Monday, December 27, 2010

Day one thousand ninety . . . Where there's fire . . .

I answer to very few people.

Now, this is something that I forget every so often because I believe it is human nature to dramatize our own situations when life turns static.

At least it's my nature.

It's not like I don't have anyone to answer to, but it's different than it used to be.

I have two directors in the chorus who call the shots, but I love my job and I love the people I work for/with. We travel the world, I get paid, my talents are exercised and I improve as a musician. Piece of cake.

I have my boss at the gallery where I work once a week, but it's an easy job and I can more or less pick my own hours as long as I get things done by the weekend. I take out the trash, clean the windows and dust the paintings. Piece of cake.

And I have my girlfriend who is all powerful and much smarter than I, I kid you not. But we have a very healthy relationship and to say I "answer" to her would be an exaggeration, to say the least. We answer to each other on the rare times that an argument ensues, and in those cases she always wins. Piece of cake.

But every so often I am thrown back into the world I used to live in not that long ago. It was a world where I had a different number of bosses on any given day. They might be the same two days in a row; they might be different.

These bosses were the people who I had to go through to put in me what it took to feel good.

I'm not going to get graphic about my vices. Take a gander through the posts I've written over the last three years if you care to know more. I've tried to include a healthy mix of memoirs, honorariums, confessions, revelations and observations. I've tried to use humor and honesty in equal measure, and from what people tell me I feel like I'm doing all right.

But the other day I made a startling discovery into why I feel so free.

Let me explain.

Now, while I do not drink, smoke, pop, huff, snort, or ingest anything that may compromise my sanity, sobriety, health and/or peace of mind I do hang out with plenty of people who do.

One of these people who I spend time with went on a trip with me to New York City last week. While we were there she bought two drinks over the course of a couple of hours. One of them--upon taking a few sips--was deemed to be weak. In other words, there wasn't enough detected alcohol in it to justify the price and/or name of the beverage.

An hour or so later--at a different establishment--I watched as the bartender poured liberally from the bottle of Jack Daniels into a glass--his other hand pouring Coke from a soda gun. It put a smile on my face to see it. Now this was a proper drink. And while I would have been more than happy to have gotten it upon request I was a tiny bit concerned that it would be too strong for her.

When I asked my friend how her drink was she smiled and told me it was delicious.

I'm sure it was. It made me smile again.

But it wasn't until later in the evening that I started to realize what a liberating feeling it is to be removed from this world of uncertainty. I sat and started to recall the days--almost all of them--that I spent hoping that whatever I had was strong enough.

And the rest of the time was spent worrying if whatever it was I just had had been too strong. Though these happened less frequently, when it did it was not a pleasant concern.

Through the years I learned a few things about playing in bars and clubs.

The first order of business upon arriving at a venue is--of course--to make sure you can get inside and confirm that you are indeed playing there that night. Seems like a given, but you'd be surprised how often calendars seem to differ.

The second order of business--and perhaps even more important overall--is to make friends with the bartender. Because as a drinker this man or woman is ultimately in charge of your happiness for the evening. Find someone who got dragged in on their day off and you may be paying full price all night for shots that were measured to the milliliter or, even worse, from a liquor gun. Find someone who loves music and their job (or better still someone who's had a few before their shift), and you're guaranteed--audience or not--to have a good time. Hell, they may even be able to get you an item or two--ahem--that isn't on the menu.

But I don't care about the bartenders anymore . . . sort of.

I mean, I'll say hello and pay for a soda or coffee if need be. I always tip at least a dollar for whatever it is I am getting whether it's free or not. I realize they, like the waitstaff, are paid mostly in tips and I respect this fact.

I am gracious and personable but I don't feign interest in a local college football game because the bartender is wearing their jersey. I don't regale them with a sob story of how thirsty I am because it's so hot out, or make jokes about there being a hole in the bottom of my glass and where did that whiskey go? I don't try to gauge their happiness level because I'm not at their mercy.

If I wanted to I could just go around the corner and get a liter of water and drink that all night.

I don't need them because they don't have anything that I need.

And that goes for everything else that used to call my name.

I hope this _____ is the good shit.

I hope _____ is working the bar tonight.

I can't believe I paid _____ for this _____.

Try this and tell me if you can taste any _____ in it.

I think Al had a few too many _____.

Last night we got a snowstorm. The weather people were calling it a "blizzard" but at least where we are it was just a storm. Jodi and I had a fire going in the hearth like we do most every night that it's cold.

But the wind from the storm was too much for the chimney, and every so often it would blow a plume of smoke into the living room and set off the smoke alarms. Now, this is a big pain in the ass because not only does it potentially wake up the neighbors but we have to open the window and the front door to let the damn smoke out which, of course, lets the cold air in. It doesn't happen often, and when it does it usually only happens once. Last night it happened so many times that at 12:07 AM we had to put the fire out ourselves. It wasn't easy. In fact while trying to put the fire out we (I should say I) actually made things worse.

I realized just then that I only really had experience starting a fire and none putting one out.

It's much harder than I expected, and I'm still unsure if we did it correctly.

Three years ago to the hour I remember putting out a similar fire. Or, I should say, I remember running out into the street and driving my car down to the local bar and letting the authorities do the work for me.

Three years ago to the hour I had my last drink.

Three years ago to the hour I found myself in a situation that I couldn't get myself out of.

Three years ago to the hour I took the last attempt to passively kill myself.

Three years ago to the hour I told all the bosses I ever had who stood between me and a bottle, bag, or capsule that I was through answering to them.

Three years ago to the hour I began my life again.

So much has happened in the last 1,095 days (though this blog starts on New Year's Day, hence the discrepancy in post numbers). I remember almost everything--the good and the bad.

I had a well documented slip when my aunt died in September of 2008, but I did not pick up the bottle.

I went through the lengthy process of getting my license fully reinstated.

I took over the house my mother and aunt lived in and loved.

I found my dream girl.

And I learned how to build a fire.

It's not as easy as it sounds. There's a method to it. There are certain pieces to the puzzle that you must have. And once it's begun you have to keep an eye on it and feed it and make sure that the embers don't burn you or the house that surrounds it.

And you have to make sure that when the winds blow hard outside that you keep an eye on the smoke that follows the warmth. Because you stand a risk of setting off all the alarms in the house.

I try not to make too big a deal of my daily or monthly milestones in sobriety. In fact I think that the ultimate goal is to forget that they even come around--to just live life as it comes to you rather than wallowing in the world you once inhabited.

But last night I think the whole house was giving me a thumbs up, and, at the same time, making me work for it--up and down, waving the towel at the smoke alarm and opening and shutting the windows and doors.

It really hit home how easily the heat escapes--how the comfort of a warm house can be turned upside down with one sudden gust of air from above.

And it made me realize--three years to the hour--just how hard it is to put a fire out when it wants to keep burning.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day one thousand and sixty four . . . Time flies.


That's what my late Aunt Lynda would have said on an occasion such as this.

It's something she said at moments that were of a special nature--like hearing about me getting a big gig or finding a fifty dollar bill lying in the street.

It would start out high in pitch and then slope low, almost like a cartoon character falling out of a skyscraper might.


I always thought it was a Fall River thing (Fall River, Massachusetts being where I grew up), but after asking several of my friends from the area and getting quizzical looks I realized it was unique only to them.

But the two of them had a lot of adorable quirks. They had many interesting ways of expressing themselves. This was just one more, but it was a joyful, engaging one.

It was a natural reaction to something good.

On the evening of Tuesday, December 14th, I found myself on a bus in New Zealand. I was with Jodi. I was also with thirty or so other friends and colleagues making our way back to our hotel in Wellington after a successful show that night. This group, of course, is the Young at Heart Chorus and I play guitar in their band.

Now, just the mere fact of me playing a gig in New Zealand, of all places, would have elicited the aforementioned exclamation from Aunty. But she missed out on being around for me touring Japan and Brooklyn and Canada and . . . well, all over this great big world by now.

That's not to say that my folks (I called my mom and aunt my "folks." Always have, always will) didn't get to see me travel to more than a few exciting places in their lifetime. Because, thankfully, I've been doing this kind of thing for six years this month.

I remember having the two of them come up for lunch back in November 2004 when I was just starting out with these guys. We hadn't played any gigs further than Springfield up to that point, though I had toured and seen plenty of the U.S. with The Stuntmen. We went to a nice little place in Amherst and found a quiet table in the back and toasted to something nice. We ordered sandwiches. Then I told them with feigned resignation that I was finally going to have to get a passport.

They both looked at me incredulously and asked what I meant by that. Was I leaving the country for good? For bad? What the . . . ?

And then, I got to tell them with a big smile how I--F. Alex "Freddy Freedom" Johnson--was being given the opportunity to travel to Holland and Belgium for three weeks for a real gig--a paying gig. And they both, in almost unison, exclaimed, "Eeeeeeeee!" before welling up with tears and grabbing my hands and smiling from ear to ear.

I'll never forget that.

Flash forward six years to me and Jodi sitting in the back of a bus rolling down the other side of the highway in a country in the Southern Hemisphere, about as many time zones removed from home as . . . well, as time will allow.

December 14th changed to December 15th on my iPhone and I turned to Jodi and smiled. And then we wished my Aunt Lynda a happy 63rd birthday. We quietly sang "Sto lat" (the Polish Birthday Song) and hugged each other.

That was my aunt's first birthday of the day, as there would be two December 15ths this year.

We spent the morning shopping and packing. We had lunch at the airport. And then we boarded the plane that would take us to Los Angeles. We got up in the air around 7 pm, New Zealand time, for the 12 hour flight--the 12 hour flight that would take us back to . . . yesterday.

With a mighty roar we took off out of the land of the kiwis and headed home. As the landing gear pulled itself up into the underside I pulled out my phone and reset the time to from 7 pm to 1 am--18 hours back--and settled into the flight.

We touched down in Los Angeles at 10 am and rocketed to our rooms at a hotel near the airport.

And that is where I am writing this, as I once again celebrate my dear aunt's 63rd birthday.

It's legal. It's legit. It's indisputable. And it's also something that my aunt loved with a passion:

It's two for one!

And that, dear readers, you just know would always be followed by a . . . yep, you guessed it.


Happy Birthday, Aunty. Sto lat! I so wish you were here today. I wish you could have met Jodi. Oh the schemes you and she, i'm sure, would have concocted involving me and, somehow, an inappropriate mens thong or a monkey mask, a pooper scooper, or . . . well, you always did have a strange sense of humor. I took you in stride but I always knew you were different.

Somehow I feel I'll see you again and we can catch up.

Until then I'll just say I love you.

Thanks for reading. It's good to be home.

Now I need a shower, a nap, and a few days to catch up to the winter as I left the summer behind me a day from now.

My, how time flies.