Tag: Illinois

A Good Editor … A Good Friend

AnnaMark_032519 009 (667x1000)

In late 2015, as I worked to complete From Fertile Ground, I began to search for a seasoned editor and proofreader. I needed someone to review my book thoroughly and objectively. Someone expertly equipped to offer constructive criticism without constraining my artistic voice.

About that time an Illinois friend recommended I contact Anna Floit. She and her business, The Peacock Quill, are based in Nashville, Tennessee. After a few phone conversations with Anna, my intuition told me she was the right person for the job. I sent Anna my manuscript from my Illinois home.

Over the next several weeks, I worked closely with Anna to polish my book from my desk in Arizona, where my husband and I had escaped from another bitter Chicago winter. Miraculously, in late March 2016, I published my first book. It was three years ago this week.

Since that time, Anna has edited and proofread my second and third books—Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator  in 2017 and An Unobstructed View in 2018. But we never had the opportunity to meet in person. The distance was too great. Until today.

Over the weekend, Anna flew from Nashville to Phoenix to watch a few Cactus League baseball games with a close friend here in the Valley of the Sun. In the middle of it all, we exchanged text messages. Somehow we managed to carve out a little time to get together, and my husband Tom and I met Anna this morning at a local coffee shop in Scottsdale.

Ironically, Anna is someone I didn’t know four years ago. Yet she’s someone significant in my life, who helped me achieve a life-long dream of publishing my stories. Seeing her in person was more than a chance to put a face and voice with a name. It was my best opportunity to say thank you to a good editor … a good friend.

Joy … and Sadness

Comfort8_040915

A real day in a real life is comprised of the crisscrossing realities of joy and sadness. Strung together like a tangled knot of Christmas lights, they are the twinkling highs we crave blended with the burned-out bulbs we’d prefer to avoid.

Today, in the span of the same hour, I found myself composing an enthusiastic message to one friend in Arizona, who’s celebrating her sixtieth birthday, while offering condolences to an acquaintance in Illinois. He is my oldest son’s boyhood friend who had just lost his mother (also in her sixties) to cancer.

The combination of these two events gave me pause to consider how difficult it is to balance the highs and lows of life. Many of us spend a good deal of time contemplating tomorrow–saving for a college education, plotting for the perfect job, scrimping to buy a comfortable home, orchestrating the trip of a lifetime, preparing for a secure retirement. Yet, somewhere–way back in the recesses of our psyches–we know the day will come when the loss we experience will dash all of our plans. It will predominate everything else in our lives. Our grief will be all that matters.

So, on this day–March 22, 2019–I wish Kathy a spectacular sixtieth birthday in the Valley of the Sun. And, for Ryan, I send my love and deepest sympathy across the miles as he reconciles the joy of his mother’s kind and generous life with the sadness of her passing.

 

 

Nineteen Months and Counting Every Day

TomMark2_021019

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.

 

I’ve Only Just Begun

Five Years Later_012519 004.JPG

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.

 

 

 

Six Years Have Passed, but the Poppies Still Bloom

poppies_011419 003

In mid-January 2013, I was marking time. I had just returned to my consulting job in Chicago after a two-month leave of absence to spend time with Helen Johnson. She was my wise, but ailing, mother. Somehow Helen had dodged and surpassed the prognostications of her doctors. She was clinging to life in hospice, enduring frequent breathing treatments to relieve her congestive heart failure, channeling the will and resiliency that had sustained her for more than eighty-nine years.

A few weeks later, everything changed. I got the dreaded call. My mother’s life ended peacefully in the wee hours of January 26, 2013. Soon after, a grief-induced fog rolled in and consumed me. Fortunately, I found the strength to write about it. My new life as an author began to take root. I never imagined the vacuum left by my mother’s existence would become the catalyst and subject matter for my first book, From Fertile Ground.

Six years have passed. Today I’m thankful I can remember my mother freely without the specter of pain. Helen Johnson had a passion for nature and supporting aspiring artists. She also believed in second chances. In the 1970s, Mom insisted I come with her to annual art shows at Menard state prison in southern Illinois. That’s where some of the more talented inmates presented and sold their work. On one of those excursions, she bought this painting.

For nearly the next three decades, it hung in our living room in suburban St. Louis. Then it traveled with Mom to her new home in Chicago’s western suburbs, where she spent the last nine years of her life. After Mom died, I kept the painting. When my husband and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we brought it with us.

In a weak moment this week, as the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death drew closer, I considered giving it away because we have less space now. But then I had a change of heart. With my husband’s encouragement, I realized the painting will never mean as much to anyone else. We found the right spot to display it in our condo kitchen.

This vivid splash of blooming poppies on a hillside, painted by an artist named McCall in 1975, will always represent my mother’s best qualities. As long as I’m alive, I hope the memories of her goodness never fade.

 

Desert Rose: December Dreams

 

DesertRose_Nov2018

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

WaltersGravestone_07052017 (2)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Blue Blazer

October 2018 006

There isn’t much left of my wardrobe from five years ago. In those days, I was a corporate guy working in Chicago. I rotated two or three suits, sport coats, and countless long-sleeve dress shirts and pants for casual dress days. They are all history. I gave the clothing to local charities in Illinois and Arizona, because none of it fit me anymore. I mean that literally (I’ve lost forty pounds in those years), but also psychologically.

In late 2013 at age fifty-six, my body and mind were telling me corporate life didn’t suit me any longer. I needed to find a creative oasis before it was too late. I thought writing might be in my future, but I wasn’t sure. My husband and I planned our corporate exit strategy and left it all behind in early 2014. We began to seriously discuss creating a quieter life in a warmer climate.

As I shed weight and stress, I felt like a sculptor chiseling away the excess matter. I uncovered the writer inside of me. Ironically, with less of me in the picture, I discovered I had more to say about my family, my heritage, my sexuality and my home—and how these foundational components of my identity have shaped my experience and journey.

I’m proud of this transformation, the three books I’ve written and published, and the life Tom and I are molding in the Arizona desert—especially after we survived my heart attack during our move on the way west. But occasionally I need an intersection that melds the man I was with the man I’ve become.

That’s where this silk, 44-long, blue Oscar de la Renta blazer enters the story. I bought it at least ten years ago at a Chicago store. Whenever I wore it for work or play, I brought my best self. So, while all of my other suits and jackets from my Midwest life are gone, this was my favorite. I kept it for special occasions in my Arizona life.

Recently, I found a tailor near my new home. She tapered the waist and shortened the sleeves to suit my lighter build. Now my past and my present have come together.

I’m a lucky man indeed.