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.
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.
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.
Of the primary team spectator sports in the United States–football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer–baseball’s generational roots and family rituals run the deepest.
Parents (and grandparents) bring their kids to Major League Baseball (MLB) games to pass along the shared experience of watching their favorite teams–and the stars of the moment–take the field.
I have no statistics to support my theory. Just sixty years of personal baseball anecdotes to draw from watching my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–perform against an array of opponents in stadiums and cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix) across the country.
My personal passion for baseball remains intact in 2022, despite escalating ticket and concession prices, MLB’s all-to-frequent owner/player labor strife, lingering steroid controversy and cheating scandals, frequent umpiring blunders, and often-long-and-laborious games that stretch well beyond three hours.
Yet the game endures. Fans keep coming back to relive their personal traditions and–if the stars align–perhaps catch lightning in a bottle and see something truly magical they didn’t anticipate.
On Saturday evening, August 20, that happened.
Tom and I drove west from our home in Scottsdale to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Tom is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was less interested in this particular game than his more-competitive, die-hard-fan husband.)
I should digress to tell you that the Diamondbacks are rebuilding in 2022, while the Cardinals have assembled an entertaining team of older stars, clutch hitters, crafty pitchers, fielding phenoms, and talented youngsters. They are now in first place in the Central Division of the National League and appear to have gelled at the right time.
The final score on Saturday night? Cardinals 16, Diamondbacks 7.
There was more action–on the field and in the stands–in this one game than you might find in 10 visits to the ballyard. Dazzling defensive plays. Five home runs. A triple that cleared the bases. A grand slam in the ninth inning. A large, raucous crowd (at least half were rooting for the visiting Redbirds) on Mexican Heritage Night in the Valley of the Sun.
One especially obnoxious and inappropriate Cardinal fan screamed non-stop for three hours several rows behind us. We were relieved when security finally arrived in the seventh or eighth inning to remove him.
But, for my money, the magic supplied by a future hall of famer superseded all of it.
Albert Pujols, the Cardinals designated hitter (DH) and long-time first baseman, crushed two long home runs–his 691st and 692nd–into the centerfield bleachers. The most prolific hitter of the twenty-first century, forty-two-year-old Pujols will retire at the end of this season.
Albert, who wears number 5 on the back of uniform, currently ranks number five on the list of the greatest home run hitters of all time.
Behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696), Pujols hopes to pass Rodriguez and reach 700 homers before his last game in October.
As background, in 2022, Pujols returned to the Cardinals, the team he first starred with from 2001 through 2011, to tie a large red bow on his twenty-two-year career. He contributed repeatedly to two Cardinals World Series Championships in 2006 and 2011.
Many of us fans, who watched the game in the desert Saturday night, were in the stands to cheer for Albert in his final year.
When he approached home plate each time, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. A buzz filled the air; the atmosphere was electric.
I don’t think any of us dreamed he’d hit two home runs and two singles in this one game, becoming the oldest player since 1901 to go 4-4 in a major league game.
Tom and I absorbed it all from our seats in foul territory in the lower level of the right-field-corner (Section 109, Row 12, Seats 3 and 4) grandstand.
Albert Pujols had already hit his 691st home run in the second inning. Then, he came to the plate for the second time on Saturday night.
From the row in front of us, a boy no more than ten years old (wearing the jersey of another Cardinal great, shortstop Ozzie Smith, from the 1980s) stood beside his mom and dad.
From behind, it felt as if I could have been watching myself standing as the Cardinals played in the 1960s, or one of my sons rooting for the Redbirds at a game in the 1990s.
At any rate, I imagine the child hoped to capture a picture of Pujols, as the perennial all-star approached home plate to take his next at bat.
He snapped his photo. I snapped mine.
Seconds later, Pujols swung his bat. The baseball soared over the outfield wall.
We cheered, hollered, and high fived.
In that moment, I thought of the generations of baseball fans who’ve come and gone. They’ve attended games with their dads and moms, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins and neighbors, and husbands and wives.
To root for their favorite players. To cheer for their teams. To spend their money in the bleachers and grandstands on steamy Midwestern days and hot desert nights.
Remarkably, win or lose, we fans keep coming back to remember the past and celebrate the present.
And, on the best of those days, we’re lucky when we catch lightning in a bottle, see a little history in the making, and get a glimpse of greatness.
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.”