The Golden Hour

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Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.

 

 

I’m Coming Out … Again

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Like butterflies ready to spread our wings, yesterday Tom and I emerged from our protective cocoon and took flight. Actually, we drove, but for the first time in three months left the confines of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

North two hours climbing the switchbacks on I-17 out of the valley into the mountains. Past stately saguaros and wild-west warning signs … Deadman Wash, Horsethief Basin, Big Bug Creek, Bloody Basin, Trump 2020, Emergency Curfew 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Fire Danger High … before landing safely on Carolyn and John’s driveway in the shade of their pines. Twenty degrees cooler in the mile-high bliss of Prescott, Arizona.

I didn’t make this psychological connection until this morning. But cocooning in a condo for three months to dodge a global pandemic … albeit a cozy two-bedroom desert unit that’s about to get a fresh coat of paint to brighten our internal space … is rather like living in a closet for one quarter of the year.

Sure, since March we’ve ventured out on numerous occasions. Daily walks and weekly trips to the grocery store behind masks. More recent outings to our community gym to stay fit and Super Cuts for haircuts that didn’t occur over our bathroom sink. But nothing on the order of an actual day trip away from our immediate community.

Ask any previously or currently closeted gay man. He’ll tell you. There is misery in physical and metaphorical confinement.

I’m not suggesting that the stay-at-home order in states across this country and around the world has been a breeze for straight people. But I have a number of friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago, who don’t have partners. They live alone. They’ve been missing the camaraderie of the gay community. People who would normally be available to sing, hug and laugh in person are unavailable except on Zoom. Gay people are missing their lifeline and the reassurance that comes with an open life in a freer society.

This wasn’t going to be a story about coming out. When Tom and I returned home late yesterday afternoon from an idyllic day with Carolyn and John to see their lovely new home in Prescott, I had grand plans to write a quieter piece about breathing the pine-scented mountain air two hours northwest of Phoenix.

It really was grand. Spending several hours with our adventurous and compassionate friends, previous residents of Anchorage, Alaska, whom we would see sporadically at their Scottsdale condo. In 2019, they uprooted and transplanted their lives to become full-time Arizonans … fortuitously landing in a home filled with loads of charm, unlimited possibilities, carved wood character, and window seats that reach into the tall pines.

Tom and I had intended to drive up to see them in their new home before now. Of course, that nasty COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Fortunately, we endured. It was worth the wait. Our much-anticipated celebration–clinking glasses outdoors under a blazing red patio umbrella–finally happened on June 4, 2020. It was a day in a year none of us will forget.

Today, Tom and I resumed our life in Scottsdale. I boarded a treadmill around 9:30 at our community gym. A pleasant older woman, smiling from a safe distance (eight feet to my right on her own treadmill), said good morning. I returned the favor. We had exchanged hellos before.

She asked me if Tom and I were relatives. I said no. She told me we look a lot alike. Then, came the moment. The one every gay person knows. Should I out myself and speak my truth or just let this pass?

You probably know what happened next. I came out … again. The first time was with my ex-wife, then my sister, sons and mother … all in the 1990s. There have been dozens of times since. With neighbors, colleagues, clients, acquaintances, store clerks who asked “Are you guys brothers?” as they scanned our groceries … the list goes on. The coming out process is lifelong. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a one-time episodic event.

At any rate, you guessed it. On June 5, 2020, I told a friendly lady on the adjacent treadmill at Club SAR that Tom is my husband. That we’ve been a couple for nearly twenty-five years (actually, it will be twenty-four in August). That I didn’t see the resemblance, though couples do often take on similar characteristics and gestures.

She kept smiling. Told me she was a retired nurse. Asked if I was retired. I told her I had left behind my corporate job years ago and now write. The conversation ended rather quietly. It was cordial.

I know there will be countless times in my life, when this will happen again. When I will out myself in an innocuous place. It doesn’t have to be Pride month in a year when our current president is hell bent on rolling back the rights of all Americans.

Living my life as an openly gay man is a commitment I’ve made to myself and other gay people. We need to remind ourselves we aren’t alone in this frightening world. We need to remember that happiness comes with visibility.

Whether I’m breathing the pine-filled Arizona mountain air with dear friends and allies like Carolyn and John or down in the valley with people I’ve yet to meet, there’s no turning back. The truth will set us free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A View from the Bleachers

As a suburban white kid of the sixties, growing up in the segregated St. Louis area, I had no black classmates, teachers, acquaintances or neighbors. Until I went to college (and more so as I built adult relationships with black colleagues and friends), my only first-hand experiences with black people occurred while riding a city bus, tuning into the latest episode of Room 222, swimming in a public pool or watching Bob Gibson and Lou Brock play ball from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium.

I’ll admit it, as I wrote that previous sentence, it felt very odd and constricting … even shameful. But this was the world I came from. Occasionally, at family gatherings, one of my uncles would take a puff from his nasty cigar and proceed to talk about “blacks moving into the neighborhood.”

As a boy, that kind of hateful rhetoric and the smoke hovering in my parents’ living room brought tears to my eyes. As an adult, it still makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, at the time none of the other adults spoke up. I felt like I wanted to run out of the room, but I didn’t.  I knew what he said was wrong. It was racism. It was painful.

Moving a few years ahead, maybe on some level I also thought “if people are saying bad things about black people just because they have a different skin color, what will they say about me if I tell them I’m gay?”

At times, it was a claustrophobic life of placating those who were the most vocal. Denying your true feelings. Walking on egg shells to keep the peace. Sadly, it was only a more distant chapter of simmering anxiety and poor race relations than the one we know well today.

On a personal level, I was able to learn and grow from it by honoring my own internal compass, broadening my experiences, meeting new and different people, traveling to new places, keeping an open mind … even for a time co-facilitating diversity training as a consultant and challenging managers and employees to draw from the strength of their differences rather than rejecting them.

Fortunately, both of my parents were decent people. They instilled in me a value of simple living. Caring for the disadvantaged. Saving for a rainy day. As a result, on some level, I’ve always identified more with the “have-nots” than the “haves”. It pains me to see people flaunt their advantage … their white privilege, their economic status, their lofty and meaningless titles.

Despite my limited experience with diverse people in the 60’s and 70’s, I was always comfortable sitting in the bleachers with Dad and the masses–mostly poorer black and white blue-collar workers–rooting for our hometown St. Louis Cardinals. Besides, it was all Dad could afford.

I recall one night. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town. It was a close game. I don’t remember the score or the outcome, but the bleachers were full and Dad and I were in the middle of a buzzing crowd. Between pitches, I asked him why some of the black patrons, ordinarily faithful to the Cardinals, were cheering for the Dodgers.

“It’s because of Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Back when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, he was the first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues. Ever since then, some black people are loyal to the Dodgers. They opened the door for others to follow.”

Now in 2020, with the recent murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests and general mayhem and destruction, I’ve been thinking of this Jackie Robinson moment with Dad. How little I knew of the plight of black people back then. How much more I know now about loving other people no matter their skin color, speaking up for your rights, voicing your views, and demanding justice.

I’m not condoning the opportunistic looting in cities around the country, some of which we’ve seen here in Scottsdale, Arizona. But, in honor of George Floyd’s life and of many other black men and women who have died needlessly before him, we must find a way to heal as a nation.

We must acknowledge that racism in our society exists just as it has for a long time. We must listen to the “have nots” of our world. We must read more and follow the teachings of history and science.

We must elect leaders, nationally and locally, who will advocate for the rights of all Americans … no matter their skin color, cultural heritage, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.

Come What May

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I can’t reconcile the beauty of the desert rose outside my backdoor with the ugliness of a black man’s murder in Minneapolis. Except I know the rose is a natural creation that thrives on heat and sun, while the killing is the latest manifestation of man-made hate and ignorance.

I can’t justify one-hundred-thousand deaths perpetuated by a virulent virus in less than six months in a complicated country. Except I know the virus is a natural creation with a cycle of its own, while the escalating numbers are evidence of lies and disarray in an ill-equipped nation.

I can’t imagine another month or two or three or more of disorientation and destruction. Except I know the mockingbird will forever sing atop a palm in the peak of the day, while an uncertain world continues to turn come what may.

Gymbolic Bliss

There was no celebration. No ribbon cutting. No marching band. No drum roll. No crescendo. No crashing cymbals as the glass doors parted magically and Tom and I swiped our membership tags under the watchful electronic eye at the entrance to Club SAR.

Yet, in the scheme of restoring sanity, at 11:45 a.m. on the Tuesday after Memorial Day I felt the symbolic hug of a good friend when I turned the corner and spotted a few familiar faces and free weights.

Smiling like a miscast Lone Ranger through the discomfort of his black bandana and makeshift mask, manager Jonathan greeted us from ten-plus feet away.

“Best day ever,” he proclaimed as we scanned the newly configured space.

It was a tongue-in-cheek phrase he had uttered previously throughout 2019 and early in 2020 every time we walked through the door. Every time we exchanged pleasantries before climbing aboard our favorite life-affirming machines in our past lives.

But on this day in late May it really did feel like the best day ever for two sixty-two-year-old men, who had cobbled together an at-home gym in mid-March (a basketball and ten-and-fifteen-pound hand weights to keep hearts and joints strong in the face of an impending pandemic).

The best day ever to take a giant step away from our predominantly stay-at-home lives. The best day ever to enter a newly configured world of plexi-glass partitions, spaced-out treadmills, scattered stationary bikes and strategically-located sanitizing stations.

It didn’t take long for muscle memory to take hold in a room sprinkled with souls intent upon forestalling the gym reaper. Forty-five minutes later … past trusty treadmill steps, a small stream of light weights, and elliptical exclamation point … we said our goodbyes, drained our water bottles to quench our thirst, and stepped toward our Sonata.

Certainly one thing is true. On this Tuesday–re-opening day at our community gym–a  smattering of Scottsdale survivors recaptured a strand of their pre-COVID-19 lives … ever grateful for a few moments of gymbolic bliss.

 

 

 

 

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.

 

Salutations from the Slow Lane

I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m more of a late bloomer (better than never blooming at all). A more apt description might be slow mover. If I were a dog, I’d be categorized as a Great Pyrenees (affectionate, gentle, sensitive, occasionally strong willed).

Each morning, I emerge slowly from my side of the bed. Usually around 6:30. Compare that with Tom’s Jack Russell Terrier “I’m-ready-to-go” demeanor (intelligent, energetic, social, occasionally strong willed), and you won’t be surprised to learn he’s usually up and around for at least thirty minutes before I begin to stir.

Moving more slowly doesn’t meant I don’t go places … today I walked 13,959 steps … it just means it takes me longer to get where I’m going than my husband. The inner workings of his clock wind tighter. My circuitry sweeps wider. I find it interesting that Tom is three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, yet his strides are substantially longer. How can that be?

These are the sorts of inane observations two sixty-two-year-old men can have as they lumber/saunter down sun-bleached Arizona paths (a slower pace all its own as compared with most of the world).

But these trivialities only spring into our conversation after we’ve dispensed with the more typical aggravating current event topics: the lack of COVID-19 testing in Arizona; the lack of positive stories in the media about people who’ve survived the virus; the lack of leadership in the White House.

If you’re over fifty (sixty, for sure), I imagine you’ll nod knowingly when I tell you a secret: my slowness is only getting slower with age. The blood pressure medication I take doesn’t help my lack of alacrity. Although two tiny pills–one with breakfast and a second with dinner–certainly protect my heart and keep my cardiologist happy.

Still, life in the slow lane isn’t that bad. It’s better than no lane at all (which might have happened if I hadn’t had the wherewithal to tell Tom to pull into the ER entrance at Barnes-Jewish Hospital nearly three years ago in St. Louis as doom and breathlessness washed over me).

I suppose moving more slowly is the right speed, too … the right sensibility … for this COVID-19 world, this alternative Alice-in-Wonderland universe we all seem to have fallen into. It’s better to deliberate about our next steps in society than to run back out of the rabbit hole carelessly and into the streets impulsively.

I’m not slow in every way. I’m actually itching wildly to get back to the gym sometime this summer. Starved for more socializing with my Phoenix-area friends again. Ready to reestablish those connections and circles in whatever ways I can. (Sorry, Zoom doesn’t do that for me.)

I’m also resigned to the fact that my love for choral singing … someday again standing side-by-side on stage with my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus rather than having makeshift rehearsals online … will require a much slower reentry process.

It will be a longer wait–something sad this slow poke will have to endure as I stare wistfully back through the looking glass–until this blissful escape in my artistic life resurfaces and I can once again raise my voice without a care in this unforeseen world.

 

A Star Is Born

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Undeterred by a determined virus, Angelica … a Phoenix-area, back-patio, red-picotee adenium …  welcomed her first born into a disenchanted world on an otherwise ordinary May Saturday afternoon.

Unofficially, Angelica’s initial offspring promises a bastion of much-anticipated, star-shaped desert rose blooms streaking toward the slender palms and spiky saguaros that stretch across the Sonoran sky.

Scottsdale sources say Angelica’s proud papas aren’t passing out cigars, but believe this may be a prelude to a symphony of floral fireworks, a harbinger of brighter days, and certainly a dazzling distraction in a year of social distancing and sad surprises.

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

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What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

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Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.