Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty nine ... What goes on.

9:25 p.m.

I am sitting on the steps in the most perfect spot in my little town, affectionately called "Paradise City."

Behind me sits a man--he may be drunk; he may be mentally ill, more likely he is both--who sits with a radio in his lap. "Dreams," by Fleetwood Mac is being extruded from the three inch speakers like thin spaghetti. 

"When the rain washes you clean you'll know ...

You'll know ... "

Across the street, the son of a prominent steel drum player plays his steel drum. Each note struck sounds like a colorful drop of liquid which makes a tone as it hits the ground,  and whose pitch is determined by how far from the sky it drops, and at what speed. The ground around him sounds wet and warm.

A mirror ball spins in the window of a Mexican restaurant directly across from me. Depending on how I look at it, it provides either a sparkly dot completing the top of a lower case "i", or the bottom of an upside down exclamation point, of which, the body is made up by the crosswalk.

How excellent.

A scruffy looking twenty-something comes up to me and says:

"How's it going?"

I reply, "OK, how are you?"

"Could be better, could be worse."

I half-smile. I don't really want to continue.

He looks both ways before he asks me a question.

"You drink?"

I say no.

He walks on with his camping gear on his back down the street.

It takes all kinds.

If I wasn't staring at my computer while I typed I would swear that I am at a sparsely attended fair, complete with a promenade teeming with average priced cars.

9:45 p.m.

Two men to my left--both heavy-set and bald--sit, enjoying ice cream cones. 

This week, school returns to session. There are girls everywhere. Some look like they are coming back to a place they are familiar with--perhaps showing it off to the newcomers. Others have the look in their eyes that only men get when they are lost--too befuddled to walk as confidently as they wish they could; too proud and defiant to stop and ask for help. 

As I look around I recognize some people from the meetings I used to attend. I wonder, sometimes, whether or not any of the folks I see, who are now connected by the common and commendable bond of sobriety, would have ever bought each other a drink when they were using. A lot of times I come up with a no, but that's just me.They sit next to me, bobbing their heads and tapping their hands--not necessarily nervously, just at the ready. There's a lot to think about when you actually get to the point when you have the space and time to do it. 

As I finish my coffee I can't help but muse how there, unfortunately, is no substitute for caffeine. I suppose that you could stimulate your adrenal gland by picking a fight with the homeless guy with the radio who is now yelling to nobody in particular, "Don't you touch that fucking thing. I'll have to get my cousin to kick your ass."

But nobody pays attention. There's too much else going on all around and it sounds like a family matter anyway.

I don't do this as much as I should--sitting downtown, doing nothing, at night, barefoot, slouching.

I used to have such good posture that my childhood doctor--Doctor Hughes--would give me a special pin and chocolate each time I saw him. He said I had the best posture of all his patients. My dentist probably would have frowned on it. My masseuse would never believe it.

9:55 p.m.

My weed dealer from sixteen years ago comes up to me and asks if the Stevie Nicks is coming from my laptop. I tell him no and he extends his hand. I shake it. He tells me who he is. I don't recognize him, but he assures me that he used to take good care of me and my girlfriend. We talk for a while and he leaves.

As I write this, I am realizing that I am ignoring what is going on around me as I try to describe it.

So, in closing, I'll say that it smells like chocolate, the headlights from the car turning down the street to my left looked and felt like a train coming straight for me, and the homeless guy behind me has just cranked up the little radio which is now playing Stevie Nicks' solo hit, "Edge of Seventeen."

He yells, "Stevie!" and the song fuzzes up as he turns the knob from one side of the station to the other before locking in on it and turning it up.

A very intense seeming man--mid forties, spiked, frosted blonde $50 haircut, wearing an expensive dress shirt, black slacks, and white, Etonic running shoes--sits to my right. He is nervously tapping away on his iphone.

"Can you turn that down, please?," he whines to the man with the radio.

And the homeless man actually turns it down for a minute.

(a good 45 seconds later)

"Can't figure out your phone?," he asks the guy with the $50 haircut.

"I can figure out my phone fine," he says, with an air of superiority that ironically makes him seem much less of a person.

And for a while the music is quieter as both men sit fifteen feet apart from each other.

And then, as you could expect, he turns it up.

"And the days go by...
Like a strand in the wind...
In the web that is my own...
I begin again
Said to my friend, baby...
Nothin else mattered ... "

And the other guy just sits there, probably online, writing an email, as I sit next to him, ostensibly doing the same.

10:40 p.m.

The lights in the restaurant go off, the smell of chocolate turns to the smell of Marlboro Lights, and the music just keeps playing in the background.

And I think it's time to go.

"Just like the white winged dove...
Sings a song...
Sounds like shes singing...
Ooo... baby ooo... said ooo ... "

Thanks for reading,


Friday, August 29, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty eight ... Bloodlust.

There are millions if not billions of them everywhere at all times when the weather's right and the water's plentiful.

They alight for a second, and then, like a neurotic boxer, they fly against the glass and bound off onto the dashboard.

They are nature's lifeblood pickpockets.

The common mosquito; and I mean common.

It had lighted on the gray, plastic part of my car between the windshield and the driver's window, which had recently been cleaned by me. I like to drive a neat and orderly car, considering the rest of the world is so unpredictable. 

And when I say that, I don't mean the contents, as my friends will most likely snicker. I travel with a lot of stuff in the back seat and the trunk, but that's because my time is split up between both ends of the state and I have to be ready for anything.

I positioned my hand above the little bastard.

I flexed my fingers to allow maximum coverage and raised my sunglasses atop my forehead so I could see the target better; I wanted him bad.

The newscaster yammered in an excited tone on the radio; something about John McCain.

There were beeps of varying pitch and rhythm from the dash and the interlock device; it sounded like a god damn emergency room.

Steady ... stay on target ... almost there ....

Smack!!!!! Got 'em!

And I lifted the murder weapon away from the killing floor and surveyed the scene.

There were body parts everywhere.

A head hung down from the plastic, swinging from a piece of sinew.

Legs, twisted and broken, were scattered about the area on either side of the torso.

One wing floated, lopsidedly, to my knee.

There was no sign of a struggle.

There was no forced entry, the window had been open, but that's no excuse. This is my house.

But there was a lot of blood.

The crime scene, with help from my four extended fingers, had become such a wide smear of dark red that I couldn't even believe it had come from such a small creature.

And not only was there a lot of it, but it was stubborn mess, and set in to the texture of the plastic almost immediately, taking away, at least for the moment, the feeling of victory and accomplishment I had derived from the public service I had performed.

But whose blood was it inside our little pest's belly?

Was it mine?

I have a few bites on me. I haven't been keeping track of which ones were new. This time of year it feels completely natural to have bites on my hands, feet, back, legs, neck, and arms.

But somewhere, out there, there is a person right now who is scratching a new bite, pissed off and reaching for the Deep Woods Off.

They have no idea that I got the guy.

They have no clue that I took him out without so much as a blink of the eye or a second thought of the conscience. 

And I'm sure I'll never know whose blood it really was. 

But I know, at the very least, he's history.

When I was using, I was a lot like that mosquito. 

I had my own problems that I was dealing with (or not) on a regular basis.

I had plenty of personal and business troubles which were gestating and growing, almost imperceptibly, in the corridors of my existence.

But, because of the insidiousness of addiction, I would take other people's problems and carry them with me to far away places in my social scene. I would fly from bar stool to bar stool like a pesky mosquito with my belly full of rumors and speculation.

The hand that tried to flatten me every time was the reality that snuck up, every so often, that I was really the only one who cared. But that didn't stop me. I just kept alighting and flying, alighting and flying, and it earned me a reputation worthy of a petulant pest.

I don't know why I loved to dish so much.

Maybe it's because I knew (or believed) that people were talking about me, and if I could divert their attention somehow, I would successfully stave off the rumors or recollections of my disastrous nightlife, and live to use another day.

Another thing I know is that if you are a mess, and you don't remember what you did the night before, don't expect most people to tell you straight what, in fact, you did.

Nobody wants to do that; it's nobody's job to play hall monitor.

And I always used to think, hey, what do these people have to hide? They'll tell me straight if I insulted them, right? They'll tell me that I called them names I didn't mean (or did I?), or dropped a bowl of chips on the floor because I was trying to recreate something I saw in a movie that I thought was hilarious. I'd even ask them sometimes and say hey, I know I was a little too drunk last night (laughs) and I probably acted stupid like I do. I just want to say that I'm sorry. 

I'd look at them, or try to catch their eye while they found something imaginary that they dropped on the floor, and they'd say not to worry--that I was fine.

But I'd know deep down that I was anything but.

I'd get through the day, walk to the package store, buy a bottle, and go home and forget that I ever even wondered if that look I got from my boss was because I told her something I shouldn't have at the staff recognition party.

I'd get drunk and walk to the bar. I'd get drunker and decide it was time to mingle. And then, I'd see someone I knew--someone who had noticed my gait and had subsequently attempted to painstakingly trying to blend in with the Tony Stewart life-size cutout but had failed, and I would come over and grab for their hand so I could force a social acknowledgement and tell them who I saw walking arm in arm down the street, and can you believe that she's going out with him after all the shit he caused with the mother of his child and the statutory case that is pending and oh my fucking god ...

I'd turn away for a second to order a beer, and when I came back, they would be gone. Well, they would be gone to the other side of the room anyway, away from me.

And I'd move on to the next sucker, carrying my stolen gossip like so much blood in a mosquito and pestering whoever had the misfortune of failing to elude my glazed stare.

Then, on December 27, the giant hand of the man had flexed its fingers, for maximum coverage, raised its sunglasses atop its forehead so it could see the target better (it wanted me bad) and had come crashing down on me scattering my privacy all over the dashboard in such a wide swath that it took weeks, if not months, to clean up the mess.

And I realized at that moment, that that blood was mine.

I realized that, from the twenty odd years of using, I had become filled to capacity with my own disgraces and improprieties.

I had become a pest in the most unattractive sense, both in reputation, and in the fact that now, from my last gasping attempt at a beautiful disaster, my carcass was in plain view of everyone: the authorities, my family, and anyone who cared to pick up the newspaper.

Newspapers have many purposes.

Not the least of which is to flatten those pests who make our lives difficult.

And so, my story was made public.

And I'm sure there was talk about how it was inevitable, and how it's a good thing that someone stopped him before he hurt somebody.

And they were right.

But since then, hardly anyone, besides myself, has made mention of that little dead bug on the dashboard.

And nobody needs to.

Nobody needs to mention how the pieces of that pest are now in the lengthy process of becoming dust, scattering about the cabin's micro-fiber crevices and vinyl covered ledges as both decomposition and the daily winds of an active life take effect.

And one day it will become dust.

And that dust will fly out the window, just like it came in.

And nobody will miss him.

And nobody should.

And that's my kind of pest control.

Thanks for reading,



Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty six ... Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

This is the face of an angel.

Or, I suppose, whatever the earthly equivalent is of a truly and utterly kind individual who is as pure of spirit and motivation as anyone could possibly ever hope to be.

She is my mother.

She was, is, and will always be the light of my life and the reason I am what I am.

She taught me to be kind to all creatures.

She taught me that a little effort put forth with true and good intentions can overcome whatever adversity may fall in our path.

She taught me how to love fully and without condition.

She taught me how to laugh with wild abandon.

She taught me how to cry until the loss of tears makes you so thirsty you may faint.

She showed me how to believe in myself first and foremost, and know that I am doing what I believe is right, regardless of what others may profess.

She taught me how to suck up every little bit of the day and night and to never look back too long if you're moving forward; you may trip on your future if you do, and it's best to try to stay on your feet.

And she taught me about the tomato.

Yes, the tomato.

Red, round, firm, bursting with flavor, and really, only truly at it's best at the end of August. 

It was, by far, her favorite food.

We'd eat them any number of ways: stewed, simmered, whole (cherry tomatoes anyway), juiced, wedged, sliced, or right out of a brown bag--salt shaker in one hand, and juice dripping down our chin.

If they were sliced they were usually salted, and topped with chopped, sweet onion. It's a Polish thing, and quite delicious.

I remember, for a long time, I used to peel my tomatoes. Still, to this day, I don't really know why.

But my mother, Judith Ann Johnson, loved her tomatoes.

So, in 2005, when I found out that there was a tomato festival held every year on the last weekend of August not more than a few miles away from my home, I just had to plan a day of it.

My mother was ecstatic.

She didn't mind that it was raining a bit. She liked the rain. It kept the earth alive.

She came up with my Aunt Lynda, and we piled into her car.

I had gotten the directions a bit screwy and we had a hard time finding the place (it's called Red Fire Farm and it's located in Granby, MA).

But once we got there, it was like watching a little kid in a toy store where all the boxes are open and not an adult in sight.

We must have tried thirty different kinds of tomatoes.

In the picture above, she has a piece of tomato on a toothpick and is moments away from delighting her palate.

Some samples were better than others, but even then, they were all good. So it's hard to judge.

My mother and I have a familial affectation that I find endlessly and utterly amusing.

When we put something edible in our mouths and our taste buds decide it is exceptionally good, we raise our eyebrows in such a way that I cannot do voluntarily. It's a simple extension of the brow coupled with a widening of the eyes and a half-smile--part satisfaction, and part sublime approval. I must have done it ten thousand times. Sometimes I notice it; sometimes I don't. I notice it more now since she's been gone, but I eat a lot of good food and I can only pay so close of attention.

I would have never needed a DNA test to prove she was my biological mother.

I would have only required a juicy piece of fresh, end-of-August tomato, with a tiny sprinkle of salt. 

She was me.

That rainy August afternoon, I kept close by my mom as usual. She wasn't a fast walker, but that's not why I shadowed her.

I just felt her pull.

She was a magnet.

She radiated love and everything and anything that was within the earth's atmosphere was affected and drawn towards her.

I would keep an arm around her.

I would hold her hand.

I would rub her shoulder.

I would playfully tussle her hair, which bugged her to no end, because she would always have her hair done up when she came to visit her boy. She was a lady in the truest sense.

Sometimes I would just take a piece of her clothing--a denim vest or a blouse--and just rub the fabric between my fingers, as if to derive some of the magic that was contained in its fibers.

She was that special.

And she knew that her boy was, too.

When we would go to puppet shows (which was often) she would insist that I go up and talk to the performers as they were packing up. As a shy kid learning social skills daily, like the rest of the world, I just wanted to take the easy way out and go to the car and go home. But she had a plan. She wanted me to learn to approach and talk to those people who did what I loved, so that I may one day be like them and love what I do. She felt my unease at this but she would persist. And as I grew and turned into a performer myself, I developed a sense of belonging in the world of the magic makers that may have never formed had I just sat in the crowd and then walked to the car and gone home. I would tell them how great their show was and how I wanted to be a puppeteer when I got older. They would invariably smile and thank me and ask me if I made puppets. I would say yes, and we would rap about foam rubber and google eyes (yes, I have a history) and fleece, and cardboard, and needles and thread. I would tell them of puppet shows I had put on at my school. I would ask them to show me their puppets and, more often than not, they would let me hold them, or put them on my hands and hold them up behind the stage while my mom took pictures, much to the confusion of the kids and parents who were headed to the back of the auditorium.

I would talk to the magic makers away from the curtain they worked behind.

And it got easier to do the more I did it, until I finally became one myself.

Last night I played in an annual show in my town where local bands adopt a persona and style of famous artist while adhering to a theme. 

It's a big production, and every year we are always somewhere in the middle of the evening.

Last night we went on last.

As I was packing up my guitar, two boys and one girl who couldn't have been older than ten approached the stage. The lights were now on, the proverbial smoke had cleared, and it was obvious that the show was over.

"You were awesome!," said one of the boys.

"Yeah, you're a great guitar player," said the other one.

Meanwhile, the girl--nonplussed--just stood next to them and chewed her gum.

"Thanks," I said. "Do you play?"

"Yeah," said one of them.

"What do you play," I asked.


"Cool," I said. "Keep it up. The world needs more rock stars."

"One year, my school came here for a field trip," said one of the boys, "and I got to get up on that stage and pretended I was playing."

"That's awesome," I said. 

"Yeah," he said, "it was."

I heard an adult call their names from fifty feet away. I shook their hands and they took off, running.

Sometimes I wonder what it all means--why I do what I do.

The feeling of uncertainty can be overwhelming. It can really derail a person or, at the very least, take some of the well-earned wind from their sails.

And then you do what you do--what you've done since you were as young as you can remember--and it makes you feel alive. It makes you feel useful. It makes you feel sure of yourself.

And every so often, as you're putting the tools of your trade away, you see you standing there, looking up, exhibiting the same wide-eyed innocence and youthful determination that once filled your soul. You see the only kids who were bold enough to approach the stage and talk to you and tell you how they want to be like you someday, and make people applaud and whistle and scream.

And you realize that not everybody has the courage to do that.

Not everybody has been shown that if you see someone doing something that speaks to you, approach them and tell them so.

And for that, I thank my mother.

And every time I pick up my guitar and put the strap over my shoulder and plug it in I think of her and how she made me believe in myself.

And at the end of every show, the puppeteer steps out from behind the curtain. Sometimes he shares the secrets of his craft for a minute or two before he packs it all away, gets in his car, and moves on to the next show.

And he closes his car door and the self-doubt fades away like the summer day's hot air out the open window as he drives towards the exit gate past the rows of empty parking spots that were full only an hour ago.

And it's enough to keep you going.

It's enough to live on for a while.

It's enough.

Thanks for reading.


PS: Summer's almost over. School's right around the corner. Now go, have a tomato, and tell someone who does something that you admire how you feel.

It may make a bigger difference than you think.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty five ... The ghosts are circling.

The ghosts are circling

they kick up dust in a still room

they watch me tie trash bags

and when I turn to walk

they roll up like a shade

they know what I will write

and they knew I would write that, too

they haven't been this excited in a long time

if that's what you could call it

they wish they weren't needed

they wish they could just watch

they were perfectly happy where they were

but they have no choice

they know too much

and so do I

the ghosts are circling.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty four ... The first last straw.

The man in the picture below is out of his mind on pills.

He's out of his mind on pills because he's trying to quit drinking.

Why is he trying to quit drinking?

Because it had taken over his life in such a way that he was starting to lose his friends one by one.

Other things had started to happen too; bad things.

He was starting to call in sick to work at an alarming rate. And, being a mental health counselor, he was afforded many paid sick days to do so.

This did not help his situation.

He had been lying to his family and telling them he had been sober since February when, in actuality, he was dabbling here and there and just chalking it up to letting off some steam.

Steam is much hotter than the boiling water it is born from.

See, his mother had died a little more than half a year from then, and he was taking it quite badly.

One of the most brutal things he had ever endured was to hear his mother tell him--not long after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer--"Alex ... I don't have many regrets. But one regret that I do have is that I never got to see you as a sober man."

And did he stop then?

No. No he didn't.

He drank more and more and more and practically bashed a clear .750 or Smirnoff over his head every night.

And she died on January 11, 2007 and he became a total basket case.

She never did get to see him as a sober man. Not the way she meant it, anyway. Though he did his best to hide his problem--the problem he had had since he had his first beer at 15, and giggled and laughed and threw himself on the hood of his friends car, denting it in two places. 

And in February of the year she died--twenty-two years after that first beer--he went on what he thought was going to be his last bender.

It wasn't.

He wasn't done yet, not by a long shot.

He had an undisclosed connection for his pills: Oxycodone, Morphine, Dilaudid, Vicodin, Klonopin, Ativan, and the pill he is on in the pictures here: Focasil.

Focasill is like Ritalin, only stronger.

It's supposed to make hyper people calm.

If you're not hyper to begin with--if you are just looking to get off--Focasil will make you feel like you are on the down-slope of a roller coaster for a few hours and then you fall asleep and don't remember so much when you wake up.

And he didn't remember so much at all.

But he did go to the television studios in Springfield, Massachusetts to take part in a video shoot for a promotion that the local weekly was doing.

His band had won a "best of" contest and he was to represent them and answer a couple of questions.

The station was home to his favorite show in the world: the news. ABC 40 to be exact.

And he showed up late; sweaty and amped up like a pill-popping freak.

It still gives him chills to think about that time in his life because it seems like a different person's experience. But, as he cannot deny from the pictures and the video, it is him.

And before he left the studio, he asked the producer, who would later become the band's publicist, if he would take his camera and record him sitting at the desk that he stared at every night, on some kind of substance, before he either passed out or levitated himself to the bar to pick up other things.

A few days later, he would have the experience which would send him on the worst week of his life, excluding the time immediately following his mother's death. 

He would get in trouble with his best friend who had trusted him to take care of his house while he was away.

He would start drinking again.

He would take a handful of pills.

He would get on his bicycle.

He would try to ride downtown--for what, he will never really remember.

And he would fall off, going probably twenty miles an hour, and the handlebars, on impact, would fully fracture four of his ribs on his right side and leave him panting and gasping on the ground for air and feeling like he was about to die.

Which, for all intents and purposes, he was.

Luckily, he'd crash near the liquor store.

He'd buy a bottle of Smirnoff--a liter this time--and slowly stumble his way home with his weight propped up on his bike and one arm clutching his side.

He'd spend the next ten days pouring a liter of vodka down his throat, and assuming that he had only bruised one of his ribs. The injury will probably stop making him gasp for air from the pain soon, he thought. Though he had never felt like this in all his life.

His landlord would come knocking on his door, asking him if he was alright.

"Of coure, I'm alright," he would say. "Why do you ask?"

And the landlord would explain to him that the people in the house across from him had called him to say that there were sounds coming from his apartment which sounded like someone was being tortured--screams and howls.

And he'd say he didn't know what they were talking about.

And he meant it.

And later, when he was screaming in pain to get up off of his bed to fill his glass with the vodka from the freezer, he would put two and two together and it would scare the shit out of him.

And he would pass out, wake up, and drink some more.

Three days after cracking four ribs on his right side, Alex would take part in a performance with his band in front of 1,500 people, and he wouldn't play very well. Although, at the time, he would swear that he did a fine job. 

Shortly after the set, his very frustrated band mate and best friend would yell at him and tell him he was disappointed. Alex would argue that he was wrong. Then, his friend would turn around and walk away without another word. Alex would get in his car and drive to the liquor store, then home, and there he would pass out, wake up, and scare the neighbors with his agonizing screams.

And time just kept on ticking.

He doesn't remember this moment in time, any more than he remembers why his right side hurts so badly. It could have been a bike accident; it could have been a beating he got from some punks. He seriously had no clue. It was all just a wash of motion and then pain. It would only be after he picked his bike off of the ground in his back yard and see the scratches and the broken pedal that he would be totally sure.

 (The three above photos were taken by Kristen Beam)

And the ball of string kept rolling across the floor at a swift and steady pace.


He'd spend the next day calling people he knew who were either at the show, or performed at the show, or both, to ask them--quite matter-of-factly--if they thought he was too drunk and played badly.

All of them said he was fine.

But that was as far as anyone would go.

And so, for a long time, he thought he had played fine.

And the ball of yarn just kept unravelling and unravelling, faster and steadier.

And on the ninth day of those ten days, he would wake up, get in his car grimacing in pain and wondering when these bruised ribs would start to feel better, and drive to the package store and buy a liter of vodka. He would spend the whole day drinking. He would spend the whole evening drinking. He would drink until it was four in the morning and he would look at the clock, get up, walk to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and realize that he didn't feel drunk at all.

He took fifteen showers a day--short ones--because it hurt so bad to stand up for too long. But the hot water felt good and he didn't really understand why he was doing what he was doing. 

He would make his bed thirty times a night, neatly and tightly each time, and then he would try to lay down. It would only last five minutes and he would get up, make the bed again, and do it all over again.

And then he would get up and take another five minute shower and make the bed.

And he thought he was going completely mad.

And, of course, he was.

His therapist had told him to write a "Dear John" letter to drinking. She told him that it is a first step to recovery.

After months of procrastinating, he did.

9/3/07  9 p.m.

This is almost worse than the last time. I fell off my bike. I think I bruised a rib. I've been in excruciating pain. Can't really eat. I haven't slept well. Was too drunk at the gig (though I know I played well). As a result, _____ won't talk to me. I look like hell. I"ve been OCD'ing with the showering (must have showered 10 times and I'm sure I'll do it a couple more tonight). I keep looking in the mirror. I don't know why. I missed both rehearsals last week. Haven't been to the gallery in too long and I just hope I don't get fired. Can't stop thinking about vodka. My throat is sore and I don't know why. This has got to stop. I am breaking up with booze. I can't stand it anymore. I love it so much and it always makes me feel so horrible the next day. We are officially done. 21 years done. I feel like a total ass. My legs are tingling. I threw a ton of food away that I have ignored for a week and a half. I am lying to my aunt to her face and I can't bear to tell her. There's a throb that happens above my rib that's really got me worried. I am $428 in arrears with the bank. I don't have rent and I don't know how I'm going to come up with it. Damn! This sucks. Goodbye booze. I want to feel better and I know I will but all I can think about is vodka. My hands are shaking. I don't want to check my blood pressure because I'm scared what it'll say. My pulse is throbbing and I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack. I hope I don't, but I'm not so sure anymore.

F. Alex Johnson

He wrote another note shortly after this one. It ended with the line:

... I don't want this to kill me, but as I type this I am actually thinking for the first time that I hope it's not read too soon by the police or my aunt. I'm worried. This is serious. This is a BIG problem. Fuck!

Both of these he left prominently displayed on his computer desk, just in case.

By the end of this last day he hadn't slept in over 72 hours. 

He spoke to his friend about how he was afraid he'd have a heart attack if he fell asleep. His friend told him he'd be available all night and any time in the future if he needed him to bring him to the hospital.

The sun came up again and he started to cry.

He took the last shower of the day before he put his clothes on.

He went to work for a few hours because he had neglected his job for almost two weeks.

In the middle of his shift he would call a friend and ask him about the 12 step group he belonged to. His friend said to come by and not think about it; just come. 

And he did.

And he spoke that night.

He said how he hadn't slept in three days, and how he had fallen off of his bicycle--or so he thought--and how he felt like he needed to go to the hospital but he wasn't sure if they were going to admit him. He said that he had a lot of responsibilities that he had to honor. 

He couldn't risk having them keep him there. 

He didn't have that kind of time, what with his busy schedule and all.

The people he met there told him he just had to go to the emergency room and face whatever consequences there might be. They said he needed help.

And they were right.

He left that meeting with a couple of phone numbers and a sense of well being that he hadn't felt in years. He felt like he was finally doing the right thing. He felt like he was doing the thing he knew he should have done years ago. He felt that he was doing the thing that his mother had wanted him to do for years and years. She knew, however, that he wouldn't get much out of it if he did it for her. He had to do it for him.

And he finally was.

He drove to the hospital after that meeting and they took his pulse.

It was 154/109.

And he felt that familiar feeling in his right side. It felt like a little bubble that would form and then release and give him a sharp pain for a few seconds. He'd shift his ample weight around and sometimes it would hurt less; sometimes more. 

It had been happening every five minutes since the accident.

He knew it wasn't a good sign.

But, he didn't know exactly how bad it was until the doctor showed him the x-rays.

"Well ... it looks like you've broken four ribs. But, you should consider yourself a very lucky man, Mr. Johnson. Any one of them could have punctured your lung."

"Um ... broken? ... four ... ?"

"Yes sir. There's not much we can do for you except give you a prescription for some Percoset."


Oh, great.

Just perfect.

Finally I have a real need for painkillers. 

Life is so unfair.

He asked the emergency room doctor about the little popping sensation he felt in his right side.

"That's your ribs clicking against each other ... where they were broken."

And it all made sense. The constant showering, the agonizing pain, the strange clicking sensation.

And he took two pills and went to sleep, the only way he was able to: sitting upright on his couch, with pillows flanking him on either side.

And he woke up--actually woke up--from a few hours sleep and he wrote another note.


I finally went to the doctor's after my first meeting which was great. I was afraid he'd keep me there to detox but he didn't. What he did do was tell me I had 4 broken ribs. I have no recollection of the accident which is so sad. I think it was a bike accident, but I could have been beaten up. I plan on going to as many meetings as I can. I had to call my aunt and tell her I have been lying to her. She didn't scream and shout. She was just disappointed. She said, "I can live with an alcoholic. I just can't live with a liar."

I had to sleep sitting up last night. Thankfully I actually did get some sleep, until ______ woke me up. I'm in rough shape. I had to pay $30 for 40 Percoset. They see to be working, but they make me sleepy. I've never taken them because I had to; just for fun. How sad. 

I will get better. 

I have to. 

It's been a busy year for our hero. From that day in September he made it almost three full months without drinking.

Everything else, however, was fair game.

That is not how a person reverses the madness that is substance abuse.

A person reverses the madness by confrontation and fearlessness, addressing all the trouble points and making positive choices regardless of whether we feel comfortable about them. Because, for those who fall prey, the desire to use when we know it's destructive, lives in our minds, in our hearts, and in our blood. And it will only leave us if we remove it forcefully.

The pain may be but a headache in the morning that feels a bit too familiar, or it could be a hiccup in our ribcage that we've never felt before and scares us so badly we can feel what we could only describe as the slow, steady, clutches of death start to pull us down.

And so we leave a note.

Or we make a phone call.

And we hope someone answers before it's too late.

Thanks for reading.


And yes, this story does have a happy ending. 

As I go to bed tonight I am one day away from eight months of complete sobriety.

And time just keeps on ticking.

And though my mother may not have lived long enough to have seen me as a sober man, I can surely say that I have.

Goodnight all.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty three ... To live and die in the Granite State.

I live an exciting life.

Every day brings new surprises.

Like yesterday.

I was planning to have a nice, easy, relaxing, four-hour ride to Franconia, New Hampshire.

I was going to leave at 3:30 to make it there for 7:30.

At 2:30 I went out to my car to go shopping for my aunt.

I clicked my remote door opener like I always do.


That's weird.

What fun? A dead battery.

Why was my battery dead?

Because the interlock device that I have to blow into to start my car rests on my steering column. My steering column has a little fog-lamp button on it, and if I don't check every time I get out of the car to see if it had inadvertently been turned on by the placement of my interlock device, I run the risk of a dead battery.

Of all the days.

So, I search my ever-so-always-prepared aunt's premises and car for jumpers to no avail.

Next up ... AAA.

2:45 p. m.

They say they'll send someone out within the hour.

3:30 p.m. ... no sign yet.

3:40 p. m. ... still no sign.

3:45 p. m. ... here comes the cavalry.

4:00 p. m. ... On the road again.

The drive was beautiful and I got to listen to All Things Considered, as well as the second half of our Peter Pan silent film score which we will be revisiting next month. More on that in future installments.

7:40 p. m. ... "ring ... ring ... ring ...."

Scott Hall calls and says I just blew right by him on the highway.

Oh well, at least two of us will make it to the show.

It's nice to note when they spell our name right. It doesn't happen often.

The Cannon Mt. View is a nice, homey, friendly place run by Ray and Yvonne Friedrichson.

They gave us a couple of rooms and a couple of pizzas.

Pizza outside of New England is specious at best.

This pizza, being made in New England, proved to be especially good. Thanks guys.

The show was lively and powerful. Plenty of people dancing. And only one person came up in the middle of a song to ask us if we knew any Brad Paisley. There was plenty of dancing and shaking of the booty. It was nice to see, literally.

Steve had some especially good guitar improv moments. Just a few minutes ago, as I was sitting on the porch swing soaking up the wi-fi, he told me that last night he had been channeling the Big Buck deer hunting game that was over in my corner of the stage area. There's a part where turkeys fly around gobbling and flapping their wings. He said he was playing what he thought that would sound like. 

Inspiration comes in many forms.

We finished up and I retired to my room to watch some Olympic water polo.

Such a rock star.

The next morning I took a walk with Dave and Bow into town to see our buddy Mojo Joe who has a record/coffee store in town. 

One of the last times we were around, Joe told us about a farm that raises Myotonic, or fainting goats. It's their trademark thing. When the goat is startled, they freeze up and faint for ten seconds or so. I guess every animal has to have a gimmick. Well, anyway, we were sitting around the table late night and Bow came up with a name for Scott Hall's, Hall and Oates cover band called ... "Haulin' Goats." You kinda' had to be there. But as I say that, I guess you could just put one of these bumper stickers (which Joe's buddy made) on your car and make everyone wonder.

Confusion is a powerful force.

As we were walking back to the motel, Dave pointed this car out.

And then he pointed out what was keeping it from rolling down the incline.

A ski-boot.

Only in New Hampshire.

Bode Miller would be proud.

And speaking of Franconia's prodigal son. We were informed that Mr. "Championship Skier" Miller was at our show last night. Thing is, he wouldn't pay the $5 cover. The nice folks at the Cannon Mt. Tavern let him in anyway.

Times are tough, even for rich jerks.

And so, a dip in the pool, a soak in the hot tub (which was heaven for my sore shoulder) and a little lazing on the porch swing, and it's almost time to go play at Dow Field down the street. There's a gazebo there and they have live bands every weekend.

Maybe Bode will be there if he can bum a ride.

Oh, and I couldn't go without taking a picture of this.

Those crazy kids'll do anything for fun.

Maybe it was Bode? He must get awful bored in the summer.

Then again ...

Thanks for reading.

F. A. J.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Day two hundred and thirty two ... It's all in your mind.

I'm in a lot of pain right now.

I think it's a result of using a piece of gym equipment I wasn't completely familiar with.

The injured area in question is my right shoulder, and it hurts so bad I have to brush my hair with my left hand.

Yeah, it's that bad.

And it's a damn good thing it happened too.

Because it is helping me to understand how I stay sober.

See, what I am doing--abstaining from my vices and losing weight--is maddeningly simple.

I'm constantly amazed, walking around bookstores, at the massive quantities of self-help books on the market. Not too long ago--before I took the plunge and went to my first AA meeting--I checked out the selections on how to quit drinking at the local Barnes and Noble.

There I found rows and rows of books, large and small, on how to quit, why to quit, when to quit, and how to keep from ever having to quit again. There was even one which I believe was called Quit Drinking by Planning Your Relapses. That one almost made its way to the counter with me ...

... and then I slapped myself in the head and ran out, almost through the plate glass window.

It gets to be overwhelming sometimes.

And so, as I have written, I did a great job staying sober for a while leading up to December, 27 when the shit hit the fan. And, as I have written, from that point on I have been clean as a whistle and happy as a clam (I know, what do clams have to be happy about? They inhale sand all day and then they get a hot tub they'll never remember.)

And, as I am writing now--for the first time--I don't go to AA anymore and haven't for months. 

So how do I do it?

Well, let's take my current pain I'm immersed in today. 

I injured my right shoulder three days ago. As of yesterday, the discomfort had subsided a bit after some well-intentioned babying.

As of yesterday, I was enjoying increased flexibility and ease of motion.

And I just had to celebrate.

I had to plug a cord into an electrical socket. I should have done it with my left hand as it was at an awkward angle, but I didn't. But, I mean, this was such a simple and mundane task that I had done hundreds, if not thousands of times before. And so, I used my injured arm to reach down, around, and behind the Christmas cactus, and--with my body at an extremely unfamiliar postition--I plugged it in.


And I was back at square one.

I had to go and sit on the couch and rub it gently and try to convince myself that it wasn't as bad as before it started to get better. At the same time, I had to admit to myself that my arrogant thinking (that I was back to normal to the point where I can do anything again) had gotten me to the point that I couldn't do anything again.

I had to admit to myself that I had done something completely stupid that I could have avoided if I had only thought to myself how badly I had felt mere days before.

I had to remember to remember.

More than a few people have told me I should write a self-help book. I tell them that I am--slowly, and patiently--and each day that goes by is another page written. I don't know if what I am doing will work for others. I just know that it works for me. There's not much to it. All I've done is to admit that there are problems in my life and address them with brutal honesty. I also don't run and hide from my unattractive and harmful tendencies. I surrender nothing. In fact, I become more powerful and resourceful each day I refuse to allow drugs and alcohol (and excess of food) into my world. I do not stay away from bars, I do not stop hanging around with my old friends. I do not hide from my aggressors. I simply understand, as each day goes by, what their motives are, how their system works, and where their weaknesses lie.

In other words, I use my brain. And in this way I protect myself from myself. Because nobody is going to--and nobody has ever--made me do anything I did not want to do.

I did it all, everything, every time.

Others weapons at my disposal:

I write how I feel in a public forum. I constantly remind myself that how I feel now--with almost eight months of sobriety under my belt, my friends back, my wallet full, and my musical path on a seemingly endless rise--and not think for a second that I could have it both ways. I do not change myself--I adapt.

And I remember to remember.

This, my friends, is the key to happiness. You must remember how you felt in the past, fully and without sugar-coating it, as compared to what choice you have in front of you, and you must use your brain and decide if it is what you want. 

Correction--not what you want, but what will be the best for you.

I know that the best for me right now is to not do yard work today and to try to not lift anything with my right shoulder. 

Do I have a brand new, red, chipper/shredder outside that is calling my name? Yes, yes I do.

And will there be hundreds of moments throughout the day when I will be tempted (by virtue of being right-handed) to use my injured arm to lift or open (or brush) something? Yes, yes there will. And will I forgo my healing and rip apart the tender tendons by doing more than I should?

I hope not, but I can't be sure. I know that from the weather reports I've seen, I can postpone my plans to use my new, red, chipper/shredder until Sunday when I am in better shape. It is a small example of my adaption (yes, adaption) process, but it speaks volumes. 

I have to think of how I feel now (or I should say how I will feel in a little while when the pain subsides) and not look at it as it is. Because it is a fleeting condition at best. It is healing and not healed. And I have to remember how my shoulder felt as I plugged in that stupid cord into the wall, successfully screwing up tens of hours of therapy by overextending myself.

And this is what I should have done each time I got to the point where I would eventually fall in my many attempts to stay sober. Because, every time I'd get to the point where I was a total mess and stop for long enough for the pain to go away, I'd start to notice changes in my complexion, changes in my stride, changes in my mental state, changes in my musical ability, changes in my wallet, and changes in my relationships with others. I'd notice these changes and I thought I was all better. I thought I had it all figured out. I thought that now, I was really ready to take on the world because I had never felt this good before.

And I'd go on a bender worse than the last. 


Because I failed to remember to remember.

I simply forgot--or intentionally ignored--the way my life had been mere days before. I took each benefit from not drinking as a sign that I was fixing my problem--which I was--and became so thrilled with myself that I was getting better that I just had to celebrate. I just had to tell the world. I just had to plug that cord in under the Christmas cactus because it's such a simple and mundane task that I have done hundreds, if not thousands of times before ...


And I was back at square one.

And here we are at square two hundred and thirty two and I'm in a world of pain.

But this will pass, and my arm will heal.

And I'll continue to work out and lose weight (I'm currently mired at 206 and I suppose I didn't want to shout about it as I'm a bit behind, but there you go. 18 pounds in 10 weeks. I suppose that's nothing to be ashamed of) and I'll be confronted with challenges which I think I'm strong enough to overcome.

But I'll always remember which machine it was that I misused, resulting in this injury, and I'll stay away from it. I will stay away from it, yet I will still perform that same exercise. Because that one machine is designed to do the work of the many free weights that sit not far from it. They do the same job as said machine, however, they are harder to use and more difficult to control. They aren't guided by levers and pulleys. They are, as the name suggests, free. They are unpredictable, and are wont to go this way and that. But, unlike the machine that has a path set by the manufacturer to work a certain way every single time, the free weights are controlled exclusively by me. Unlike the machine that provides equal distribution to two limbs that are, by nature, mismatched, the free weights let my body work at its own healthy pace. They give me options, and options are tools for success. I could let go of them in mid extension and they would drop to the floor. I could make the same motion I used to injure myself on the equipment designed for ease of use. 

But instead, I will remember to remember, and I will use them correctly.

I will use my mind, and it will make me stronger.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, August 18, 2008

Day two hundred and twenty eight ... If you don't use it ...

There must be a thousand pens here.

There are so many that are alike; the red, teacher's correction pen; the classic Papermate in blue and in black; the bank-style pens that are tapered at the bottom, a uniform tube for the middle to top, and end with a silver flick-top or whatever you call it.

And there's a reason to be for every pen that is here, for this is a teacher's house, yes indeed. These surroundings are now, and have always been, a zone where pens, pencils, rulers, tape, notebooks, hole-punches, compasses, folders, and pencil sharpeners have created something of a community.

The pencils are an interesting lot. They have to be encouraged by a blade to prove their usefulness. Until then they are simply dowels with one rubber end. But one end makes the other effective. Erasers are like the doting wife quietly keeping order among the thousands of potential mistakes her better half makes either by accident or by intent. They will always be at odds on either end of the same purposeful instrument regardless (or in spite) of whichever appears to have the greater attributes. The eraser keeps a keen watch on the volatile and haphazard leaded end, waiting patiently to clean up the inevitable mess. In doing its job, the eraser loses effectiveness with each swipe until all that is left is a ring of thin metal. This unfortunate development, if not handled with some care during use, may rip into the page by accident, rendering it useless. Sometimes it is the overly sharpened writing end which creates a catastrophe when, for all intents and purposes, it is merely trying to do what it was made to do. Many times, the eraser outlives the pencil-lead. This last fact is quite ironic as in spite of its predictable longevity, our eraser, by default, often suffers a premature end in the waste-bin. Life is so unfair sometimes.

But it's the pens that hold my attention.

Some of them are bunched in groups held close with an elastic band.

Some lay in packs still unopened and ready to be hung back up on display.

Some are in coffee cups, vases, rolls of duct tape, or empty plant pots.

Some are at the table at my elbow.

Some of them are in my attache.

Some of them are on the floor.

Some of them are in the crevices of the couch.

One of them is in my pocket.

And one of rests between my ear and my head.

And that one is the most often used. It has the mojo and the momentum that a good pen should. It is an old pro: calm, cool, collected, and free from glitches or air pockets. It has bite marks on it from times when I was stumped, or bored, or excited, or nervous. It has oil from my hands, and prints from my fingers.

It is an extension of me.

And it is so far removed from so many of the other thousand pens in the house, because it is the one that I am using now.

All the other ones merely have potential.

They have the potential to become an instrument for my whimsy. Any of those pens could be put to so many uses. I could use one to mark the contents of a box for later use. I could use one to write a list of necessities for a shopping expedition. I could use one to sign a check or a credit card transaction. I could use one to date a photo or to note who is in a picture I found at the bottom of an old desk. I could use one to mark a spot on the wall where a painting should hang, or where a sledgehammer should make two rooms one. I could use one to make a note of a task which needs to be accomplished; I could use one to check off that task upon completion. I could use one to leave a suicide note; I could use one to leave a note that says "I love you." 

I could use any one of them to become an extension of me.

The thing I notice which makes me relate to the average ball point pen is that if you don't use it for a while--if you leave it on the table and forget about it--it takes a while to become useful again. 

We all know the drill.

You pick it up. You take the cap off or push the top down. You start to write, assuming that it will do your bidding.

You realize it will not.

You make a small back-and-forth motion.

And then you tap it on the table.

Then you start making the back and forth motion in small travels, then larger concentric circles, then long oblong orbits which defy all logic and practicality because if your pen does start working you then have a mess on your hands.

And more often than not it does, and you do.

Sometimes you tap it to your tongue. Why do we do that?

And then we try to write again with a spit-covered, hot, metal implement.

And the pencils with their erasers in the coffee mug smirk and say "I may have my drawbacks, but at least I'm consistent."

But some pens will never work no matter how hard you try to coax them; no matter how many times you make a circle on the paper; no matter how many times you shake them in your hand, take them out of their shells, put them back again, lick their bottoms, tap their tips, and circle with their points in frustratingly manic circles.

They are simply gone.

But do we throw them away in the waste-bin like we should?

No, we put them right back where we got them from and we pick up another pen.


Because the pen that didn't work still has ink in it; it still has potential; it still has purpose.

I was like one of these pens.

I had ink in me that I could not disperse. I had words that I could not write. I had scribbles which I could only think in my head. I had lists I could not make, and therefore I had tasks which I would never accomplish. I had marks I could not make on my walls to either hang a new painting, or indicate where two rooms should become one.

I had potential stuck between purpose and escape, because that is what lies at the opposite end of the column of ink: escape.

And a messy one at that.

This is why I cannot slow down. This is why I cannot let myself become distracted. This is why I must keep twisting and turning like so many cursive words in a sentence, and only come up for air when I have to dot my I's and cross my T's. 

Because this pen will someday run out of ink, and I want to be able to say that I wrote as much as I could and never once settled for the pencil and eraser with all its semi-permanency and ironic obsolescence.

No, when I end up in the waste-bin I don't want it to be because one half of me gave out before the other.

And I don't want it to be because I exploded and made a mess.

I want it to be because I did as much as I could.

I want to leave my mark.

I want to run out of ink.

And then I will be happy.

Thanks for reading.