Tag: 2022

Be Mine

We all know it when we feel it … love. When it is there, it fills our hearts and lights up the world.

I’m not only referring to romantic and physical love between two human beings–two men, two women, or a woman and man. Most of us need and want some form of that depending on our orientation.

True love goes beyond the jewelry commercials that implore men to buy rings for their sweethearts. It appears in many forms–parental love, neighborly love, pet love, friendship, companionship, etc. In my heart and mind, love is a close cousin of natural beauty, peace, kindness, and human decency.

As Tom and I strolled in the sun this morning along the Crosscut Canal in Scottsdale, I was transported back to grade school in the St. Louis suburbs and the Valentine’s Days of my 1960s childhood.

In those days, we created and decorated our individual holiday mail slots, fashioned out of shoe boxes and adorned with red, pink and white construction paper. Some were simple. Others grandiose, laden with tiny, pastel-colored candy hearts bearing messages. “Be Mine” was my favorite, because it communicated a winning combination of love, playfulness, and commitment.

Each year, our teachers were careful to instruct us to bring a paper valentine for each child in our classroom. Most of us followed the rules and returned with a packet of store-bought cards featuring Looney Tunes cartoon characters, Superman, cuddly puppies and kittens. Then, we went around the room and deposited all of our “love” messages. (Sixty years ago, we also had parties and trays of decorated cupcakes delivered by two or three “room moms” to our classrooms.)

Then and now, I liked the kindness and equity of that valentine distribution plan. Of course, some kids were more popular than others, but this even-handed method leveled the valentine playing field. In practice at least, each child got to feel the love of opening a box filled with valentines from each of his or her classmates.

I confess. I don’t know how schools treat Valentine’s Day now. But I suspect it’s a different animal. At a time when children and adults are bombarded with messages of fear and pandemic uncertainty, we are living in a world with a short supply of love. We need valentines more than ever this year.

It doesn’t cost much to whisper a message of love to a friend. Or to send a text or drop a card in the mailboxes of those in your metaphoric classroom.

Do it today. I’ll start. Won’t you be mine?

On January 26, 2022, I captured this photo of two geese sharing a tender moment on the path of life at the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert, Arizona.

Scissor Cities?

Me pruning the fig tree outside our front door in Scottsdale on February 8, 2022.

I’m at it again, pairing the random recent pruning of our fig tree with a story of my first haircut in a land far away but never forgotten.

***

In the arc of life, St. Louis, Missouri, was my first hometown; Scottsdale, Arizona, will likely be my last. Beyond this personal connection, they have little in common.

They certainly aren’t Sister Cities. The former is a muggy midwestern city shrinking in population on the banks of the Mississippi River; the latter, a dry western town growing exponentially in the Sonoran Desert.

Though, if you follow NFL franchise history, you know the present-day Arizona Cardinals made their home in St. Louis from 1960 through 1987. As a kid, I rooted for the Big Red there.

Now I cheer for this iteration of the Cardinals here. Regrettably, the team’s promising 2021-22 season faded in December and January. They won’t appear in the Super Bowl. The Bengals and Rams will be featured instead on Sunday.

At this stage of life–when I’m not writing or singing or swimming or exercising or baking or eating or sleeping or following my baseball and football Cardinals (the first still resides in St. Louis)–you might find me giving or getting trims.

Let me be clear. The giving involves me manipulating large garden shears and a hand saw to prune (only occasionally) a few of the fruit trees in our condo community. I even wrote and published a book of stories a year ago, which alludes to this activity in the title.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Tom and I were outside giving trims again. We pruned the fig tree near our front door. It’s an annual thing we do in February. It keeps the tree healthy.

We actually enjoy doing it. It’s a way for us to contribute to the well-being of our condo community and pamper the gnarled tree that provides shade on our hottest summer days.

On the other hand, the getting part of this is a different story. It equates to me sitting in a chair and having a stylist trim my hair with clippers and scissors every six weeks.

Most recently, I had this done two weeks ago at a Super Cuts in Scottsdale. But the first time was August 13, 1958, in St. Louis. I was a little over one year old. Someone named Frank Goetz did the trimming.

How do I know the who, what, when and where of this? My mother kept a detailed baby book of photos and anecdotes from the first seven years of my life.

Inside is a treasure trove of memories: things I would never have known or remembered if she hadn’t taken the time to maintain this personal record. She even kept a lock of my cut blond hair from that day, sealed it in a small envelope, and pasted it on a scrapbook page.

This morning, a day after Tom and I finished giving our fig tree its annual haircut, I pulled out the baby book from our hallway closet. In short order, I stumbled upon this photo.

Isn’t it funny and magical how a grainy black-and-white photo can transport you to another era and instantly pair the scissor cities of your imagined and true-life experiences?

On August 13, 1958, my sister Diane posed with me in St. Louis moments after I got my first haircut.

Bare Bridge

February is the shortest sister, who reveals the tallest truths. She is the forsaken, lovelorn link between what was and what may be.

She may look like less, but she will never be more. She prefers to expose what hides in summer’s shadows than to impress with leafy grandeur.

She won’t be bothered with producing figs to entice or dazzle. Those juicy baubles that dangle in gusty monsoons will come soon enough.

She stands and waits outside your door to tell it to you straight: “I am the bare bridge from January to March. I keep the world spinning forward.”

2-2-22

Dad was a twin, who loved twin digits. Today’s lineup of numerals would have sent him into orbit.

I don’t often think of my father; he’s been gone since 1993. But, whenever I remember the best of him–his numerology fascination, the proud way he stood at attention and saluted the American flag when it passed at parades, his WWII trunk and possessions I keep–it makes me smile.

In spite of what’s happening in the news–growing unrest and tension in eastern Europe, a pandemic that has dominated our lives for two years, and another Midwestern winter storm on Ground Hog Day that’s causing havoc–there is evenness and continuity in today’s numbers, 2-2-22.

Just as there is peace and beauty blooming in two forms in my home in mid-winter; in an air plant inside, stationed on our Arizona windowsill; and in a red geranium outside, soaking in the morning sun on our southern-facing patio.

Missing

It was just after 8:30 a.m. on February 1, 2020.

I was number fifteen or twenty in a line of nearly a hundred local authors. Dragging our supply of books behind us like proud parents ready to push our kids on stage, we snaked outside a side entrance to the Scottsdale Public Library at Civic Center Plaza.

As Tom and I waited for the doors to open at 9 a.m. to set up my table for the Local Author Book Sale, I felt anticipation filter through the cool desert air. It was a moment I cherished, but not as much as I should have.

An hour later, my table was set with my three books in front of me. I brought a sign-up sheet, so readers could provide their contact information. I wanted to keep in touch, so I could tell them when book four was published.

Me hawking my books on February 1, 2020, at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library.

At that moment, like most of the world, I was naive, ignorant or unaware. Call it what you like. I didn’t imagine such in-person opportunities would be stripped away by a pandemic for two years and counting.

Through it all, the losses have accumulated for all of us, and I’ve been missing you.

Our library has no immediate plans to reinstitute events of this sort. I understand they’ve cut staff. There have been a few online programs to keep patrons informed of local literary happenings, but nothing can replace actual human interaction.

I’ve been dreading writing about this. But I need to. The pandemic has hit all of us–young and old–hard. It’s sucked the life out of our passions. I’m angry that so many people are opposed to vaccinations and have not taken the proper steps to protect themselves and society. This poor judgment has prolonged the agony of lives lost and hollowed out.

It’s true, I am fortunate to have this platform to air my grievances. For now, I will continue to blog, but I’ve been questioning my commitment to this page lately.

It is common for all of us writers to have doubts. I appreciate those of you who follow this page and comment regularly. I’m not sure which creative path to take at this point, but I know I need something more … something that’s missing.

Coach Nick

Like the shape of the last two digits in the number of this post–300 since I began blogging in May 2018–life has a way of bringing me full circle.

No matter how much I’ve changed, it’s uncanny how frequently I find myself redeposited into situations that remind me where I’ve been. I’ve learned the secret is recognizing and marveling at the serendipity.

Case in point: throughout the 1990s, I spent most winter Saturday mornings watching my two boys–Nick and Kirk–play basketball in northwest suburban Chicago at the RecPlex. It’s a community recreational facility in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

Back in those Michael Jordan years–when number 23 led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships–my older son Nick found his stride on the basketball court.

Typically, Nick played point guard in his grade school years. He was adept at handling the ball, shooting three-pointers, and making clutch decisions on the court. When the game was on the line, his coach wanted Nick to have the ball. I was his proud dad cheering from the stands.

Nick went on to play basketball for two years in high school. After he graduated in 2002, it became more of a hobby. Through his twenties and early thirties, he enjoyed the spontaneity of pick-up games whenever he could find the time. It was his escape from the grind of the world.

In January 2015, Nick moved to the Valley of the Sun for a fresh and warm start away from cold winters. He loves it here, but in September 2017 (just two months after my mild heart attack), my son suffered a severe knee injury on a Saturday while playing basketball.

Nick was out of commission for an extended period. I remember Tom and I escorted him to buy crutches, so he could navigate the stairs of his second-floor apartment. After surgery and months of therapy, he regained his mobility. He no longer presses his luck on the court, but Nick’s love for the game continues.

Two years ago, in the earliest days of Covid, Nick met Tom and me to shoot baskets and play H-O-R-S-E on an outdoor court in Tempe. It was one of the things the three of us did to stay sane. Soon that went away. All of the courts were roped off for most of 2020. It was one of many losses. You’re a citizen in this Covid world. You know the drill.

I’ve always imagined my son would end up coaching at some point. In fact, I’ve encouraged him to do so. About a month ago, he told me he had contacted the Boys and Girls Club in Scottsdale. They were looking for a coach for fifth and sixth graders. So, Nick has found a new route back to the court.

In early January, it all came full circle for Nick. The player became the coach and began to lead practices with the kids after school on Tuesdays. They lost their first game on January 15, but he and the kids had fun anyway.

Though I’m now in my sixties, I will always be a dad. In fact, I find the role richer now. When Nick’s younger brother Kirk called from Chicago in December to tell me he would start a new full-time role as a counselor in January, I cheered from afar.

I’ve watched Kirk grow, stood by him, encouraged him when he joined the Peace Corps, applauded when he flew to the other side of the world in 2014, and worried when he endured a cyclone that ravaged his island in Vanuatu in 2015. Fortunately, he made it through safely.

I know my endorsement of Nick’s new venture is just as important. It doesn’t have to be a trip to a remote island. I’m thrilled for him and intrigued where this latest gig might lead.

Last Saturday–nearly thirty years since I watched Nick swish baskets on the courts in Illinois–Tom joined me in the bleachers of a Scottsdale community center to root quietly for Coach Nick.

We got to see Nick walk through a new door and find new light (like what you see in this photo I captured on Saturday), at a time when all of us are searching for something that relights our hope and passion.

Tom and I were there for Nick’s first win. The final score was 35-10. His squad of ten- and eleven-year-old boys got trounced in the second game on Saturday, but Nick was still happy with his team’s progress.

Tonight, Tom and I are taking Coach Nick out for dinner to celebrate. It’s his thirty-eighth birthday. I’m not sure where all the years went, but I know fatherhood is sweeter in these twilight years.

Then and now, I treasure every moment.

January Musings

It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).

I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.

***

Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.

The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.

Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.

***

I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.

I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.

Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.

Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.

***

The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.

The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.

A New Creative Wrinkle

I am especially conscious of my age and vulnerability right now. There is nothing worrisome to report. I feel well. It’s just that–early in 2022–Tom and I are focusing on important administrative tasks to protect ourselves and our families.

Specifically, we will move to Medicare later this year, because we turn sixty-five in July. We have begun to do research. We’ve met with a third party. She explained how it works. She has helped to cut through the mystery. (By the way, I used to help organizations communicate about complicated health care and retirement programs, but that background doesn’t make this transition any easier.)

We also are updating our estate plans to make certain they reflect our Arizona status and latest wishes. The pandemic isn’t the driver, but it certainly has amplified our efforts to make sure our affairs are in order. As much as I hate dwelling on my mortality, it makes sense to plan ahead.

All of this technical and legal blather has clogged my brain lately, leaving me feeling a little dim. Is it a coincidence that the light in our refrigerator should go out yesterday? I don’t think so.

We tried replacing the old bulb with a new one, but it appears we have an electrical issue. Fortunately, the appliance is doing its job. It’s keeping our food cold (and frozen in the upper compartment). It’s just that we need a flashlight to find the yogurt, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

I digress. That’s not what this story is about. Ironically, in the relative darkness of early 2022–the pandemic and our refrigerator–there’s a bright and new creative wrinkle to my writing that I want to talk about. One which changes the landscape of my past experience. One that goes beyond my blogging, memoir writing, poetry, and occasional forays into fiction.

About eight months ago, Marc–the artistic director of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–blindsided me with this question: “Would you be interested in writing lyrics for a suite of songs for one of our concerts in 2022? It will be a celebration of diverse voices.”

Hearing these words, I think my jaw may have dropped. Once I closed my mouth and opened it again, “of course!” was my immediate response.

I could feel my smile grow ten sizes. I never imagined having an opportunity of this sort, especially concerning a topic that is so important and personal … turning the painful, transformative, and triumphant stories of Phoenix-area LGBTQA citizens into something more. Into poetry and music.

Since that early, exploratory conversation with Marc, I’ve collaborated with David (another member of the chorus) who is composing the music. I’ve written lyrics for four songs, which will be performed on March 12, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The concert will be part of Tempe’s Pride celebration.

On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, this will all become more real. Marc and David will pass out the music to members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (including me sitting in the back row and singing second tenor).

For the first time, we will begin to rehearse the music David and I have created. I know I will feel a surge of pride and energy when I see the words “Lyrics by Mark Johnson” in the upper right corner of the score.

Sometimes life serves up happy surprises. It reminds us that our existence is more than needling administrative responsibilities, the darkness of a pandemic, or the frustrations of a burned-out light bulb.

Sometimes the outcome is brighter, more hopeful; we find ourselves exploring a new creative wrinkle, doing something we are passionate about, taking on a role we never saw coming.

Yes–remarkably at the age of sixty-four–I am a lyricist.

The Past Eight Years

Eight years ago this month, I left my communication consulting job at Aon Hewitt. Technically, I retired in January 2014, though I’ve hardly dropped off the face of the earth since then. I’ve simply escaped to the desert.

It feels strange for me to admit this: some details of my thirty-four-year communication career in Chicago–especially the most daunting moments with impossible clients–have faded. What I remember most are the creative accomplishments and closest colleagues.

Ironically, while our country has moved into a period of darkness and upheaval during the past eight years, I’ve transformed my life into one that more closely resembles who I am and what I value.

I’ve gotten married, moved cross country, survived a heart attack, dropped about forty pounds, found a new home with my husband, nurtured the artist inside, written four books and nearly 300 blog entries, coached both of my sons as they’ve navigated life and career changes, made a bunch of new friends in a warm climate, and evolved into a more contented person.

In that sense, trading my corporate life for that of an emerging, independent writer has felt more like shedding the weight of a familiar suit of armor to discover a more light-hearted, personal, and sometimes vulnerable existence underneath.

To mark the anniversary of my retirement–and subsequent literary emergence–I’m discounting the paperback version of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on Amazon during the month of January.

Hopefully, this will be just the incentive you need to devote a little more time to reading in the new year.

The Hopeful Realist

On the spectrum of optimism to pessimism, my attitudes on a given day place me somewhere in the middle near realism. Though, generally, I maintain an air of hopefulness.

For illustration purposes, I don’t think the world will end tomorrow or the next day, but I do think we have lots of problems to solve. Currently, the pandemic and global warming are chief among them.

Beyond that, the gun violence in this country is insane. (Incidentally, I would mandate that every American see the movie Mass. Released in October 2021, Tom and I watched it last night. It is the most riveting and emotionally honest film I’ve seen in the past year.)

In April 2021, the CDC reported this sobering statistic. For a child born in the United States in 2021, the average life expectancy is 77.8 years. That’s a decline of a full year from 2019 when the life expectancy was 78.8 years. The realist in me says we’re heading in the wrong direction.

For a male born in 1957 (that’s me), the life expectancy is 66.4 years. That’s a daunting number when I consider that I am now 64.5 years. However, the fact that I’ve made it this far (I’m no actuary) and don’t take undo risks (I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and buckle my seat belt), puts me in a position to make it another twenty or so.

Family history tells me that too. My father lived to be nearly 80; my mother almost 90. Plus, I don’t smoke and drink very little. Since surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I’ve dropped twenty-five pounds and kept it off. I’m fit and committed to a regular exercise regimen that keeps me strong.

Of course, life isn’t predictable really. It’s a sound philosophy and practice to live each day–each moment–as it comes. Yoga, meditation, and a raging pandemic have taught me that.

I spoke with Frances on January 2. She is my mother’s sister and the only remaining relative from either side of my family from the Silent Generation (those born from 1928 to 1945).

Born January 1, 1932 (the first baby in the new year in High Point, North Carolina), Frances turned 90 earlier this week. I called to wish her a happy birthday belatedly. She and husband Paul, also in his nineties, live in Davidson, North Carolina.

Frances is or was the spunky-and-opinionated adventurer in my mother’s family. I’ve always felt a special bond with her. I admire her zest for life. In 2015, I flew to the Tar Heel State to spend a little time with my worldly southern aunt.

The experience helped me heal after my mother’s death in 2013 and finish my first book, From Fertile Ground. I know visiting with me helped Frances too. She loved her older sister, who moved away as a young woman to create a life in the Midwest. Being together gave both of us a chance to complete the circle of our loved one’s life.

The sad truth is Frances is frail and forgetful now. I could hear it in her voice last Sunday. She’s far less sharp, though I’m certain she knew the voice on the other end of the phone line was me. Our conversation was brief and pleasant.

I recall Frances telling me in 2015 that she wanted to live to be 100. I’m doubtful she’ll survive ten more years. Even the infallible Betty White fell a few weeks short of the centenarian status most of us expected she would achieve.

At 90, Frances suffers from dementia. After the phone call, Lu–one of her daughters-in-law–confirmed it for me via text. I wasn’t surprised to receive this news, but knowing it prompted me to feel sad and reflective. My mother lived with cognitive impairment during her final few years.

Lu told me Frances doesn’t remember what happened the previous day. For instance, she doesn’t recall receiving the card and birthday gift I sent, though the United States Postal Service tracking system tells me it arrived safely at her home before Christmas.

At any rate, I’m grateful for the moments I shared on the phone with Frances. “I’m feeling pretty well,” she told me with a familiar lilt in her voice. “My husband looks after me.”

“I’ve always loved you, Aunt Frances,” I said with a hitch in my affirmation. “I’m a day late calling you, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you on your birthday.”

Frances sputtered in her response. “You mean so much to me, honey.” Though she never mentioned my name during our conversation, the hopeful realist in me thinks she knew it was Mark, the writer.

Somewhere in her past or present existence, I want to believe she remembers that I am her sensitive gay nephew. The one with two grown sons and a husband. The one who survived a heart attack. The one who recounts stories about the people he loves.