Tag: Blogging

I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

The madness of March is history. What will this stay-at-home April bring? Certainly more meaningful memories.

***

At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970—fifty years before the contagious COVID-19 stunned and stymied our world—a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.

Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show.  My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.

Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)

Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.

Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.

At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets. It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.

But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps. I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.

To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.

As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.

I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit. Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.

Just like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.

In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.

In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.

“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”

At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.

I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.

Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on at eighty-six. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.

Remembering her fearless foolishness and mischief on April Fools Day is helping to lighten my spirit today as I work to make sense of another dark chapter in our world.

Thank you, Carol Burnett … I’m so glad we had this time together.

Express Yourself

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020, was a quiet morning at disc park in south Scottsdale. Vista del Camino Park is its official name, but Tom and I prefer this less formal identifier. It’s more like the scruffy disc golfers and white egrets who play and troll there.

This is the same park we walked (slowly and gingerly for me) in August 2017, just a month after my mild heart attack, when darkness descended and science produced a confirming solar eclipse for a short while.

Now the darkness is back for a more lengthy stay it appears, under global pandemic circumstances, but (despite our growing anxiety and the reported numbers of COVID-19 cases) we try to focus on the brightness in the southern sky peeking through the clouds after a morning shower.

All of us are living within newly defined parameters. The headliner is social distancing, characterized by taps of the elbow with people we would rather embrace. At worst, it feels as if we are existing in a Petri dish in some vast and diabolical experiment. At best, these new rules and regulations challenge us to find new ways to connect and express ourselves.

Last night was a perfect example. My Tuesday evenings are normally devoted to rehearsing with friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus (PMMC). It’s a community of sixty or seventy diverse and talented gay men. Given the threats of the present pandemic, our regular, in-person singing sessions have been cancelled for the next few  weeks. Possibly longer. We don’t know what the future will bring.

But on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, what would normally have been a raucous Tuesday of singing and mingling, became an online vocal experiment. Our choral leaders hatched a scheme to rehearse through Facebook Live.

In the face of social distancing we’re using social media to assemble first and second tenors on Tuesday evenings–baritones and basses on Thursday nights–to fine-tune and polish our selection of twenty-two, gay-anthem tunes for our still-planned Born This Way performances in June. We’re also attempting to maintain our sense of community in these uncertain times.

Last night at 7 o’clock we began to travel and sing down this new virtual road together. I sat in front of my laptop in Scottsdale with my music close at hand. The other tenors did the same from their respective homes. Marc, our artistic director, and three other PMMC leaders took turns singing the music. They asked us to do the same from our remote locations.

Don’t go for second best baby; put your love to the test. You know, you know you got to make him express how he feels and maybe then you’ll know your love is real … 

If you love Madonna (and, honestly, who doesn’t?), you’ll recognize these lyrics from Express Yourself, her 1989 smash hit. It was the first song we sang together in our virtual vocal experiment.

By the time rehearsal ended at 9:30, we had run through another six or seven other numbers and exchanged countless constructive and snarky comments online. All that really matters is the experiment worked. We stayed connected. We kept our voices oiled. Our spirits soothed.

This morning on my walk with Tom, I wasn’t ready to let St. Patrick’s Day 2020 go just yet. As we stepped out of our car, I decided it was perfectly fine and appropriate–within social distancing guidelines–to unveil my shamrock socks for all the pandemic world to see.

To express myself. To keep my voice and spirit alive here in the Valley of the Sun.

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Three Writers and a Birthday

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.

S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.

On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.

But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.

Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.

But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.

During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.

There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.

***

This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.

As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.

Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.

But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.

They are all with me on my journey.

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No Drone Zone

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I never want to be that guy. The bore who tells the same stories at a party. The one you can’t escape in the corner of the room when all you want to do is wipe that silly-and-smug smile off his face. More specifically, the writer who drones on about subjects that don’t matter to anyone but himself.

I certainly wonder from time to time if the things I have to say are truly meaningful to others. If my synchronistic, slice-of-life stories and observations about universal subjects like family, fatherhood, friendship and flowers–not to mention love, loss, and late-in-life dreams and adventures–are fresh enough for followers or those who happen to read one of my books or stumble upon this page.

I’m not sure this classifies as a fear. But at the very least I have my creative doubts and vulnerabilities. I imagine it’s a condition other writers experience. Particularly when they’ve been diligently honing their craft for a while (i.e., written and published three books and nearly two years of bi-weekly blog posts) and strive to remain relevant in a culture that too often tweets and discards people, their ideas and historical perspectives more quickly than a wrapper around a fast-food sandwich.

Who knew this entire thread of creative questioning would be stimulated by a hike this morning in Papago Park? Where Tom and I amassed ten-thousand steps by eleven o’clock and a “No Drone Zone” sign caught my eye before today’s round of alliteration and wordplay could begin to take flight.

It was all the confirmation I needed. That remote-controlled, pilot-less aircraft or missiles are prohibited in this quiet corner of Phoenix (home to the nearby Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo), where rugged buttes are patrolled by bighorn sheep.

That every book or post that bears my name is prepared with love, authenticity and good intentions.

That I’m doing my best to honor the meaningful and meaningless moments here in the “No Drone Zone” of my post-Midwestern life.

 

 

Field of Possibilities

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We live a block from this blaze of yellow and orange. It’s really not a field. It’s a swatch of a neighbor’s front yard filled with wildflowers that thrive on February opportunities, which the Valley of the Sun affords.

One of the things I’ve learned since leaving corporate life six years ago is that capturing images of nature lights my creative fire. Doing so, reminds me of the field of possibilities that await in life. Even for a guy who’s sixty-two.

Perhaps especially for a guy who’s sixty-two, because I still have a lot of observations to share. Things I need to say about my world, my nation, my state, my community, my family, my marriage, my individuality. Ideas I need to extract and plant out of my brain, water and nurture … just so I can give them light and see them appear and bloom on a page.

The fascinating part of the creative process is that when I sat down in front of my laptop this morning I had no clue what I would write about. But then I saw this photo on my phone and it spoke to me. In some way, the larger message I heard was “Keep writing, Mark. Write about what you know. What you observe. What you feel. What you dream of and worry about.”

So that’s what I do. A little every day. Sometimes I share it here. Other times I put it in a file with notes of other raw or unrefined observations that quickly blossom and fade in the desert sun.

But it’s the field of possibilities that continue to be my source of motivation. That prompt me to push ahead with my collection of true Arizona stories and desert fantasies, which I hope to publish in the next year. That connect me to a few fabulous followers who come here to read what I have to say.

I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel that impulse.

 

 

A Writer’s Plight and a Dog Named Lassie

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I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)

Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.

For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.

When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.

Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.

I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.

So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.

We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a  Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.

But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.

As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.

Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.

 

 

 

 

What Remains

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I stroll past January leaves, what clings to deciduous trees.

I count the crackles and rustles, what whispers to be heard.

I recall the quest of the fallen, what paths they chose to follow.

I know which stories are true, what remains in the autumn of life.

 

By Mark Johnson, January 5, 2020