Category: The west

Movie Mondays

When Tom and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we were immediately impressed with the library system here in Scottsdale.

It consists of four library locations spread south to north through our community to cover the ever-expanding patronage of transplants from other places. Each is a book lover’s haven with artistic touches built into the architecture to reflect the landscape of the desert southwest.

Closest to us–the main facility–is Civic Center Library in Old Town Scottsdale. It’s a place my husband and I frequent to browse the stacks for something new or familiar to read. In the past, before Covid, it’s also where I participated in the Local Author Book Fairs.

What neither of us anticipated (until last fall) is that on a chilly-for-the-valley Monday–the twenty-third day in the twenty-third year of this millennium and five-and-a-half years since we called Arizona our permanent home–Tom would realize a lifelong dream there.

He would begin to lead a free, eight-week film series and discussion, stand in the Civic Center auditorium in front of sixty attendees (friends, acquaintances, neighbors, relative strangers, and film lovers) and share his deep knowledge and passion for iconic films from 1967-1977.

It’s an era characterized in the American film industry as the New Hollywood. A period of controversial, counterculture attitudes that would personally define and shape his love of film and its ability to combine art form with social statement.

But as I sat in the front row to watch Tom welcome library patrons and see the first installment of the series (A Decade Under the Influence, a provocative documentary chockful of film clips and interviews with directors, writers and actors from that era) it was Tom’s moment that mattered most.

He has always imagined the thrill of owning a small theatre. Of showing films from that era–and classics like the Best Years of Our Lives from our parents’ generation–to inform and entertain those who may or may not be familiar with them.

We don’t have the financial ability to do that. But we do have friends and connections in our community (thank you, Glenn). In this case, they aligned magically to put Tom in touch with library management and help make his dream bloom and grow in the desert.

During and after the program Monday evening, I could feel the buzz in the auditorium. Many came up to thank Tom for sharing his film expertise and personal anecdotes. Not to mention a handy dandy packet of fun facts and background information about the films, which Tom happily prepared and the library staff copied and distributed.

I expect that many of the sixty who attended will be back for the second film on January 30. They’ll certainly be there to see Bonnie and Clyde, the jarring, graphic, and spectacular film about the Barrow gang and Depression-era Texas.

I imagine they will also return to hear Tom’s film insights.

***

Note: If you live in the area and would like to attend, the film series runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday nights until March 20, 2023, at the Civic Center Library, 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd. Registration not required. Space is limited.

The program is a free eight-week class about original, creative films from the Hollywood renaissance. A look at how filmmaking evolved after relaxed censorship and rating systems gave filmmakers freedom to explore new subject matter and styles of cinematic expression. Discussions and screenings each week are led by Tom Samp. All films are recommended for mature audiences.

Schedule of Films: 

A Decade Under the Influence (January 23rd)

Bonnie and Clyde (January 30th)

The Graduate (February 6th)

Easy Rider (February 13th)

Midnight Cowboy (February 27th)

M*A*S*H (March 6th)

Five Easy Pieces (March 13th)

Annie Hall (March 20th) 

On Monday, January 23, 2023, Tom Samp welcomed attendees to the first installment of a free eight-week film series–The New Hollywood:1967-1977–at the Civic Center Library in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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.

Nearly Ten Years

Nearly ten years have passed since she passed January 26, 2013.

As this seismic anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I feel a degree of grief’s numbness reappearing.

The time is right for me to sprinkle this space with reflections on Helen F. Johnson’s life: how much I loved her; what I learned from her; and why I still miss her.

I watched my mother grow in wisdom and shrink in physical presence–simultaneously–in her final ten years.

In those poetic moments–especially 2004 to 2009 when we visited at her condo in Winfield, Illinois–the two observations felt incongruent as we sat side by side on a park bench reflecting on her love of family, nature, photography, and letter writing.

But they don’t anymore.

Now that I’ve surpassed the midpoint of my sixties–favoring the quietest moments of life over all the rest–I see and feel the same transformation happening within me.

I’m far more inclined to record the moments that happen around me, because–like her–I have the time and the interest. She has left me an invaluable gift: a recognizable path and impulse to emulate.

My life has changed immensely since she died. I’ve retired from corporate life, married Tom, moved across the country, survived a heart attack, lost forty pounds, written four books, endured Covid, and built a new life in the desert.

Yet, it is when Tom and I spend time with my sons Nick and Kirk–her only grandchildren–that I am most aware of how long she has been gone and how much she loved us all.

They were both in their twenties in 2013. Searching. Unsettled. Preparing to launch. On the cusp of new personal discoveries and adventures. Since that time, they’ve traveled, found new loves, new jobs, new homes.

Kirk is now nearly 34; Nick almost 39. How she–a lover of plants and trees–would have loved learning that her oldest grandson stopped by our condo last Friday to pluck grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and tangelos from our citrus trees.

Or that Nick coached a Boys and Girls Club basketball team last year.

Or that Kirk traveled to Vanuatu with the Peace Corps in 2014 and more recently has found his counseling stride in a small practice in Chicago … helping patients who’ve experienced some sort of trauma.

Over this past weekend, Tom and I watched Milo and Miley (a friend’s two Shih Tzus) again.

The dogs are sweet, lovable characters. But I needed a little time to escape on Sunday to my thoughts and devices. So, I drove to Chaparral Park and walked around the lake for about an hour.

As I rounded a bend of pine trees which Tom and I love, I spotted an older man. He sat quiet, content, and alone on a park bench.

Seeing him reminded me of the moments my mother cherished in her eighties, pondering the world from a park bench. She could simply sit, enjoy the shade of the trees, read the newspaper or gaze at passersby.

Or she could wonder about the lives of her children and grandchildren … long after she was gone.

Fresh Batch

New Year’s Day’s rhumba of rain and hail–with a rainbow sideshow in between–has left the Valley of the Sun soggy with champagne memories.

Enter a fresh batch of magnificent, cottony clouds to blot the skies over the Crosscut Canal and reveal January’s sparkling possibilities waiting on the horizon.

Light and Shadows

None of us knows when light and shadows will appear. Or what shapes they will cast on the walls of our lives today, tomorrow or the next day.

But, as this new year begins, we recognize these close cousins. The best we can do is observe their beauty, continuity, and uncertainty.

Our dormant desert rose occupies a corner of our bedroom near a table lamp on January 1, 2023.

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.

Chirpy Flock

For the past two mornings, a chirpy flock of rosy-faced (also called peach-faced) lovebirds has descended upon our feeder. They sway and frolic under the eaves, near our gnarly fig. It’s lost it leaves.

Like last-minute holiday shoppers, the lovebirds push and shove. Jockeying for position–with thrashers, finches, and woodpeckers–to pluck precious seeds on a forty-two-degree morning outside our north-facing window.

These vivid, high-pitched creatures aren’t native to Arizona. Some are daring escapees from past caged lives; others released into the wild by careless owners. Who knows why.

Either way, the carefree lovebirds have assimilated. They flourish in the Phoenix area, and on December 11, 2022, they brighten our view as Tom and I sip coffee and split a delectable, just-ripened tangelo, snatched from the trusty tree near our community pool.

‘Twas Two Weeks Til Our Concert

‘Twas two weeks til our concert, we rehearsed all day long,

Me wedged in the back row, ‘tween Keaton and Imran.

With AIDS quilts surrounding on walls of despair,

Warm carols we sang with humor and flair.

Away from the rain in the Valley of the Sun,

Seven hours in one room, so much work to be done.

Then, out of our mouths, pure tones pranced and did gather,

They sprang into lush chords, Marc’s heart pitter-pattered.

Santa Baby, Underneath the Tree, Mistletoe and Holly,

Shaping these and a dozen more made all of us jolly.

These next frantic weeks will fly faster than reindeer,

Fine-tuning, tweaking, “More hot tea for my throat, dear.”

Then, the lights will come up.

The joy will appear in the faces out there.

And the smiles will bounce back.

They will double and bloom in this season we share.

On Saturday, December 3–two days after World AIDS Day–I gathered with about fifty of my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus for an all-day rehearsal at the Parson’s Center in Phoenix. Led by artistic director Marc Gaston, our chorus will perform its holiday show (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”) on December 17 and 18 at the Galvin Playhouse, 51 East 10th Street in Tempe, Arizona. For ticket information, go to http://www.phxgmc.org.