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.
It wasn’t an unpleasant sound that stirred my brain before 5 a.m. It was a light desert wind filtering through our tubular chimes that woke and evoked me and distant sounds. Reassuring, comforting ones from suburban St. Louis.
Mom was always the first one up.
From my middle bedroom–a connecting space with two doors wedged between the hall and kitchen–I could hear her creaking on linoleum, shuffling in slippers, opening drawers, turning on the dial to the radio, reaching into the refrigerator, sizzling bacon in a skillet, placing the kettle on the stove, and pouring hot water over a teaspoon or two of instant coffee.
Then, at night–when the day was done–it was the splash of rain and swirling sensation of fallen leaves on the metal awning outside my bedroom window that soothed me. Or Happy’s soulful howl, craning his neck as he responded to the calls of other dogs in the neighborhood.
As I huddled under the covers on a twin bed, these sounds beckoned me to sleep. Now, as I remember them and write about them on my laptop, they exist and endure.
Certainly, the memory of them gets richer because they have been gone longer. They rise to the top like the cream of milk, while what happened yesterday might easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I would be lost if I couldn’t listen and remember the sounds of the past. In the moment they were invisible, fleeting footprints. But they echo in my thankful memory … lasting reminders of the texture, meaning, depth, people, and love I hear and remember.
Completed on this day fifty-seven years ago, the Gateway Arch served as a catalyst for St. Louis’ mid-twentieth-century renaissance.
The six-hundred-thirty-foot-tall structure was then, and still is, that gleaming stainless-steel phenomenon and symbol, soaring above and beyond the banks of the Mississippi River. It replaced a sagging riverfront packed with dingy brick warehouses and smokestacks.
It is impossible for me to reflect on this city I love–the place where I was born which now bears little physical resemblance to what I remember half a century ago–without acknowledging the magnificence, continuity, and meaning of the Arch.
In late 1965 shortly after a construction crew finished the project, I stood directly underneath it with my parents, looking straight up from the base, running my palms across its smooth-and-shiny skin. It would be decades before sapling trees would grow tall enough to create this park-like atmosphere you see here.
For three summers–1977, 1978, and 1979–I worked underneath, around, and inside the Arch as a history interpreter for the National Park Service. It was a fabulous job for this then-twenty-year old idealist and history buff.
I gave tours in the Museum of Westward Expansion, talked about the city’s founding as a French fur-trading post in 1764, and played color commentator for wobbly visitors as they gazed across the Missouri and Illinois horizons through tiny windows at the top of the Arch.
In those days that federal landscape was defined as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, because the Arch was built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and recognized St. Louis’ pivotal role in the westward expansion movement.
Of course, the concept of westward expansion conjures sometimes-controversial overtones in this era. Of white settlers moving west to push Native Americans from their land.
But no matter your point of view about U.S. history, the Gateway Arch constitutes an architectural marvel at the very least and a symbol of pride for St. Louisans past and present.
In 1947, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a competition with his Gateway Arch design. His concept included reflecting pools on the ground to soften the sharp edges of the monument that carves its path through the sky.
Unfortunately, Saarinen didn’t get to see his masterpiece completed. He died September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor.
But the rest of the world watched with wonder four years later. When construction workers–dancing on the edge of the sky–inserted the capstone piece to connect the north and south legs of the Gateway Arch, St. Louisans breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed their brighter-and-shinier identity.
Fifty-seven years later, I understand the surrounding trees have matured, and the Arch grounds have been connected more seamlessly with the rest of the downtown area.
And the Gateway Arch itself? It’s still standing and an inspiring site to behold.
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.
The elementary and middle schools in Arizona were back in session this week.
Compared to my 1960s’ experience as a crew-cut kid of the St. Louis suburbs, it feels awfully early to return to the classroom. In those days, the first day of school arrived right after Labor Day.
Maybe I was atypical, but I was ready for school to start. I craved the structure and creative possibilities. Learning new things, reconnecting with classmates, and meeting my teacher propelled me into an annual, educational orbit.
I give my parents credit for promoting the importance and fun aspects of school. They made sure I slept enough every night and ate some sort of breakfast every morning (even when I resisted), before I caught the bus at the corner of South Yorkshire Drive and Laclede Station Road.
They also did their part to prompt me about homework assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, and encourage good grades.
The rest was up to me.
As I write this, it all sounds rather innocent, systematic, and idyllic. It was far from perfect, but definitely safer and less complicated. There were fewer distractions. Fewer problems. Fewer troublemakers. Fewer threats.
In that era, it felt like teachers, parents, community leaders, and kids were rowing in the same direction in the same boat.
Of course, there were conflicts, but generally I observed adults behaving with a modicum of mutual respect.
Certainly, that isn’t the case in 2022 in the United States of America.
I’m not giving up. I know there are excellent parents and teachers out there–guiding the adults of tomorrow, working to shield them from harm.
However, our educational institutions have frayed under societal pressures. Too often, we forget that our impressionable children and grandchildren are watching. We forget that they need guide rails, consistency, advocates, nurturing, and discipline to grow.
As we send our youngsters off to school again, we must teach them the truth–that science, math, history, literature, and the arts really do matter.
We must distinguish facts from lies. We must open their minds to the possibilities of life, so that they will develop the critical thinking skills they will need to function effectively in this ever-complicated world.
Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.
On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.“
Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.
Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.
If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.
Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.
It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.
Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.
The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.
Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.
I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.
Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.
That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.
You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.
If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.
Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.
In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.
Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.
In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.
It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.
I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.
I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.
More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.
It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.
Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.
Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.
I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had…
It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.
In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.
Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.
If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.
Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.
It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)
I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.
Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.
Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”
I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.
Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.
Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.
It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!
It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.
This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.
On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.
I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.
Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.
I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.