Tag: 2022

Wide and Deep

My heart raced and jaw clenched. Like thousands of Americans, on Tuesday I tuned in to watch true patriots from Arizona and Georgia do the right thing.

The 2020 election numbers–votes counted and recounted numerous times–don’t lie. Neither did Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy Gabe Sterling, and Georgia election worker, Shaye Moss.

At a defining moment in American history, on June 21, 2022, they delivered their testimony before the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

They sat before the nation. They breathed deeply, mopped their brows, and somehow maintained their composure. They told us how they kept their fingers in the dike to keep a corrupt president and his allies from breaking through the dam and cheating the American people. They upheld the law and the letter of the U.S. Constitution.

Over three hours of testimony, we heard heart-stopping stories. Each witness detailed how some of those who still support the ex-president have threatened and targeted their professional and personal lives. All in an effort to illegally change the outcome of the 2020 election.

In this one blog post, it is impossible to address the sense of fear, anxiety, and division that exists in our current culture. But suffice it to say, this insurrection and its related tentacles run wide and deep. It appears there is much more evidence to come. Each day we brace ourselves for more of the ugly truth about the targeting of public servants and slates of fake electors.

What will happen next in this drama? Who knows? But the biggest question of all looms on the horizon: Will the U.S. Department of Justice pursue criminal charges against the forty-fifth President of the United States and others who apparently have violated the rule of law?

Young and old alike, we watch and wait. Our nation’s future is at stake. Our sense of freedom hangs in the balance.

***

Tuesday’s hearing occurred fifty years and four days after five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Soon after, the Watergate political scandal dominated our lives. Our nation was thrust into the pain and complexity of a constitutional crisis and investigation that would expose President Richard Nixon and members of his administration.

I was a teenager at the time. I didn’t understand the gravity of the Watergate scandal. But I remember the anxiety of uncertainty that pervaded our country and how outraged I felt that our president would lie and cheat and do all he could to try to cover up his deceit. That pain has resurfaced today.

I also remember pausing for breakfast with my friends John and Jon in the middle of our western camping adventure on August 9, 1974. It was the day Nixon finally resigned after two years of political denial and trauma.

John, Jon and I chowed down on steak and eggs in a dark tavern/diner somewhere in Wyoming, while on the other side of the room, through the tube of a grainy black-and-white TV, we watched Nixon break the news in an address to the nation.

Before and after that moment, my buddies and I drove through miles and miles of magnificent western landscapes–mostly through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Wyoming. But we also ventured through the beauty and desolation of Arizona and New Mexico.

Imagine three sets of parents of three teenagers, permitting one seventeen-year-old and two sixteen-year-old boys to pack up a beat-up AMC Javelin without adult supervision. Somehow, we convinced them to let us go.

Over a ten-day period, the three of us towed a small camper more than a thousand miles each way from St. Louis to the Rockies and back again. We had fun, drank Coors beer, exercised our freedom, cooked over a Coleman stove, slept in a tent, and managed to stay out of trouble. Those were simpler and safer days. That trip wouldn’t happen today.

As a young man about to begin my senior year of high school, the possibilities of life surrounding me traveled as wide and deep as the terrain you see in this photo of Shiprock, New Mexico, which I captured and saved from our 1974 journey.

Little did I know that one day nearly five decades down the road–as I approached my sixty-fifth birthday in this western literary chapter of my life–our nation would face a much darker and historic challenge.

We must find a way to restore some semblance of sanity to our culture and political process … we must punish the perpetrators to resurrect our democracy from the jaws of an insurrection that continue to haunt us.

Dad and Me

Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.

In July 1959, I celebrated my second birthday with Dad in the basement of our suburban St. Louis home.

Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.

In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.

It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.

I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.

More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.

It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

What follows is an excerpt from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, which I published in early 2021.

***

In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.

Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.

I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had

***

It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.

In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.

Fish-hooked

Even in June’s furnace, we discover bold unflinching souls.

We thank the universe for its mighty, sun-crafted gifts.

We welcome Sonoran glory in all its extreme permutations.

We vow to slather on sunscreen and don floppy hats.

Our spirits may flag, but our hearty hopes shine.

A native of the Sonoran Desert, our fishhook pincushion cactus shines on another hundred-degree day.

Up With the Sun

It’s rare for me to rise to witness morning’s first light. But, at 4:45 a.m., I was thirsty and warm.

I peeked from our den window through the Sunday slats of our vertical blinds to see a line of doves welcome the day.

I heard the clock ticking in the hall, then reclined on the couch to check the news feed on my phone.

Soon after, I heard Tom stir. Bleary eyed, he staggered into the living room to check on me.

We resolved to soothe our parched throats with cold water from the fridge. That’s what you do in June in Arizona. You hydrate over and over again to endure the heat of the desert.

By 5:30ish, we had summoned enough energy to pull on our shorts and socks, tie our shoes, grab our floppy hats and sunglasses, and step toward the alley that would lead us to the Crosscut Canal and Papago Park.

Just outside our door, our neighbor Glenn happened by with Mason and Katie, his two gentle-giant Newfoundlands, tugging him along.

We exchanged good mornings. Tom patted and stroked Mason’s long back. Katie and I locked eyes. Most of the puppy’s brown fur has turned black. Soon she we will be full grown.

We said our goodbyes. Tom and I continued walking west. When we reached the canal at 5:45, my phone told me it was 84 degrees–on the way to 113 by late afternoon.

Scorching, yes, but any person in their right mind knows to stay inside (or at least cover up) when the heat spikes. June isn’t a month to be savored in the Sonoran Desert. It’s simply one to survive.

By 6:00, we had walked past a few joggers and the full length of the fence that separates the canal path with the Desert Botanical Garden. We decided to stop and turn around.

The sun was beginning to bear down. I paused, peered west, pulled my phone from my pocket, and captured the saguaros waking in the morning light.

On our return trip, a few monarchs danced and perched on the milkwood near the fence line. Tiny lizards skittered by as we chugged water from our bottles.

We retraced our steps, crossed the pedestrian bridge, welcomed shade from the Roadrunner apartment complex, turned the corner down the alley, and headed east to our cozy two-bedroom condo.

We knew it would be cooler there.

We May Never Pass This Way (Again)

I’m still on a high, channeling ripples of joy from my musical weekend on stage with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

It feels as if the decision to step out of my comfort zone and into the spotlight for a solo has dislodged something. I feel freer to explore new things. To be more open to possibilities in the world.

I’m not talking about an entirely new me that appeared in an instant. I believe this progression began when Tom and I left Illinois nearly five years ago. The act of living, writing, and singing in a vastly different landscape has spurred my creativity.

After having a heart attack in 2017, I’ve gotten better at living in the moment, rather than postponing my dreams. We may never get tomorrow.

In the words of Jim Seals, we may never pass this way again. Seals–the singer, songwriter and guitarist of the popular Seals and Crofts duo–died June 6. He was eighty years old.

The tunes of Seals and Crofts–Summer Breeze, Hummingbird, Diamond Girl, East of Ginger Trees, I’ll Play for You, Ruby Jean and Billie Lee, We May Pass This Way (Again)– were the mellow wallpaper of the 1970s. Their distinctive, ethereal sound filled the air and the hearts of young people with hope and possibilities.

When I close my eyes and listen to this CD (yes, Tom and I still listen–proudly–to CDs on an old boom box), I am transported to 1975.

It was my freshman year at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Walking around campus in cut-off jeans and tube socks. Playing tennis with John, my roommate. Feeling the late summer breeze rush through my long, straight blond hair, which trailed down over my face.

Released in October 1974, Seals and Crofts Greatest Hits has left an indelible imprint on my past and present. Whether I remember the young Mark Johnson who tossed a Frisbee with friends in the shade of Mizzou’s iconic columns or the older version who took a chance on a stage in Tempe, Arizona in June 2022, I’ll always be a hopeful dreamer.

Thank you, Jim Seals, for all the beautiful music you created and left us. I’ll keep listening to it … no matter what this crazy universe brings.

***

Life–so they say

Is but a game and they let it slip away

Love–like the Autumn sun

Should be dying but it’s only just begun

Like the twilight in the road up ahead

They don’t see just where we’re goin’

And all the secrets in the Universe

Whisper in our ears and all the years will come and go

And take us up, always up

We may never pass this way again, we may never pass this way again, we may never pass this way again.

Feels Like Flying: The Day After

Imagine a welcoming, intimate, theatrical space where people of various stripes, orientations and political persuasions gathered for a few hours — twice in one weekend — to celebrate, sing, dance, clap, laugh, and cry in cool comfort away from the desert heat.

How is that possible in 2022? Glee, Broadway, and Disney tunes — delivered spectacularly by the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and a duo of delicious drag queens — were the musical culprits.

It happened June 4 and 5 at the gorgeous and resonant Tempe Center for the Arts before two raucous and appreciative audiences.

Of course, I’m biased. If you follow my blog or have read my latest book, you know I sing second tenor with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

Over the past several months, about forty of us — led by artistic director Marc and principal accompanist Darlene — prepared diligently for our Homecoming performances, celebrating the chorus’ 30th anniversary.

In addition to rehearsing in person regularly and navigating the relentless physical and mental challenges of Covid, we listened to our audio files at home.

We practiced in our homes and in our cars. Then, we did it all over again. The final week of preparation is a bit hellish, but in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive. I’ve learned to pace myself.

That’s what it takes to memorize a gleeful mash-up of music. Not to mention the choralography and costuming. (“There were costumes?” you ask. Please … we’re talking about a gay chorus!)

Standing on the stage Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, I felt a myriad of emotions as I channeled Madonna in my red choir robe. Exhilaration and relief reigned during my Like a Prayer solo ….

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Knowing my husband Tom, older son Nick, and an entourage of faithful friends were in the audience spurred me on. Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint my friends on stage. They’ve all become important to me.

I shudder when I think of what Tom and I endured nearly five years ago … surviving my heart attack and our move across country. What pulled us through?

It’s been our resiliency and the personal connections we’ve made. With those in the chorus, kind neighbors, gentle yoga with like-minded souls on Friday mornings, endless work out sessions with friends at Club SAR, and a fun collection of experiences with other Arizona writers, readers, artists, and film lovers. They all purchased tickets for the Homecoming concerts.

I feel so thankful. I feel so much love.

Occasionally, someone will ask me why I sing with a gay chorus. Certainly, it is about the music. But it goes much deeper for me and for many of the men of all ages who I perform with.

In this crazy world, we all need to feel safe. To find a place that feels like home. To be who we are. To share our gifts. To feel valued and loved. To push beyond our comfort zones. To go after that next solo or simply be content to be appreciated as one of many voices.

Whatever the case, the members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus provide that encouragement and support for each other. On that note, there is one behind-the-scenes moment I need to share from my concert weekend.

One of our five Like a Prayer soloists missed the entire weekend of performances due to his partner’s sudden illness. Naturally, he was deeply disappointed. We all missed him.

About ninety minutes before our Sunday concert, as we began to warm our voices, I captured this photo and sent it to him. This was my vantage point of the theatre from the top riser for most of the weekend.

It was my way of telling Brad …

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Decoration Day

When I was a youngster in the 1960s, my dad and his sisters spoke solemnly of an alliterative-sounding day we don’t hear about anymore: Decoration Day.

It was an apt description for an activity Americans performed every May 30, as the heat of summer rolled in. They decorated the graves of those who died in defense of their country.

According to history.com, the tradition began May 30, 1868. After General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 participants left flowers on the graves of 20,000 who died during the Civil War.

What we now know as Memorial Day has evolved into a hybrid holiday–the day we honor those who have served, pig out on barbecue, watch sports on TV, bicker about politics, guns, and vaccinations, pay an arm and leg to fill up our gas tanks, and race to the mall for a new mattress that’s on sale.

On this especially somber weekend–just days after the latest school shooting and slaughter of innocent children in Uvalde, Texas–I prefer to pause and kneel (theoretically) before the grave of my father rather than salute our flag. Though I can’t be in St. Louis right now to do that, I can write about it.

Walter Johnson served our country during World War II. He was an Army sergeant, who fought in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

Despite shell shock, personal trauma, and frequent nightmares, Dad lived nearly fifty more years. He died in 1993. He and Helen Johnson, my mother, are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis on the top of a hill under an oak tree.

This weekend, volunteers will be decorating all of the graves there–and in all national cemeteries–with miniature American flags.

On September 4, 2021–it would have been my parents’ seventy-third wedding anniversary–Tom and I visited Dad’s and Mom’s graves.

We left two decorations–a couple of acorns–on top of their marble headstone. Though my parents are both long gone, like the acorns, the vivid memories are alive and the love endures.

My hope is that one day soon–for the sake of American children and future generations–we can find our way to put down our guns, regain our senses, and decorate our lives with more than flowers and regrets.

Like Flying

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

If you love Madonna or remember who she is–please say you do–these eleven words from Like a Prayer, her 1989 pop hit, may prompt your musical heart to soar.

On June 4 and 5 at the Tempe Center for the Arts, these lyrics also will comprise my solo in the Homecoming concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

I’m a lifelong lover of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and an ardent Arizona admirer of a majestic bald eagle that likes to pose atop a telephone pole along Hayden Road near Chapparal Park in Scottsdale every May.

Still, I don’t know what it feels like to actually fly without the aid of an aircraft.

No matter. Singing has always felt like flying–or what I imagine it to be–with the wind lifting me up as I spread my wings and raise my voice. Particularly the sensation of standing on a stage and harmonizing with a chorus of like-minded, artistic-and-musical souls.

The last time I sang a solo on stage was 1979. I was a senior at the University of Missouri and performed On and On (the way-too-precious-sounding Stephen Bishop tune) with a vocal jazz ensemble of fresh-scrubbed faces and silky-smooth voices. We called ourselves The Singsations. (I know. It was pretty corny.)

Anyway, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you know the lyrics from Bishop’s 1976 song …“Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women. Steal your money, then they break your heart …”

At that point, pretending to be a straight man, I wasn’t in touch with my true orientation. It would be June 2010–long after the birth of my two sons and a failed first marriage–before I would discover the safe haven and friendship of the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago.

But from 2010 to 2017, I never auditioned for a solo with Windy City. I was content to be a voice among voices.

In 2022–in the autumn of my life a month before my sixty-fifth birthday, in a city where it feels like summer lasts forever–I will be singing my next solo. I’ll be surrounded by a community of about forty gay friends.

As you might imagine I’m excited and a little nervous … waiting to take the stage on June 4 and 5 with more than a dozen friends and family in the audience.

I know I will savor every note of the experience. No doubt, it will feel like flying.

In May 2021, I captured this photo of a bald eagle on stage along Hayden Road in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last Sunday, as Tom and I walked together, this magnificent creature reappeared and dazzled us by swooping down to the lake below to secure a fish for breakfast in his or her talons.

All That Jazz

Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.

Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.

It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)

I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.

Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.

Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”

I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.

Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.

Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.

It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!

It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.

This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.

On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.

I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.

Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.

I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.

Along the Back Fence: Part Two

As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence. This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View.

***

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.

Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.

Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.

It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

***

In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.

In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.

In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.

The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.