story about finding your true love.

Uncle Gabe:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, alone in the house,

No boyfriend, no job, I felt like a louse.

My stocking was hung, but nobody knew,

I was lost in the desert, no clue what to do.

My neighbors were quiet, shades dark and drawn,

Though moonlight glistened on the pool of their lawn.

With a glass of red blend, I sat by my tree,

Oh, there was Sparky–my cat–curled next to me.

Out on the yard, there rose such a clatter,

I sprang from the couch and Sparky did scatter.

Then–Whoa–a gay Hallmark card did appear,

‘Twas a gaggle of gays–they were definitely queer.

They side-stepped a saguaro, they climbed up my roof,

They danced and they pranced–some in heels, not hoofs.

Before I could greet them, they sang all around,

Their message for Santa came cascading down.

(Musical interlude #1: Chorus performs “Dear Santa, Bring Me a Man”)

Nephew Jay:

Then what happened, Dear Uncle?

Uncle Gabe:

Well, first the gays went home,

The lead one gave a whistle,

Then, away they all flew,

Like the down of a thistle.

When I woke up Christmas Day, I had a plan.

I really DID want Santa to bring ME a man.

So, I hopped in the shower, gave Sparky a treat,

I wondered, “Oh, where is that man I must meet?”

I knew I needed to get out of the house,

I left Sparky at home to play with a mouse.

I pulled on my jeans and a really gay shirt,

Found a coffee shop open, then turned with a jerk.

I ordered a latte,

I glanced all around,

Who is that hottie?

Could it be he’d been found?

He had a kind face,

A pink shirt he was wearing,

I felt the bells ring,

When his eyes caught me staring …

(Musical interlude #2: Chorus performs “Ding-a, Ding-a Ding”)

Nephew Jay:

Oh, I just adore the ringing bells, Uncle. What a beautiful metaphor. It sounds like it was love at first sight. Tell me more.

Uncle Gabe:

Oh yes–his eyes how they twinkled,

His dimples how merry,

Isn’t if funny,

That his name would be Jerry?

The seasons passed,

The monsoons rained,

We moved in together,

Then next December came.

‘Twas Christmas morning,

Underneath the tree,

I found what I was looking for,

Next to Sparky and me.

It was Jerry–and I was merry.

(Musical interlude #3: Chorus performs “Underneath the Tree”.)

Waitin’ for the Man with the Bag

Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, cause Christmas is comin’ again.

I’ll be singing this lyrical line with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus mates this Saturday and Sunday on stage in Tempe, Arizona at the Galvin Playhouse. (Go to http://www.phxgmc.org for tickets.)

“Man With The Bag” is a jazzy, Christmas mash-up, artfully arranged by David Maddux. It’s the second number of Act II, a mix of frolicking, silky, reflective, fun, inspiring, and sometimes-bawdy music in our “Twas the Night Before Christmas” show.

If I sound excited, I am. This will be my thirteenth consecutive holiday concert: seven with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago; six here in Phoenix.

Singing Christmas music in my fifties and sixties with two diverse community choruses of gay men has somehow rekindled the wonder and anticipation of my childhood.

Close your eyes and travel back in time. Music or not, you remember that giddy Christmas feeling.

For me, it happened annually with my sister Diane. Decades before the advent of fake news, we stood on opposite ends of our fake, cardboard fireplace in suburban St. Louis. No doubt, as we posed for this photo, Perry Como crooned a holiday tune on the hi-fi.

Anyway, in December 1962–yikes, sixty years ago–we were waitin’ for the man with the bag in the dining room of our modest brick home without an actual fireplace. But that didn’t deter our keen imaginations or exuberance. In fact, it nurtured them.

I don’t know what happened to that fabulous fireplace I leaned against years ago. I doubt that it survived to see 1970.

But Diane and I are still here. Yes, much older and definitely wiser. She lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband; I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with mine.

I mailed a small box of gifts to her recently, and her package will arrive here before Christmas. But it is the gifts of music and memory that I cherish today … and the thought of just the two of us–way back when–waitin’ for the man with the bag.

Holiday Houseguests

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. is winding down. All over America, houseguests are preparing to pack their bags, return home, and file away memories of time with friends and family.

Our three-day adventure with Milo and Miley in our Scottsdale condo is drawing to a close. While our friend Austin visited family in Colorado, his lovable, ever-licking Shih Tzu pups followed us around the house, slept with us, tumbled on the floor, paraded on leashes near ripening fruit on citrus trees, and–occasionally–barked at passersby.

They even got to meet and play with Kirk and Nick my thirty-something sons, who joined Tom and me on Thursday for turkey, green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple crisp, and World Cup viewing/prognosticating in our humble abode.

To be sure, the holidays are all about family. I’m thankful Tom and I had time with my sons. But it’s also about the furry friends (permanent or otherwise) that grace our lives, make us laugh, wake us at 5:30 … and even attempt to practice morning yoga before they return to the comfort and familiarity of their forever home.

Miley and Milo couldn’t quite get the hang of downward facing dog, but they sure enjoyed licking my face while I stretched on our sunroom floor.

Royalties with Heart

I confess. Like many independent writers, I dream of dozens of rave reviews online from readers and a steady stream of royalties.

But that rarely happens. Most of us are not that fortunate. It doesn’t mean our books aren’t worthy of praise and financial rewards. It just means that it is difficult to remain visible and compelling without a marketing budget. The literary competition runs wide and deep in the Amazon distribution ocean of new and old releases.

Even so, behind the scenes–when someone buys one or more of my books on Amazon–royalties appear on my author dashboard and land magically in my checking account a few months later.

It isn’t the amount that makes me happy. (It’s usually a trickle, no more than five or ten dollars, though in a rare month the dollars can spike higher.) It’s the acknowledgement that someone continues to derive value and meaning from one of my “very creative, heart-warming stories.”

That phrase in quotes is the way the staff at Barnes & Noble in Mesa, Arizona describes my books on their shelves. When I saw this, I felt honored because the motivation for my writing comes from my heart and the myriad of emotions–love, loss, happiness, discontent, hope, disappointment–we all feel.

Recently, a development director with the American Heart Association (AHA) in Arizona asked if I would be an Executive with Heart to help raise money for their 2023 campaign. Without hesitation, I said “yes.”

Technically, it runs from February 1 through March 24 and concludes with a Heart Walk in the Valley of the Sun. But on “Giving Tuesday” this year (November 29) I will donate the $200 in book royalties I have earned in 2022 to the AHA to help support the fight against heart disease and stroke. An anonymous donor will match that amount.

Ironically, in the coming few months, I will remember both of my parents who succumbed to heart disease. My dad died after suffering his second heart attack on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving twenty-nine years ago. My mother passed on January 26, 2013–nearly ten years ago on a frigid Illinois morning–due to congestive heart failure.

In their honor, I will increase my $200 donation to the AHA by $10 for every purchase of An Unobstructed View between now and November 29. In case you don’t know, the book is a personal account of my transformative journey with Tom, moving from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and navigating a frightening detour in St. Louis in between. It’s my heartfelt story of survival.

I hope you’ll purchase a copy for yourself or a friend. When you do, you will fill my heart with joy and benefit others–like me–who are building strong hearts and longer, more meaningful lives.

Over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I encourage you to also give thanks for those you love and those who love you … and the heart that beats inside you every moment of every day.

Empty Soles

November 3 was a brisk Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. But when I walked past these empty soles on the edge of Camelback Road after my workout at the gym, I felt an eerie sensation. It was almost like learning a close friend had died or vanished.

My focus shifted immediately away from our cooler-than-average temperatures in the Valley of the Sun. I felt compelled to pay tribute to the remnants of a life well lived. To stop and take this photo and–three days later–write a story about what I saw and felt in those moments. Because that is what I do.

What would provoke someone to leave behind a pair of decent canvas shoes on the side of the road in such an orderly fashion? Did they suddenly outlive their usefulness? Perhaps they were simply an extra pair a homeless person could no longer carry. Or the sensible shoes were forgotten by someone who waited for a bus and was ready to advance to the next station in life.

For my storytelling purposes they are a metaphor for the sense of displacement many of us feel in our country. We’ve been pushed to jump out of our shoes from the criminal escape antics of our past president and the barrage of political ads spewing venom through our devices. Whatever the case, we wait for the next shoe to drop as we anticipate the outcome of the mid-term elections.

If you follow my blog, you know I am a positive person. Generally. I’m thankful for the beauty of nature that surrounds me and the quieter life my husband and I have carved into the desert landscape.

But as a nation we teeter on the precipice of despair. The future of democracy–as I’ve known it for my 65 years and 181 years before that–is definitely on the ballot this coming Tuesday.

Tom and I have already voted. Nearly two weeks ago. I checked the boxes alongside the names of only those who will protect our democracy. Not the high-profile election deniers in Arizona running for senator, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. We need to believe them when they tell us they wouldn’t necessarily respect and honor the will of the majority of the people.

If you live in the U.S., be sure to vote on or before Tuesday. When you do, I hope you will support those who uphold our beloved U.S. Constitution.

Otherwise, I fear that the close friend who disappeared without their shoes is actually the democracy we once loved before we allowed it to vanish.

Quiet, Yet Meaningful

Like any and every significant life moment, Saturday afternoon at Barnes & Noble in Mesa on S. Val Vista Drive produced a series of visual snippets–memories which today on the day after (and hopefully, always) cascade through my tired, but appreciative brain.

It was a quiet, yet meaningful, experience for this independent writer–connecting with a handful of aspiring writers and avid readers (unfamiliar with my stories).

Best of all, I was the fortunate recipient of another giant dose of love from family and close friends here in the Valley of the Sun.

Thank you, Tom, Glenn, Dave, Jeff, Nick, Anastasia, Libby, Gregor, Ron, Carol, Merrill, Torie, Jasmine, and Tashi. It was a thrill to sign my books for you and feel the warmth and encouragement of your creative spirits.