Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Day Two Thousand Nine Hundred and Ten . . . I am them.

How do we change as we age?

This is a question I've asked myself a lot as life continues to unfold around me.

At 45 years and seven months old I am pleased to have retained most of my hair. I say "most" because there was a time I can remember--not so long ago--where I had to wet my hair brush to get it through my thick Armenian-Polish coif. But those days are behind me now and it seems I can almost brush my hair straight with just the fingers on my hands. When I get a haircut and the stylist pulls out the little mirror seeking my approval on the way the back looks I always get a little jumpy to see how "Hurricane Fred" is doing, the eye of the storm swirling around the northern regions on my scalp.

But these changes are part of life. These are biological certainties that we can't avoid, hard as some of us try.

My skin gets some help from a certain line of natural skin care products that I am lucky enough to have a seemingly endless supply of. But even as much as I cleanse, tone and moisturize I still look like a man my age: 45 years and seven months. It's part of life and I feel lucky to still be here after my years of use and abuse.

And though one can tell a lot from appearances I know all too well that just because our outward self looks healthy, inside things may not be so rosy.

We have a beautiful seven foot tall Christmas tree in our living room. Its incandescent glow and sparkly garlands give off an appearance of joy, health and happiness. But all I need to do is bend down and reach my hand inside the tree holder to see that it has sucked up all the water I fed it yesterday and is probably screaming for dear life. "Somebody water me!!! You cut me down for no reason and now I have no sun, wind, stars, minerals or water!! FEEED MEEEEEEE!"

And so I water this beautiful specimen of nature and symbol of this winter holiday and it makes Jodi and myself smile every day for three or four week of the year. It was grown for this purpose and that makes it a little easier to know it will only last so long. But as quickly as we prop it up in its stand and cover it with silver, gold, lights and love we know it is rapidly deteriorating.

Time takes its toll on us all.

To me now as it ever was I find that I don't understand concepts unless I can see how they work. When somebody starts explaining something to me I easily gloss over and start to slip away. I try my best to stay in the moment and keep my connection with them solid. But all through my life it's been this way.

I think that's one of the big reasons that this online journal has helped keep me sober. I've been able to work through the reasons why I did what I did in order to understand why I had to stop. Somebody tells me "You gotta quit drinking, buddy. You're gonna kill yourself," and I just wave my hand and say, "Oh, believe me I know," and move on. But digging in deep and picking out moments in my life where certain substances became synonymous with rewards and affirmation? Deciphering and pinpointing moments where I clearly chose insanity over clarity? That kind of stuff really opens my eyes and helps me understand what it's all about.

But this question of how we change as we age, this is also a very helpful conversation to have to make future decisions in a more productive way.

I think that when I was younger I was really good at making my family worry about me. In fact I kind of perfected it. And I don't really know why this was something I let happen. Now that I am older and have those crazy years behind me I can't even fathom thinking that it was somehow okay to allow the two most important people in my life to sit across from each other and talk for hours about how best to get me to "clean up my act." And I know pretty well how the conversations would go. My aunt would show my mother an article she found in the paper on a new drug or intensive treatment to curb alcoholism. My mother would start to cry and say "He'll never do it, Lynn," or something to that effect. My aunt thought she knew me; my mom actually did.

Because when I was younger, interspersed with managing restaurants and playing around the country with my rock band, worrying and upsetting my family was what I did.

But everyone gets older and sometimes our old habits have a way of changing.

Today would be my Aunt Lynda's 68th birthday. Being the youngest of three siblings I suppose she kind of figured she might be the last to pass, but certainly not the youngest. My Uncle was 68, my mother was 65.

But my aunt died just shy of her 61st birthday.

That said, Lynda Jean Johnson was the only one to see me grow up. What I mean to say is that even though she only was around for the first seven months of it she was the only one in my immediate family to live to see me quit drinking. And at age 37 this development was quite possibly the most important and life-changing decision I could have made not only for myself but for everyone around me. Because choosing this path changed everything.

I became responsible with my money.

I became concerned for my weight and for my health.

I began to see my way through problems and not just ways around them.

I understood that there was somebody inside me that was worth loving.

I saw the time in front of me as being more valuable than the time behind me and therefore I refused to live in the past.

I realized who in my life I had filled with dread and worry for years and years and I tried to make things as right as I could.

And most importantly I discovered how I changed as I aged because I could see laid out in front of me who I had become.

I had become . . . them.

All the years of trying to distance myself from my mom and aunt with drugs and drink and dangerous living, all of that had emanated from a deep seated fear that I was just like my family. How outrageous! How preposterous! I couldn't be like them! They were well-respected school teachers who changed people's lives in a single year by connecting and trying to instill in their students a confidence that they may not have been afforded by their family and peers.

These normal people who made every single holiday or milestone extra special for those around them, who kept a steady supply of balloons, streamers, gift bags, kazoos, funny hats, silly signs and greeting cards . . . I wasn't like them.

I was cool, man.

I was different.

I was dangerous and dark!

I was a rock star and I lived the life!

I had a death wish.


I was not any of those things.

I was just . . .  like . . . them.

Well what do you know?

It took me 37 long years to realize this simple fact: that being them is not a curse but a blessing! That being them is something to strive for. That being them is not only becoming scarcer every day but that being them can change people! That being them and holding the door or picking up a quarter that somebody dropped or writing a thank you note or bringing home a balloon on a special day or calling somebody on their birthday or just checking in with someone you haven't heard from in a while . . .

That any of these things is just being who I am: Frederick Alexander Johnson.

And as hard as I fought it for almost four decades I finally gave in and came to and it all made sense for one brilliant and beautiful moment. And that's all it took for me to understand what to do moving forward.

For me, just doing what I've been doing seems to be working. Because instead of making people around me worry about me and just generally being a punk, I'm staying clean and sober and helping others do the same.

I'm giving guitar lessons just like I told my aunt I would in her last few months of her life.

I try to never take my partner for granted. I try to encourage rather than nag. And I celebrate every day we can be together because I have felt like the luckiest man on earth since the day we met.

That is no lie.

That is love.

And they were love.

And I am them.

For once. For all. Forever.

I want to dedicate this post to, of course, my Aunt Lynda. Though her birthday was precariously close to Christmas my mom made damn sure that it was as singular of an event as possible.

And on this day as I do every year I will donate to one of her favorite cat charities, Habitat For Cats.

She loved her cats almost as much as she loved me.

Happy Birthday, Aunty.

I love you, I miss you, I'll see you again someday.


For the rest of you, thank you all so very much for reading. Enjoy the holiday season and try to be safe in this crazy old world.


Lynda J. Johnson December 15, 1947-September 07, 2008.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nerve. The fucking nerve!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know what to say. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no way this could be good. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have made my peace with my family.

I have made my peace with my friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, August 23, 2015

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

It's so hard for me to travel light.

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

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

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

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

Flash forward to present day.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I think this speaks to a deeper level of living.

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

Frederick Alexander Johnson

I'm living my third life right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, May 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14.

My mother's 74th birthday.

You better believe I jumped at that chance.

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

She was nothing if not supportive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is why tonight is so special. 

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

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

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

Because she never really longed for much.

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

All she ever asked me for was to be good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sto lat, Mom.

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

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

Thanks for reading,


For more on Colorway just click here.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

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

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

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

Decades. Plural.

I barely have one.

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

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

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

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

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

But getting back to my older friend.

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

This got me thinking.

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

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

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

That's because I'm me.

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

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

There would be the initial shock.

I would look more than a little surprised.

It would taste really good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love pie and I love me.

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

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

Thanks for reading.