It’s rare for me to rise to witness morning’s first light. But, at 4:45 a.m., I was thirsty and warm.
I peeked from our den window through the Sunday slats of our vertical blinds to see a line of doves welcome the day.
I heard the clock ticking in the hall, then reclined on the couch to check the news feed on my phone.
Soon after, I heard Tom stir. Bleary eyed, he staggered into the living room to check on me.
We resolved to soothe our parched throats with cold water from the fridge. That’s what you do in June in Arizona. You hydrate over and over again to endure the heat of the desert.
By 5:30ish, we had summoned enough energy to pull on our shorts and socks, tie our shoes, grab our floppy hats and sunglasses, and step toward the alley that would lead us to the Crosscut Canal and Papago Park.
Just outside our door, our neighbor Glenn happened by with Mason and Katie, his two gentle-giant Newfoundlands, tugging him along.
We exchanged good mornings. Tom patted and stroked Mason’s long back. Katie and I locked eyes. Most of the puppy’s brown fur has turned black. Soon she we will be full grown.
We said our goodbyes. Tom and I continued walking west. When we reached the canal at 5:45, my phone told me it was 84 degrees–on the way to 113 by late afternoon.
Scorching, yes, but any person in their right mind knows to stay inside (or at least cover up) when the heat spikes. June isn’t a month to be savored in the Sonoran Desert. It’s simply one to survive.
By 6:00, we had walked past a few joggers and the full length of the fence that separates the canal path with the Desert Botanical Garden. We decided to stop and turn around.
The sun was beginning to bear down. I paused, peered west, pulled my phone from my pocket, and captured the saguaros waking in the morning light.
On our return trip, a few monarchs danced and perched on the milkwood near the fence line. Tiny lizards skittered by as we chugged water from our bottles.
We retraced our steps, crossed the pedestrian bridge, welcomed shade from the Roadrunner apartment complex, turned the corner down the alley, and headed east to our cozy two-bedroom condo.
Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.
If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.
Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.
It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)
I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.
Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.
Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”
I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.
Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.
Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.
It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!
It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.
This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.
On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.
I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.
Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.
I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.
In this season of rebirth, I am reminded of my transformative journey that began five Aprils ago.
I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey.
I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground.
Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.
By the fourth month of 2017, Tom and I had drawn up the details of our dream. We would sell our home in northern Illinois; escape the cold; move to Scottsdale, Arizona; and live in the desert permanently. We wouldn’t be denied.
It all began in April with the physical trappings of certainty. We were locked into a familiar pattern of cool and damp Lake Michigan air with only a ray or two of sun filtering through the clouds. But as we prepared to leave behind the permutations of our past, we also knew there was heavy lifting to be done.
Before we could leave the Midwest and say goodbye to our Illinois family and friends, we needed to sell our home in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.
What you just read is a portion of the prologue from An Unobstructed View. If you find yourself intrigued and pondering your own personal transformation, my third book will have special meaning for you. Download a free copy on Amazon through Monday, April 18.
One simple request: once you are through, please take a few moments to post your review.
Warmer, brighter, and dryer than my midwestern memories, the arrival of April in the Sonoran Desert means we are a step closer to the oven.
I’ve come to welcome the regularity of the sun and heat. They define who we are: slimmer survivors, comfortable in shorts and sandals minus the cloud cover and weighty coats of our past lives.
No matter the month, if you’re willing to dig beneath the palms that frame the burgeoning Phoenix skyline, you’ll find the Japanese Friendship Garden (named RoHoEn) coexisting with concrete in an urban setting.
Planted at 1125 N. 3rd Avenue (just west of Central Avenue and south of I-10 on the way to L.A.), this hidden Phoenix gem is an unexpected eastern oasis deposited amidst the flurry of western civilization.
Protected by the shade of a high-rise apartment building, colorful koi dance beneath the surface of a shallow lake, a canopy of pines, sculpted shrubs, gentle waterfalls, and peaceful pagodas.
Of course, many come to the Valley of the Sun to relax by the pool. But if you prefer a different kind of escape, the garden is an ideal place to stroll in the shade, pause on a weekday, feed the fish, and nourish your soul.
Like the shape of the last two digits in the number of this post–300 since I began blogging in May 2018–life has a way of bringing me full circle.
No matter how much I’ve changed, it’s uncanny how frequently I find myself redeposited into situations that remind me where I’ve been. I’ve learned the secret is recognizing and marveling at the serendipity.
Case in point: throughout the 1990s, I spent most winter Saturday mornings watching my two boys–Nick and Kirk–play basketball in northwest suburban Chicago at the RecPlex. It’s a community recreational facility in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Back in those Michael Jordan years–when number 23 led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships–my older son Nick found his stride on the basketball court.
Typically, Nick played point guard in his grade school years. He was adept at handling the ball, shooting three-pointers, and making clutch decisions on the court. When the game was on the line, his coach wanted Nick to have the ball. I was his proud dad cheering from the stands.
Nick went on to play basketball for two years in high school. After he graduated in 2002, it became more of a hobby. Through his twenties and early thirties, he enjoyed the spontaneity of pick-up games whenever he could find the time. It was his escape from the grind of the world.
In January 2015, Nick moved to the Valley of the Sun for a fresh and warm start away from cold winters. He loves it here, but in September 2017 (just two months after my mild heart attack), my son suffered a severe knee injury on a Saturday while playing basketball.
Nick was out of commission for an extended period. I remember Tom and I escorted him to buy crutches, so he could navigate the stairs of his second-floor apartment. After surgery and months of therapy, he regained his mobility. He no longer presses his luck on the court, but Nick’s love for the game continues.
Two years ago, in the earliest days of Covid, Nick met Tom and me to shoot baskets and play H-O-R-S-E on an outdoor court in Tempe. It was one of the things the three of us did to stay sane. Soon that went away. All of the courts were roped off for most of 2020. It was one of many losses. You’re a citizen in this Covid world. You know the drill.
I’ve always imagined my son would end up coaching at some point. In fact, I’ve encouraged him to do so. About a month ago, he told me he had contacted the Boys and Girls Club in Scottsdale. They were looking for a coach for fifth and sixth graders. So, Nick has found a new route back to the court.
In early January, it all came full circle for Nick. The player became the coach and began to lead practices with the kids after school on Tuesdays. They lost their first game on January 15, but he and the kids had fun anyway.
Though I’m now in my sixties, I will always be a dad. In fact, I find the role richer now. When Nick’s younger brother Kirk called from Chicago in December to tell me he would start a new full-time role as a counselor in January, I cheered from afar.
I’ve watched Kirk grow, stood by him, encouraged him when he joined the Peace Corps, applauded when he flew to the other side of the world in 2014, and worried when he endured a cyclone that ravaged his island in Vanuatu in 2015. Fortunately, he made it through safely.
I know my endorsement of Nick’s new venture is just as important. It doesn’t have to be a trip to a remote island. I’m thrilled for him and intrigued where this latest gig might lead.
Last Saturday–nearly thirty years since I watched Nick swish baskets on the courts in Illinois–Tom joined me in the bleachers of a Scottsdale community center to root quietly for Coach Nick.
We got to see Nick walk through a new door and find new light (like what you see in this photo I captured on Saturday), at a time when all of us are searching for something that relights our hope and passion.
Tom and I were there for Nick’s first win. The final score was 35-10. His squad of ten- and eleven-year-old boys got trounced in the second game on Saturday, but Nick was still happy with his team’s progress.
Tonight, Tom and I are taking Coach Nick out for dinner to celebrate. It’s his thirty-eighth birthday. I’m not sure where all the years went, but I know fatherhood is sweeter in these twilight years.
It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).
I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.
Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.
The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.
Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.
I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.
I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.
Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.
Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.
The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.
The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.
It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.
At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.
After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.
For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.
The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.
It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.
When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.
Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.
I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.
About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.
Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.
I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.
The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.
By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.
Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.
Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.
Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.
Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.
Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.
Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.
Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:
“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.
Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”
After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.