Tag: Chicago

The Long Arc of Life

Saguaro2_062520

The world is full of complicated and thorny problems. Perhaps it’s fitting that on Father’s Day Tom and I bought and brought home our own private potful–a tiny saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea)–from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Despite their prickly nature and my aversion to being stabbed by sharp objects, in my first three years of Arizona residency, I’ve come to feel comfort from the surrounding saguaro cacti. If you follow my blog, you know that. I’ve posted photos and a few poems about this fatherly tree-like species that is native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico.

Saguaros grow slowly. Our little guy … let’s call him Sammy Saguaro … stands no more than six inches tall, yet he’s probably at least ten or fifteen years old. They can grow to be forty to sixty feet in height and live one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred years.

Of course, I’ll never see Sammy grow into that stature, but I’m happy to watch him develop slowly. I like the idea of his anticipated longevity. Especially in this age of COVID-19, it’s good to remind ourselves of the long arc of life … where we were, how far we’ve come, how many setbacks we’ve endured, how far we hope to grow in the future.

Like in the 1990s, when my mother would measure the heights of Nick and Kirk against the side of her St. Louis pantry door when we visited from Chicago. She knew her grandsons would grow and go places. She wanted to mark their progress, see the smiles on their faces when they saw how far they’d advanced since the previous pencil marking. Since the previous visit. So did I.

I still feel that way about my sons. Even though they are now in their thirties and fully grown physically, I can see them slowly expanding their reach. Stretching toward the sky in an uncertain world a little at a time.

Each time I talk with one of them over the phone, I realize how far they have come. How far they have to go. That’s what it means to be a father. That’s also why it’s important that Sammy is standing outside our back door.

In this vein of remembering and marking growth, in spite of the pain of 2020, I’m reminded of an historic moment that occurred five years ago. This is what I wrote in From Fertile Ground on June 29, 2015 from Mount Prospect, Illinois.

In the scheme of things, it marked a remarkable, sharp, positive turn in our nation’s complicated history. One I’ll never forget. One I hope is never rescinded.

***

It’s a cool and wet June morning. In our front yard, the sparrows are fighting for position to pluck seeds from the perch of our bird feeder, dangling from a branch of our river birch. On our deck in the back, the first orange blossom of the summer has appeared and opened on our hibiscus tree. More color, more beauty, more promise.

I’ve been feeling more joyful since last Friday when the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples can now be married in all fifty states. This is a civil rights triumph of monumental proportions. For gay people everywhere in the United States–and for future generations who will be born into a more open society–there is now the same equal opportunity to marry the person they love.

The day after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, our friends Greg and Dan were married in Chicago. They had planned their marriage ceremony months ago to coincide with their twenty-fifth anniversary of when they became a couple. It was a boat ride on Lake Michigan with family and close friends.

Tom and I held hands on the top deck of the boat as we listened to them exchange their vows on a windswept-slightly cool but sunny Chicago afternoon. There were happy tears and raucous cheers for Greg and Dan, of course. It was their day and a long time in coming. But it was also our day to mark the occasion of a sharp positive turn in our nation’s complicated history.

Perhaps President Barack Obama best captured the spirit of this giant step forward immediately after the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, he said:

This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are treated equal, we are all more free.

The Wonder of Purple Summer

In popular American culture, there is boundless emphasis on achieving success, material wealth, and happiness before you turn thirty.

That’s not a recent phenomenon. Consider every car ad you’ve ever seen that plays on a loop during the holidays with a cooing couple in love and big bow tied outside on the latest red, silver or black luxury sedan or SUV.

Yet, for most people, the premise is fraudulent and anxiety producing. In reality, it takes much longer (sometimes your entire life) to find your path, push your head above water financially and (if you’re lucky) discover some level of creative contentment.

For me, the monetary success didn’t come until my forties. Creative contentment came later. In my fifties. But it didn’t appear in an office or a cubicle. With a client or a colleague.

It began to surface ten years ago today … on June 19, 2010 … at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.

That night, as we prepared for two performances of Summer Lovin’ (our Pride concert), I found myself surrounded on stage by fifty new friends (with Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria) in Chicago’s thriving gay community. Diverse and talented people I had known for a mere three months.

At that moment, I didn’t know these kind cohorts–instrumental in my personal renaissance–would carry me across the creative threshold that night and become some of my most enduring friends. But that’s what happened for this member of the Windy City Gay Chorus for the next seven years.

I was smitten and felt my spring awakening (we were still a few days short of summer) when a circle enveloped us newbies, a stirring song (Walk Hand in Hand) swirled over and around me, and a red rose landed magically in my hand minutes before our 5 p.m. performance.

Then, on cue in the first act, we performed The Song of Purple Summer (written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) from the musical Spring Awakening.

It still makes me cry. It holds me captive.

***

And all shall fade
The flowers of spring
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything
But still it stays
The butterfly sings
And opens purple summer
With the flutter of its wings
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder of purple summer
And yet I wait
The swallow brings
A song too hard to follow
That no one else can sing
The fences sway
The porches swing
The clouds begin to thunder
Crickets wander, murmuring
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder of purple summer
***

On this night ten years later … in this age of tumult and fear … I feel the sadness and longing in this song.

But there is also comfort in this memory and the soaring voices of my Windy City friends.

In the spring of 2010, they ushered me to the wonder of purple summer.

 

Three Junes Ago

MountProspectHome_June2017

What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

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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Splash

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It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.

 

 

Far and Away

FarAndAway_2020

When I look around me, it feels as if I’ve popped the lid off my space craft, poked my head outside, and discovered that I’ve landed on the face of the moon. How is it possible that this warm and dry space, these buttes and saguaros, this vast sky and terrain exist just steps from my modest home?

This is … far and away … a better life than the one I imagined. Especially when I recall a doctor in St. Louis telling me he’d discovered a blockage on the left side of my heart in 2017 on the way west. I couldn’t have predicted that personal scare. Or the global fright of this pandemic that has suddenly increased the value of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, protective masks, social distance and personal space.

What’s my point? Rarely does life turn out the way we expect it will. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s just different. Like five years ago this week. Kirk, my younger son, was on the other side of the world volunteering for the Peace Corps on the Vanuatu Islands. I was worried about his safety and well being, because a natural phenomenon was swirling and creating havoc. This is what I wrote on April 9, 2015:

Kirk is on a plane heading back to the U.S. from his Peace Corps assignment in Vanuatu. It’s been a wild ride for him — and even more so for the citizens of Vanuatu — since Cyclone Pam made a direct hit on the islands in mid March.

Perhaps there is a blessing in all of this. Kirk was able to go back to the island of Tanna, where he had been living and teaching children for the past 15 months. Sadly, much of the island was decimated and seven of the villagers lost their lives. However, he reconnected with his host family, whom all survived, and shared an Easter service with them before saying goodbye.

I can’t begin to express how proud I am of Kirk for the positive differences he has made in the lives of people on the other side of the world. This Peace Corps experience will live with him forever and though I will never meet his host family I am certain they were touched by his generous spirit, warmth and kindness.

Fortunately, since returning to the United States, Kirk’s built a good life. He received his Master of Education degree in 2019. Last fall, he landed a job in the Chicago area as a school counselor. In late March, the day before he began to shelter in place like thousands of other Chicagoans, he moved into a new apartment. He’s even kept in touch with some of his Peace Corps friends, who’ve scattered across the country since 2015.

Like all of us, Kirk is now living through another round of upheaval. The good news is I can connect with him online, over the phone, and via text. Last weekend, he took Tom and me on a virtual tour of his new space. Like five years ago, I am relieved to know he is okay physically and doing his best to adapt to this precarious situation. But, I still worry about his well being and that of his older brother Nick, who lives near us in Arizona with his family.

Tom and I see Nick more frequently. Before the world went on lockdown, we were able to squeeze in a few impromptu episodes of basketball at a safe distance at an outdoor court in Tempe. But now Nick might as well be living on the moon. We don’t expect to be with each other for a while. We’re all sheltering in place. Clamoring for the close-range contact. Hankering for the hugs, handshakes and high fives. Remembering the movie nights and mostaccioli. When will we be able to share those again?

With all that we’re missing and the Easter holiday coming this weekend, I felt the need to be together in some fashion with my immediate family … Kirk in Chicago … Nick, Aida, Mia and Tony in Tempe … Tom and me in Scottsdale.

So, on Sunday night, we’re having a virtual, non-traditional gathering. I call it Pie Time, but we’ll be sharing our favorite desserts … fruit pies and carrot cakes … from our respective homes. Thanks to Zoom, we’ll be able to see each other’s faces online. Hear our laughs. See our smiles on the screen.

It won’t be a perfect Easter, but we’re alive and well. We’ll be together in 2020. Like every other family, celebrating or not, we’ll be doing what we can to get by. Far and away. Hoping and praying for good health without knowing what tomorrow will bring.

I Was a Child of the Global Pandemic

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In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, I found myself reading the handwriting on the wall. My sister Diane and I were seated beside our mother. She had begun to slip mentally.

A physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago began to examine Mom to determine the severity of her cognitive impairment. As he proceeded to ask questions, I felt a sense of sadness and impending doom wash over me. I knew we were about to cross the threshold into a personal crisis for our family.

The doctor began. “Helen, tell me about yourself.”

She responded. “I was a child of the Great Depression.”

Those were my eighty-five-year-old mother’s first eight wise-and-weary words. I wasn’t surprised by her commencement. As her mental acuity waned and her short-term memory deteriorated, Helen always described herself as she existed near the beginning of her story.

She was proud to share her hard-working narrative. To explain how her father and mother–people of simple means and honest ambitions– somehow always found ways to put food on the table in the 1930s after the stock market crashed and some folks, overcome by their losses, jumped out of high-rise windows.

But Helen and her family survived the depths of the Great Depression in rural North Carolina. The experience forever shaped the woman she would become. She wore it as a badge of honor. Saving for a rainy day. Taking the surest path. Honing her skills. Consolidating the contents of half-empty ketchup bottles. Pulling the little red wagon up and down the hill to get groceries when the car went kaput and Dad’s heart weakened.

Building a career in Human Resources that often included working on Saturdays. Helping find government jobs for those who were disabled. Chatting about her love of gardening over the fence with neighbors. Trusting in time and patience. Squirreling away money. Parlaying it into smart investments. Turning a little into something that might someday become a lot.

***

Helen wasn’t alone. Her feelings and experiences represented those of an entire generation of Americans. Decades before she and other hearty souls like her–men and women who would also suffer one day from macular degeneration, heart disease, dementia, and more maladies–fought World War II, bought war bonds, rationed meals, moved to the suburbs to live in brick starter homes, lived the American dream, and produced a generation of Baby Boomers.

Helen passed away in 2013. There have been moments over the past few weeks when I’ve been grateful that she’s gone … not wanting her to experience the pain of this global pandemic that is consuming us, swirling over and through us, occupying every waking and nightmare-inducing moment of our lives. In other words, I’ve been thinking about  Helen’s plight from nearly a century ago and that of the young children of today.

How will the fear and anxiety spawned by this pandemic shape their lives? How will it inform their values? How will it determine the choices they make? How will it influence their destinies? How will they describe themselves and define their lives when it becomes their turn to tell their stories to doctors in the year 2100?

Perhaps they will tell these kinds of stories.

***

My name is Anna. I was born on March 22, 2013. I was a child of the Global Pandemic. Before 2020, my mother and father owned and operated a popular restaurant in the Phoenix area. Customers raved about the great food and the lively atmosphere. But after the coronarivus entered our world, my parents were forced to abandon their business.

To survive, Mom ended up starting a business to deliver food to those who were house bound. Dad was handy. A few of the local condo communities hired him to handle day-to-day mechanical problems that came up. My parents didn’t earn much, but it was enough to sustain us in the short term.

I remember the tears and the anguish in our home. Everyone was afraid of contracting the virus. The news reports and the loss of life were devastating … especially to a few of my parents’ friends and restaurant acquaintances in major cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

But Mom and Dad tried to remain strong. If anything, I loved them more during those years of hardship. For my seventh birthday, they insisted we would celebrate, though it felt as if all of us were living under a dark cloud … even here in the Valley of the Sun.

Mom and Dad always referred to me as their little princess … Princess Anna. So, Mom bought a banner with silver curls that seemed to float down from the sky. It was emblazoned with the word “princess” on it … and the three of us sat under a green metal canopy in a park in Scottsdale. They sang Happy Birthday to me and we enjoyed cake and ice cream outside. It felt like the safest place we could be at that time.

That’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget, because it happened at the beginning of all this uncertainty in the world … schools and businesses closing, the stock market bobbing and weaving, an over-worked and broken health care system fully taxed, our political system in disarray, our infrastructure crumbling. It was frightening for everyone, but most of us survived and became stronger.

The next few years were lean ones. But, with time, the economy grew strong again. People put their lives back together. Many years later, I ended up pursuing a career in health care, because I could see how desperate the world was for qualified doctors.

I never imagined I would become an epidemiologist. But it happened. Who knows what my life might have become if the health challenges of our world hadn’t become so apparent to me in 2020?

After all, I was a child of the Global Pandemic.

 

The Firsts of Fatherhood

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It was nearly midnight on January 24, 1984, when I held him for the first time at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. My son, Nick, had just been born on a bitterly cold night in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

His mother and I fell in love with him at first sight. His peaceful expression after a difficult labor. His tiny fingers and toes. His shock of dark hair that would soon turn blonde. I adored every bit of my firstborn son.

Today, on Nick’s thirty-sixth birthday, a lifetime of firsts are flooding my brain. Perhaps it’s because I know how far we’ve come in three and a half decades. Climbing the winding ramp to the upper deck at Wrigley Field. Watching him kick a soccer ball at two and, at five, size up his little brother Kirk when he came home from the same hospital. Marveling as Nick drained clutch three-pointers on the basketball court.

In later years, Nick and I endured more complicated chapters. Finding our way together after his mom and I divorced. Telling him I was gay. Introducing Tom to him and Kirk. Seeing the four of us bond over a comedic basset hound. Surviving testy teenage years. Driving Nick to the University of Iowa for his freshman year.

More recently, I’ve gotten to see Nick stand by Tom and me on our wedding day, say goodbye to his grandmother, sort through his career options, follow his dream and pursue a new life in Arizona, find crutches when he tore up his knee in 2017 (two months after I suffered a heart attack), campaign for a democratic senator in Arizona, and pick grapefruits, oranges and lemons from our condo trees this January.

In 1984, I never imagined any of these chapters … any of these firsts. Or that Nick and I would each leave Illinois and end up living ten miles from each other in the Arizona desert. But that’s where our lives have led to this point … far from the arctic cold of northern Illinois.

This morning, as Tom and I drove home after our gentle yoga class, I called Nick to wish him a happy birthday. I could hear happiness in his voice. He was out for a long walk on a beautiful day in the Valley of the Sun.

A beautiful day, indeed. Nick is my son.

 

Standing in the Light

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On this marvelous Monday in the Valley of the Sun–basking in the afterglow of a weekend of holiday performances with my gay friends here in Phoenix–I’m struck with this truth-seeking irony. After stepping out of the shadows in my thirties and forties and standing in the light in my fifties and sixties, I’m finally comfortable in my skin. Yet, I find myself being treated for a spot of invasive cancer on my left hand.

Tom escorted me to treatment #4 this morning. Like the first three, it was pain-free. Just the rigmarole of driving back and forth, wearing a protective flak jacket and goggles, and applying Aquaphor ointment and sunscreen religiously. I can handle that.

Escaping the darkness of an inauthentic life was much more complicated. At fifty-one, I remember the fright of auditioning with Windy City Gay Chorus (WCGC) in Chicago. Even back then, Tom encouraged me to sing again, though it had been decades since I’d performed on stage. I needed a fun, affirming and creative outlet away from work and parenting responsibilities.

In March 2010, a giant door swung open before me. I mysteriously and joyfully found myself singing with WCGC. Later that year I went on to perform in my first holiday concert with the renowned gay chorus … one of the founding gay choruses in the United States. At that point, I couldn’t have imagined I would develop lifelong friends there. Men and women I would share the stage with for seven years. Friendships Tom and I have carried with us across the miles to Arizona.

Now a new chapter standing in the light of the western sun. After yesterday, I’ve completed ten consecutive years of holiday performances. Seven as a tenor two in Chicago with Windy City followed by three more with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus (not withstanding a brief blip as a baritone).

Here in Arizona in a new choral community, I’ve befriended another sixty or so men of all ages and backgrounds. Some of them have stood by me (literally) while I recovered from a mild heart attack. For others, I have willingly given hugs and a listening ear as they fight to create whole and meaningful lives no matter whether their families of origin love and accept them or not.

On stage yesterday in my black tuxedo and red bow tie, grateful for the friends and family members who came to see us perform, I gazed out from the top riser into an enthusiastic audience of four hundred or so. Like a Rubik’s cube with all the right answers aligned, the clarity of the last ten years clicked into place.

The Phoenix Women’s Chorus, a talented group we perform with from time to time in Arizona, was singing on the apron of the stage. They repeated this lyrical refrain from “Stand in the Light”, a song written by Stephan Moccio and Lauren Christy (arrangement by Roger Emerson).

To stand in the light and be seen as you are.

This phrase captures the essence of why I sing with a chorus of gay men. Why I need to be a part of this community in an uncertain world sometimes fraught with surprising discrimination. More broadly, why the LGBTQ choral movement continues to matter for those of us who lived in the shadows for too long.

We must continue to step out of the darkness and sing for those less fortunate. With proper protection and plenty of sunscreen, we must all stand in the light and be seen as we are.

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Where Will the Staircase Lead?

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As a Midwestern kid of the 1960s, the last few weeks of summer never felt like an ending to me. Though the leaves on the trees would gradually yellow, turn brown and inevitably fall, the approach of September spelled a renewal of sorts. New possibilities. New hopes. New dreams. New beginnings. All of it hinged on the promise of a new school year.

Of course, I’m no youngster anymore. I’ve been out of school for decades. Technically, out of the workplace, too, since 2014. I’ve moved away from the hustle of Chicago and live a quieter life in Arizona. But, I’m no dinosaur. I’m fully aware of the troubling signs in our country and world (I’m leaving this vague purposely; you can define it however you wish), and yet I try to maintain a sense of optimism as we all prepare to turn the page to another season … another September.

Every time I sit down in front of my laptop to tell another story or write another poem, I feel a giddy sense of creative anticipation. My motivation is simple. It’s what I was meant to do. This life-affirming need to write runs through my blood. It’s spurred me to write and publish three books (something I couldn’t have foreseen five years ago). It keeps me learning, growing, exploring and seeking new ground. It keeps me relevant. It keeps me vital. It keeps me wondering. It keeps me asking personal questions such as these:

“What will the next semester (it’s my semester with my syllabus) bring?”

“Where do I want to devote my creative energies in the coming year?”

“Should I focus on developing a book of my poetry? Would anybody read it?”

“What about teaching a memoir-writing class?”

“Should I dive back into the fictionalized story I’ve begun to build?”

“Am I better served to continue telling my stories here?”

“No matter what I decide, what kinds of new friends will I meet along the way?”

“Is my writing making a positive difference in the lives of others?”

All of these thoughts have been racing through my mind as I read the stories of friends and acquaintances online. Emotional messages about defining moments as they send their children off to school. To begin first grade. To start the last year of high school. To drive or fly to that adventurous freshman year of college … away from home, away from mom and dad. To launch a new job and career as a school counselor (as my younger son just did) welcoming new challenges and fresh faces.

This is the good stuff of life. New beginnings. Moving along the unpredictable path. Educating ourselves. Broadening our horizons. Enjoying today, but also looking forward from time to time. Charting our creative journeys. Reminding ourselves of our gifts and how they can make a difference in the world. Imagining the possibilities as we climb ahead and wonder  … “Where will the staircase lead?”