Tag: A Writer’s Life

Nineteen Months and Counting Every Day

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Nineteen months ago this week, Tom and I began a new life in a new home in a new state of wider skies and grander possibilities: Arizona.

Much of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, is about my fond recollections of another state: Illinois. In it, I look back at thirty-seven rich and meaningful years in the Prairie State and the misfortune my husband and I encountered on our way west. Translated that means the mild heart attack I suffered in St. Louis on my sixtieth birthday.

Today, on a sunny-and-cool, sixty-four-degree afternoon in Scottsdale, I realized just how much number crunching I’ve been doing with Tom since we left the Midwest and arrived in the Sonoran Desert: tallying my steps (10,000 on most days); religiously adhering to a forty-five-minute cardiac exercise regimen three times a week that includes a combination of treadmill, light weights, stationary bike, and swimming; remembering to stretch daily and partaking in ninety minutes of gentle yoga every Friday morning (I love it!); monitoring my blood pressure regularly; dramatically reducing the amount of saturated fat and sodium in my diet; trimming my weight to 195 pounds (twenty less than my pre-coronary size); taking a higher dose of statin medication to lower the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol; and visiting my cardiologist twice a year. The list goes on.

All of that may sound exhausting. At times it is. But it’s worth it. I feel good most days. I know I am fortunate to be living in a warm climate where I can stay active. Here in Arizona, I do more than count my vital signs. I count my blessings.

In that grateful vein, and because February is American Heart Month, I’ll be discounting the Kindle version of An Unobstructed View on Amazon for several days this coming week. It will be available for only ninety-nine cents from February 13 through 18.

I hope my story will provide you with the inspiration to treasure your past, present and future. To listen to your body and know the common heart attack warning signs: pressure or tightness in your chest or an aching sensation in your chest, arms or jaw; nausea, indigestion or heartburn; shortness of breath; cold sweat; fatigue; lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.

It’s up to you to stay healthy. To honor and heed your family history. To enjoy every moment. To make every day count no matter where you live.

 

A Storyteller’s Dream

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On Saturday, my husband and I arrived at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library at 8:30 a.m. We stood patiently. Waiting at the side door in a snaking line. Juggling signage and two boxes of my books with dozens of other independent Arizona authors. All of us were there for the chance to tell and sell our stories at the 6th Annual Local Authors Book Sale.

At 9 a.m., the doors swung open. Like Black Friday shoppers angling for a door-buster deal, we entered the room in a rush to find the best available spot in a sea of first-come-first-served tables. Over the next hour, we unpacked and stacked our books. We positioned cards and literature to entice a roomful of readers. They began to arrive at 10 a.m.

Over the next four hours, I could feel my adrenalin surge whenever someone stopped by my table to say hello or open one of my books. There is no greater joy than feeling the genuine love and support of book-loving friends who admire your work … unless it is having an encounter with a person you’ve never met. Someone who listens intently to you as you describe your writing, deliberately walks from table to table around the room to ponder the possibilities, and then returns to buy Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, because your up-and-down stories from your St. Louis childhood feel like an intriguing fit.

All of that happened on Saturday. My husband was with me. We were surrounded by fellow writers, close friends and avid readers. I sold eight of my books. It was an extraordinary day. I am living a storyteller’s dream.

 

 

 

I’ve Only Just Begun

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I realize the title of this post sounds a little hokey and an awful lot like a lyric from a 1970s Carpenters song. (Please tell me you remember who Karen Carpenter was!) But I prefer to imagine that I, a generally healthy sixty-one-year-old male who visits his cardiologist every six months, will channel my energies into creative writing projects that will stimulate my intellect rather than stewing over my advancing age. That is beyond my control.

I adopted this philosophy five years ago this week. That’s when I walked out the door of my Aon office in Chicago and began a new chapter. As background, up until that moment I really didn’t feel I was living the artistic life I was meant to live. If anything, in late January 2014, I was numb from my mother’s death a year before and the escalating demands of navigating thirty-four years in the communication consulting, PR and advertising worlds.

After months of soul-searching and years of smart saving, I left the familiar unfulfilling days behind. I needed time to heal. I needed time to explore life on my terms. At age fifty-six, I grabbed my digital camera and began to capture images of darting dragonflies and picturesque prairie landscapes. I recorded random inspirations in my journal as I rambled along. The fog began to lift and my energy returned. Gradually, I discovered my way out in Illinois. As I wrote about the grief of losing my mother and revisiting my southern roots in From Fertile Ground, it prompted new possibilities. It promised a more poetic life.

What else have I learned in the past five years? After surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I know I am fortunate to be alive. My husband and I lead a creative, warm life. We have a quieter existence in Arizona far away from the hustle and brutal cold of Chicago’s late January days.

Even with the physical distance from my Chicago life, I’m thankful for friends there, who shared their gifts and inspired me along the way to be true to my creative self. Like my friend Dina. She and I were close colleagues at Aon. Five years ago, on my last day of corporate life, she gave me this artful-and-personal handmade gift: a mirrored collage for me to reflect on the fun-and-unforgettable aspects of my Chicago work life. I keep Dina’s gift on my desk in Arizona, because it captures where I’ve been and who I am: a big picture guy, who cares about his husband, good friends, art, music, theatre, the best books, and cuddly animals.

Yes, I lead a happier and more fulfilling life in the desert. Somehow I’ve written and published three books and survived a health scare. But it still feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities of this semi-retired, creative life.

When I look at Dina’s mirrored gift, it feels like I’ve only just begun.

 

 

 

Arizona Authors Book Sale

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If you live in the Phoenix area (or plan to visit the Valley of the Sun in early February to escape the bitter cold elsewhere) stop by and visit me and dozens of other Arizona authors on Saturday, February 2, at the 6th Annual Local Authors Book Sale.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will be held at the Civic Center Library, 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd, Scottsdale, Arizona, 85251.

Naturally, I’ll be selling all three of my books: From Fertile Ground; Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator; and An Unobstructed View.

I look forward to meeting you there and will be delighted to sign whatever you purchase.

Alumni Bookshelf: Upper Right Corner

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Perhaps you feel like me. It’s day five in the new year. I’m restless … and I’m itching to regain my rhythm. The joys and demands of the holiday season have vanished in the night. They’ve left me standing in front of a gaping hole in my writing routine.

Simply typing these words is helping me to fill the void. It’s jarring me enough to jumpstart my journalistic juices. But, this week in my mail, I also found another bridge back to my creative ballast. My heart skipped a bit when I opened the Winter 2019 edition of MIZZOU magazine (the magazine of the Mizzou alumni association). I spotted a mention of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, in the upper right corner on page fifty-seven. It’s one of a dozen books highlighted in this edition, all written in 2018 by University of Missouri alumni.

As background, I didn’t pay for this mention. A few months ago I sent my latest book to the Alumni Bookshelf editor with a letter. I told him I thought his readers would find my book to be an inspiring story of promise, perseverance and reflection. Of course, I was hoping for this result. Because when you’re an independent writer, you’re a one-man or one-woman band. You’re always looking for a little exposure that puts you on the map. Maybe a few lines of type to represent the gallons of energy and love you poured into your latest literary venture.

So, here I am in front of my laptop on January 5, 2019. I’m sitting at my desk, gazing up at a palm tree outside my Arizona window. I’m thankful for MIZZOU magazine. I’m grateful for my University of Missouri education and the doors it has opened for me. I’m proud of the journalism degree I earned back in 1979.

Yes, it was forty years ago. But I’m still reaping the benefits. Today I’ve got an unobstructed view on the upper right corner of the alumni bookshelf.

Desert Rose: December Dreams

 

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Several years before our cross-country move and 2017 whirlwind adventure that led to An Unobstructed View, my husband and I were snowbirds. We flocked annually to the Arizona desert to escape portions of Chicago’s frigid winters and snowy springs.

One April, I remember being dazzled by the bright red blooms on the desert rose plants (adeniums) at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We vowed that once we moved permanently and got settled, we’d buy one of these beautiful succulents and place it in a container in a sunny spot outside our condo.

We made good on that promise in October. We bought this adenium at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale. Now our new addition is losing its leaves. It’s dormant. It will remain that way until March, when the growing season takes flight.

This morning, I felt a little like our desert rose looks when I walked past it … out of sorts and disheveled in early December … craving quiet time as the busy Christmas season approaches … hoping for another spurt of growth and creativity in the new year … wondering where my next inspiration will come from.

For now, I’ll do my best to lie dormant. I’ll keep dreaming of new blooms in my Arizona life.

 

 

Thanksgiving 1993: The Mourning After

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It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”

My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.

Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.

Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.

Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.

Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.

I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.

I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.

I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.

In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.

I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.

You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.