Tag: Truth

Salutations from the Slow Lane

I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m more of a late bloomer (better than never blooming at all). A more apt description might be slow mover. If I were a dog, I’d be categorized as a Great Pyrenees (affectionate, gentle, sensitive, occasionally strong willed).

Each morning, I emerge slowly from my side of the bed. Usually around 6:30. Compare that with Tom’s Jack Russell Terrier “I’m-ready-to-go” demeanor (intelligent, energetic, social, occasionally strong willed), and you won’t be surprised to learn he’s usually up and around for at least thirty minutes before I begin to stir.

Moving more slowly doesn’t meant I don’t go places … today I walked 13,959 steps … it just means it takes me longer to get where I’m going than my husband. The inner workings of his clock wind tighter. My circuitry sweeps wider. I find it interesting that Tom is three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, yet his strides are substantially longer. How can that be?

These are the sorts of inane observations two sixty-two-year-old men can have as they lumber/saunter down sun-bleached Arizona paths (a slower pace all its own as compared with most of the world).

But these trivialities only spring into our conversation after we’ve dispensed with the more typical aggravating current event topics: the lack of COVID-19 testing in Arizona; the lack of positive stories in the media about people who’ve survived the virus; the lack of leadership in the White House.

If you’re over fifty (sixty, for sure), I imagine you’ll nod knowingly when I tell you a secret: my slowness is only getting slower with age. The blood pressure medication I take doesn’t help my lack of alacrity. Although two tiny pills–one with breakfast and a second with dinner–certainly protect my heart and keep my cardiologist happy.

Still, life in the slow lane isn’t that bad. It’s better than no lane at all (which might have happened if I hadn’t had the wherewithal to tell Tom to pull into the ER entrance at Barnes-Jewish Hospital nearly three years ago in St. Louis as doom and breathlessness washed over me).

I suppose moving more slowly is the right speed, too … the right sensibility … for this COVID-19 world, this alternative Alice-in-Wonderland universe we all seem to have fallen into. It’s better to deliberate about our next steps in society than to run back out of the rabbit hole carelessly and into the streets impulsively.

I’m not slow in every way. I’m actually itching wildly to get back to the gym sometime this summer. Starved for more socializing with my Phoenix-area friends again. Ready to reestablish those connections and circles in whatever ways I can. (Sorry, Zoom doesn’t do that for me.)

I’m also resigned to the fact that my love for choral singing … someday again standing side-by-side on stage with my mates in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus rather than having makeshift rehearsals online … will require a much slower reentry process.

It will be a longer wait–something sad this slow poke will have to endure as I stare wistfully back through the looking glass–until this blissful escape in my artistic life resurfaces and I can once again raise my voice without a care in this unforeseen world.

 

What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

WalterJohnson_Czechoslovakia_May_16_1945 (2)

WalterJohnsonHandwriting_Czechoslovakia_May_16_1945 (3)

Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.

Splash

Splash_050320 (2)

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.

 

 

Chaparral High

Chaparral Park_April2020 (2)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enchanted by the seductive sound of certain nouns and adjectives:  amethyst, magenta, grandiose, vivacious, lavender, conundrum, veranda, gardenia, daffodil, chaparral.

I can’t explain it, but feeling the rhythm of these three-syllable descriptors and seeding them in a story lightens my spirit. It must be the same high–a chaparral high (not High Chaparral, the exotic, dusty and remote TV western of my youth)–that a  mathematician realizes the moment he or she solves an equation.

Imagine my glee, having the word chaparral appear as the name for a road, pool and nearby park. Home of tanned and true Arizonans. Firm and flabby. Shirtless and sumptuous. Lithe and leathery.  Geese and goslings.

During this prolonged pandemic pandemonium, Tom and I have ventured to Chaparral Park to get our steps in on numerous occasions. We like the warm neighborhood atmosphere–singles and couples working out at safe distances framed by both palatial palms and small-leaved evergreen shrubs you might actually see if we lived on a chaparral.

Psychologically, strolling there also reminds us of our diligent days working out just down the street. Mounting the treadmill and elliptical at the local gym, Club SAR, which we typically would frequent if we and it weren’t shuttered by COVID-19.

Based on visible signs, adorable ducks and geese also feel fortunate to live in the warmth and kindness of our community. It’s written on cardboard for the world to see that someone certainly cares about our critters.

“For the baby geese … Please do not remove.”

Yes, the young ones that began to appear recently, just east of Hayden Road and the shadows of Camelback Mountain, need a ramp to get there steps in. To achieve their chaparral high.

 

The Incredible Shrinking Man

In the middle of April … at what may be the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States … I feel the psychological toll. Though I am fine physically—and so is Tom—there are only so many reports of confirmed Coronavirus cases, death projections, presidential posturing, curve flattening, and social distancing I can tolerate. Oh, by the way, I turned off the news long ago.

As it has for millions of Americans, the anxiety of buying groceries … surrounding oneself with a slow stream of catatonic shoppers in surgical masks … has infected something I once enjoyed. More than that, it’s sucked the joy from it.

For nearly a month, “going to market”—as my grandfather the North Carolina farmer would have described it—has become a dystopian quest for toilet paper, eggs and hand sanitizer … followed by a postmortem play-by-play with neighbors, walking by at safe distances, assessing the relative viability of nearby stores.

“The shelves at Fry’s are virtually empty … but we bought frozen vegetables.”

“We had luck at Target on Tuesday … found paper products and disinfectant.”

“Sprouts has a good selection of meat and chicken … eggs, too, if you shop early.”

“Albertson’s has plenty of produce … and they installed protective dividers at each register.”

Worse are the missed human connections—casualties of social distancing, such as a month of in-person choral rehearsals, gym workouts, impromptu dinners out, films at our favorite cinemas, and—most important—informal gatherings with friends. When I last checked, weren’t these the types of things that made life rich and rewarding?

One by one, we’ve replaced these face-to-face interactions with poor substitutes, slapped together with Zoom technology. (I’m sorry, though I value the online connections I’ve made with friends and bloggers around the world, nothing online comes close to true human contact for this sixty-two-year-old. Yes, I know, it’s all we have.)

It feels as if a mysterious mist has washed over me, as it did for Scott Carey (played by Grant Williams) in the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Each day, his size diminished. Thanks to the effects of social distancing, I’m watching my personal dimensions and influence—and that of every other desperate person around me—shrink.

I understand and accept the medical rationale … to flatten the curve and keep the heads of our medical community above water … but social distancing is pulling us away from the lives we’ve carefully constructed or, at the very least, become familiar with or fallen into.

No matter the number of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths on a chart, it may be years before we learn what the psychological price is for the loss of human contact we’re currently experiencing.

Like many of you, I’m angry. With the virus. With the media. Mostly, with the president. Now, left with the harsh realities of social distancing, I’m asking myself “What can I do to keep myself from becoming Scott Carey and shrinking away from the person I am?”

I don’t have revolutionary answers. Unless it’s to keep doing what I’m already doing. Writing, loving my husband and sons, praying for friends and neighbors, tending to my garden, solving puzzles, baking delectable cookies, taking long walks in a warm climate far enough away from those who stroll by, and enduring every Zoom encounter.

In the meantime, like Scott Carey, the best I can do is to rummage through my metaphorical over-sized basement. To search for tools to give me strength. To outrun the spiders that chase me in the night: a global plague; a bombastic, heartless president; an uncertain future.

What we need is a little reassurance that one day, when it no longer threatens our existence, we’ll be able to manage our way through an ordinary household situation … like inviting a friend over for a drink or a cup of coffee.

Ah, if only we could have our loved ones socially near, and our current president long gone and far away where he could no longer hurt anyone.

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.

Early April in Arizona

I took a walk this afternoon. I brought my digital camera and telephoto lens. We didn’t venture far. We simply observed nature in our immediate neighborhood for thirty minutes. This is what we brought home.