Sunday’s touch of soreness in my right arm–from Saturday’s latest Covid booster–didn’t deter me from capturing 5,266 steps along the Crosscut Canal and this blue-sky, north-facing view of Camelback Mountain from the bridge.
It was the calm I needed and inhaled to organize my thoughts. Away from the world but planted firmly on it. Serenaded by a few distant Sky Harbor departures, slow stream of bikes buzzing by, and family of Gambel’s quail rushing down the embankment for Sunday brunch.
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.
Few films adeptly tackle the subject of aging. (Sure, it isn’t sexy or glamourous. But, if we’re lucky, it’s something we all must learn to navigate and accept.) Harry and Tonto is the exception.
Released in 1974, the movie–directed by Paul Mazursky–tells the story of a seventy-plus, stubborn-yet-vulnerable, retired teacher and his trusty cat Tonto. They are forced to leave their Upper West Side New York City apartment after their building is condemned.
Their odyssey leads them from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles (with a few fascinating side adventures) in search of a new home.
This is much more than a road trip movie with a stellar supporting cast: Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Chief Dan George, Melanie Mayron, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and others.
It explores the complicated relationships and conflicts that come with family, as well as the sometimes surprisingly rich and meaningful connections we form with strangers across the generations, who cross our paths without warning.
If you read my blog regularly, it shouldn’t surprise you that I love a story about an old man and a cat. (After all, I’ve come to discover the clever ways felines weave in and out of our desert community on any given day.)
It’s really the tenderness of this film, not just the cat, that cement this as one of Tom’s and my favorites in spite of its dated references to 1970s pop culture. Over the years, we’ve screened it six or eight times. We watched it again over the Labor Day weekend.
For instance, there’s a scene where Harry is required to confirm the identity of a long-time friend–a man with no family–who has passed unexpectedly.
Harry arrives to view the body and ensure his pal gets a proper burial. The stark sadness of the situation and the real emotions that surface touch me every time I see it.
As you may have guessed, Tonto’s co-starring appearance–and the tight bond between man and cat–is a symbolic device in the story that gives it depth. The animal is a sounding board/alter ego for lonely Harry, whose wife (Annie) has died years before we meet them.
Because of the cat’s existence and place in his life, Harry finds a way to safely articulate his fears and dreams … and, as viewers, we get a front-row seat to their narrative, homelessness dilemma, and a cast of colorful characters who lead them to unexpected places and realizations.
In 2022, it’s rare to find a contemporary film with both the heart and art of Harry and Tonto. But that doesn’t deter us from digging into our personal archives to find this gem.
Rest assured. There are no spoilers here regarding the outcome. Just gratitude for Mazursky and crew who–nearly fifty years ago–crafted a film that skillfully explores the unvarnished truth about aging.
Best of all, it’s a creative and emotionally honest tale about the adventures of a man and his cat.
The calendar says September, but August-like heat abounds across the American west.
Thanks to a dome of high pressure, triple-digit Septemperatures in the Pacific Northwest, California, the Intermountain West, and (of course) here in Arizona are expected through the Labor Day weekend.
In the desert, we know how to navigate the heat. Carry a water bottle everywhere. Slather on sunscreen. Wear a hat. Exercise early. Do your chores in the morning. Stay inside during the heat of the afternoon. Reemerge at sundown to catch another dazzling sunset.
But there are troubling resource ramifications for this region that lie beneath the stark beauty, beyond late-summer-heat inconveniences.
Lake Powell, our country’s second largest reservoir–it straddles the Utah and Arizona border–now stands at its lowest level since 1967.
According to a recent article on scitechdaily.com by Michael Carlowicz of the NASA Earth Observatory, on August 6, 2022, the water elevation of Lake Powell’s surface at Glen Canyon Dam was 3,535.38 feet. That’s 98 feet lower than August 2017 … and only twenty-six percent of its capacity.
In August, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will reduce the amount of water apportioned to states in the region.
Arizona will receive 21 percent less water from the Colorado River system in 2023. That is certain to hit farmers in the Grand Canyon State particularly hard.
Fortunately, water conservation efforts are trickling down across our state and communities like Scottsdale have begun to more aggressively manage the use of water. Plus, a wet monsoon season in our state has alleviated the drought in the short term.
But, with burgeoning population growth and climate uncertainties in this region, what will the future hold for the Colorado River basin and 40 million people–Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego–who rely on it for electric power and water?
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.
Shy and suspect, she appeared in May 2021. Soon after, I named our feral friend Poly. It’s short for our Polynesian Paradise community where she resides on the lam.
Curious but skittish, Poly stared down at me from our neighbor’s roof the first time we met. Later on, she padded down the walk–past the lemon and orange trees–when Tom or I approached.
She didn’t allow us to get closer than thirty feet.
Last summer came and went. On warm mornings, she’d climb into the crook of our fig tree to search for food. Delectable fruits weren’t her thing. In her dreams, it was a birdie buffet, featuring an unsuspecting dove or finch.
In the months that followed, Poly paraded by frequently. Meanwhile, Tom and I sat for other cats: adorable Blanca and acrobatic Hex. They also live on our lane, but both will be leaving in the next few months. As is the way of life, they’re moving on with their owners for adventures in new homes.
Now, in August 2022, Poly is the featured performer. She appears at our front door most mornings. Here on the southwestern edge of Polynesian Paradise, she meows, stretches, and rolls on her back. Like a shifty circus character, who knows how long she’ll stay in town?
By now, you have surmised that Poly has become our friend. Perhaps even our pet without an official home or address.
If she had to call one place home, I think she’d scribble the number outside our door onto a legal document with the tip of her paw. That is my fantasy.
On her most trusting days, she stands on our threshold, brushes up against our legs, and peeks in. She waits patiently as I place a ramakin of milk, handful of dry kitty kernels, or dish of wet food from a can (turkey, chicken, or fish) at her feet.
She finishes her savory treats, licks her paws, and grooms herself. Then slinks down the lane to rest on another neighbor’s doormat.
During this active summer monsoon season, I wonder where Poly hides, where she sleeps at night. Perhaps under a low palm. Or, if she scales a wall, in the cozy corner of a neighbor’s empty, but protective, patio.
Chosen or not, this is the life of our feral friend.
Sure, Poly trusts us more. She has warmed to our food and advances. But she hasn’t quite come to terms with whatever shadows lurk in her checkered past.
Like any nomad, Poly believes she’s better off on her own … better off when left to her own devices.
Nothing is certain, but it appears my debut as a lyricist will actually happen.
In January, I oozed with excitement when I told you about my new creative wrinkle. As background, in the fall of 2021 I teamed with David (another member of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) to create several original tunes for a Mosaic of Voices concert, scheduled for March 2022.
I wrote the lyrics. David composed the music. I was psyched for the debut of these pieces. Then, the concert was postponed. It was another Covid-related casualty.
Thankfully, the chorus has resurrected the program. On October 8 at the Kroc Center in Phoenix, we will perform the suite of pieces David and I created to capture the essence of original-and-triumphant stories submitted by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community.
On Tuesday evening, as our chorus of seventy or so rehearsed two of the Mosaic of Voices pieces (Hope’s Trail and Our Second Act), I saw a few tears. As I sang in the back row of second tenors, I felt the gravity of emotion rise in the room with our voices.
I was reminded of the healing power of music and the important role that choral communities–first the Windy City Gay Chorus and now the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–have played in my renaissance and in the lives of so many gay men.
Especially now in our chaotic country–divided, threatened, and deconstructed–we need this joyful music, this personal support, this hopeful oasis in the desert.
Without it, many of us would feel trapped and lost.
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.
August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.
If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.
Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.
According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.
Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.
I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.
And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.
I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.
At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.
In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …
“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”
She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.
My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.
Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.
As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.
Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.
Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.
July 11, 1999
I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!
The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …
Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.
Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.
Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.