Friday, May 30, 2008

Day one hundred and fifty two ... Wear and tear.

Sometimes everything just works like it should.


Then there are the days the guy at the tire store tells you he can't repair your flat, and you have to get four new tires.


That's what happened to me yesterday and it damn near floored me. 



I take good care of my car. I get it the necessary oil changes almost every 3,000 miles, and I try not to drive it too hard.


But, I also drive in some sketchy areas where nails grow wild like sweet briar. 


It was a slow leak


I was driving with my aunt last week and a guy honked at me and pointed down at the back wheels of my car. At first I thought, "Yeah, I know, sick rims." Then I came to and realized he was probably pointing out something important that I should be aware of.


I had been riding on a tire that was well past half empty. We found an air pump without too much trouble and arrested the situation for the day. The next few days I played catch-up and kept it as full as I could. I had to get through the holiday weekend, then I planned to take care of it.


Which brings us to yesterday.


I stopped at the popular place downtown where there were 10 people gathered in a starkly appointed waiting room. I spent five minutes at the counter with no one in front of me and endured an uncomfortable game of avoidance with the clerk. This, I was fine with, as it allowed me to turn around and leave without engaging in the rites of commerce.


I went to the next place, where I was the only customer. The man was nice enough, and regrettably informed me that due to my Subaru's all-wheel drive, I would need four new tires, or face possible transmission problems in the future. He said the other three tires I had on had at least a few thousand miles on them, which made it all the worse. He quoted me a price of almost four hundred dollars. I shuddered, filled up my water bottle at his cooler, used the bathroom, said I'd be back, and fired up the Smart Start.


My donut had a few more miles to endure.


But here's the thing. I went down the street and into the other tire store (there are at least 6 in my town). I talked to the man there. He told me his buddy in Greenfield might have a used one, but warned me that it needed to be within an eighth of an inch difference in tread-wear or I was looking for trouble. I took his card, wrote down the name and number of his associate, and left.


I called him today.


See, these are the things I enjoy doing now. I have accrued the confidence in myself to enable me to make that uncomfortable phone call--the one where I must attempt to find the best deal and lowest price for an item from someone whose job depends on selling me something five times the price.


It's that fear of rejection that I don't experience anymore. I know it sounds weird, but I always used to not want to bother asking more than I had to from someone, on the off chance they might think I'm some kind of degenerate, which not too long ago I very much was.


And, much like my car, the average human needs a certain amount of balance in their life or the whole operating system may suffer damage. If one facet has too much wear and tear on it, it makes the other, less worn aspects, cover for it, eventually bringing to the fore cracks in the foundation that hadn't been planned for. 


I called up the man in Greenfield.


He put me on hold and went downstairs and checked his stock.


He came back on and told me he had the tire I needed, and it would be $40 plus installation.


Hot damn!


So, I rode that donut the 20 miles or so to the store. I went in, and the man measured the two tires. The tread-wear was exact; we had a match.


He had his guy install it and took the old one off my hands for four bucks disposal fee. The donut got put back, and my tire-changing tools returned to their hidey-holes.


That phone call saved me three hundred and fifty bucks.


Once again, it worked because my life, regardless of the situations outside of my control, is balanced; all facets are contributing to my success. Like the donut I had used for the last few days, I had been employing a crutch--several of them--just to make it through to the next day. They worked like they should for a temporary spell, then, if you continue to rely on them, you risk suffering damage to the rest of the machine.


The same goes for repairing one worn piece with a new one; the newer, overachieving element is out of place with the older, more in-sync parts, and you still have a problem.


I won't say I'm at top working condition. For that I'd need a whole new set of tires, and I simply am not ready for a full replacement, and neither are my treads--they still have a few thousand miles to go. But, in taking the initiative and seeking out a remedy that will satisfy the rest of my parts, I can keep moving ahead with steady, confident, level momentum.


I'll put that $350 to use filling up my tank, driving my awesome car and preparing all of my tires for a predictable end-of-life replacement. They've traveled pretty far, but there's still miles to go.


And anyway, donuts work much better, enjoyed one at a time, dipped in a nice, hot, cup of tea.  


Thanks for reading.


F.A.J.




Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day one hundred and fifty one ... Thinking inside the box.

I got a new laptop last week.

It's a fantastic machine: small, powerful, and elegant. 

And as with most products we buy today, it came with some pretty fancy packaging.

I, of course, have saved almost every scrap of it, just in case. Because, if something goes wrong with my new baby, I might very well have to return it and I'm going to need that packaging, right?

I wonder how long I'll keep the stuff around. Knowing me, probably for a long, long, time.

It's an interesting habit. I have plenty of boxes from various other pieces of electronic and/or musical gear collecting dust in my closet. Some of them I have filled with papers or miscellaneous gewgaws. Some still have the Styrofoam that held the precious cargo safe on its journey from the factory to the shelves to my grubby mitts. 

I don't really know what I'm saving them for. I don't plan on moving anytime soon, and I'm sure most of the products that came in said boxes are well past warranty, but I hold onto them anyway, just in case. 

There is a proper life-cycle with my boxes. They usually stay upstairs for a year or two. Then, when too many of them build up, I move a few to the basement. There they'll sit and slowly, gradually develop a musty odor. Over time, their resilience will dissipate and they become fragile. If I let them stay long enough they will weaken at the corners, essentially losing their purpose. Then I have to start all over again with a fresh one from upstairs.

It is a slow, monotonous, cycle.





After I stopped drinking, it took me a long time to get rid of the empty cans in my closet.

It wasn't  just because I was without a car. It wasn't just because I was holding on to them for the day I knew would come when I needed the extra couple of dollars. It was because I knew that when they left--if I was successful in my attempt to get sober--I would never see them in my house again. 

They represented so much of what my life had become. From the cookouts at friend's places, to rehearsal with my band, to a baseball game, to reading the newspaper, I always had a bottle of something in my hand. Much like when I smoked, it gave me something to do with my fingers--a way to feel less awkward. I'm sure that falling down drunk on the ground at public events was a much better tack. 

But, it still amazed me how long I kept those damn empties in my closet. "I'm not through yet" I could hear my subconscious mind say. "It's not over until I say it's over" was another lingering desperate thought. And since I hadn't put much space between myself and my vices, it seemed plausible. I had less to lose. 

Those empties were a badge of dishonor, worn with pride.

I can only see this now, but I always had a feeling the big clean-up was an eventuality.

Similarly, I know that someday the time will come to throw away those old boxes, especially the ones with the custom-formed Styrofoam, made to fit one particular item. I have always valued those above the plain, empty ones. I felt that if I find out a specialty box's item is broken, I may still have time to send it back to get fixed but I'll have to prepare it as it came. I just can't predict when, or if it will indeed break, so for now, I'll keep in over here.



It's interesting to me to see how some people harbor these vestiges of insanity in their perimeter, as if to say, "I might need this somewhere down the road. It's not taking up too much space. Why not keep it?" And the paraphernalia sits silently behind a closet door, or in the basement along with the old boxes proclaiming on the outside what used to be contained on the inside. We so rarely let on what motives drive us to our destinations. Much like the gas that propels cream from a canister, it could kill you if it came at you too quickly. But, in the right proportion, it will make that strawberry shortcake to die for. 


The way I see it, the warranty on one's sanity is only valid if we keep up with the recommended maintenance. This, of course, differs from person to person. But, if we abandon the idea that we have to fit into the packaging that we came in, we give ourselves more options. If we forgo the idea of a form-fitting protective casing, and instead leave ourselves open to the idea of using a roomier box, stuffed with an alternative like packing peanuts, then we increase our odds of success. We cannot accurately predict the day in which we will break, or if we even will. But when, and if that day comes, the service centers ultimately need only the object that is broken, not the protective shell that is intact. 

For a price, almost anything can be repaired.

Our contents are changing shape on a daily basis. Some shrink, others expand, others still shift in almost imperceptible increments; like a friend on a successful diet who we see on a daily basis. The change is minute and we may not notice it until someone else points it out. It is then that we can't believe we hadn't said something. It is the spirit and energy we recognize, the shell merely allows form and function to exist.

So now, as I write, the box my new laptop came in is staring at me from the corner of the room. It's almost as if it's saying, "I know what you're writing. That laptop used to be inside me and it was perfectly happy. I'm too pretty to throw away and you might need me for something else."



Hmm ... maybe I'll give tech support a ring. See if they ever had problems with talking boxes. It is from California ... I suppose anything's possible.


Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.















Monday, May 26, 2008

Day one hundred and forty nine ... In memoriam.

I'm not what you would call the military type.

Those who know me are probably chuckling right about now.

I was in college back during the first Gulf War and remember feeling like quite the perfect specimen for service. I was young, strong, slim, and if you had asked my girlfriend at the time, single.



Since then I've been pretty much on my way to the bottom of the "desirable" list as far as the military is concerned. I never liked work, I was never good at doing push-ups, and I've seen enough of the world at this point to not let the allure of traveling to foreign lands entice me.

But I live in an age where more people disagree over the righteousness of war than ever before.

Life was a bit different back in 1941. 









Meet my great uncles.



Here are the twins, Paul and Peter.










































Paul, above, was a navigator in the Air Force. Peter, below, was a bombardier.












This is Eddie Machnik.

Eddie was in the Merchant Marines. My aunt tells me that Eddie, during WW2, had the harrowing experience of escaping, multiple times, from liberty ships which had sunk right underneath him. I was unaware what Merchant Marines did until today. From what I'm told, the Merchant Marine is the fleet of ships which carries imports and exports during peacetime, and becomes a Naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war material. Sounds like a pretty hairy delivery job to me. Bad neighborhoods take on a whole new meaning.




This here is Daniel.


He's a Navy boy, through and through; he looks like a fun kind of guy. That cocky smile makes me think he would be a person you'd want on your side when the shit hits the fan--whether in a barroom or on a detail.


Man, people just look different in photos from long ago. It was so much more of a special occurrence--having your picture taken--almost a privileged ritual. I love the way people took a portrait pose seriously, so as to say, "this is a time consuming process and I want to look my absolute best if the photographer is going to have to spend an hour or so developing the damn thing." 

I, on the other hand, took pictures of a fish today, just because it looked funny. Immediately following that I photographed the food I was about to eat. Not so much of a privileged ritual I suppose. But we get our kicks a bit differently than even people half our age--damn Milennials. Spoiled little brats. They'll get theirs ... which would be the $125 an hour they charged me to fix my damn computer last year.

I try to spot little similarities in facial features when I look at these pictures. I see we have the same ears. Right about level with the eyes they have a tiny flare. Not too much, just enough to say, "I'm listening, that's what I do best." I never noticed a uniqueness to my ears until I was sitting in Berlin with my cousin Andrew who I hadn't seen in years. Dan Richardson, the Young at Heart Chorus' soundman, was sitting next to us and said. "You guys have the same ears." 

And so we did--and still do.


And then we come to Freddy.

                                                                                   
                                                                                       
Freddy was the youngest of the brothers. He was given to my babush, by her mother, after a slew of previous boys and told, "this one is yours." Naturally, he and my babush had a strong bond. After my babush had my mother, Freddie wrote every week and sent special wishes back to the new baby.

For that reason I was given his name.

As you can see, there is a gold star at the bottom of his photo. 

Freddie Machnik, an Air Force pilot, was shot down over the South Pacific in 1942 and was killed. The gold star is to signify that he was killed while serving his country.

The story of Freddie Machnik's death, passed down to me by my mother, from her mother, is a remarkable one.

It is said that, one day in 1942, my babush (my grandmother) went to visit her mother in Taunton. When she arrived, her mother, Anna Machnik, was crying.

When my babush questioned her, she told her that she had had a terrible dream. She had dreamt that Freddie was shot down by an enemy plane. It was a vivid, horrific dream, in which she claimed to have seen the incident occur and could remember the exact layout of the land below him. 

She believed it to be an omen.

Later that week, an Air Force officer arrived, in full uniform, and handed Anna Machnik a telegram informing her of Freddie's death. 

The telegraph confirmed that he indeed had been shot down on the same night Anna had experienced the terrible dream.

When the body was brought to Taunton, the Honor Guard who accompanied it had also been a member of Freddie's squadron; he had been flying that night alongside him. Anna spoke with the officer and asked him questions regarding the course of events that fateful night.

The story goes that the details matched up to the dream she had had almost exactly.

Sometimes we need a more hallowed name for the coincidences we cannot, and need not understand fully. 






Freddy, and Eddie, and Danny, and Peter, and Paul, (as well as my first uncle, Alex, who I will spend more time on in future installments) all served the great country we live in and have passed on to the next world.

They did what they felt was right and just to make their family proud and to honor their homeland. 

To them I bid a good night, and a fond farewell.

You are missed today by some who never even knew you.




Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.









Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day one hundred and forty eight ... The lawnmower man.

I've always wanted to drive a train.

Where I come from, there's a place called Edaville Railroad. At Edaville, one could spend the better part of the day viewing, touching, reading about, and playing upon trains of all sorts. It was the place to go on school field trips.

There was even a miniature train that went around the perimeter that you could ride for a couple of bucks--a couple of Mom's bucks.

It's probably for the best that I didn't ever save too much money back in those days. I know what I would have spent a whopping seven dollars on if I had the chance: a giant, over sized, novelty eraser. Yes, you heard me--at least a foot long, seven inches wide, pink, rubber, and ready for action. What kind of action, I wasn't sure at the time. It didn't really matter. All I cared about was that it was completely and utterly nonsensical. That's what I was into.

That's still what I'm into.

But, on any given trip to Edaville Railroad, besides being in awe of the giant coal engines or the boxcars I hoped to someday hop on and inhabit--complete with banjo getaway music in the background, and the trail of smoke billowing from the engine car--I always held a special reverence for the kiddie-train operator.

Now, I was certain that it was a pretty easy thing to operate, that part was plain to see. You had a gas pedal, a clutch, a steering wheel and a brake. It ran on a track, so I don't know what good the steering wheel did the driver, except for being a place to put your hands when you weren't holding a cigarette--it was the seventies, remember. I suppose it would look strange without any smoke coming from the engine car.

But all those levers and pedals were useless without the key--the magical key.

Without this little piece of metal, seven or eight screaming kids would turn into seven or eight screaming maniacal tyrants. 

I loved to hear the engine start up.

It meant the fun was about to begin.




I got a special key today.

It is the key to my aunt's lawnmower. I've officially become the garden keeper, the weed whacker, the dandelion slasher.

The Lawnmower Man.

And boy-oh-boy was I psyched to get that thing cookin'.





Candy apple red, manual transmission, a comfy seat with not a speck of room for picking up hitchers, and something I especially was excited about ...

... no Smart Start ignition interlock device. 

I have to say, I haven't cheated once. I haven't drank, but I also haven't tried to drive anyone else's car. That would be a recipe for disaster. I think I like not having to wait until 2018 to have my license back.

But, I was given a short tutorial on how to operate the little bugger. I, of course, kept hurrying my aunt along to get to the part where she gives me the key. I knew how to do this. I'm a guy. Guys know how to do stuff like this upon the exit from the womb.

OK, tough-guy here's your key.

I had to give my aunt the camera and have her film my soon-to-be triumphant first drive on the little red riding-mower.

How about this:

video
















Yeah, I thought it was pretty funny too.

Maybe there was something to driving that train that I overlooked. 

I think I'll just save up for that giant, oversized, novelty eraser.

Perhaps it will come in handy tied to the front of the lawn mower, just in case.



And F.Y.I., the lawn's half done.
The rest I'll tackle on Memorial Day.


You know this guy won't fall asleep at the switch. 


ALL ABOARD!!!



Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Day one hundred and forty six ... Doing what's right.

I've made some really bad decisions in my life.

I once attempted to forge my mother's signature on an elementary school report card.

That didn't go so well.

I thought she might not notice if they "skipped" a report period. As a child in the single digits, I thought this to be completely plausible and doable as a ruse, my mother and aunt being teachers notwithstanding. I remember carefully tracing her steady, determined, and flowing autograph on the canary-colored tri-folded piece of card stock.

I held an old report card over the top of the lamp and put the newer, more regrettable record of the past three months on top of it and did my best to fool the man.

Needless to say, it was a disaster from the very first droplet of ink that came pouring out of that ball-point pen.

You just can't go back after the first drop is loosed. It just starts to smudge and ripple like a Richter scale and then, as you try to erase the mistake, the fibers of pulp break open and fray like cut flesh, and then a drop of sweat leaves an indelible mark and the thoughts come of disposing of the card the fastest, and most permanent way possible, and you come up with a list of alibis which get progressively worse even from before the first one is formulated, almost as if you had just acted on the many urges to kill that flood even the best of us on any given day.

Please don't tell my therapist I said that, OK?

In other words--you're screwed.

That was pretty bad, but it's not the end of the world. You take your lumps and promise to never to do it again and move on with your life. Hopefully the next card will be one you're proud of.

Hopefully.

And as you grow, you make more mistakes.

Some are worse than others. Some are instantly forgettable. Some you never really recover from.

I didn't handle my mother's passing well. I made myself unavailable sometimes when I didn't need to. I did my best to anesthetize my conscious being and really put the pedal to the metal in the short term memory loss that is supposed to come with substance abuse.

The long term stuff has a tendency to bare its teeth and stick around as long as you can-- longer even, if that's possible.

My aunt handled the dirty work. She said she didn't mind. She took my mom to chemo every week and sat in the sterile, invasively lit hospital room and they talked and laughed and cried and lived as best as two people who will soon become one can.

I stayed at home and worked.

I drank almost every night.

I went on the road with my musical groups.

I kept busy in as many ways as I could and that was a great way to avoid a meltdown in plain view of the most important person in my life.

It's not that I didn't visit my mother as much as I could. I did. I don't have many regrets where that is concerned. I'm just thankful that my license was not revoked until after she passed. That would have been unforgivable, and I don't even want to think about what might have happened then.

But, as I have been all my life, I was shielded from the grotesque and harrowing experiences that the average person is unavoidably saddled with. That is one of the ways they showed their love for me. They groomed me to be as free from traumatic experiences as humanly possible.

And I had to screw it up on my own with a never ending quest for obliteration, escape, and avoidance through drugs, alcohol, greed, avarice, and sloth.

I had to invent problems for myself because I was deprived of them as a child.

Now that's about as screwed up as you can get.




As I sit here and write at my virtual podium, trying to come up with the words to help not just me, but anyone who cares to see how many of life's mistakes are universal, I am neither sad nor happy.

I live somewhere in the middle, somewhere where neither the clouds nor the sun obscure my vision.

I am in emotional purgatory, with both hell's fury below me, and heaven's mothering embrace above.

I can see what I have to do because I've seen what I've done.

I'm willing to bring the report card to its intended recipient and either take my lumps or absorb its praises.

Because what I have done, and what I am doing is in plain view. I hide nothing. And because of that I can look upon and experience what I have been shielded from, and it does not scar me any more or any less than a broken bottle to the face. For as long enough blood runs through me I can withstand whatever pain my nerve endings can convey.

Blood runs hot, and blood runs thick, and all of our blood someday will dry up.

So chose carefully where you carry yours, and may your mouth move in sync with your brain and your heart, and may they all agree and do the right thing.

It's not that hard once you get the hang of it.



Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day one hundred and forty four ... Such a bargain.

I've been going out to eat a lot.

There are plenty of good reasons why I've been letting other people cook for me and my companion. We have a plethora of good eateries, and here on the southcoast the seafood is worth whatever they feel the market price is.

Not to mention we are in constant possession of the requisite Dinner For Two book, which is like a frugal gourmet's treasure map, illuminating the way to savory savings. With this book one can dine at many fine establishments and receive their second meal of equal or lesser value, free.

Just don't order any sodas and no one gets hurt, if you know what I mean.

But something has been making its way to the front row of my "newly noticed" pile of junk.

It seems as if almost everywhere we go they are running a "buy-a-dinner-for-two-and-get-a-free-bottle-of-wine" special.

Man, I wish I could get with that program.

I was never a big wine guy.

If it wasn't a date-night, I'd occasionally go with the biggest, cheapest, box of the highest proof red Riunite offered at my local package store. Once it was carefully tapped and balanced on the top shelf of my fridge, I would let its sanguine solution gush forth into my big, purple, plastic cup which had taken the place of the last intact wine glass. By the end of the bag (to which it had been reduced with the ravaging of the paper box it had come in) I would roll it tightly and then crumple, hand-over-hand, until every drop of vino had been squeezed from its silver confines.

So I guess I should ammend my previous statement to say, I was never a big wine guy, except for when I was drinking it.

That makes a bit more sense.

I say "if it wasn't a date-night" because on those nights, I would often opt for a nice bottle of something my date would choose (girls are good at that stuff). And, of course, I'd buy a bottle of vodka to have on reserve as well. As most of the girls I dated did not yet know of my legendary alcohol hobby, it wasn't an issue. Those were the nights I'd buy Grey Goose. I was trying to make a good impression, right? And jeesh, that bottle of wine would be gone in a matter of a couple of hours and then I might have to actually concentrate and talk and stuff. That so wasn't my style.

In the last year, date nights pretty much involved a big bottle of Grey Goose, a bag of ice, some seltzer (lightweights) and coming-to alone, at three in the morning, with the remote in my hand, the TV blaring static, and the videotape of me in a Portuguese wedding band somewhere on it, stopped frustratingly in the middle of an episode of Wiseguy, still in the machine where I had left it.

Needless to say, I never married.

But these bottle-of-wine-with-dinner specials I have been running into everywhere are pretty indicative of the times. It's tough out there. Gas is through the roof. Everything costs more and people are getting laid off everywhere you look.

But ya gotta eat.

And people aren't going to stop going on dates, right? Not at least until they really get to know each other.


You know what I'm thinking right now?

If you're as hard core of an alkie as me, you would.



OK, I was thinking, I wonder if you really need a second person to get that deal.

Maybe get the other meal to go.

You know you're gonna be hungry after that bottle of wine is gone.



Nah, maybe I'll just stick with going out with my companion. She likes me better sober and she pays for dinner.

Now that's a deal we can both get a little out of.


Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Day one hundred and forty one ... This is not a test.

I've been going through a lot lately.

Well, I should say that I've been trying to deal with a lot lately. The only things I've been going through have been the reasons I'm grateful that I am currently clean and sober.

From November, 05 until January, 07, I handled my mother's illness the best way I knew how. I tried my best to do the right things, to say what I meant, to listen to every word, to be there when I should, and to remember how I felt, so that in time, when the dust settled and I could rebuild my life and start feeling normal again, I would recall what it felt like to be crushed by a boulder in the middle of nowhere, without food or water or a pen-knife to cut my arm away at the point where it was broken, and to somehow make it out alive.

This last detail, I hoped, would allow me to never take anything for granted.

I had a safety in my aunt.

I remember telling her, as I was leaving to go to Europe with the Young at Heart back in 2006, how I wouldn't have been able to lead such a glamorous and exciting lifestyle if she weren't back home taking care of things. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said: "Thank you, Alex. I know. Your mother loves you more than life itself and she wants you to be happy. Go fulfill her wishes. Someday it will be your turn to take care of me."

And that trip was a very important one indeed, as I was able to visit my relatives in Poland for a couple of days. It had been my mother's dream to go to there someday with her son. That, of course, had become impossible to do, but I gave her the next best thing: pictures of me with my cousins and aunt and uncle at their home and in Krakow, and the stories to go along with it.

On that fateful trip I called back every few days from the confining, confusing, and very pungent confines a Berlin payphone. We spoke briefly but excitedly of how things were going and what sights I had seen. I had been on, not my best behavior, but certainly not my worst. Upon reaching my destination in Poland I remember passing the phone around to my many relatives so they could speak to their very sick relative. It was one of the things I am most happy I accomplished.

She was so proud that her boy had followed through with the journey. It meant that he was beginning to believe in the worth of perseverance.



Presently, I stand in the middle of the second-most trying time in my life. I have a million variables circling around inside and outside of my head, heart and extremities.

I can see the neon in the package store windows glistening like drool from a hungry lion's mouth.

I can hear the numbers in my dog-eared address book calling me. They were written in my hand, not that long ago, but I can still remember the way I felt when I traced those ten digits with a pen point dripping ink like rain onto a field of poison berries. My, how they grow with the slightest bit of moisture.

And I see my friends partaking in the activities I used to look forward to--more so even, than the reason I was with them.

And I realize why I can't let any of this deter me. I realize that there is only one reason that I am even in the position I am in, where I have the ability and freedom to drive by those package stores, to make a phone call from my phone with no one timing me and listening to every word, and to be with my friends on this crazy journey we are all on, that I all too often take for granted.

I can think as straight as I can walk a line. And, as god is my witness, I will follow that line if it means I walk straight past the brightest neon beckoning in the windows, forsaking the easiest cure-all remedies that man or nature can create, and straight into the lion den, past a sleeping cub and her mother and curl up on the stone floor and feel not the slightest bit of fear, for I am as strong as the fiercest beast of nature.

Strength is power.

Fear forsakes trust.

Time is running out, but I shall beat the clock if it means I am impaled on its insistent, self-propelled pendulum.

Take nothing for granted and you will own no regrets.

Fearless by design, or fearless by default. Once you have become either one, only time will decide who wakes up in the morning, and who sleeps forever.


Thanks for reading.


F.A.J.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Day one hundred and thirty eight ... Take a deep breath for me.

It's been over four months now.

Clean and sober.

No cheating.

I can't believe it myself, except I keep this damn journal, and the number of days is the first thing that gets written in every entry.

Way back on day one, I wrote how I had put up a fresh calendar. I wrote how my many previous attempts of achieving a semblance of sobriety involved drawing an X through each day in which I remained sober.

I also wrote how I wasn't going to do that anymore, as it was an inherently flawed system.

From 'Day one':

" ... this calendar, as I have said, is new. It is a virginal template. Nary a speck of ink has made it's way to the pages good, or bad. As I approach this new year, I have a plan. No more X's. Because putting an X through a day in which I have achieved my goal, allows for the idea that somewhere ... there is, or will be a break, an impasse, a mistake. I have no more room for mistakes ... "

That was way back on January 1st, 2008. It was snowing out and I was petrified of what my future had in store.

My, how a third of a year can change things.

So, today, as I face a new set of challenges which I am not at liberty to discuss yet, I decided to look back at last year's calendar to see what it was like from the beginning of the year, up until May of 2007. May is a big month for me. My birthday, Mother's day, and my mother's birthday all fall within it's digits, and I remember it shook me up quite a bit--damn near did me in.

I had taken my first serious crack at abstinence (from alcohol, at least) at the end of that winter. My mom had died in January, and I took that month and most of the next one to drown in cheap vodka, weed, coke, and pills. All I know is it's a damn good thing I live nowhere near a swimming pool.

At the middle of February, I had adopted my mother's cat, aptly named Meow, and a certain finality had come along with it.

I had made the last-straw call to my maniacal boss (who will get her time in the spotlight, most assuredly) and been subsequently fired. I even had to pay back some sick days I had used in order to quit, that's how bad it had gotten.

And I was obsessed with my X's.

Its funny to see them on the little calendars I use. Some are drawn in marker, some in pen, some even in pencil, which makes it seem as if I had made the marks before the end of a particularly trying day. And there are the days I had crossed out at the start of the day, with the best desperate intentions after a bender, only to be scribbled through with a hand being driven by my many poisons. Then again, three X's in succession has always been the mark of poison, whatever that may connote.

I remember how I would look ahead to see when my next doctor's visit was. As the appointment day approached I'd always put on a good effort to hopefully lessen the numbers on my liver tests. It didn't always work.

As I'd sit in the waiting room, I'd scan my calendar to assess what my rhythm of days on/off had been. I'd mull it over and try to configure an average from how bad I felt, related to how bad I had been.

The results, which, for 9 years had been "fine," started to show the inevitable warning signs.

Dated 1/08/07:

Dear Mr. Johnson,

Your liver tests were high in a pattern that reflects alcohol abuse. I reviewed your records and saw that this is the first time since 1998 that these have been elevated and this represents significant injury from alcohol. I hope you take this as a wake up call to stop alcohol completely this year before this progresses to be a permanent problem with cirrhosis!



With a fresh, generous glass of Smirnoff on the rocks in one hand, and my test results in the other, I read these words. I read them, and read them, and read them again. What did I finally interpret from this letter? What did these outrageously foreboding words tell me?

I inexplicably focused on the fact that I didn't have cirrhosis and that whatever I did have wasn't a permanent problem yet.

Yet.

So, what better way to enjoy the freedom of not yet having cirrhosis? Another couple months of madness.

Dated 3/07/07:

Dear Mr. Johnson,

As you can see, your liver tests are even worse.

And that letter gave me the jolt I needed.

After years and years of recoiling from the fear of what I may find out when I began to let someone look into my brain, I made the big decision to start seeing a therapist--perhaps one of the most important moves I have ever made.

I took a solid month off from drinking. I went back to my doctor and had my blood tested again.

Dated 3/27/07:

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I was delighted to see that your liver tests had improved considerably.

I read that sentence like an 18 year old reads a letter from a university they desperately want to be accepted to. And I remember seeing the word delighted, and it was as if it had read congratulations, welcome to Harvard.

I jumped up and down and called my aunt to tell her the good news.


And I stayed sober sixty nine out of seventy two days.

That, to me, was a miracle. That, to me, was my personal best.

That, to me, was cause to celebrate. Vodka, anyone?

My, how sick and twisted this lie of a lifestyle is--more like a deathstyle, really.

And that brings us up to May, 2007.

I didn't really do too much damage that month, but I did enough. I did enough to make June even worse, and July worse than that and the rest of the summer a struggle in the most desperate race to the finish line, until, in September, I broke four ribs and didn't know it for nine days, until even a quart of vodka a day couldn't stop the pain and I went to my first AA meeting followed by trip to the emergency room.

But that's a story for another day.

The absence of X's on my new calendar is quite a liberating experience, and not just because it means I'm getting healthier. Much like the way substance abuse lures us into an obsessive cycle of actions, marking my log with two swipes of a marker did the same thing. It locked me into a pattern, a habit, a chart not unlike sheet music. The notation on the staff tells us when to play, when to rest, what pitch to employ, and what feeling and rhythm to use.

With the dearth of notation, I am free to enjoy whatever is in my periphery and to expect nothing. My song is constantly changing key, feel, tempo and style.

And it's quite an interesting prospect to try to gauge its impact and ambition with the absence of length and direction.

I have a new doctor now. He didn't ask to see my massive book of medical records that cover the last 10 years.

He took my blood pressure, listened to my heart, and looked at my tongue.

And after he got the results from my blood tests he called me up and said ...

"... Mr. Johnson ... keep up the good work."

Will do, Doc. Will do.

Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Day one hundred and thirty six ... A pampered pair.

This is my mother, Judy, and today is her birthday.


As I write this, it is late in the day. It is, however, still legal, as it is still May 14. I have spent the better part of the day with my aunt, doing things we will never forget. It's always good to aim for that kind of a day, and rarely attainable. But, today we did.

We sang my late mother Stolat, which is the Polish birthday song. It, in my mind, supersedes our American version. The words translate to: A hundred years, a hundred years, may you live a hundred years.

It's decidedly optimistic. Not just happy, but hopeful, too.

But again, the picture above is of one of the finest people ever to walk through this temporary world: Judith Ann Johnson.

She loved birthdays.

And she loved the guy in the picture next to her. That, of course, would be me, F. Alex Johnson.

I love birthdays too.

And one thing about two people who love birthdays is that they know how to do it up right.

Three years ago, I treated my mother to something she had only read about: a pedicure.

We have big, thick, meaty Polish farmer-feet, kind of like a couple of Christmas hams. And in May of 2005, I thought my mother would enjoy something I had done a couple of times.

I mean, you gotta take care of yourself. This includes your face, hands, and feet, as well as your brain and heart.


May 14, 2005.

She showed up on time as usual. I found out one day that she and my aunt would often times arrive early and then wait downtown so as to not show up early and freak me out.

I freak out easily.

So, we took the trip downtown and found a spot. We made our way to the salon and checked in with the receptionist. My mother was gushing, even before we had sat down in the big salon chairs, to the receptionist, that her boy was treating his mother to something very special.

She was so happy, it made the whole room brighter. That's no easy feat in a room full of fluorescents.

We were shown to the salon chairs at the back of the room. They were not only comfortable ...

... they were massage chairs.

If there's one thing that's more fun to watch than my mother in a comfortable chair, is to watch her face as the chair vibrates and pulses on her back. She reserved a special laugh for times like these, a bit of a giggle almost as if she was just shown a semi-dirty picture.

She was shown how to work the controls, and then carefully decided which part of her back would be the next to receive the treatment and with what strength.

And this was all while her feet were soaking--the very first step.

She continued to brag to the salon girls, who were working on us, about how her boy was in a big-time local band called, Drunk Stuntmen. When they said they didn't know who we were, she asked them if they were from out of town.

She was something else, I'll tell ya'.



Here we are with my girl applying a coat of polish to a nice Polish ham.

My mom is taking the photo. I could have asked the girl who was taking care of her to do it, but she was busy ...






















Look at that woman. She can't believe what's happening. I mean, pampering takes on a whole new meaning here. We're not just talking about a new hair-do, that's routine. This is something that is frivolous. This is something that is lavish. This is something that is absolutely, without question, beyond a doubt ...



























... best shown off in a pair of free, disposable flip flops.


Like two peas in a pod, or two hams on a platter.

She talked about this experience a lot over the next couple of years. She was always impressed at the ingenious way I had managed to treat her to something she had always wanted to do, but would have never, in a million years, paid to have done. I knew she was worth it. I knew she would love it. And I knew that it would be the best present she got that day.

But that part was easy. It went without saying that anything I gave her would have been her favorite.

Because she loved me more than anything in the world, and I know she still does.

So mom, I'm sorry to keep you up so late, but I want to let you know that I'm thinking of you. In fact, I kind of never stop.

Stolat, my dear.

I love you.

~Alex





Sunday, May 11, 2008

Day one hundred and thirty three ... For my mother.

There are pictures everywhere.

There are still baking products with handwritten dates on them. All of them have expired except the few I bought last Christmas, for cookies never made.

There are plants still growing that were given long ago--some more thirsty than others.

There are clothes left hanging, clothes folded in bags, clothes put away long ago and forgotten about. Someday soon they will all breathe fresh air, it's just a matter of when.

There is a stream in the backyard which flows, freshly strengthened from a hired pair of healthy hands and legs.

There is grass that is growing as I type. It thrives next to millions of dead, yellow blades.

There are vines slowly killing the trees. The hunter grows faster than the prey and so it, if left unchecked, will endure a long, slow torture.

There are closets filled with products--some frivolous and capricious, some practical and necessary.

There are presents never given.

There are boxes never closed.

There is paper never cut, never folded, never taped.

There are bags with wrapping, given back and forth for years on end. The tape marks tell the story.

There are bows that have been used many times. There are bows that have never seen their intended recipient, not that they were bought for someone in particular. Anyone who was a friend could have been the intended party; some were meant for complete strangers.

There are papers with phone numbers. Some were written to remind for only a short time in the future, some were written to never be forgotten, some were long ago memorized. Why throw away the templates? They almost have a life of their own.

There are some numbers that will soon be dialed.

There are some people who won't pick up the phone. It's a tough habit to break once you start doing it, not that it is without its benefits.

There are plates in the cupboard; some were never used, some were used three times a day, some are so old they could have fed five generations.

There are the animals on both sides of the glass.

There are the figurines made of melted sand, for that is what glass is.

There is the short walk to the beach which I used to take every Thanksgiving and Christmas to collect my thoughts and ponder what may lie ahead in the new year. I didn't do it last year, now I wish I had.

There are the tears on my hands, on my sleeves, on my shirts, on the floor, on my cheeks, on my lips, and on my tongue; soon those will become born again and have a chance to land elsewhere. Such is the cycle of water.



And there is now.

And there is this now, once removed.

And for the love of god, I am alive and I have the power of a million suns. And they can either grow the food to feed a planet, or burn skin red and blistered which I feel I do in equal amounts.

Thank goodness the night eventually comes to settle me down.

And at this present moment, twice removed from what came mere sentences ago, I can feel the joy I have felt for as long as my lungs have breathed fresh air, when I came to be known as Frederick Alexander Johnson, and I was held up to the light and given to the unpredictability of life.

And a family smiled and cried.

And some things never change.




This is dedicated to Judith Ann Johnson (May 14, 1941-Jan 11, 2007) who may have wished my words to be a bit less dark.

But that's only because she was such pure light.

Happy Mothers Day Mom. I miss you more than you could ever know. Although, perhaps I am being presumptive.


Love forever and ever,

Alex.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Day one hundred and thirty one ... The ruse.

"Al, we have a photo shoot to do in Boston tomorrow, make sure you bring a few changes of clothes."

This information, which Steve imparted to me on a dreary May afternoon in 1999, came as both a letdown, and thrill.

"But that's my birthday."

"Yeah, I know it's your birthday, but it was the only day we could get the photographer, and he's giving us a deal."

Oh boy, a deal. Everybody gives us deals. We must be special--or likeable and broke. That was more likely.

And so, on the morning of May 9th, 1999, I gathered my things. I picked out a couple of suit jackets, a couple of cowboy shirts, my nicest pants, some boots and my leather cowboy hat.

"Don't forget to bring your Red Sox hat," yelled Terry, as we were loading up the van.

"Why?"

"Just bring it! We all are."

"Okee-dokee."

So, I grabbed my stuff and headed out to the van. I opened up the back door to see Steve and Scott pouring a bag of ice over what must have been 2 cases of beer.


That was the first thing that seemed weird.


"Whoa!" I said, "That looks like a good time."

"Correction, my friend," Steve said, "That looks like a great time."



Hmm ... we're going to do a photo shoot. Why would we need so much beer? My problem then had been the same as ever: I drank too much, all the time.

I did, on occasion, learn a few things back in those days. One of them was to not ask too many questions. We had beer ... lots of beer ... and it was 9 in the morning.

"Got your hat?" Terry asked.

"No man. I couldn't find it. I looked all over."

"Hmm ... well ... I guess you're shit out of luck then."

Soon it was time to leave, and every one packed into the big, white, van.

It was then that I realized that I was the only one who brought a change of clothes.


That was the second thing that seemed weird.


Once again, best not to ask too many questions.

"Sucks having to do this on your birthday, don't it Fred?" said Steve from the driver's seat.

"I've had worse ones."

And that was quite true.

We rode on down the Pike to Boston, drinking, smoking, and generally having a great time for ourselves. We had gotten good at a few things as a band over the years. Having fun was certainly one of them.

Flash forward about an hour and a half.

"Anybody know where this photography studio is?" asked Steve from the front.

"No, but take this exit," said Terry.

It was the Fenway Park exit.


That was the third thing that I thought was weird.


"Well, if we can't find any parking near his studio," Steve said, "we'll just have to suck it up and park in one of these lots for $20."


And my hands started to tingle from the inside out like they do when I'm anticipating something that couldn't possibly be happening. It had crossed my mind on the ride down there, but no, we had a photo shoot to do, they couldn't possibly have planned something like that. Just thinking it was a maybe, made me consider that I was being self-centered.

And then it happened.

Terry, who had been sitting in the passenger seat looked back at me and smiled. He reached under the seat below him, and produced my hat.

My Boston Red Sox hat.

"Here ya go, Fred. I think, where we're going, you'll be needing this. Happy Birthday!"

And I looked at Steve, and Bow, and Scott, and then back at Terry.

"But ... my hat ... how did you ... ?"

"I took it off of your mantle when you were searching under the couch," Terry said. "you'd make an awful security guard."


And I just smiled and smiled and smiled. I looked out the window of the van, at all the people milling about around their cars, in their reds and whites, drinking, smoking, and laughing. There was a special magic in the air that day. I wondered how many other people had been taken for a ride like me, by their best friends, on their birthday, to one of the greatest places in the world.

I took off my hat, dusted off the big red "B," shook it by the brim until it looked right, put it on my head and pulled down on the brim until it felt secure.

And then I went to the game with my friends.

Life doesn't get much better than that.



Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.





Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty-nine ... Reality check.

I watched a lot of TV as a kid.

I watched probably more than I should have, though I'd be willing to bet that kids today watch even more than I ever could have if I tried.

Back in the seventies, we had to watch it at home on bulky, heavy, noisy, televisions with a clumsy antennae, and a precious brown or black IV providing the lifeblood from the wall socket. We couldn't bring our shows around with us in our pockets. Not even the Jetsons could do that.

But, as a child of the seventies, there was a certain responsibility to keep up with one's shows. I mean, it was a golden time for sit-coms. Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, M.A.S.H., Barney Miller, The Love Boat, The Jeffersons ...
















... and Three's Company.


Oh boy, what a concept. A straight guy posing as a gay guy so he can split the rent with two girls in an apartment that was owned by an older uptight married couple who, if they found out the gay guy was straight, would raise holy hell and kick him out--kick them all out, probably.

It was groundbreaking television in a golden age of sit-coms. And a show that had any desire to last longer than a 30 minute pilot had to have memorable characters.

Jack, Janet, and Chrissy. Classic, American, television icons.

I liked Chrissy more than Janet because I kind of felt bad for her. I knew she was smarter than they made her out to be. She had been unfortunately cast in a stereotype (whatever that meant to a 7 year old) and ended up looking aloof and incompetent.

Your classic, dumb, blonde.

I wasn't aware, back in the mid to late seventies, that I was sitting too close and watching shows which would one day become legendary in the pantheon of TV. I had a sense that prime time was something special seeing that many of the people I saw from 8-10pm would follow me to school--in the form of a lunchbox, that is.

But not everyone made it out with a name.

I remember Norman Fell, who played Mr. Roper. I remember his name mostly because his was one of the few names I knew that was also a sentence. Mrs. Roper's real name was, and is, inconsequential. Poor Mr. Roper, he had a tough life getting yelled at all day and night by his battle-axe wife. I always thought they were mismatched.

Mr. Furley, who replaced The Ropers, was, of course, the inimitable Don Knotts. Nobody's going to forget him.

John Ritter was just everywhere back then. His name was easy to remember, although I often called him Jack Tripper when referring to his real name and vice versa.

Janet, I can't remember, and won't take the easy way out and Google her. She has already proved my point.

But Christmas "Chrissy" Snow, The queen of the ditz, the blondest of the blondes, now she was memorable. Suzanne Somers name was easy for me. Summer was my favorite time of year, and "Oh Suzanna" was, and still is, a great song.

I remember when Chrissy was written off in 1980. Her "cousin", Cindy, filled in for a couple of years. In 1982, Teri, a nurse, moved in, permanently filling the spot until the end of the show's run in 1984. Teri was palpable, and incidentally written to have been born in Longmeadow, MA, but she was no Chrissy Snow. She was no Suzanne Somers. And I dare any of you to remember Teri's real name off the top of your heads.

No cheating. Okay, pencils down ... like I suspected, nothin'.

Suzanne Somers stayed in the spotlight by making it follow her. She never stopped once. She may have dropped off the movie making circuit, unlike the late John Ritter, but she has remained firmly planted in the American collective conscious. I mean, America is famous for a lot of influential and popular inventions: the telephone, the phonograph, the Lava Lamp, the electric guitar ...

















... and the ThighMaster.

From the "As Seen on TV" website: "To tighten and strengthen your inner thighs and hips simply place ThighMaster gold between your legs and squeeze."

Millions upon millions of these incongruously shaped products have ended up in the possesion of us easily persuaded Americans, whether it be in the rec room, the basement, or Monday morning after a tag sale on the front lawn next to a sign that says, "free."

But the ThighMaster wouldn't be as popular a product if it weren't for the face behind the name: Suzanne Somers.

So when I asked the production assistant at the Ellen Degeneres show (where I was performing with the Young at Heart Chorus) who was the featured guest on the show they were taping, and she said, Suzanne Somers, my heart skipped a beat.

I knew I needed to meet her, I knew I needed a photo, and I knew some folks who would just love to hear all about it.

She had come on to shill her newest product, the FaceMaster It is a device that looks a bit like an electric toothbrush. You plug it in, attach the special pads to the end, touch it all over your face, and presto, your wrinkles will disspear. It uses what it calls "Collagen Enhancing Serum."

Um ... no comment.

The important thing was, she was there: Suzanne-Chrissy Snow-Somers.

I busied myself lingering about in the hallways of the Ellen Show, which are lined with giant photos of Ellen with past guests. Prince, Paul McCartney, Oprah, DeNiro, Nicholson, Trump, Richard Simmons, and the list goes on. We don't get Ellen where I live, and I don't think I'd really be up for watching her if we did, but I had no idea she was so huge.

I was asked to not block the hallway, very nicely, from a security guard. This, I took as if I were being told that the tag sale I'm standing at isn't open for another fifteen minutes--politely, and positively, but not fully. My eyes were on the prize.

I turned down one hallway and saw the giant rack of shopping bags. Johnny Choo, Prada, Gucci, Betsy Johnson, and more, all stacked on top of each other precariously against the wall. This was Suzanne's, no doubt. She had made a day of it.

I went back to the green room and watched Suzanne and Ellen on the monitor. They were pleasant enough to each other. Ellen didn't give Suzanne too much trouble about her new "beauty" products, but she did make a few offhand comments about the "ButtMaster" as you could expect.

Cue the applause, and the sound of the door at the end of the hall opening up, providing a strange mix from the monitor in the green room on my left, and the same sound of clapping coming from the source on my right, 100 feet away.

Then she appeared: Chrissy. Suzanne. And she walked right towards me, flanked by two personal assistants, with her orange-tanned face tight like a over-inflated dodge-ball. To quote my friend, Steve Sanderson, from an interview in the Valley Advocate: "(she) ... looks like somebody jammed hooks on each side of her face, put a boot behind her head and started pulling ... "

Well put, Steve.

But I'm electric. I have my camera in one hand. She walks quickly towards the green room where the band, all dressed in black, are milling about, and says ...

"... These must be the musicians ..."

I press the power button on my camera. The lens opens quickly and I say:

"Ms. Somers ... could I get a photo with you ...?"

"Sure ... why not?"

I look down and the screen on my camera is displaying the date in giant, revolving, purple letters. What the hell? I had just purchased the camera for this trip and have used it probably 100 times and this has never happened ... oh, my god.

I look to my right. Jeff is there. Thank god.

Jeff Derose is our photographer and incidentally, Diane's, our production manager's, husband

I correctly guess that his camera is presently working.

"Jeff! ... Jeff! ... can you please take our picture?"

And he hoists a giant black camera to his eye.

I, in turn, put my arm around the person I watched every week on TV from 1977-1980 ... the person who introduced America to an iconic workout machine ... the person who embodied and promoted the idea of the ditzy blonde ...




























The person that just made my day.

Thank you Suzanne for taking the time to smile for the camera.

And thank you all for reading a self-indulgent chapter which I just couldn't keep to myself.


This post is dedicated to the following:

John Ritter (9.17.48-9.11.03)

Norman Fell (03.24.24-12.14.98)

Audra Marie Lindley--Mrs. Roper (9.24.18-10.16.97)

And, of course, Don Knotts (7.21.24-2.24.06)

Without whom, many laughs would have never come from these lungs.

Thank you.

PS: Teri was played by Pricilla Barnes.

And no, I couldn't leave out Joyce DeWitt who played Janet.

Fearless by Default is filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty-eight ... Together, we grow apart

Nobody asks the trees.

I bet it's hardly ever given a thought.

I mean, it's a silly proposition if you stop to think about it--asking a tree what it thinks.

Where do you speak?

In all of nature, if, or when, one talks aloud to a plant, or a rock, or a body of water, we usually just assume, because we are doing something completely illogical, that the object in question can hear us, see us, and, if for some strange reason it is paying attention to us, give our question or comment any consideration at all.

Maybe it's asleep.

We, as the self absorbed, vain, and ignorant animals that we are, just figure that if we are doing something--anything--that we are being paid attention to.

I love to see the parents who will let their children carry on, and on, and on, while they just sit there and read, or talk to a companion. It is also interesting to note whether said companion has a look of worry or concern that the parent isn't paying attention to their child; I suppose they'll get their chance someday, if they so desire.

I used to think this was a sign of bad parenting. But when it is done with the right intent--to show the child that they are not the sole being in the universe--I can predict its effectiveness in deterring acquisition of narcissistic tendencies in the future.

I wish my mom had done it.

But I grew up to be a model, if not above average, specimen of the human race, right?

Right. (insert sarcastic grimace, please)

But nobody asked the trees, and they are older than any of us are, or could ever hope to be.




I have a lot of strange mental habits. A lot of them have recently been sent packing as a result of my abstinence from drugs and alcohol, for which I am grateful. It's a large part of what keeps me on track.

Some of these habits I can't even recall if I tried; they were part and parcel of the practice of intoxication.

But there is one that I recall quite vividly each time I take a walk downtown.

The Drinking Tree.

I have a shortcut where I live. I have only had a car for a year and change, and I haven't always had a bike. So, when I would walk downtown, which almost always included a trip to the package store, I used to take this alternate path through the woods.

There is a large tree on this path with a medium-sized branch that sticks out at a 90 degree angle at the trunk. It must have broken off in a storm. The branch is sort of growing from a hollow portion of the trunk; it looks cool.

One day, a few years ago, I started to talk to this tree.

This was well before my mother passed on and I began to talk aloud even more often.

I can't even recall when it started--talking to the Drinking Tree--but it became somewhat of an obsession, a good luck ritual. I mean, who knows? If you ask the average human, they'll say they know, but perspective is so hard to attain, let alone practice.

It was almost always on my way back through the shortcut that I would exhibit this behavior. The walk from my house past the Drinking Tree was always quicker than my journey back. Because, of course, on my way back I'd have what I needed: a bottle of vodka in a brown bag, and a safe, wooded, unlit path home.

Anyway, when I'd get to the Drinking Tree, halfway up the path, I would stop. I'd crack open the bottle, forcing its red, plastic top away from the jagged poof-of-purchase ring with a full, quick, and economical twist. Then, holding the cap in my right hand, and the bottle in my left, I would step up to the tree.

"Hello, Drinking Tree," I'd say.

"I know, I know, I should be taking better care of myself. But I'm really in a bad way and this is the only thing I know how to do to make myself feel better. You know I'm trying, right?"

These words, I have said, for real, on any given occasion, to a tree on the edge of a wooded hillside.

Crazy-talk, right?

Maybe.

But I wouldn't stop there. No, this kid had to take it one step further.

After making my presence known, and occasionally responding to an unheard comment, I would tip the bottle towards the trunk of the tree and pour an ounce or so on the ground, essentially giving the Drinking Tree a shot of my $5.99-a-pint vodka.

"Drink up, Drinking Tree. It was good talking to you."

And I'd go home.

What the hell is this kid on?

I don't know why, in fact, I did this.

Was it to pretend I wasn't drinking alone? Did I feel like I wasn't consuming the whole bottle if I poured a shot onto the trunk of a tree? Did I think that a 100 year old oak tree had had such a bad day that it needed a shot? And then, if it did, did I actually think that one shot would get--what had to be a few thousand pounds of a tree--even a little drunk? Maybe it had a problem. Maybe I caused it. Through my carelessness, could I have been enabling an oak tree to exhibit alcoholic tendencies that had lay dormant for hundreds of years?

Maybe it liked it.

Lord knows it stood there all day, every day, watching tens of people walk by, not even stopping to say hi, walking their dogs or riding their bikes, furry squirrels running up and down hiding nuts and making homes in its chambers, ants and beetles and dragon flies buzzing and crawling around on its skin not even thinking if their host minds.

Nobody ever asks the trees.







I have ridden my bike down the Norwottock Rail Trail bike path, that runs from Northampton to Amherst, for many years.

The route had initially been used as a railroad from 1887 until its demise in 1979. In 1993 a mixture of tar and recycled glass chunks was laid down to form the bike path. It's a beautiful 8.5 mile stretch, filled with picturesque farmscapes, parts of which offer a fantastic view of the Connecticut River.

Nobody asked the trees.

And so, over time, what was once, a flat, even, black tar surface, has become riddled with bumps and cracks from the undeterred roots of the residents which line its path.

The silent landlords sit on either side of their property, angling towards each other; nary a trunk stands straight. They are a family, and they have been split down the middle at their base, yet they strive for connection with each fiber of their thinning, spindly branches.

As we try to improve our health and save the planet by bicycling to and from work or play, the trees are reminding us where they come from. They forcibly slow us down with their uneven and random speed bumps telling us,"This is not your land."

The trees iterate their origins, while daily we move farther and farther from ours, to the point of omitting information of where we hail.

"I'm from Northampton."

No I'm not.

I am from Fall River, damn it! I live in Northampton.

While we re-connect with old friends and classmates, through our myriad electronic matchmakers and private investigators, from the comfort of our homes, the daily methods of nature are reminding us of how far apart we have grown from our center.

While we move apart, our roots protrude from below and break the smooth surface of our caricature of community.

Cheaper airfare and the lure of higher profile, better paying employment, is corroding the basic elements of the nuclear family, while at the same time, ensuring us that we can make enough to fly home for the holidays and share, with those who raised us, evidence of the fruits from our insatiable quest for success.

But until the trees have been cut down and turned into the furniture that we rest our tired, overworked bodies on, their roots will continue to grow. They will continue to lacerate the smoothest bicycle path, the most solidly laid sidewalk, the heaviest of buildings made with the strongest material man has most recently developed. They will break through the foundation, infuriating contractors and architects both, while we stand there and marvel at their resilience.

But nobody ever asks the trees.

What do they know?





Thanks for reading.

F.A.J.

PS: I don't know about you, but where I live it's a beautiful day for a bike ride.

Just remember where you came from.




Saturday, May 3, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty-five ... My confession.

I saw my guy today.

I was up pretty much all night thinking about it.

Thinking how it's been so long since I've had some.

Man , oh man.

I've been so good for so long, taking care of my affairs, paying the bills, eating right, working out, staying out of trouble.

What's one visit downtown?

I gave it a lot of careful thought. I didn't just rashly make my decision.

It's the kind of thing where, if I do it, I'll have to worry about it showing up in my system. I mean, this kind of thing is pretty hard to mask. It's unmistakable. I'll have to treat it like all the other times and find a reason to stay away from the public for a while. At least until it's completely gone through me.

So I said, "Screw it!" and I went downtown. It took a couple of stops to find it. My usual dealers were out. They said they had had some just the day before and it sold like crazy.

And, you know, I could have found it almost anywhere, all year long. It's a pretty common thing. Pretty easy to find if you really want it. And while it's a bit more expensive now than it was last year ... well, isn't everything?

I finally found some. My guy was just opening up for the day. He said it had come in on a truck just the night before.

Figures.

So green, and fresh. It has an aura about it. I picked up a bag of it and looked at it and it just looked so vibrant, as if it were saying, "Hey man, I know you've been waiting a long time. You've been filling your plate with other things, feeling good, trying to convince yourself that you don't miss me. Well, you're a liar, and a bad one at that."

And I had to admit I was licked, fair and square. Done in by the greenest of the green.

My friends are going to kill me. I mean, not just because I bought some, but more so the fact that I didn't even think to share any of it. I just horded it all to myself like I always have.

What's mine is mine, right?

This boat's going down, and I'm going down with 'er.

Hmm ... well, I guess my aunt would want some too. Yeah, it's something I never thought she'd be into. Last year though, I brought some home with me and asked her if she'd ever consider trying it.

She told me someone had given her some a long time ago, but she didn't even know what it was at the time. She said she really didn't remember liking it, but after a little convincing, she gave in and finally agreed to give it another shot.

You only live once, right?

I told her the stuff I had was local.

I assured her it was the best you can get.

So I fired some up for her and she loved it. She started using it at all times of the day. She said, if I could find some each time I came home, to please, please, please get some and she'd pay for it. Whatever the cost.

So I can kind of blame her for my picking up again.







































Such an enabler.

Thanks for reading.

It is officially spring.

Now go get some asparagus.

F.A.J.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Day one hundred and twenty-three ... Time on sale.

Time just got cheaper.

It's astounding when I think about it.

I can do more things in less time now than ever before.

I realized it last night on my way back from yoga. I had a twenty minute drive from Amherst to Northampton to get home to watch my 9 o'clock program. There was a bit of traffic, but not too much. I was relaxed, but still alert.

I pulled in to my driveway, and made my way upstairs. As I popped the TV on and waited for the fuzzy rabbit-ear fueled picture to appear, I was happy to find that I even had a few minutes to spare.

Why?

Because my life now is so much simpler. I have fewer distractions, I have fewer strings attached: a recovering marionette, if you will.

I don't have to stop at the package store, I don't have to swing by to see if my guy is at the bar, I don't have to clean my bowl out and run around the house to find my lighter.

I don't have to do a lot of things that I never really "had" to do in the first place.

I watched my show, and laughed my ass off.

I used the commercials to do things like put on tea water, or grab a handful of homemade granola that my yogini had given me. It may very well be the kindbud of granola. I think it's indoor-grown. The sticky brown, as it were.

And when my show came on, I wasn't busying myself with any number of vice related activities.

I wasn't using that time to clean resin off of my fingers, or hastily peel the first born layers of ice from the top of the tray to cool down my vodka, or inadvertently scrape the faux wood laminate off of my computer desk with a razor.

I was paying attention.

Attention requires the expenditure of time. When the interval of time required entails fewer distractions, then attention becomes easier to amass, therefore making more time accessible using the same amount of energy.

Ergo: Time just got cheaper.



I used to watch a lot of movies.

In fact, it was part of my routine: get a bottle, get a bag of (insert illegal substance here ) and get a movie.

It was always quite embarrassing when, amongst friends or colleagues, somebody would bring up a movie that I had just rented.

"Oh, yeah. That was great, I just saw it," I would say.

And then the quick pang of regret would wash over me. Why did I even say that when I could barely remember what happened beyond the opening credits?

I don't know if this happens with a lot of substance abusers, but I seemed to have retro-active blackouts. I was surely not too inebriated upon watching the first hour or so of any given film, but, by the time it was over (and subsequently, upon waking up on the couch with a cigarette filter in one hand, and an exclamation point of ash on the upholstery-- the burn hole acting as its foundational period) I couldn't remember a damn thing about the movie. Sometimes, I'd even go so far as to watch the included trailer before leaving the house, just so I could cover up if someone said, "What'd you think of that movie I lent you?"

"Oh ... Yeah ... that flick was ... awesome ... thanks." (cue a quickly inserted alternate subject, something, anything ... help).

Same thing goes for baseball.

I love baseball. I have since I was a kid. Red Sox, if you please.

Every year, not including this one, I would spend no less than 3 hours almost every night laying on my couch watching baseball. Well, watching baseball and doing my best to levitate myself off my futon.

Lots of times I'd have to check the computer in the morning before I went to work, once again, to cover up in case anyone asked how the game went. Everybody knew I was a big Sox fan.

More like, I was a big fan of the idea of watching the Red Sox. What I really was, was a big fan of drinking a quart of vodka. I was somewhat of a season ticket holder, although any season was a good season. Curiously, every seat was obstructed view. Damn scalpers.

These days, I enjoy actually following the Red Sox. I listen to them on the radio. This allows me to do things like write, or play guitar, or cook, or practice yoga. I can enjoy the rare art of sending thank-you notes. I can go to my gym and watch baseball on the TV while I work out. Or I can just stay home on a rainy day, lay back on my bed, and relax.

There's no puppeteer lurking in the wings waiting to start the show.

I've cut those strings. They leave awful marks all over me afterwards.

Plus, a puppeteer is tough to sneak into my car. He never wants to stop at the interesting places, and he never chips in for gas.

And while the price of gas may have gotten more expensive, these days I can spend more time looking at the scenery, and less time trying to spot a package store.

Yes, time just got a whole lot cheaper.