“Dogs have no idea how wonderful they are.They walk all around us and make the world a better place.”
On a chilly, but sunny, Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona, this was Yumi’s thought of the day.
How serendipitous that our instructor should choose these two sentences as inspiration for Tom, me and six others on February 2, 2023, as we stood on our mats and began our weekly seventy-five-minute journey into yoga.
On Ground Hog Day fifteen years ago our basset hound Maggie crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.
When it’s your pet, you never forget the highs and lows long after the calendar pages have come and gone.
The frolics with Kirk, Nick, Tom, and me in the lush green of our backyard … the comfort of her velveteen elongated ears as I stroked her coat … the gnaws and crunches of rawhide bones and petite carrots as she gobbled up another evening snack, after racing to welcome us home at the kitchen door.
Then along came that sad-and-snowy suburban Chicago morning in 2008 when our dog endured another–particularly horrible– seizure.
After the shaking had stopped, she looked up at me with resignation from the tile of our kitchen floor without the energy or inclination to lick the maple syrup off a breakfast plate.
Soon after, Tom and I scooped her into our sedan, arrived at our vet’s office, and whispered goodbye to her as she sprawled on a blanket on the floor.
Today, seventeen hundred miles and a lifetime away from the northern Illinois home she patrolled and dominated, I recall the “glue” and comic relief our dog provided (through her warm fur, misshapen front legs, and bellowing howl).
She was the antidote for our non-traditional family: two men (in a loving relationship just doing our best to coexist in a less enlightened world) with my two sons zooming in and out of our life as they grew.
Our dog simply demanded our constant attention and stood by our sides witnessing it all.
It was the love and companionship of Maggie and the litany of her daily adventures–walks, feedings, treats, medicines, rabbits, squirrels, accidents in the hall, and countless cuddles–that magically connected us all.
Certainly, from 1998 to 2008, our dog made our world a better place.
When Tom and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we were immediately impressed with the library system here in Scottsdale.
It consists of four library locations spread south to north through our community to cover the ever-expanding patronage of transplants from other places. Each is a book lover’s haven with artistic touches built into the architecture to reflect the landscape of the desert southwest.
Closest to us–the main facility–is Civic Center Library in Old Town Scottsdale. It’s a place my husband and I frequent to browse the stacks for something new or familiar to read. In the past, before Covid, it’s also where I participated in the Local Author Book Fairs.
What neither of us anticipated (until last fall) is that on a chilly-for-the-valley Monday–the twenty-third day in the twenty-third year of this millennium and five-and-a-half years since we called Arizona our permanent home–Tom would realize a lifelong dream there.
He would begin to lead a free, eight-week film series and discussion, stand in the Civic Center auditorium in front of sixty attendees (friends, acquaintances, neighbors, relative strangers, and film lovers) and share his deep knowledge and passion for iconic films from 1967-1977.
It’s an era characterized in the American film industry as the New Hollywood. A period of controversial, counterculture attitudes that would personally define and shape his love of film and its ability to combine art form with social statement.
But as I sat in the front row to watch Tom welcome library patrons and see the first installment of the series (A Decade Under the Influence, a provocative documentary chockful of film clips and interviews with directors, writers and actors from that era) it was Tom’s moment that mattered most.
He has always imagined the thrill of owning a small theatre. Of showing films from that era–and classics like the Best Years of Our Lives from our parents’ generation–to inform and entertain those who may or may not be familiar with them.
We don’t have the financial ability to do that. But we do have friends and connections in our community (thank you, Glenn). In this case, they aligned magically to put Tom in touch with library management and help make his dream bloom and grow in the desert.
During and after the program Monday evening, I could feel the buzz in the auditorium. Many came up to thank Tom for sharing his film expertise and personal anecdotes. Not to mention a handy dandy packet of fun facts and background information about the films, which Tom happily prepared and the library staff copied and distributed.
I expect that many of the sixty who attended will be back for the second film on January 30. They’ll certainly be there to see Bonnie and Clyde, the jarring, graphic, and spectacular film about the Barrow gang and Depression-era Texas.
I imagine they will also return to hear Tom’s film insights.
Note: If you live in the area and would like to attend, the film series runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday nights until March 20, 2023, at the Civic Center Library, 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd. Registration not required. Space is limited.
The program is a free eight-week class about original, creative films from the Hollywood renaissance. A look at how filmmaking evolved after relaxed censorship and rating systems gave filmmakers freedom to explore new subject matter and styles of cinematic expression. Discussions and screenings each week are led by Tom Samp. All films are recommended for mature audiences.
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.
Nearly ten years have passed since she passed January 26, 2013.
As this seismic anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I feel a degree of grief’s numbness reappearing.
The time is right for me to sprinkle this space with reflections on Helen F. Johnson’s life: how much I loved her; what I learned from her; and why I still miss her.
I watched my mother grow in wisdom and shrink in physical presence–simultaneously–in her final ten years.
In those poetic moments–especially 2004 to 2009 when we visited at her condo in Winfield, Illinois–the two observations felt incongruent as we sat side by side on a park bench reflecting on her love of family, nature, photography, and letter writing.
But they don’t anymore.
Now that I’ve surpassed the midpoint of my sixties–favoring the quietest moments of life over all the rest–I see and feel the same transformation happening within me.
I’m far more inclined to record the moments that happen around me, because–like her–I have the time and the interest. She has left me an invaluable gift: a recognizable path and impulse to emulate.
My life has changed immensely since she died. I’ve retired from corporate life, married Tom, moved across the country, survived a heart attack, lost forty pounds, written four books, endured Covid, and built a new life in the desert.
Yet, it is when Tom and I spend time with my sons Nick and Kirk–her only grandchildren–that I am most aware of how long she has been gone and how much she loved us all.
They were both in their twenties in 2013. Searching. Unsettled. Preparing to launch. On the cusp of new personal discoveries and adventures. Since that time, they’ve traveled, found new loves, new jobs, new homes.
Kirk is now nearly 34; Nick almost 39. How she–a lover of plants and trees–would have loved learning that her oldest grandson stopped by our condo last Friday to pluck grapefruits, oranges, lemons, and tangelos from our citrus trees.
Or that Nick coached a Boys and Girls Club basketball team last year.
Or that Kirk traveled to Vanuatu with the Peace Corps in 2014 and more recently has found his counseling stride in a small practice in Chicago … helping patients who’ve experienced some sort of trauma.
Over this past weekend, Tom and I watched Milo and Miley (a friend’s two Shih Tzus) again.
The dogs are sweet, lovable characters. But I needed a little time to escape on Sunday to my thoughts and devices. So, I drove to Chaparral Park and walked around the lake for about an hour.
As I rounded a bend of pine trees which Tom and I love, I spotted an older man. He sat quiet, content, and alone on a park bench.
Seeing him reminded me of the moments my mother cherished in her eighties, pondering the world from a park bench. She could simply sit, enjoy the shade of the trees, read the newspaper or gaze at passersby.
Or she could wonder about the lives of her children and grandchildren … long after she was gone.
On Saturday and Sunday, I stood on stage at the Galvin Playhouse in Tempe, Arizona, with about forty fellow members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.
From the tenor two section of the top riser, I was dressed in black pants and my snazzy, solid-red holiday sweater. I was ready to raise my voice, have fun, open my heart, and bear my soul for two large, enthusiastic audiences there to see and hear us perform our ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas show.
As you might expect, I was amped up. My energy and emotions were running high. On stage or not, the holiday season can spur a range of feelings–from joy, hope, and peace to sorrow–for each of us.
Often, the music we hear or create is the catalyst for our state of being. It reminds us of who we are, who we love, who we’ve lost, where we’ve been, where we are, and maybe even foretells where we’re going.
Like life, this was a holiday concert that included a little of everything: luscious chords, soaring solos, a tribute to Hannukah, hot men wearing sparkly vests, a surprise tap dance underneath the tree (in the ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas parody I wrote for the show), a caped gay superhero, a Christmas Can-Can not to be believed, sexy Santa Baby, assorted musical mash ups, and inspirational tunes.
The program was a delight to perform, and the crowds loved it. I felt thrilled and honored that about thirty family members and friends attended. One of them was Jeff.
Over the past three years, he and his husband Dave have become close friends for Tom and me. We’ve met for dinner frequently. Watched movies and played games together. Laughed and swam in their backyard pool. Shared funny stories from our past lives.
In March, Tom and I were honored to join Jeff and Dave and about thirty other friends to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. In October, they drove to Barnes & Noble in Mesa to be there for my book signing. Dave was a regular reader of my blog. He brought up my writing frequently. Each time, I was touched.
On Sunday morning, between the two holiday concerts, Jeff texted to tell Tom and me that Dave passed away Saturday night. He succumbed to complications of muscular dystrophy–a disease he lived with for many years. It confined him to a wheelchair, but–in the time I knew Dave–his disability never dampened his kind spirit, playful energy or warm smile.
I’m sad and stunned. I will miss my friend. On Sunday, as I sang Grown Up Christmas List on stage, I thought of Dave and all he must have endured. That song usually makes me cry anyway, but when I saw others in the audience tearing up, I fought hard to hold it together.
Of course, Jeff knows Tom and I are there for him as he grieves the loss of his long-time husband and loving companion. We will check in on him frequently.
This is just the latest personal reminder to sing and dance. Hug and kiss the ones you love. Fight hard for your convictions. Stand tall in the face of adversity. Raise your voice. And, if you are dealt a difficult hand, find a way to accept the unacceptable.
As a tribute to Dave, what follows is the full text of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story), which I wrote for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus in July 2022.
It’s a parody, which Tony Crane and Tim Gorka (who played Uncle Gabe and Nephew Jay respectively) performed masterfully during our show in Tempe over the weekend.
Had he seen it, Dave would have laughed out loud and loved it.
Rest in peace, my friend.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (A Gay Love Story)
For the past two mornings, a chirpy flock of rosy-faced (also called peach-faced) lovebirds has descended upon our feeder. They sway and frolic under the eaves, near our gnarly fig. It’s lost it leaves.
Like last-minute holiday shoppers, the lovebirds push and shove. Jockeying for position–with thrashers, finches, and woodpeckers–to pluck precious seeds on a forty-two-degree morning outside our north-facing window.
These vivid, high-pitched creatures aren’t native to Arizona. Some are daring escapees from past caged lives; others released into the wild by careless owners. Who knows why.
Either way, the carefree lovebirds have assimilated. They flourish in the Phoenix area, and on December 11, 2022, they brighten our view as Tom and I sip coffee and split a delectable, just-ripened tangelo, snatched from the trusty tree near our community pool.
‘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.