Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Day Two Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty Five . . . Decade-nce

Ten years ago—though all seemed in check—my world was about to implode.

I had been enjoying an unprecedented year of international travel as the guitarist for the Young at Heart Chorus, having joined in December of 2004 and beginning our ritual of touring twice a year overseas. That year we had gone to Belgium and Holland for two weeks. Those two weeks turned into a month as the rest of my main band at the time, Drunk Stuntmen, found themselves included in the tour, finagling plane tickets and lodging, and piggybacking it all into an actual international tour of The Netherlands.  

Though I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, when I think of those days I can actually feel myself as being lighter and more alive—each day floating down like a feather from an exploded pillow. The memories come to me like a dream because that’s how it all seemed, as if every day was a windy scene in a movie. Each new act circling like leaves and newspapers around and around, the frame spinning itself out of focus and the present day taking control again. And then I’m just here on my couch, 45 years old and very much sober and aware how much it all is interconnected.

I think about that time period and remember how much of a mess things were with my health and my addiction to alcohol. And while I was certainly a walking (or stumbling) disaster by all accounts, I find it amazing that I did have my life together enough to make sure that I had just enough money to get my pint of Smirnoff and six pack at the end of the day, as well as taking care of my bills, connecting with my family every few days, and playing in two successful bands. 

When you first start to go to meetings, as I did for a few months, you learn some key ideas. They are laid out in clear and simple terms in order to be utilized by anybody who wants to clean up their life. But one of the big ones I’ll never forget is that staying sober seems like the hardest task in the world at first. And it’s not an easy thing to do by any means. But staying fucked up is a hell of a lot harder. You just don’t think about it like that when it’s happening because the end result is disconnecting and checking out. But when you’re trying to just stay on one level and take life as it comes, everyday can seem like a prison. 

I made it through the first year of international debauchery and came back with some great stories and a few stamps on my fresh passport.

I’ll never forget telling my mom and aunt, on one of their many trips to visit me here in Western Mass, how I needed to go get my picture taken at AAA. They asked why and I told them, with great enthusiasm, that I needed a passport to go to Europe! For me this was a huge deal. And they were so happy for me, as they were both very experienced international travelers and knew how amazing it is to see a world outside of the one most Americans know. But they were also worried for me because of the same reasons they were always worried.

But I made it through 2004 and my tour of Belgium and Holland and continued to play in both bands. In the summer of 2005 my orders came in that we would be traveling to London for the last two weeks of October (a “fortnight” I was fond of joking).

I was over the moon. London. Pubs. Nightclubs. Fish and Chips. Everything comped and a nice paycheck at the end of it all.

But my return from that trip would be forever seared in my memory as the end of the first 35 years of my life.

My mother, Judy, had suffered her share of scares with her health. 

Melanoma was a constant worry. It stemmed from endless instances of severe sunburns she suffered battling her lily white skin. She told me that when she was a young girl she wanted to blend in with all of the darker-skinned Portuguese and Italian girls in her hometown of Fall River, MA. But being of Polish, Irish and English heritage this was a longing that would prove to be a formidable challenge. And her many attempts of tanning would end up with disastrous results. Had we known as much about skin cancer then as we do now who knows what might have been. In the throes of youth not standing out can feel more honorable and important than any threat of illness later in life. This, I know all too well. 

Judy battled numerous instances of skin cancer on her face as well as in her breasts, to the point of requiring a double-mastectomy in her early 60s. Her doctors gave her several clean bills of health and she would excitedly shared these with me as soon as she could. My mom always wanted to make sure her boy knew she was going to be okay. But I know without a shred of doubt that through it all she was more worried about me than she was for herself. She could survive without her breasts. She could recover from multiple skin surgeries. But she felt she could not recover if anything happened to me. And for all the times I seemingly attempted to check out for good I always did wake up and I always did make sure she knew I was still here. Even if "here" was used in its loosest translation.

I feel so hardened to pain and suffering now due to the events that followed. But one of my deepest regrets is not having been more aware of her struggles and the seriousness of it all when this was happening. I’m sure part of the reason I numbed myself each and every night came from my fear of losing her. But my own selfishness I will never fully forgive myself for. It’s okay, I’m not a sad person and I don’t hold a grudge against myself. But when one makes up a list of things they wish they could have done differently, me not being present for the truly life-changing twists and turns in my mother’s health would be right there at the top.

Ten years ago in September my mom was in a car accident—a fender bender. Somebody rear-ended her while driving her beloved Nissan Maxima. When I close my eyes I can remember exactly the way that car always smelled—deep and bright lavender, a result of the scented fabric softener she used. When she would pick me up at the bus stop in New Bedford on any of my many trips back home that familiar scent always made me smile as I threw my belongings in the backseat and then settled myself in with a kiss on her cheek and a hug around her big belly. I remember the way the seat belt felt across my chest in that passenger seat. She loved her little comfort-accents. One of those was the rainbow-colored fake fur wrap on the chest strap of her seat belts. It was a simple touch and I’m sure helped her find her car in a crowded lot. 

But it was this same seat belt (on her side) that prolonged her life in two ways. First it, of course, protected her when she got rear ended. But in that same accident in September of 2005 she suffered a small injury to her abdomen. It wasn’t that big of a deal but, apparently, it was enough for the doctor to order some tests, X-rays or something. 

And it was the result of those tests that alerted the doctor that there may be something much more serious going on than a bruised rib.

After the tests came back she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But the doctors said that thanks to the accident they had found it early enough to potentially remove it. They called it “treatable and curable.” I’ll never forget those words. Had I been of the right mind to do a quick online search I would have found out in three tenths of a second or less that pancreatic cancer was one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of the disease. It took my grandmother at age 68. In most cases the symptoms show up so late in the development that treatment often proves futile and the patient rarely has more than a few months left. But my mom had been through so many bouts of cancer that I took it in stride. The two of them—my mom and aunt—played it off too. I will never know if they did it that way so as to not worry me into drinking myself into a coma. If they only knew how bad it was with me maybe things would have been different. But the doctors gave them hope.

They told Judy Johnson that her beloved seat belt gave her more than a fighting chance. 

And so, in October of 2005—right before I went away to London for those two weeks—my mom and aunt would visit me for the last time as characters in that first 35-year chapter of my life. 

We went to a local family restaurant here in Northampton and got gigantic cheeseburgers with fries. 

We talked about how exciting it was that I was getting to go back to Europe after just being there in the summer. 

We held hands at the table and, with trembling voices, made a toast to the next time they would come to visit me—when my mom’s cancer was gone and things were back to normal.

They left the driveway of my apartment after an extremely teary goodbye. I lit up a cigarette, poured a very tall glass of vodka over ice, turned on the TV and just let time slip away.

The trip to London was a great success. It was on that run of shows that a filmmaking duo saw the group perform and approached the directors with the idea of making a movie about us—here at home in Northampton. And it was because of that movie’s international success that we traveled to Japan (twice), New Zealand, and all over the US. 

We returned from the trip on the evening of October 30th, 2005. I had originally planned to take the early morning bus to New Bedford so we could all go out to lunch and have as much time as possible together before my mom had her surgery on November 1.

On the bus ride back home from the airport I borrowed a cell phone from one of the chorus members and called my mom like I always did—just to let her know we made it back to the U.S. safe. She was so happy to hear my voice she began crying. She said, “I can’t wait for this to be over. I just want this thing out of me! I just want to be able to live my life again. I can't wait to dance with you again!”

But—and this pains me to no end to say—my addiction had other plans for me. I decided it was more important to me to be able to stay up all night drinking vodka at home and sleeping late and then taking the afternoon bus back home. This meant that we would barely have any time at all to spend together as bedtime would be extremely early in order to leave for the hospital at 4am. We needed to do this to get my mother prepared to go in for a potentially 12 hour procedure. 

The nerve. The fucking nerve!

I need to jump in here and say that I am writing this story not only because it marks a decade since its occurrence. But I need to remind myself that my reliance on alcohol at this time in my life clouded my judgement to the point where I made decisions for which I will always regret. And that it can and does happen to anyone who lets it. I’m not one to allow the idea that the addiction is more at fault than the person—we are proud to make our decisions freely in this country. But I will always be amazed at how deeply my compassion and ability to reason had been held hostage. 

The events that followed are somewhat cloudy but I still remember pretty well. 

I came in on the evening bus on Halloween—hungover, of course—and I think we had some sort of dinner. Because it was so late we ordered take out and at at the house. We all went to bed around 9pm or so and I woke up at 3am to get ready to leave the house at 4.

I was sort of mad about the whole scenario. I was also quite jet lagged and that made things all the worse. 

But in the early morning hours of November 1 we got my mom in the passenger seat of my aunt’s Toyota Highlander and I curled up in the back. They threw a blanket and pillow in there so I could sleep during the 12 hour procedure. We drove to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and all walked in together. They prepped my mom for surgery and we had some time to spend together before she was rolled down the hallway.

I wish I could remember more of what we talked about in those few minutes but I do remember this. She called me in close—her only child—and said, “I want you to know, Alex, I have never been more proud of you than I am right now. Always remember this.”

This, after my insolence and grand selfishness of sleeping all morning after staying up drinking British vodka all night. She was proud of me.

I didn’t know what to say. 

She said, “If anything happens to me I want you and Auntie to be good to each other. Because you will only have each other and there is nothing more important to me than to know you can get along.”

My aunt and I had had our differences over the years. She had often felt I was a selfish and spoiled brat that my mother should have disciplined long ago. But we did love each other very much, this much cannot be denied. And my work with the Young at Heart as well as my career turn as a mental health counselor had made her rethink things a bit. 

I hugged my mom, poked fun at her free shower cap the hospital had fitted her with, told her I loved her more than anything or anyone and stood next to my aunt as they wheeled her away through the first set of swinging doors and around a corner.

I can still feel my heart beating as fast as it did then. I thought I might pass out and my aunt felt the same. 

They gave us each one of those little plastic discs that you get at restaurants when you are going to be waiting a long time for a table. When it blinks you are supposed to come and see what’s up. I got mine and went out to the parking garage and climbed into the back seat, covered myself with the blanket and settled into the less-than-optimal surroundings for a nap. 

I woke up a few hours later and had to use the bathroom.

I decided to walk back to check in on my aunt. As I was walking toward the waiting room the lights on my disc began to whirl around.  When I got 50 feet away I saw my aunt standing there—pale as a ghost. She was waving me towards her and shaking profusely. 

The doctors wanted to talk with us about the procedure. It was slated to take 12 hours. This was only hour four. 

There’s no way this could be good. 

They had done what they could but the cancer had spread. 

I remember they asked if we wanted to talk to a priest and my aunt—vehemently agnostic—said “Why the hell would we want to do that? Um . . . NO!

It was a scene. It was a horrific scene. My aunt was crying. And it was one of those times when you know something is the worst it could be and somebody is crying so you can’t join them because you feel you have to keep your shit together to help them. I’ll never forget not being able to cry with my aunt. But I held her close—she was hot and soaked with sweat from worry—and we just stood there and the magnitude of that event just rained down on us for what seemed like forever. 

When my aunt was able to compose herself we walked to the cafeteria. Not that even a shred of me felt hungry but my aunt wanted to make sure we ate a salad. Because in these few years of health scares she realized how horrendous our diets had been and she was trying all she could to reverse the damage. I remember the way the tongs felt in my hand as I picked up a clump of sliced carrots and let them loose on my spinach. If felt like a front loader releasing two tons of concrete. I’ll never forget the way those carrots felt as I crunched on them and stared ahead blankly at all the other people in the dining room, some of them doctors, some of them nurses, many of them family and friends and each with a different story playing out in their heads. 

But this was our story and this was our day and we had not planned on this.

I remember finally losing my shit, though, while on the phone to my friend and bandmate, Steve. I had called him on my aunt’s cell phone from the hospital entranceway. “She’s not going to be okay!” I said to him. “The cancer spread and they can’t get it out!” I was sobbing and shouting and just dripping tears.

“I’m so sorry, Fred,” he said to me “I really am.”

We realized we couldn’t do much else at the hospital that day, and there was no way we were going to be able to see my mom until tomorrow when she could talk. So we walked to the car together holding each other close. We knew she wasn’t coming home with us that day when we brought her there, but we certainly didn’t think this is how we would be leaving.

That night I’ll never forget how my aunt was a complete wreck. We stood outside in the backyard of their home in Mattapoisett and she was babbling. She was screaming about how I needed to have a child and how she wished she had children so the family would go on. She implored me to have children between crying fits. I had to shake her by the shoulders and tell her how much I loved her. I told her that none of what she is suggesting is going to help the situation right now and she needed to go in and get some sleep. I told her to look up at the heavens and think how little we are compared to the universe.

And at that point we both witnessed the most amazing shooting star across the Cape Cod sky either one of us had ever seen. 

We hugged for what seemed like an hour and then went to our respective sides of the house and went to sleep.

So much happened following that first day of November in 2005. 

My mother asked me—on our first visit to see her after her surgery—if I would stop drinking for her and I told her no. 

I told her no because if I stopped drinking for her and then she died then what would I all have been for?

I can tell myself that this was the right thing to do but, of course, it was partly me being selfish again. And certainly it was the addiction talking.

I would spend the following two years spiraling completely out of control and diving into a world of pills and other things that I’ve written about pretty extensively. I’m certainly not proud of what I did in reaction to my mom--and then my aunt--passing away while I was still in my 30s. But I do get some sort of peace from being able to divide my life up in ten year chunks like this. To be able to look back at a full decade and see how it began—with a simple fender bender and an x-ray—and follow that through all the massive boulders in the road and tracing all the steps that it took for me to get to my DUI in December of 2007 that would start me on my path towards sobriety is really something special. To see the awakening of my soul while my aunt was alive for those first five months of sobriety—before her own terminal diagnosis—and to know that she was able to witness the seeds of my understanding of where some of my self-destructive behavior came from is something I hold near and dear. 

I lost so very much in first few years following my mother’s diagnosis, but in these past ten years I have gained more than I could have ever pictured. From learning how to drive again at 35 (after thankfully swearing off car ownership at 21) when my mom bought my my trusty Subaru so I could come home to visit her, to finding the love of my life in Jodi. It has all been unforgettable. Oh, how I wish they could have all met each other, but I always feel a little less like I am without the two most important women in my life when I am with this one. And I know it is because of my sobriety that I am able to stay with her and stay present in my world.

I get up every day, wash my face with warm water and look in the mirror. In that mirror I see on my face the lines that befit a man of my age. I am not 35 anymore and I try not to pretend that I am. But I think back to the days when I was and I can feel that heaviness that I should have never lived with. I can—just for a few seconds at a time—relive that feeling of dread and regret that I woke with nearly every day. I can remember trying to retrace my steps from the night before by looking in and around the trash can for clues of what I ate and what I drank. I can still see in the faces of some people I don’t even know that they remember me as that guy. I don’t feel the need to ask them what I ever did to them. I’d rather not know. Because the hands on the clocks will always only go in one direction.

I have made my peace with my family.

I have made my peace with my friends.

I have realized where I went wrong and I understand the root of those decisions.

I can write about these days like this because they are the events that made me who I am.

And sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to have found love as true and as honest as this. I think back to all the times I thought of myself first and let others down. 

But each one of our days are so very long and at any moment we can be asked to do the one thing that will change our lives forever.

That thing for me was to put down the bottle and hope to never pick it up again.

Ten years of changes is upon me now. And as they flow through my existence each and every day I can safely say that they have filled me with the joys of a lifetime.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Day Two Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety Six . . . Carry-on.

It's so hard for me to travel light.

I know this is something that's more than just a superficial inclination; it's a part of me.

I realize that I've inherited more than a few traits from my ancestors. Like my mother's uncanny ability to not only pack on the pounds no matter what the season but keep them on, too.  I'd call it a skill but that would be bragging.

Maybe I have some residual memory of traveling with her in the 1970s and 80s when it seems like paying for extra baggage was merely a dystopian view of the far-away future. My mom, it seems, wasn't one to travel light either. Over the past few years I had to dispose of many a set of brighly colored, Samsonite luggage--three and four pieces each--that I'm sure accompanied her on many of her journeys. And on each of her bag's luggage tags her name was written in her near-perfect script, "Judith Ann Johnson" along with our Fall River, MA address and "USA" in gigantic letters, underlined in red squiggles from her trusty red teacher's marker.

The tags were attached to their corresponding bags with the utmost care. Buckles were cinched closed and straps were fortified with string. Brightly colored puffy fur balls were added next to set hers apart from the rest rolling down the luggage belt. My mom didn't enjoy flying, but if she had to do it she was going to make damn sure her belongings didn't find an easy escape.

Flash forward to present day.

I have five or six different sizes and styles of luggage--one piece each. I have a large one for extended trips and they get smaller and smaller ultimately ending with a tiny piece of Japanese luggage that I've often dared myself to use. It's that small.

A couple of week ago I went on a four day tour playing guitar with the Young at Heart Chorus. It being a summer trip, and after checking the weather report, I decided I could really just bring the basics--jeans, tee shirts, a pair of boots, socks, a bathing suit and a long sleeved shirt. I packed it all up in my tiny Japanese suitcase and brought it downstairs. I went searching through my travel supplies box for a luggage tag and came across one I had picked up in New Zealand. It was bright blue with a bird on one side and the obligatory clear information page on the other. The tag seemed pretty secure and strong, but the strap that attached it to the suitcase was made out of rubber. And not only that it had a strange way of closing that just didn't seem very well thought out. But I was in a hurry so I just slapped it together and closed the buckle and brought it out to the car.

I remember thinking, "That's not gonna stay on for long." But it was a carry-on so I wasn't that worried.

We had a great tour and played a very cool theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan and made a bunch of new fans.

When we landed in Hartford I had it pretty easy because for the first time in my life, it seems, I didn't have any checked baggage. All I had was my little Japanese suitcase.

A couple of days after we returned I got an email from the chorus's administrator, Mark. He said, "Freddy, somehow your luggage tag ended up in our office. You can come by and pick it up whenever you'd like."


Somehow the means of identification I used for my belongings had broken off and become its own entity.

Somebody in the group must have picked it up off of the ground, or the van, or the bus or wherever it had fallen and said, "Oh, this is Freddy's, he's going to be looking for it," and put it somewhere safe.

And this started me thinking how strange that I took the time and care to fill out the information on the tag--making sure my horrible penmanship was as legible as could be--but I just threw it together with the bag, using a strap I was almost certain was going to come undone. And how the idea of finding the I.D. tag on its own and returning it to its rightful owner is pretty ludicrous.

I think this speaks to a deeper level of living.

I think it conveys to me that sometimes that which I consider my identity can travel far from my actual life. And how not only is this something that could happen but something that should happen from time to time. It is so hard for me to admit it but I often get so hung up becoming the person who I want to be and forget that my name and address are really just words on a piece of paper.

Frederick Alexander Johnson

I'm living my third life right now.

My first life was the years up to when I started drinking when I was 15 or 16; my second life was from then until I got sober at 37; and from then until now I have been making a new person. This person is very different from those other two and there are people who don't recognize me since my life started again and, for better or for worse, aren't really a part of me anymore. But life is fluid and no two people are the same.

There is a version of me that I can see now in retrospect almost like a movie I once watched.

I see that me as a reflection of the years it spanned. I see the colors differently, like a filter on Instagram, and I know the resolution was much grainier. I can see how the characters in the story were much younger and alive and how they had so much less to care about when they had so much less to care about. I see brash and bold moves outside bars at last call, I see fights, I see rolling on the floor laughing, I see love, I see the neediness of an only child and the insolence of youth. I see people who were in one scene only to fade away, unfortunate victims of the reckless living that was just another average day back then. I see people who cared so much for me that they would stay on the phone while I wailed and coughed, trying to remember to put my hand over the receiver as I brought the glass of ice and liquor to my lips. I try to remember what those characters said but I so often come up empty. It's probably best not to know, but part of me can't help wonder. I see a young boy pretending to be a man. I see a man who somehow knew when to stumble off before he got his teeth punched out.

And then I see a life that began to unravel ten years ago next month when his mother fell ill. The movie stops shortly after that plot twist, the theater empties out and the first run is over.

A new story begins just like that, with a very similar cast of characters but a whole new set of goals. I can see that guy pretty clearly, he's right here and he's still very much in control. His name is the same but his identity has changed. The belongings are in the suitcase but the tag fell off long ago.

You see, there was a weak connection point holding his identity to his baggage and it just couldn't handle the turbulence.

I really do think it is a beautiful thing that that luggage tag had an adventure on its own regardless of how long. I love that it snuck away from the container that held the items that I felt I must have in order to exist away from home for four days. And I also love that I couldn't just say "Naw, you can just throw it out. I don't really need it." No, I had to retrieve it and put it back in my box of travel supplies where it sits safe and sound.

Upon inspection I noticed that the rubber strap was still attached but the flimsy buckle was broken; I threw that part away. But I kept the tag because I most certainly will use it again. It's a great tag and if my luggage does somehow go missing I'll definitely want to make sure it gets back to me.

And just like this time somebody will see my name on there, Frederick Alexander Johnson, and come up with a story in their head of who I am, what I look like and what I do.

I couldn't do it if I tried and believe me I have.

So for now I'll just keep hoping I get some good lines in the upcoming scenes.

Needless to say I've never been good at being the strong silent type.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Day Two Thousand Six Hundred and Ninety Five . . . The Big Day.

Today is a day I've been waiting for for a very long time. A day that's been two years in the making.

Today is my band, Colorway's second album release party at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA.

Now, I knew we were shooting for a May release when I booked the time back about a year ago. I wanted to make a summertime album and I wanted there to be enough time to get it out there so it could be in people's cars and on their iPods and iPhones and everywhere else. There is a lot of work to be done in the planning way above and beyond the actually writing, rehearsing and recording stages. It's sort of a full time job.

But I also knew that I wanted to have our release show at the Iron Horse again. It's a great music hall that holds about 200 people and I've played on its stage in varying configurations many, many times since moving to the Valley in 1991.

I remember the first time I ever went there to an open mic night one summer night in, let's say, 1992. It was such a popular thing to do and there was always more people who wanted to perform than slots for them. So they would have would be performers put names in a hat and a few would get picked out to play. If you wanted to you could ensure a slot for next week by agreeing to put up posters all around town. This was a long time before the internet pervaded people's lives and print media and community bulletin boards was the way to get the news out.

I didn't get picked to perform that night and for the life of me I can't remember if I ever did. But I remember they had a notice in the newspaper ad that said something like, "This is a professional open mic. If you have not practiced or are not prepared we strongly discourage you from attempting to do so on this stage."

But this was the Iron Horse and it was the most prestigious stage in town. It had hosted some of music's biggest names and still does today, more than 40 years after opening its doors.

I was in a band back in the 1990s called Soup. We did the jammy rock thing but with solidly written songs. Sort of jam pop. I'll never forget when I got the call from our bassist who worked at the Iron Horse at the time. He said that the band scheduled that night had cancelled and they were looking for a replacement--somebody that might play for tips. He suggested our group and we all said okay.

It was really more like a "HELL YEAH!!"

That was it. We were in. We had a gig at the Iron Horse . . . in five hours!

We got on the house phone (yes, the one phone for five people) and called everybody we knew. We put up posters and went around and knocked on doors and gave it a mighty community push. We put a good bunch of people in that room and rocked the house mightily.

And that was the beginning of my relationship with that stage.

And that stage hosted my band (who would later change their name to Drunk Stuntmen) countless times over the next ten years or so. We had Halloween shows there and CD release parties and multi-band showcases there.

Suffice to say that it's a place I feel comfortable as I possibly can.

I had been talking to Brendan, the talent buyer, about the possibility of our next album release even before it was done being recorded. We had our first album release there in June of 2013 and for a band nobody had heard before we packed the house pretty well.

He gave me a couple of dates we could do it this year and one of them stood out to me.

Thursday, May 14.

My mother's 74th birthday.

You better believe I jumped at that chance.

Because while my mom may not be around anymore in a physical sense she very much was at many of our performance at the Iron Horse. She lived two hours away (two and a half if she was driving) but whenever she could she would corral my aunt and hop in the Nissan and make the schlep to see her kid on this tiny stage in the grand room.

She was nothing if not supportive.

In fact, on her memorial card that was printed up was a picture of her from one of our performances at the Horse. It was a Halloween show we did and she dressed up like a rustic Polish farmer girl. I'll never forget her and my aunt making me wait in my bedroom in my little apartment while they changed up into their clothes. My aunt was a dressed as a belly dancer if I recall correctly (and she really knew how to dance). When they told me to come back into the living room and I saw them all done up it was just so unbelievable I almost cried.

This is a pic of the card that I keep in my wallet and have done so for going on nine years now. She's sitting in a booth at the Iron Horse and you can just see how happy she is. But she was happy so much of the time. Really and truly happy, even though she was so often concerned with the future of her boy. 

These two very private people had a strange way of exhibiting outrageousness that always surprised me. I only wish I could have come to terms with it years before. I often felt embarrassed or shocked by them as if they were my children instead of my parents.

But we learn as we go and sometimes it just takes time to sort things out. I'm glad I got a chance to tell them both that I loved their shenanigans and wouldn't have changed a thing before I lost them.

So this album that we are celebrating the release of tonight at the Iron Horse, it's called The Black Sky Sequined.

There is a very good reason it's called that.

In one of my mom's gigantic notebooks--the notebooks of her first drafts of letters to all of her friends and family--on the very last page, after the pages of letters she wrote to me and my aunt saying so long for now (definitely not "goodby") was a poem. I haven't been able to attribute it to anybody but her. It's even got a word crossed out which leads me to believe it had to be original.

Anyway, here is what it says, in her handwriting:

"Then it began. Rockets. Stars. Flowers blooming. The black sky sequined. Reds, yellows, blues, greens. Silver and gold. Explosions and the cheers of spectators."

Now I have a hunch at what this poem is about but I am just going to keep that on the inside. I could be way off and I don't want to assume. But you can take from it what you will.

I decided to take the title of the record from this poem (the text is actually included in our debut album liner notes) and, as always, to represent her and remember her in whatever way I can. 

I don't have many regrets in this life. But one that I have had for many, many years is that in the aftermath of her passing I never had a memorial service. 

In 2007 I was in no shape to do it and my aunt wasn't either--both for different reasons of course. And so she passed away and I dove deeper into my substance abuse and things just fell away from me. 

If you've followed this blog then you know what happened next. If you haven't followed this blog just know that I finally got the message in the form of a DUI and got sober and have remained that way since 2008. 

It's been a long road but I'm so very happy to still be walking on it. 

But this is why tonight is so special. 

Because as much as the whole idea of being a musician and being the frontman in a band is an ego trip, and as much as the only child in me enjoys being the center of attention I am proud and happier than I can explain to be sharing my music with a room of friends and fans on what would be her 74th birthday.

When I was putting the set together it really amazed me how many songs had something to do with her. I try not to write with my heart on my sleeve. Some of the references are sly and most people wouldn't really get that it's about her. But I have a part of her in so much of my songwriting, in so much of my playing, in so much of my singing and in so much of my enjoyment of life that it's hard to not feel like she is a part of this band.

It's been a long few months getting this album written, recorded, produced and promoted. I'm kind of a bundle of nerves today just knowing that it's all about to reach it's climax. But this is kind of the same feeling I used to get getting ready for her birthday. It was always so hard to find something she didn't have already or something she may not have known about.

Because she never really longed for much.

She never asked me for anything she could wear, touch, hold or look at.

All she ever asked me for was to be good.

All she ever asked me for was to try to figure out why I was hurting myself.

All she ever asked me for was to try to understand that I am worth taking care of, because she couldn't do it anymore from two (and a half) hours away.

So today, tonight, I play for my mother. I give her this gift of music. I give her this gift of care, of kindness, of joy, of life, love, happiness, contentedness and togetherness.

I wish I could hug her and tell her how much I miss her.

I wish I could send her a card--I do so miss addressing envelopes to her old house.

I wish she could be there tonight when I take the stage.

And I wish she could see me now, 50 pounds lighter and seven years sober.

So this will be my gift and my memorial to my mom, my Judy, my sweet, sweet lady.

Sto lat, Mom.

I promise to take care of your boy because I finally love him as much as you did.

I'll see you at the Iron Horse, like I always used to, and I'll play my heart out for you.

Thanks for reading,


For more on Colorway just click here.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Day Two Thousand Six Hundred and Nineteen . . . Pie Eyed

I have a friend who gave up drinking long before I did.

Now, he's older than me by a few years, granted, but he's been clean and sober for decades.

Decades. Plural.

I barely have one.

But, of course, as they say in the halls we all have the same exact amount of time under our belts: today. Just make it through today and get to tomorrow and that is how you tackle the long game, the grandiose thinking, the irrational idea that one can predict the future.

 My friend and I have something else in common: neither of us went the traditional route of Alcoholics Anonymous. And as such we have to come up with creative ways to remind ourselves that a sober life is the only way.

I remember the first time I got turned off to AA.  It was actually due to something that was said to me by the first person to ever bring me to a meeting. I had stopped going and instead instituted a personalized program of blogging, seeing my therapist, working out and living and learning. I saw him one day and told him how I had been sober for several months. I told him how much my recovery meant to me now. He quickly responded "But you're not in recovery if you don't have a program. You're just biding your time."

He relapsed not long after that, lending credence to my own adage that "It only works until it doesn't."

I find it interesting these days that I know more and more people who have gone the sober route but eschewed The Fellowship that has been a standard since 1935. Maybe it's the part of the country that I live in--the solitary and uptight Yankee northeast--that make people just want to do it on their own without anyone to check in with on a daily basis. I know for myself, I just simply didn't feel like letting more people into my life that had the same problems as I did. What I wanted was people with less problems. Or just different ones. I guess it's worked up to now.

But getting back to my older friend.

He wrote me the other day to say that it's amazing how after so many years of sobriety he still has never managed to conquer the desire for a drink during times of celebration.

This got me thinking.

Because as much as I read about how the science of alcoholism is the same from person to person I have always had a hard time just chalking it up to being that simple. I don't believe that I feel the need to drink for the same reason that the person down the street does, or the person at the restaurant bar, or the guy hanging out on his porch stoop with a 30-pack at his side.

I don't believe that we all felt the same need to continue. But what I do believe is that we all stopped for a similar reason. And that's the most important piece of the puzzle. Because it doesn't matter why it happened it only matters that the desire for change was strong enough to bring about its end.

So I started to think about the rituals of celebration. It's amazing when you start to realize how unbelievably enmeshed drinking--and toasting, in particular--is in worldwide culture to heighten the act of appreciation of an accomplishment. Now, of course, you can toast without alcohol. I do it every time I sit down to a meal with Jodi. We toast to the meal we just made. We toast to a hard day's work. We toast to a loved one's memory. We sometimes just toast to the fact that we can toast--that we are alive. When we do my glass is invariably filled with either coffee, seltzer or just water. But to think that that toast is any less meaningful than if it were full of beer or wine or whiskey is ludicrous. That's because that part of sobriety doesn't bug me anymore. That's because I'm not the same as my older friend and I'm not the same as the guy who just quit drinking two week ago.

That's because I'm me.

But I stepped out of my little me-bubble for a moment. I tried to sum up what it would be like to take these seven years of sobriety and just close my eyes and fill up a glass of vodka with ice and toast to whatever celebration may be a hand.

I decided that it would be like hitting myself in the face with a pie.

There would be the initial shock.

I would look more than a little surprised.

It would taste really good.

And ultimately it would make a huge mess everywhere and I would have nobody to blame for it but myself.

So I told my friend this. He agreed that pie was delicious but there was no need to waste it in that manner. He's a smart cookie and a funny guy to boot.

I'll close this quick post (sorry it's been so long since I've written) by just saying that it's amazing to watch this world in action. It's such an eye-opening process to witness the advertizing agencies as they try time and again to link drinking with never ending good times and unfathomable achievement. It's as ludicrous as having McDonalds as an official sponsor of the Olympics. But nobody really believes that Gabby Richards got to where she is by swilling Coke, Big Macs and fries.

My jealousies of being a "normal" drinker have fallen by the wayside over the years. I used to pine for the good old days when I could pick up a six pack after work and have a few beers watching TV. But my brain has developed a keen sense of selective memory and the ashes from the many good times I set ablaze seem to end up blown away in the wind.

When we talk of accomplishments and celebrations I find it interesting to note that staying sober is its own reason to make a toast. In this world where we are usually lauded for doing something how refreshing is it that there is cause to celebrate from refraining, abstaining, and letting go of what we always used to do.

We learn to live as we go until we find ourselves at a point where we need to learn it all again.

And for me everyday I see a new reason to stay on this path.

I love pie and I love me.

So I see no reason to make a mess out of either one.

I raise a glass to you all and say . . .

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Day two thousand five hundred and fifty seven . . . "Boy, am I toy-stee."

A guy walks into a bar and sits down.

The fairly inebriated fellow with an empty glass to the right of him loudly exclaims, "Boy, am I toy-stee."

The first guy doesn't think much of it and orders a beer.

A couple minutes later he hears, once again, from the fellow on his right, "Boy, am I toy-stee."

So the first guy says, "Bartender, I'd like to buy this fellow right here a drink."

Bartender gives the man a beer which he drinks down in one, intense glug.

All eyes are on him.

He puts his empty glass down on the bar,  burps loudly, leans back and says:

"Boy, was I toy-stee!"

I think this is a pretty funny joke. It stands on it's own right as just a silly little observation of some curious human nature.

But I also see into it and can relate on some deeper levels.

You see, at 12:45 A.M seven years ago this morning I had my last drink of alcohol.

And I had been very toy-stee, indeed.

I was out and about and looking for trouble. I knew where to get it but I didn't take the right back road and was subsequently pulled over by the cops. But funny enough I didn't just pull over when I saw their lights. Oh no, I didn't do that because I knew that if I did that I would have been busted directly across from the bar I was headed to.

No, instead I actually took a left across a busy street and drove up into a narrow parking lot that was adjacent to the bar. So, at least that way if anybody wanted to see me try (emphasis on "try") to walk a straight line they'd have to step outside to do it--which they did, several of them.

I have the whole police report of the incident. It's got some classic quotes from me, like when the cops asked how much I had drank that night I told them "Two glasses of vodka."

Not mixed drinks, mind you. Just glasses of vodka.

With ice, of course.

I was very toy-stee.

People talk about "desperate cries for help" and other signs they should have seen along the way. They talk about how there's a motive behind every action, and posit that people who abuse drugs, alcohol, and other vices have a "sickness."

I know that this is true in many cases. I've seen the evidence and I've seen the damage. And I've seen too many people who have gone over the edge and never come back. And I've certainly seen a few who have come back from the edge but not really all the way. And I know more than a few who might not ever change--who are proud to be the mess that they are. And I connect with these types of people because that's who I was. It hasn't been that long that I don't remember the pride I took in my ability to empty a .750 of vodka in one sitting--alone. When you're an alcoholic you take your sources of pride where you can get them. And I got mine in the form of a weekly full recycling bin of clear bottles with red Russian labels on them.

I've been watching old home movies from the 1970s recently. Watching these and listening back to reel-to-reel tapes of me and my family I see a pattern of behavior that is alarming. It's alarming in and of itself but also in the fact that I see how it followed me into my adolescent years and then on to adulthood.

I see a spoiled only child who asked for every toy on TV and got at least most of them for Christmas.

I see a child who had to always be heard and couldn't stand to not be the one being talked to.

I see a little boy who was loved by all around him and never knew anything else. I see the dream my mother had come true: the dream of a son to raise on her own--removed from the societal expectations of a having a dominant male figure in the house. My mother didn't have any desire for a partner in this grand scheme. She knew she was smart enough and woman enough to raise a child on her own. And by all accounts she was. But somewhere along the way the joy of the dream coming true led to my spoiling. It showed up in punishments that fell short of being disciplinary and lies believed because she wanted to believe them.

I see these things and realize that this atmosphere could possibly have been the breeding ground for the innate sense of invincibility that I developed as I dove deeper into a world of substance abuse. And when I moved away to Western Massachusetts it was because my Aunt Lynda had finally stepped in and given me the ultimatum of clean up or get out.

And get out I did.

It would take sixteen long years of slowly trying to kill myself ounce by ounce to finally hit a wall. I put more than a few people through the wringer over that time period. There are some who went along with me and try as they might never were able to get me to change. And there are some who were sad to see me change so drastically when I did. I know I'm a much different person now than I used to be. And because of that I don't really see some people who once were such a big part of my life. It's one of the things people fear the most when they consider a life of sobriety, and for good reason. But the flip side of that, at least for me, would have not been an acceptable solution for long.

And when I did hit that wall in the form of of swirling blue lights I can only say I am thankful that the discipline came in a form I couldn't talk my way out of, because I would have continued on that path of self-destruction, probably to the end.

But here I am, seven years later.

I'm still in my Christmas Pajamas at 2:30 in the afternoon.

I'm happy it's warm enough to go outside and rake leaves in the yard in the middle of December.

I've got a party to go to tonight where there will be several bottles of booze on the kitchen table, I'm sure. But I've been to fifty parties in the past seven years where there were bottles of booze on the kitchen table--and some of them I even brought myself.

But I'm not the guy who needs it anymore.

I'm not the inebriated starved-for-attention only child anymore.

I've learned my own form of self-discipline in these last seven years. Writing these words on these pages has been a big part of it. Because sometimes when you shine a light on the darkest part of the room you notice there was a lamp there all along--it just needed a new bulb.

And in this lit room I can look around and count my blessings.

Even better, I can look inside and count my blessings.

I'm not the one anyone needs to feel sorry for at the bar anymore.

And I never, ever, take any of this for granted.

I have today, just like we all do.

How I spend it is what matters in the end.

But it's very true, and I'll say it again one more time with feeling:

Boy, was I toy-stee!

Thanks for reading,



Friday, October 31, 2014

Day Two Thousand Five Hundred . . . Having a moment

I've always loved Halloween.

It was probably one of my favorite holidays as a child. I can only guess that my love of costuming and putting on makeup and crazy clothes went hand it hand with my constant desire to be somebody else.

Now, there are a lot of reasons why we might want to be "somebody else" when we're a child. When you think about all the things that adults are allowed to do, as opposed to somebody between the ages of five and, say, eighteen, it's easy to understand wanting to escape. Like putting on your grandfather's suits and hats for fun, it is that strange urge to be taken seriously coupled with "dress up" time.

I can recall wanting to be so many different people--most of them famous--like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker or Paul McCartney (or any of The Beatles for that matter).

But it's funny to think that I never wanted to be another child.

It was always somebody older.

Here is a picture of me and my grandfather from Halloween 1979.
I'm wearing my very favorite mask of a mummy that my mom bought for me while we were waiting in line for the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World. I can still remember the way that rubber smelled. And I'm also wearing my Karate (or Judo) Gee. All the self-defense classes I endured I still can't throw a punch (probably a good thing).

My precious grandfather, Alex is wearing his devil mask. His nickname as a younger man was "Alley Cat" due to his supposedly legendary prowling. So this mask, I'm guessing, is more than a little apropos.

But see, I didn't go for any sort of kiddie costume. I wanted to be a thousand year old mummy!

And so I was.

And my mother brought me to the appliance store.
Where I was more than a little thrilled to have my picture taken next to this giant Jack 'O Lantern.

And from there we traveled on to a costume contest somewhere near Seekonk, MA. I remember that it was kind of not allowed to have kids from outside the area compete. But my mom was never one for rules that might impinge on character-buliding for her little prince.

So we went to the contest.

I paraded up on stage.

I got some applause.  And I can only imagine what is making that lady on the right laugh like that. I was, as they say, a "precocious" child.

And then, the whole mess of people from the Seekonk, MA area got up and we were judged.
I remember being up there like it was yesterday.

And I remember winning some movie passes to the Seekonk Cinemas (a huge deal for a nine year old).

And I also remember another woman there being somewhat upset that the kid from Fall River (a good twenty minute ride away) won something at the Seekonk Halloween Costume Contest. She had words with my mom who politely brushed her off. Nobody was taking away her baby's glory . . . or his movie passes.

I'm not sure if her child didn't win because of me. But I remember sitting in my mom's green Volvo and taking off my mask and tearing open the envelope with the movie passes in it and celebrating with my mother like we had just knocked off the Fall River Five Cent Savings Bank.

It was a moment.

I remember being very young--maybe seven or eight--and asking, pleading and begging my mom to take me to this haunted house I saw written about somewhere. It was way far away in Connecticut, probably at least an hour or so.

But my dear mom packed up the car with me, my aunt and my grandmother and we made the trek out there . . . for her little prince.

And I got out of the car and saw the line of people. I saw they were mostly big kids--teenagers--and I saw the lights flashing from inside the haunted house. I heard the screams of the actors and I heard the screams of the patrons.

And I screamed, myself.

And I started to cry like a little baby. I ran back to my mom and clasped her around the leg like a three year old. I wailed "I'm sorry, mummy! I'm too scared."

And I'm sure she looked at my aunt (who never did have kids) and there was an unspoken exchange that said, more or less, "You knew this would happen, didn't you, Judy?"

And she made sure I was sure.

I was.

And we got back in the car--wet cheeks and runny nose and all--and we drove the hour and change back home.

It was a moment.

Here in the present day we have a super duper new Haunted House in the next town over. It's supposed to be the best around, and the line to get in stretches for blocks.

But I'm too scared to go. For real. Me, a big baby clinging to my mummy's leg.

Times don't change so fast after all. 

I've written about this before but Halloween was also a very dangerous time on my street.

We were the only street in our neighborhood that took it upon ourselves to plant a tree on the sidewalk. It was a big undertaking, but my mom and aunt wanted to plant something alive in memory of my grandmother on the otherwise dead cement sidewalk. So they planted a birch tree and it was beautiful.

But every year we would be at the mercy of the hoodlums (as my mom would call them) who had a strange penchant for slicing off the bark of the tree for fun.

I never understood this and still don't. But I guess destructive behavior can manifest either inwardly or outwardly.

But every Halloween we would sit on the porch and give out candy all the while watching that tree and letting everybody know we cared.

And then they'd eventually have to go to bed and wake up and find somebody had sliced up the tree and they'd spend hours putting that black gunk that heals the bark on it.

To me at that age it was like a terrorist attack.  And I suppose on some levels it was. We just thought of it as the loss of morals and the depraving of America.

And then I moved away.

I try to always remember when I see things like new trees growing on the sidewalk, or street art, or even just some holiday inflatable displays, that I, thankfully, live somewhere where you don't have to stay up all night on Halloween and protect it.

I didn't move here with that in mind. I was just trying to escape. But as I grew older and can see things with perspective it makes me happy I made this choice. 

Sure, there are incidents of vandalism here and there. That happens no matter where you live. But where I come from--at least when I lived there through the 1970s and 1980s--you just couldn't have nice things in plain view.

Not everybody learns how to appreciate what they have. And when you don't--or can't--appreciate what you have it makes you want to take from somebody else. And because you have no perspective you have no idea what these things mean to the people they belong to.

You take their moment but you don't end up with anything in the end. And that's probably the saddest part of it all.

Nobody wins.

But here in our little town of Florence, Massachusetts--two and a half hours west of Fall River--we'll have our Rag Shag parade tonight. The people of our village gather at a little park and have costume contests--open to anyone from anywhere--and then everybody walks the 1/8 mile through the closed off Main St down past our house and to the civic center. Then they have donuts and cider and break off from there to trick or treat.

We always have to rush back to our house where the kids are already at the door. I just made a "Boo Back Soon" sign (how clever of me) to put on the door when we leave so the kids will know to come back.

Then we spend the next few hours handing out candy to the many various age groups who come knocking. I've been here for six years now, and I'm sure that some of the kids have been coming here since they just learned how to walk. It's nice to be part of that function of time.

It's nice to be part of other people's moments.

And it's great to be old enough and stable enough to be part of these moments while keeping some for yourself.

Because these moments become memories. And these memories shape us. These memories--even if we think we don't really have many we can recall--they become part of our decision making.

They become part of our value system.

They become part of our character.

They become us.

And when we eventually leave this earth they leave with us.

That's why I write about my memories. I'm writing so that my memories don't become lost forever. I'm writing because I don't have children to share them with. I'm writing because I don't want to forget them myself. And I'm writing because it makes me feel good.

My mother and aunt used to come to Northampton frequently between 1994 (when I moved into an apartment on Eastern Avenue ) and 2006 (when my mom became too sick to travel long distances).

They would come here for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes just to check up on me, to bring me food to put in my fridge and cupboards. And often to come see me perform.

One of the places that was always so wonderful to play in is the Academy of Music. It's a 100+ year old theater right in the heart of downtown.

                                                                   Photo: Richard Christian

I got to play there with Drunk Stuntmen when we composed an original score for the 1924 silent film, "Peter Pan."

Here's a picture of me and my mom in 2000 taken at the foot of the stage right after it was over.
To say she was proud would be a gross understatement.

In later years she would come see me perform there (with my aunt, of course) when the Young at Heart would play there. I remember how much fun it always was to peek out from back stage and try to find where they two of them were sitting. As most performances are general admission it was rarely the same exact seat, but you could be sure that they would be somewhere about five rows back and smack dab in the middle.

In fact, when we would go to the movies my mom had a habit of counting the seats up and dividing in half to see where the absolute middle was. It was important to her.

So when I got word that the Academy of Music was having their first ever capital campaign to raise money for renovations I was intrigued. Their plan was to restore the walls and all the fixtures back to the original colors from the first iteration of the theater.

They were going to put in new seats, too.

And for a donation of a certain amount one could dedicate a seat.

One could preserve a person's memory.

One could take hold of a moment.

And so I did just that.

 And I wrote and asked if they might be able to find a spot somewhere in the middle. If they couldn't that was fine--I'm not special. But if they had an opportunity it would be most appreciated.

And so, on October 17th Jodi and I got gussied up and went to the premier of the Academy's first original play Nobody's Girl with just a row and a number: row E seat 105.

So we looked for it.

 And we found it.

                                                                                  Photo: Jodi
Right in the middle of the fifth row.

With a perfect view of the stage.

And I almost cried.

Because I could see her sitting there watching her boy.

I could picture the bright floral blouses she loved to wear. I could see the soft, faded denim overcoat whose pockets were always stuffed with cough drops, candy and tissues. And I could hear her applauding for me, her sister at her side, both so proud of my progress.

I could see it.

I could picture her just looking at me up there, thinking of how her little boy who looked so natural up on a stage in Seekonk, Massachusetts in his martial arts mummy costume in 1979 had grown up to be up there for real in cowboy boots, jeans, his guitar and amplifier.

It must have been a moment--a few of them.

And now I can safely say that their names are preserved for the foreseeable future.

They may not grace any structure in the town they are from. There is no plaque on any tree or a bench near a bus stop. Because it would be exposed to the elements and God knows what might happen if some unruly kids wanted to just go out and "have some fun."

No. Their names are on a chair--a comfortable one at that--smack dab in middle, the fifth chair out of nine, in the fifth row back in a town they wished they had moved to. And they always used to joke around that they were going to sell their house and buy the carriage house down the street from me and move in to keep an eye on me.

They liked to talk about that, but I knew it would never happen.

And what's almost as perfect as being in the middle of the fifth row?

Well, whenever anything happened or they were excited about something they had a funny affectation: they would always exclaim, "Eeeeeeeeeeeee!" long and loud. I think it was a Portuguese/Fall River thing.

Well guess what? Remember what row they got?




How about that for a moment?

How about that for a memory?

I think they'd be happy.

And more than that they'd be thrilled that I got them both on there--two for one!

They always loved a good deal.

Now I have to get ready for the kiddies. They need their candy and their parade and their walk around town.

Jodi and I are happy to be part of it and we've got costumes to boot.

It's a good life, and it's these moments that make it so.

Happy Halloween, and thanks, as always, for reading.


PS: I suppose this has all come full circle--this whole dressing up as somebody older. Because this year my costume is going to be a Young at Heart Chorus member. And to join that club you gotta be 73.

So how about that for closure?

Funny, funny stuff.

And if they saw me in this getup I'm sure they'd say to me, nice and loud, "Eeeeeeeeeeee!"

Miss you guys, always.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Day two thousand four hundred and fifty seven . . . "Do it."

I have a friend who is in deep trouble.

No, I'm not secretly referring to myself. I'm still clean and sober.

But my friend and I have been in touch pretty closely for a few days now. I told him he had inspired me to maybe get back to writing here and he said, "Do it."

He recently found himself ripped apart by a personal tornado that almost did him in.

He's scared.

He's broke.

He's alone.

He's in pain.

He's a total mess.

And from his own admission he did this to himself.

Now, I'm kind of assuming a little bit of this as I don't really know the full story. I don't even really know this person that well. He's a contemporary, an associate, a local. But he's a fellow Gen Xer, has great taste in music and art, and he's somebody who's always been quite nice to me.

He's also somebody who I didn't realize had any of the problems he's currently seeking help from. But that's probably more to do with the fact that I don't go to bars and I don't have people over to my place to party (anymore).

But I can assume a lot about this person because of one simple fact: he's a human being.

And I can relate to that.

See, we're built for excess. We, as humans, like to try lots of different things. And if we find something we like (depending on our temperament) we oftentimes have too much of it. And when we have too much of it we can develop a sense of guilt about it, and the only way to make it better in the short term--seeing we're already kind of far into it--is to have a little more.

And then the tornado starts to form and it can assemble itself fairly quickly if we let it.

This cycle is something that seems so ludicrous.

We should be smarter than that.

We're not some kind of wild animal.

We've had millions of years of evolution to finesse our desires so they don't almost kill us.

We should have enough foresight to detect the trouble ahead.

But we're human beings after all, and we have too much freedom.

And I'm not just talking about freedom from the government or freedom from persecution.

I'm talking about how if a human wants to try to eat fifteen double-chocolate chocolate chip cookies and a quart of Newport Creamery maple walnut ice cream we absolutely can. If we want to stay up for three days straight and watch 72 hours of television no matter what is on, we can.

And if we want to drink ourselves stupid with a fifth of vodka every day starting at 9 AM (after waiting outside the liquor store until it opens) and call our mom and try to pretend like we just had two beers on an empty stomach, we can.

I used to do that kind of stuff. I did it almost every day for a few years. And the thing about it that kills me is that I had so many conversations--long ones--with my mother that I don't remember.  We talked about so much important stuff and so much silly stuff but so much of it is just a blur. She only really got upset that I was drinking a few times and told me to please not call her when I was "pie eyed", especially at 11 AM.

But when her boy would call she couldn't hang up or tell me to go to hell. Because at least hearing my slurred voice on the other end of the phone was better than not knowing if I was staggering around in traffic trying to make it to the liquor store before it closed. At least hearing me ask the same question over and over again was better than wondering if I was downtown making a fool of myself in broad daylight. At least hearing me try to muffle the sound of the ice clinking against my rocks glass as I brought it up to my lips was better than wondering if I had said the wrong thing to the wrong person and gotten my teeth knocked out.

It was something, at least.

But I had too much freedom and I used to feel invincible.

I thought to myself that my actions had no consequences. I didn't write down the stories she would tell me because I couldn't keep a pen, paper, lit cigarette and phone receiver all going at the same time while pouring glass after glass of freezing cold Smirnoff from the bottle in the freezer into my sour stomach.

As she died over sixteen months I thought I'd remember everything she said to me.

I couldn't have been more mistaken.

I recently found some old recordings of the messages she left for me back in the early 2000s.

There are some cute ones for sure. But I can hear in her voice that hint of worry that only a mother can carry in her tone. Those slight lilts that suggested maybe I was there but didn't want to pick up--that it was okay if I was "busy", it was nothing important. That she was just seeing if I was still alive okay and if I knew that the new season of Boston Public was starting tonight. And even if I had forgotten she was going to tape it and send me a copy anyway . . . just in case.

These calls were often in the early afternoon and she was still worried that I was wasted.

Lots of time I was. It was a sad situation.

But she was always taking care of me even when I wasn't.

These messages usually ended with a little humor, of course, because if there's one thing this mother of an alcoholic worried about most is that something she said or did will cause her boy to drink even more.

She loved me like no one ever did. And she had no idea what could have possibly been the reason that I was trying to slowly and messily kill myself.

And now, almost seven years later I still don't really know why I did what I did.

I can't blame it on genetics, because nobody in my family, that I know of, was or is an alcoholic.

I can't blame it on growing up without a dad. Lots of people grow up in a single parent home and don't hit the bottom the way I did.

I can't blame it on rock music, as much as I'd like to. That would be so easy and almost fun.

And I can't blame it on how I was raised.

Because I was raised to value the world around me. I was taught that all we can see, hear, touch, taste and feel is worth appreciating. I was shown that science can explain almost everything (Mom was an earth science teacher with a masters in chemistry) and that what can't be explained must be respected for what it is: a miracle.

I was taught to respect the people around me. I was told to learn from those who came before me. I was brought from museums to puppet shows to concerts, plays, and circuses all to better shape my mind and spirit and also to show me what great beauty this world holds.

I was created on purpose--explicitly to be raised by one person and one person alone. She wasn't worried if nobody wanted anything to do with her because she was a single mother in 1970s New England. And as it turned out I was welcomed with open arms by the whole family.

My father was one of the most heralded and applauded authors of poetry and prose of his generation (more on this in the future). He was labeled a genius by his peers, played four instruments and spoke seven languages. When he died his obituary ran from the LA Times to the New York Times to the the Fall River Herald News.

I was not made to be a self-destructive lush; I was made to hopefully be a person of substance.

These are my words. My mother never made me feel like I needed to be any more than I wanted to be. And, in fact, I didn't really learn about my father until much later in life. 

Regardless, for twenty years I thumbed my nose at the idea of embracing life, light and vitality and continually pulled the shade down on the world.

And at the end what was I?

I was scared.

I was broke.

I was alone.

I was in pain.

I was a total mess.

And from my own admission I did this to myself.


Well, because I'm a human being and that was my choice. And nobody on earth was going to make me change my ways. I had to want to change. I had to need to change more than anything. I had to fight for change like it was my last hope for survival, because it really was.

And I'm writing these words today and sharing with the world because it's been far too long.

I've spent the last almost seven years on this earth very much aware of my surroundings. I've made my decisions with a clear head. And I can figuratively remember turning the light off at the end of every day.

But I still don't have the best memory and I forget a lot of stuff.

So while it's still fresh in my mind I wanted to stand up here at from where I am on this hill and shout down to my friend to come up and join me.

I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs that things are better up here and I can see them clear as day, even if all he can see is a hill he doesn't think he can climb. 

I wanted to tell him that he needs to start now, not tomorrow and not next week.

Because this hill is a beast to get up.

It's a muddy, slick and rocky mess of a journey.

It's not easy and it's not fun and there are no breaks to sit and catch your breath . . .  at least not for a while.

But as you start to climb you'll notice something: you'll notice that things below you--where you just came from--have gotten smaller.

You'll start to find better places to grip with your hands and landings to anchor your feet.

When you get up to a certain point you'll no doubt be able to take a breather and look down for a second. That's when you'll start to see others approach the bottom of this hill with the same expression on their face that you did not that long ago--the one that says "I'm not fucking doing this."

But you will do this.

And you will meet me where I am.

Because why?

Because you are a human being and you have freedom.

And if you care about this world at all you will use that freedom to keep going and not ever stop, not for a split second.

And with the grace of God, or whatever you want to call the thing or things that made this universe, I will always be here and I'll always be able to help.

I'm just a little ways up the hill, but I'm nowhere near the top.

Just keep going, man.

Keep going.

Do it.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Day two thousand three hundred and thirteen . . . Watching the river flow.

I suppose you could call me morbid.

Though I feel that my public personality may be one of a positive and lighthearted guy I have to say that it's all a little darker on the inside than that.

Take for example my incessant housecleaning.

I'll stop short of calling it obsessive/compulsive, but it's something that it seems I'm always in the middle of. I may be on the way from the living room to the kitchen when--wait . . . what's that? Do I see dust on the buffet? We'll see about that!--and out comes the Windex and paper towels and the world has to wait until I tend to business and clean that damn buffet. And by the time that's over and done with Jodi has more than likely gotten whatever it was I went into the kitchen to retrieve.

But if I die a sudden death on my way back to the couch from the kitchen I want the house to at least look nice for the police.

Morbid. Like I was saying.

I blame my sweet mother.

For a woman whose under-the-sink cabinets were crammed full of cleaners, sponges, scrub brushes, dusting wands, scouring solutions, trash bags, cleaning rags and paper towels she sure couldn't keep the house clean.

Forgive me mom, but you know it's true.

It's been a few months since we have been relieved of the burden of caring for my dearly departed mother and aunt's home in Mattapoisett. I could never find a way to fully thank Jodi for helping me through the process that was the "excavation" of the place. But she stuck with me until it was all said and done. Just unbelievable that it took as long as it did and cost as much in time, energy and cash.

And while my mother was one of the cleanest people I ever knew--both in personal hygiene and language--her hoarding had always held her personal space hostage.

Oh sure, I was given plenty of cleaning details as a kid. Oiling the knurled oak kitchen table and chairs with a bottle of Old English (not the malt liquor) and a few of her old undies for rags (yes, it's true. But at least she recycled) was one of my least favorite things to do in the world. But I did it and it always looked beautiful.

Cleaning the couple of mirrors that were still visible was on the list, too. As was vacuuming and trying to clean up the many accidents that our dogs would leave on the rugs.

But the "stuff" that filled every room in the house I grew up in except for one (the addition, of course) was so overwhelming that all one could really hope to achieve by cleaning is the barest of bare minimums.

And as children oftentimes grow up to be the exact opposite of their parents you can see why I practically have a holster for my Windex and a roll of paper towels strapped across my back. Why I'm always in the process of keeping areas clear of clutter. When I see a pair of socks on the floor they come up to the laundry room immediately. When the coffee grounds scatter on the counter top I clean them up before I make my next move. The trash never stays in the back room more than a few days and the recycling goes out once a week. The laundry gets done before the basket starts to overflow and the kitchen gets swept after each meal. The fridge gets vacuumed (yes, you heard me) to get all the little bits of parsley and cilantro stuck in the back of the crisper. And the toilets get scrubbed as often as I can remember to do it.

And I do this for me and I do this for Jodi and I do this for my mom.

I know for a fact that she was always like this though.

I remember my aunt telling me a story about an illustration by her that I found. It was of the bedroom they shared on Bedford St. She must have been twelve or so when she drew it. It was just a sketch but it was a room that was completely strewn with items--books, clothes, furniture, boxes, etc.--and a bed in the middle of it all.

I asked her about it and she said she drew it to try and help my mom after a particularly embarrassing episode involving the police.

The story goes that the house was broken into back in the 50s. And when the police came in to interview everybody they looked around the whole house and stopped at my mom and aunt's room.

It was trashed.

And my mom said it must have been the burglars that did it. They had come into little Judy Johnson's room and they must have been really looking for something important . . . because it was the only room that looked that way. Sure, lots of things were missing from the rest of the house, but at least you could walk through those rooms.

And, of course, it wasn't the burglars that made the little mess; it was Judy.

But my mother, even as a small girl, had found a special way to get through her days. She took all the things that interested her and collected them and stored them and protected them in whatever area she was given as her own, even if she was sharing it with her poor sister. As she grew older those spaces became bigger and bigger as people like my grandfather moved out of the house and down the street. When my grandmother passed away she had even more spaces to call her own. And so, with her estate expanding we would go from flea market to church bazaar to craft fair and buy, buy, buy.

We'd drive back to Fall River after a long day at the "games" regaling each other with the great deal we got on this or that. It was a special bonding time we shared--mother and son--and it's something I will always cherish even though I can now see it as learning a potentially destructive habit. But we would joyfully bring our loot back to the house carting bag after bag up the two flights of stairs towards the sound of the barking dogs that welcomed us back with our gifts to ourselves.

I would bring my treasures to my room and she to hers. These things made us happy then. But what we were doing was collecting things we didn't really need and filling our living space with it. Sort of like flea market beavers building a dam.

It was highly ironic to realize that all of these things that we bought, stored, used and forgot about ended up on the lawn of the house in Mattapoisett when we had our own yard sale.

And of course we brought back carload after carload of the really good stuff (my mom would be so proud) to our house. So now we have transported it from it's original owners to Fall River to Mattapoisett and finally 300 miles away.

The cycle of stuff. 

This life is completely subjective as long as you don't hurt anybody or yourself. You can really do whatever the hell you want for the most part. As long as you can make or save enough money to support yourself and your family nobody should be able to give you much grief.

And who is to say that my dear mom didn't live exactly as long as she was supposed to live (65 years)? I have no idea and I have no reason to really be suspicious.

But something I have learned and continue learning is that our body is like a riverbed. And the experiences that we have are the water that runs through it. The daily details of a life in progress smooth the rough stones and nurture the algae. They erode the edges away at the same time carrying the fine silt that may someday form an island that could provide shelter. Life thrives. Love grows. We see our reflection in its clear, uneven, rolling, liquid ribbon and take comfort that we are lucky enough to have found it--that someone gave birth to us and got us to the point where we could step back and look at the landscape and breathe.

It is a fine balance, it is non-stop, and it is not optional if one wants to remain healthy in mind, body and spirit. 

I could sit all day on the edge of a stream and watch as the water and all its inhabitants--living and non--float down out of view. But unlike a public fountain I can't really comprehend where the beginning or the end of it is--that it's simply the same water cycled over and over. As I look both ways over the flowing water all I can see is all I can see. And after that I have to just trust that there is a place where if you walk to a certain point past it, there is no river--where you can just see the water starting out on its journey. And then at the end where I can visualize a finish line and walk past it to a place where the land takes over and the water is done for the day.

But this analogy has a dark side, of course. Because the experiences that life rains down on us in all our waking hours are not all positive. Some are extremely damaging. And their introduction into our waterway can sometimes flood our banks and cause severe destruction. They may deluge our being, roiling the ground and carrying away bridges and dams. The travails and missteps we make or are exposed to can sometimes cause such buildup and blockage that this stream that once was a painter's perfect subject is now brimming with heartache so great that our souls feel as if they were driven from their village.

And we have to wait it out if our psyche will allow and try to rebuild as best we can. Because we all need water to live even if it can kill us. 

So I drink lots of water.

I exercise.

I talk to my girlfriend if I don't feel right.

I pick weeds when I see them.

I do the laundry when it needs doing.

I vacuum.

I dust.

I recycle.

I call the people I care about.

I call some people I haven't called in a long time.

And I try to always remember that what comes in this house comes in because we brought it in. Just like I had to remember that I was the only person responsible for pouring alcohol down my throat. It didn't just jump in there on its own.

There are boxes of letters and photos, old clothes and posters. Remnants from my time on this earth up until . . . well, today, I guess, if you count the mail and the newspaper. There are choices I have to make on what to keep and what can go. As much as my ego would like to let me believe that someday somebody will want to know all about me and my life I have to remember that this is not a museum.

And I suppose that all the rebelling against my mom that I did when I was a teenager--how I wasn't going to end up a goodie two shoes who didn't drink, smoke, or do drugs--I guess that has kind of bitten me right smack dab in the ass.

So I suppose what's left to rebel against is really just a matter of keeping the river in my mind, body and household flowing.

I have to have the room to move, to clean, to breathe, to grow.

Almost 44 years of life have dug my river bed.

Now I just need to let the water go where it wants to go.

Thanks for reading.