Category: Literary Life

Every Heart Tells a Story

On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.

If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.

One of my favorite photos of Mom and Dad, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday on July 26, 1949, at a restaurant in Texas.

Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.

As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.

http://www2.heart.org/goto/Mark_Johnson_HeartWalk_2023

Thank you for your kindness and consideration. Every little bit helps.

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”.)

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.

My Fortunate Life

I lead a fortunate life. I don’t mean that in a material, financial or social sense; like many of you, I am concerned about inflation, the bear market, high gas prices, potential fall-out from the mid-term elections, and global and domestic horrors eroding personal freedoms, savings and investments, and a general sense of security for you and me.

Still, I acknowledge I have more to be thankful for than most people: a modest-but-comfortable home in a warm climate; a loving and supportive spouse; two adult sons who are gainfully employed and contributing members of society; a diverse community of friends; and the time to pursue and develop my literary and musical interests.

Plus, I’m a relatively healthy, sixty-five-year-old male. I make it a priority to exercise regularly, eat smart, and see my doctors as needed. Though it’s been more than five years since I suffered a mild heart attack, I haven’t forgotten the trauma of July 6, 2017, or dismissed the gratitude I feel for that team of doctors and nurses at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri–people I likely will never see again.

That painful experience no longer defines me. It has paled somewhat. Yet it informs my choices, perspective, and sense of gratitude. It has morphed into a badge of survivorship, which I feel an obligation to share with the universe through my writing and day-in-day-out personal encounters.

Occasionally, I receive a fund-raising or participation request from an Arizona contact with the American Heart Association (AHA). We met in 2018.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to share my story of survival–virtually–with employees of a large retail organization on October 17. To explain that donations to the AHA aid lifesaving research that allows heart and stroke survivors–like me–to enjoy longer and more complete lives.

So that’s what I’ll be doing on Monday. Twice … once in the morning; once in the afternoon. Telling my story of survival in three to five minutes to a large group of employees via video conference.

I figure it’s the least I can do to pay it forward and possibly ease the pain for some other unsuspecting man or woman, who with the help of the AHA might live longer, breathe more easily, and witness a few more breathtaking sunsets in the Valley of the Sun or elsewhere.

On October 5, 2022, I captured this Sonoran sunset in Papago Park on my walk with Tom a mile from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Mighty Mosaic

When I auditioned for the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus in August 2017–six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack on the way west–we were both on the cusp of a transformation.

At sixty, I was searching for a new place to renew my love of singing (after seven years performing with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago); the chorus was twenty-six, preparing to spread its wings and a few years away from embracing a more public gay identity: the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

On Saturday evening, October 8, I stood on stage with about fifty of my chorus mates at the Kroc Center in south Phoenix. We performed our Mosaic of Voices concert. It was our tribute to triumphant stories shared by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community–told through the power and inspiration of music.

I wore two hats for the occasion. Figuratively, I mean. I sang second tenor from the top row of the risers and realized a new creative wrinkle; I wrote the lyrics for three of the original songs we performed in the first set: Hope’s Trail, Our Second Act, and Mighty Mosaic. David E. Weck composed all of the music beautifully.

The first two were adapted from compelling, emotional, and personal stories submitted by Garry and Nico, members of the community. When I first read their stories in 2021 and began to develop lyrics, I felt it was important to honor and include many of their actual words in my lyrics. In turn, David then nurtured and shaped them into music.

The third song, Mighty Mosaic, began as a poem I wrote, specifically for the Mosaic of Voices concert. I created it to represent the rich, diverse, and sometimes-circuitous lives we lead in the LGBTQ community.

After last night–with its unveiling on stage before an appreciative audience of a few hundred–you might be inclined to call Mighty Mosaic an anthem. (It certainly felt inspiring for me to write it on June 2, 2021, and then sing it on October 8, 2022.) It celebrates who we are and what we believe. Here it is in its original form, before my words met David’s artful music.

***

Mighty Mosaic (Copyright 2021 Mark Johnson)

Morning, noon, and night, the fabric of our winding threads and uncertain spools form a fluid tapestry of brilliant and imperfect hues.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

In the heat of the day, our worn but sturdy strands lead us down rabbit holes, but–if we keep the faith–the enduring threads carry us through.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

We may travel from a foreign home or body, but when our identities emerge, they awaken our lonely spirits, they blend beautifully.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Our jagged journeys–our truth trails from the pain of stark midnight to the peace and stillness of lavender daybreak–make us mighty.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Gay, trans, straight or bi–black, brown, or white … single, attached, or married … young, old, or in between–this is our mosaic and the moment we celebrate what it means.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

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.

B&N Bliss

Back in July, I wrote a story about Barnes and Noble stocking my memoirs on its shelves in Mesa, Arizona.

A month or so later Rachele, the community relations manager, invited me to sign my books there.

It will happen on Saturday, October 1, from 1 to 3 p.m. at their Dana Park store, located at 1758 S. Val Vista Drive. I’ll even have the opportunity to read a few passages.

(No, it hasn’t sunk in that this independent writer will have this blissful moment in a large bookselling space among the work of more-renowned writers.)

Anyway, I realize most of you who follow my blog don’t live in the Valley of the Sun. But if you do–and you’re looking for a creative outlet this weekend and a story or two to add to your fall reading–stop by.

I’d love to see you there!

A Flair for Fiction?

A good writer can summon the right mix of words and creativity to bring any story or situation to life.

I think I’ve always believed that statement. But, in the past, I’ve been more comfortable telling true stories, derived from the vault of my memories. Less comfortable creating a set of characters and possibilities from scratch.

Recently, a voice inside has been telling me to try my hand at fiction. I decided to humor that voice. I registered for an in-person, six-week creative writing course in Scottsdale. It began in mid-September.

Twelve of us writers from all walks of life sit around an oblong table every Wednesday afternoon. Our instructor shares her experience and tools. She’s a writer, screenwriter, and editor.

She guides us through various writing prompts in the moment. We take turns reading our work to each other. Then, we disburse to craft something original for the following Wednesday.

One of our assignments was to create a detailed character inventory. To essentially build a character from the ground up–complete with personal history, physical traits, likes, dislikes, baggage, strengths, and weaknesses. The whole enchilada.

The idea might sound intimidating. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun. Now, I’m beginning to write a story that features this character. Remarkably, I can envision this person in the world, though they exist purely in my imagination.

I don’t know where this exercise will lead ultimately, but I’m open to the raw uncertainty. For the first time in about a year, I feel a surge in creative energy to explore and try new things.

Time, trial and error will tell me whether I truly have a flair for fiction. When I’m ready to disclose more, I’ll share it here.

The Clothesline

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.

For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.

Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.

More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.

It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.

The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.

Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

***

The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.

Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.

Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.

Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.

And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.

It’s a much less turbulent September day.

Setup Complete

A delivery man handed me a box at my front door on Thursday. Inside was my new Samsung phone. It includes a lot more memory and features than my previous model.

“Great. No big deal,” you might think. “After all, we live in a world where techie products and capability change every few minutes and many people buy a new device every year or so.”

But I object, your honor. It is a big deal for this guy.

This is not a purchase I make frequently. It’s not so much the cost. It’s the drama and tumultuous change required. And, when I make such a change, I need and expect support to pull me through the uncertainty.

It’s the fear of losing all my contacts and photos that I don’t want to send into the cloud (wherever that is) that amps up my anxiety from “reasonable human being” to “caged animal.”

Let’s peel a few more layers of the emotional onion.

***

On July 9, 2017 (yes, more than five years ago!), Tom and I bought my previous Samsung phone at a Verizon Wireless store in St. Louis, Missouri. We were between homes at the time, on our way west from the Chicago suburbs to Scottsdale, Arizona. I was fresh out of the hospital.

More background. On July 5, 2017, somewhere in Southern Illinois, my previous phone died. Strangely, the next morning–it was our 60th birthday–I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis.

My husband and the medical staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis saved my life. Tom got me to the hospital lickety-split. The cardio team performed an angioplasty. They found an obstruction in the left side of my heart.

The next day, once my blood pressure was stable, the team installed two stents in my heart. Remarkably, I left the hospital two days later with a new lease on life, no cell phone, and a story that would become my third book: An Unobstructed View.

Tom and I bought a functioning phone the following day in the city where I was born in 1957.

***

On Friday, I drove to a nearby Verizon Wireless store in Tempe, Arizona, with my new phone. Two representatives–one in person, another via live chat–had told me Verizon would help me transfer my data and activate my new phone.

But Verizon left me high and dry.

When I walked in the store to describe what I needed, a young representative told me they didn’t/wouldn’t do that. My anxiety and anger soared. After a volley of choice words, I announced “I’m outta here.”

I left the store an emotional wreck.

When I arrived home, Tom tried to console me, but I was inconsolable. He suggested I contact Geek Squad at Best Buy. We have a total tech support plan there. I made an appointment.

On Saturday, I arrived at Best Buy, in the same Tempe Marketplace mall where the Verizon debacle occurred. Over the next hour, the Geek Squad team activated my phone and helped me transfer my data.

All three “blue-shirted” technicians, who assisted me, treated me with respect. Like the medical team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital five years ago, they restored my hope in human care and kindness.

***

Think about it. Like the fragility of our personal health, and the heart that ticks inside us, so much of our world is tied to this one important item we carry in our pockets (instead of our chests).

When that one thing (heart or phone) becomes vulnerable, so are we.

Fortunately, my phone setup is complete now. It feels like I have my life back. Tomorrow (Monday), I see my cardiologist for my annual checkup. My ticker is strong. I’m in much better shape physically than I was five years ago. I expect a good report.