Tag: Creativity

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.

 

 

 

 

Saguaro Scars

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I don’t expect to live 150 or 200 years, the span of a saguaro cactus. Yet it inspires me to follow its lead. To reach for the Sonoran sky. To transcend the inevitable scars of life that appear on exposed appendages. Perhaps perpetuated by a thirsty woodpecker. In my case, it’s a spot of invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand. A patch that’s beginning to heal.

***

The temperature gauge in my Sonata read forty-one degrees as I pulled into the Omni Dermatology parking lot at eight this morning. Chilly for us desert rats. Though my Midwestern sensibility reminded me of January mornings in arctic Illinois when the cilia in my nostrils froze as I shoveled snow and inhaled subzero oxygen.  A badge of honor for what I endured to earn a living.

Kind Claudia greeted me. Amanda’s replacement for the holidays. First treatment of 2020. Number eleven of twenty overall. More than halfway home. I handed her my blended bifocals in exchange for a less stylish pair of protective goggles, blue flak jacket and matching collar. Ready for another round in the radiotherapy barcalounger.

Claudia applied cool gel for the ultrasound. More flecks of green gremlins on the screen than before. Healthy cells populating where the darkness had been. Cheering from the sidelines. Newfangled therapy bowl game. All that matters is the final score.

Next stop. Secured square metal plate with a hole in the middle. Taped and surrounding the culprit. Quiet conversation with Claudia to hold us in place. No pain. Just procedure. Left hand gripped the padded recliner. Magical mechanical machine lowered tight on my hand like an intimate crane from construction crew captain Claudia. Excused for forty-five seconds. Out of the room.

Just the two of us: me and the humming machine. Less-sinister HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cold comfort. Scanning the wall through blurred vision. Amanda’s family photos. Notes and files on her desk. Radiation warning sign. Authorized personnel only.

Away-less-than-a-minute Claudia. Three sessions in our week-long radiotherapy affair over. Goggles and gear gone. Blue windbreaker and bifocals with me where they belong.

Back in my Sonata. Two degrees warmer than twenty minutes before. Ten new minutes in the car. East on Indian School Road. South on North 68th Street. Home in time to help Tom fold the laundry on January’s first Thursday.

I’ll do it all over again Monday. Next time, Amanda will greet me. Saguaro scars and all.

 

How Do You Spell Grateful?

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S-C-R-A-B-B-L-E … and it’s been that way for Tom and me for the past twenty-three years.

***

Back in the fall of 1996, I was a single dad. At the time, Nick was twelve; Kirk was seven. The divorce decree called for my boys to spend half of their time with their mother at her home and half with me at mine. Both of us lived in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

It was far from the perfect parenting scenario for my sons, but at least I was able to see them regularly, attend school and sports events, and have an influence on their lives. I’m thankful for those years and my life as a dad, though it was a tumultuous time for all of us. It’s difficult for me to believe my sons are now thirty-five and thirty,  but I’m forced to realize it’s true. When I pass a mirror, I see the 2019 version of me. (By the way, if you’re a parent, you may have an interest in reading my book An Unobstructed View.)

Meanwhile, also in late 1996, Tom and I were beginning to build our relationship. We realized we needed to have at least one time a week when we could count on seeing each other … while juggling two independent demanding careers and honoring my desire and commitment to be there for my sons.

So, we concocted a scheme. On most Sunday mornings, we left our respective homes. They were seven or eight miles apart. We met at a coffee shop in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for a few hours of creative wordplay. We devoted our Sunday mornings to each other and Scrabble. Each week we formed new combinations of words on our portable game board while cradling hot cups of coffee. It was our time then and it’s our time now. We’ve been repeating this refrain for twenty-three years in Illinois, Arizona and places in between.

***

Scrabble will always be our magnificent obsession. On bright days and dark ones, our creative oasis is our escape from the traumas of our world and Breaking News. Just the two of us producing endless combinations of vowels and consonants and laying them out across a compact board.

Yesterday was no exception. We drove to The Coffee Bean in Scottsdale and carried our portable Scrabble. With the game midway between us, we consumed two cups of coffee and shared a blueberry scone at a table outside on an eighty-degree, autumn-in-Arizona morning.

Unfortunately for me, Tom was victorious as he is at least fifty percent of the time. On this occasion, his thirty points (a double word score on the word pique near the end of the game) sealed the deal. The final score? 294 points for him; 278 for me.

But the outcome really never matters. What counts is that on good days and bad ones we’re keeping our brains nimble and our Scrabble tradition alive. Our weekly propensity to manipulate tiny wooden letters in a tray will always be ours … and I’ll be forever grateful for the memories of our Scrabble Sundays. From A to Z.

 

The Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree

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Ordinarily, pruning branches in our condo complex is something our landscape crew attends to. But they haven’t appeared lately. So, last week Tom and I dusted off our hedge trimmers. We gave haircuts to the fig and orange trees in our row. We didn’t mind. We had the time, energy and motivation.

Today, I stood in front of our mid-century condo. Gazing east as the morning light forced me to shield my eyes. Surveying the overgrown boughs of a luscious lemon tree that shrouded the sidewalk to our parking lot. Hands on hips, I uttered these seven words:

I think I’ll prune the lemon tree.

Yes, a guy born and raised in the Midwest, near towering oaks and majestic maples that abandon their leaves every October, now trims fragrant citrus fruits in autumn and says these peculiar things. Who is this crazy person? Where did this new language come from?

Let me be clear. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of newfangled, desert phraseology.  In the fall of 2017, just a few months after my husband and I left Illinois and moved into our Arizona condo, he shouted the following previously undocumented sentence as I wrote at my desk:

There’s a lizard in the sink.

As calmly as possible, I pressed “save” on whatever I was writing and scampered into the kitchen to see what Tom had discovered. Indeed, there was a lizard in the trap of the sink. He was no more than two inches long and frozen like a tiny statue exhumed from an archaeological dig. I’m sure he was frightened by the two giant heads peering down at him.

If you’re an animal lover like we are, you’ll be delighted to learn that we didn’t freak out and smash him in the sink. Instead, we kept our wits. We scooped him onto a piece of paper and carried him outside to safety.

Slowly, he slithered off into the desert landscape to resume his natural existence. Just a few yards away from where the freshly shorn fig, orange and lemon trees live in this sun-drenched land of sand and saguaros.

I never thought I’d live here. Oh, lemon trees and lizards, I never thought I’d say and hear such things.

 

 

 

 

When in Wien

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You are a ring of lush palaces, pastries, parables and past civilizations.

Of cavernous courtyards, cascading cathedrals and crusty cafe croissants.

Of stained statues on strassers, strolling strangers and circling streetcars.

Of hidden September stables where loyal Lipizzaner stallions saunter.

Of magnificent museums, Mozart, mythology and melange metaphors.

Of baroque avenues, ornate artifacts, elegant archways and acute angles.

Of afternoon tea, while gazing at you through sunlit storefront windows.

 

When in Vienna … when in Wien.

 

Written by Mark Johnson, October 2, 2019

 

 

 

A Drink with Jam and Bread

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Some memories are like rare monarch butterflies.  They land before you in a brilliant twist of fate. They perch on a sunflower petal for a moment, as one did yesterday on a path at the Desert Botanical Garden here in Phoenix. But before you know it, the moment has passed. The breathtaking beauty has flown away.

That’s how I felt about my visit to Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month. So, on the last day of September, before my fleeting recollections of fabled Austria fade and vanish into the sky, I’m going to turn back the clock almost two weeks to a few sensory-filled moments in this captivating and historic city.

***

It was the afternoon of September 17. A Tuesday, to be precise. Tom and I had just completed a walking tour of the city with forty others. Harold, our friendly and knowledgeable guide, led the way.

After the group disbanded for the day, my husband and I were craving some down time. That’s when we found the quiet comfort of Cafe Bazar, an historic haunt along the banks of the Salzach River. Given my literary endeavors, a friend had told us to go there. Since its birth in 1909, legends such as Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Klaus Maria Brandauer and many other artists have been Cafe Bazar guests. One can only imagine the magnitude of their stirring conversations.

At any rate, Tom and I sat in the same room where they had … soaking up the Salzburg scenery at a table for two on a Tuesday. To be clear, we didn’t sip tea while we ate our jam and bread. We each ordered a cup of Wiener melange (German for “Viennese blend”). One shot of espresso topped with a dollop of steamed milk and foam. Let’s just say it was the perfect complement to a freshly baked croissant and apricot jam in spectacular Salzburg.

If you’re a lover of The Sound of Music like me, you’ve already caught my creative drift. For an American baby boomer, it’s impossible to visit Salzburg and the surrounding area without recalling moments from the iconic 1965 movie musical.

You know, singing “Do-Re-Mi” like the Von Trapp kids did. Bobbing up and down on the steps in Mirabell Gardens. Pretending to dash around a bubbling fountain in formation in one of the freshly made outfits Maria made from old curtains. Channeling Julie Andrews as she twirls with her bag, struts under a canopy of trees, and sings “I Have Confidence.” Even consuming a drink with jam and bread at Cafe Bazar.

But, as charming and memorable as those Hollywood images are, they aren’t the real Salzburg. No other city can boast that it’s the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Salzburg also has the distinction of appearing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That designation came in 1996.

Twenty-three years later, in September 2019, two guys from Scottsdale, Arizona, passed through town. They sipped on a cup of Wiener melange with jam and bread, watched the world go by, and cherished the gift of Salzburg … a forever-artistic city.