It’s a sizzling Saturday in the Phoenix area … 97, 98, and climbing. Hats and water bottles for protection and hydration are in order. They are now regulation gear for the next several months.
When Tom and I left the Phoenix Farmer’s Market mid-morning–clutching a clump of chard, a few red peppers, and a bouquet of snapdragons–I could feel the crackle and pop of heat bouncing off the sidewalks. Pulsating through the air.
Tom has since trimmed the pink and magenta snapdragons. He arranged them in a cobalt-blue-glazed ceramic pitcher I treasure. My mother left it behind.
We began buying fresh-cut flowers three years ago as Covid raged and tightened its grip on the world. It was our way of bringing natural beauty into our home, while we worked to avoid the bombardment of fear and disease.
Thirty-six months later, you might say this practice has taken root and grown into a full-fledged tradition.
Certainly, there is beauty outside in the surrounding rugged buttes, startling sunsets, chirping birds, and April cactus blooms.
But this bouquet (featured on a table beneath our Brokeback Mountain poster we bought when we lived in the Chicago area) provides us with a more private splash of color. Tucked away from the heat of the day both meteorologically and metaphorically.
In the universe of potential outcomes, I’ve discovered that an idea can spring out of nothing and lead nowhere. But, more often than not, like a hummingbird on a mission it takes flight to somewhere and lands somewhere else. It’s really an associative process of linking one idea to another.
Often this odyssey is driven by a sensory experience. Maybe it’s a familiar scent (like fresh-mowed grass) or sound (like the coo of a dove). Or a compelling image, such as a trail of hidden stairs. Or a winding creek rambling through nature with no end in sight. Or a defined space on a windy day with a few options to pursue toward a final destination.
As I writer, I’ve learned that I am at my best when I am open to all of these eventualities and possibilities. In other words, it’s better to say “yes” to an idea and let it simmer than to say “no” outright to something that might become something more.
I suppose you could call this my creative philosophy. It led me to write four memoirs and–more recently–a book of poetry. All of these are the result of committing to the practice of writing frequently. Often, I find myself composing words in my head while I’m swimming or exercising. Then, a few hours later, they travel to my fingers and land on a page as a story or poem.
One thing’s for sure. I know my life would feel relatively empty if I could never write again.
Back in January, Marc–the artistic director for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (PHXGMC)–asked if I would develop the stories and dialogue for five fictionalized LGBTQ characters. The script would provide the framework for the chorus’ June 2023 concert, Born To Be Brave.
If you follow my blog, you know I sing with PHXGMC and have written lyrics for the chorus in the past. Both the singing and the lyrical adventure have proven to be exhilarating creative experiences. So, I immediately said “yes” to Marc’s request, and knew this new challenge would stretch me in unfamiliar ways.
Sitting before my laptop, I began to create these five individuals–composites of people I have known. With time and nurturing, they began to represent the joys, fears, hopes, dreams, uncertainties, and triumphs of what it means to be gay, bi, or transgendered living in 2023.
In March (after numerous drafts, edits and tweaks), I finalized the script for the concert. In the process, five fully defined and diverse characters–Les, Bry, Q, Gregory, and Toni–were born on the page. Since then, the roles have been cast. Rehearsals are running full tilt.
On Saturday and Sunday June 3 and 4, Les, Bry, Q, Gregory, and Toni will take the stage. They will tell their stories and connect the music at Tempe Center for the Arts.
That weekend, I will be singing with the chorus. From my tenor-two position somewhere on stage, I will watch with wonder as five other chorus members embody the five characters. They will bring them to life, tell their stories, sing their songs, and shape their journeys in their own personalized ways.
What a mysterious, organic, and fulfilling creative path this has become. With every step forward, it is leading me to places I never imagined. And, ironically, I’m discovering this new fertile ground in the desert in my sixties.
Here in the Valley of the Sun–home to Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona, and the Waste Management Phoenix Open this weekend–the media hype is way, way up (somebody make it stop!) and so are the crowds of football and golf fans who have descended on Old Town Scottsdale.
Meanwhile, there’s lots of hammering happening too on Super Saturday.
A trio of industrious men are replacing the roof of our condo. As background, the planning for this project began a month ago, when heavy rain and pea-sized hail (yes, it hailed in the desert!) produced a leak on the edge of our north-facing roof on New Years’ Day 2023.
At this moment, Tom and I are holed up in our cozy den with our fingers and toes crossed. Outside tarps surround us. All of our containers of cacti and succulents are scattered or safely tucked under the eaves.
Hopefully, none of the old shingles (currently flying off the roof like a scene from The Wizard of Oz and landing on the ground in a series of whooshes) will destroy them.
That scraping and pounding is super noisy. But, if all goes well, we will have a new roof by noon today.
And after tomorrow–no matter whether the Chiefs or Eagles win the Super Bowl–the throngs from the Midwest and East Coast (Kansas City and Philadelphia, I’m talking to you) will begin to return home with sunny (and unusually brisk) Arizona memories.
Perhaps they will also leave with a tumbler like the one this local bought at our Fry’s grocery store to commemorate the madness.
On March 25, 2023, I will participate in the Phoenix-area Heart Walk, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
If you follow my blog, you know I am a heart attack survivor. You may not know that both of my parents died of heart disease: Mom on January 26, 2013 (almost ten years ago); Dad on November 26, 1993 (nearly thirty years ago). Both Helen and Walter appear frequently in my published stories.
Obviously, heart disease is personal for me and millions of American families. I hope you will consider making a donation to support ground-breaking research that keeps hearts beating and enables other unsuspecting victims of heart disease and stroke (like me) live longer and write new chapters.
As an added incentive, if you click the link below and donate $30 to the American Heart Association, I will sign and send any two of my books (your choice) to you. I’ll pay the postage and include two of my personalized bookmarks.
‘Twas two weeks til our concert, we rehearsed all day long,
Me wedged in the back row, ‘tween Keaton and Imran.
With AIDS quilts surrounding on walls of despair,
Warm carols we sang with humor and flair.
Away from the rain in the Valley of the Sun,
Seven hours in one room, so much work to be done.
Then, out of our mouths, pure tones pranced and did gather,
They sprang into lush chords, Marc’s heart pitter-pattered.
Santa Baby, Underneath the Tree, Mistletoe and Holly,
Shaping these and a dozen more made all of us jolly.
These next frantic weeks will fly faster than reindeer,
Fine-tuning, tweaking, “More hot tea for my throat, dear.”
Then, the lights will come up.
The joy will appear in the faces out there.
And the smiles will bounce back.
They will double and bloom in this season we share.
On Saturday, December 3–two days after World AIDS Day–I gathered with about fifty of my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus for an all-day rehearsal at the Parson’s Center in Phoenix. Led by artistic director Marc Gaston, our chorus will perform its holiday show (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”) on December 17 and 18 at the Galvin Playhouse, 51 East 10th Street in Tempe, Arizona. For ticket information, go tohttp://www.phxgmc.org.
Sadly, today is another day that 2,396 Americans will lose their lives to heart disease — America’s #1 killer.
I know the personal pain of heart disease. If you follow my blog, you know I’m a heart attack survivor. (I wrote a book about that trauma, which happened on my sixtieth birthday).
Fortunately, by changing my diet, losing weight, exercising regularly, practicing yoga, sharing my story of survival, and following the recommendations of my cardiologist, I now lead a much healthier life.
I also remember our family’s difficult plight after my father suffered a heart attack sixty years ago at age forty-nine. Though he lived another thirty years, he was never quite able to regain the vigor and enthusiasm of his pre-coronary life.
This year and next I am focusing my fundraising and volunteering efforts to help the American Heart Association (AHA), culminating with the Phoenix-area Heart Walk on March 25, 2023.
Today–on this Giving Tuesday–I’ve already donated $250 to the AHA (which includes the 2022 royalties I have earned on all four of my books).
Join me in making a difference by clicking on the link below and contributing to the Phoenix Chapter of the American Heart Association. Until midnight tonight, every dollar you give will be matched to be worth twice as much.
The dollars you give will go to important scientific research that will help save the lives of babies born with heart defects and adults coping with life-threatening heart disease.
I really do believe that our hearts beat as one when we share our time, money, and talents. No matter which charities you chose to support, thank you for the difference you make in your community on this Giving Tuesday … and every day.
I lead a fortunate life. I don’t mean that in a material, financial or social sense; like many of you, I am concerned about inflation, the bear market, high gas prices, potential fall-out from the mid-term elections, and global and domestic horrors eroding personal freedoms, savings and investments, and a general sense of security for you and me.
Still, I acknowledge I have more to be thankful for than most people: a modest-but-comfortable home in a warm climate; a loving and supportive spouse; two adult sons who are gainfully employed and contributing members of society; a diverse community of friends; and the time to pursue and develop my literary and musical interests.
Plus, I’m a relatively healthy, sixty-five-year-old male. I make it a priority to exercise regularly, eat smart, and see my doctors as needed. Though it’s been more than five years since I suffered a mild heart attack, I haven’t forgotten the trauma of July 6, 2017, or dismissed the gratitude I feel for that team of doctors and nurses at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri–people I likely will never see again.
That painful experience no longer defines me. It has paled somewhat. Yet it informs my choices, perspective, and sense of gratitude. It has morphed into a badge of survivorship, which I feel an obligation to share with the universe through my writing and day-in-day-out personal encounters.
Occasionally, I receive a fund-raising or participation request from an Arizona contact with the American Heart Association (AHA). We met in 2018.
A few weeks ago, she asked me to share my story of survival–virtually–with employees of a large retail organization on October 17. To explain that donations to the AHA aid lifesaving research that allows heart and stroke survivors–like me–to enjoy longer and more complete lives.
So that’s what I’ll be doing on Monday. Twice … once in the morning; once in the afternoon. Telling my story of survival in three to five minutes to a large group of employees via video conference.
I figure it’s the least I can do to pay it forward and possibly ease the pain for some other unsuspecting man or woman, who with the help of the AHA might live longer, breathe more easily, and witness a few more breathtaking sunsets in the Valley of the Sun or elsewhere.
Of the primary team spectator sports in the United States–football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer–baseball’s generational roots and family rituals run the deepest.
Parents (and grandparents) bring their kids to Major League Baseball (MLB) games to pass along the shared experience of watching their favorite teams–and the stars of the moment–take the field.
I have no statistics to support my theory. Just sixty years of personal baseball anecdotes to draw from watching my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–perform against an array of opponents in stadiums and cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix) across the country.
My personal passion for baseball remains intact in 2022, despite escalating ticket and concession prices, MLB’s all-to-frequent owner/player labor strife, lingering steroid controversy and cheating scandals, frequent umpiring blunders, and often-long-and-laborious games that stretch well beyond three hours.
Yet the game endures. Fans keep coming back to relive their personal traditions and–if the stars align–perhaps catch lightning in a bottle and see something truly magical they didn’t anticipate.
On Saturday evening, August 20, that happened.
Tom and I drove west from our home in Scottsdale to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Tom is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was less interested in this particular game than his more-competitive, die-hard-fan husband.)
I should digress to tell you that the Diamondbacks are rebuilding in 2022, while the Cardinals have assembled an entertaining team of older stars, clutch hitters, crafty pitchers, fielding phenoms, and talented youngsters. They are now in first place in the Central Division of the National League and appear to have gelled at the right time.
The final score on Saturday night? Cardinals 16, Diamondbacks 7.
There was more action–on the field and in the stands–in this one game than you might find in 10 visits to the ballyard. Dazzling defensive plays. Five home runs. A triple that cleared the bases. A grand slam in the ninth inning. A large, raucous crowd (at least half were rooting for the visiting Redbirds) on Mexican Heritage Night in the Valley of the Sun.
One especially obnoxious and inappropriate Cardinal fan screamed non-stop for three hours several rows behind us. We were relieved when security finally arrived in the seventh or eighth inning to remove him.
But, for my money, the magic supplied by a future hall of famer superseded all of it.
Albert Pujols, the Cardinals designated hitter (DH) and long-time first baseman, crushed two long home runs–his 691st and 692nd–into the centerfield bleachers. The most prolific hitter of the twenty-first century, forty-two-year-old Pujols will retire at the end of this season.
Albert, who wears number 5 on the back of uniform, currently ranks number five on the list of the greatest home run hitters of all time.
Behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696), Pujols hopes to pass Rodriguez and reach 700 homers before his last game in October.
As background, in 2022, Pujols returned to the Cardinals, the team he first starred with from 2001 through 2011, to tie a large red bow on his twenty-two-year career. He contributed repeatedly to two Cardinals World Series Championships in 2006 and 2011.
Many of us fans, who watched the game in the desert Saturday night, were in the stands to cheer for Albert in his final year.
When he approached home plate each time, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. A buzz filled the air; the atmosphere was electric.
I don’t think any of us dreamed he’d hit two home runs and two singles in this one game, becoming the oldest player since 1901 to go 4-4 in a major league game.
Tom and I absorbed it all from our seats in foul territory in the lower level of the right-field-corner (Section 109, Row 12, Seats 3 and 4) grandstand.
Albert Pujols had already hit his 691st home run in the second inning. Then, he came to the plate for the second time on Saturday night.
From the row in front of us, a boy no more than ten years old (wearing the jersey of another Cardinal great, shortstop Ozzie Smith, from the 1980s) stood beside his mom and dad.
From behind, it felt as if I could have been watching myself standing as the Cardinals played in the 1960s, or one of my sons rooting for the Redbirds at a game in the 1990s.
At any rate, I imagine the child hoped to capture a picture of Pujols, as the perennial all-star approached home plate to take his next at bat.
He snapped his photo. I snapped mine.
Seconds later, Pujols swung his bat. The baseball soared over the outfield wall.
We cheered, hollered, and high fived.
In that moment, I thought of the generations of baseball fans who’ve come and gone. They’ve attended games with their dads and moms, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins and neighbors, and husbands and wives.
To root for their favorite players. To cheer for their teams. To spend their money in the bleachers and grandstands on steamy Midwestern days and hot desert nights.
Remarkably, win or lose, we fans keep coming back to remember the past and celebrate the present.
And, on the best of those days, we’re lucky when we catch lightning in a bottle, see a little history in the making, and get a glimpse of greatness.
Nothing is certain, but it appears my debut as a lyricist will actually happen.
In January, I oozed with excitement when I told you about my new creative wrinkle. As background, in the fall of 2021 I teamed with David (another member of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) to create several original tunes for a Mosaic of Voices concert, scheduled for March 2022.
I wrote the lyrics. David composed the music. I was psyched for the debut of these pieces. Then, the concert was postponed. It was another Covid-related casualty.
Thankfully, the chorus has resurrected the program. On October 8 at the Kroc Center in Phoenix, we will perform the suite of pieces David and I created to capture the essence of original-and-triumphant stories submitted by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community.
On Tuesday evening, as our chorus of seventy or so rehearsed two of the Mosaic of Voices pieces (Hope’s Trail and Our Second Act), I saw a few tears. As I sang in the back row of second tenors, I felt the gravity of emotion rise in the room with our voices.
I was reminded of the healing power of music and the important role that choral communities–first the Windy City Gay Chorus and now the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–have played in my renaissance and in the lives of so many gay men.
Especially now in our chaotic country–divided, threatened, and deconstructed–we need this joyful music, this personal support, this hopeful oasis in the desert.
Without it, many of us would feel trapped and lost.
Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.
Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.
In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.
It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.
I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.
I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.
More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.
It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.
In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.
Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.
I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.
Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.
I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had…
It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.
In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.