Note to readers who follow the Johnny and Sharyn stories: This episode follows chronologically after the episode called “Johnny and Sharyn: Quite the Pair” where we learn that Johnny has injured his feet and I, Sharyn, have fallen and injured my right wrist. It might be helpful for you to reread this to refresh your memory before reading “Medical Appointment.”

After a few weeks of antibiotic cream and a regular soaking regime, Johnny’s feet were still swollen and tender and his skin itched. Despite home treatment and prescribed painkillers, the pain in his feet could keep him awake at night. His friend, Dr. Jeff, recommended that Johnny consult a podiatrist for further treatment. Johnny does not want to go to the doctor, partly because doctor visits are expensive, partly because Johnny prefers to live his life free from the advice of others, and partly because Johnny has a fear of medical procedures. I will come to learn that Johnny, smart and dextrous as he is, is incapable of changing a dressing, or even inserting eye drops in his own eyes. Luckily, he has been blessed with general good health and vigor for most of his sixty-seven years.

I trust Dr. Jeff and so I encourage Johnny to make an appointment with my podiatrist.

“Dr. Hiatt’s a good guy,” I say to Johnny. “He knows what he is doing. He fixed my ankle when no one else could. If you need to see a podiatrist, he’s the one to see. I always tell people with foot problems to go see him.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Neither do I, Johnny. He’ll see you anyway. You’ll have to pay out of pocket and there’s a prompt pay discount. You can pay in cash if you want.”

That suited Johnny, who operated with cash as much as possible and often carried lots of bills, meticulously arranged by denomination in his wallet.

“How much will it cost?”

“The initial consultation will be about $100.00, I think.”

“I can pay that,” Johnny says.

“Yes, you can. And you need your feet to get better.”

This is how I met Dr. Hiatt. I had been working as a substitute recreation leader at Willard Park, assigned to help integrate children with disabilities into after school recreational activities. I was supervising an active little girl who loved to run and to climb trees. One day, as I ran across the grass chasing her, I caught my left foot in a hole in the lawn and wrenched the entire foot inward, spraining my left ankle. I hobbled into the Willard Park Clubhouse, sat to fill out an incident report and went home on the bus.

The next time Carl at Willard Park called me for a substitute shift I explained that I could not do it, that my ankle would not permit me to be on my feet for a three-or-four hour shift, that it was still swollen and painful. Carl told me I could still go see a doctor through the City of Berkeley’s Workers’ Comp contractor.

I went down to Alta Bates where I received an x-ray (no fracture) and saw a nurse practitioner. She taught me the basics of sprain care — rest, ice, elevation and compression — and encouraged me to draw the letters of the alphabet with the toes of my left foot. I was dubious about this, given that I have little ability to move my left toes (My entire left foot is affected by cerebral palsy).

“I’ll try,” I said.

Furrowing my brow and looking at my toes, willing them to move, I did my best to draw a capital “A,” “B,” “C.” After I completed the tiny movements I looked at the nurse practitioner.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“I just did it,” I said. “That’s as much as I can do. I have cerebral palsy.”

She blinked.

“I’m not familiar with cerebral palsy,” she said.

Long story short, for the next six years I iced and elevated my left ankle frequently, and often wore an ace bandage wrapped around it. I consulted an orthopedist and got a custom-made brace for it, a plastic orthosis whose edge dug into the back of my calf while the my sore ankle banged against the rigid device whenever I made a movement it was meant to prevent. The swelling went down when I wore the orthosis, but, as soon as I stopped wearing it for any length of time my left ankle swelled to the size of a tangerine. I went through courses of physical therapy and acupuncture as well. I popped ibuprofen tablets like Chiclets, hoping to reduce the inflammation and swelling. Nothing worked: six years after the accident my ankle hurt whenever I walked and was especially painful when I had to walk on a slanted surface or stand for more than half an hour at a time. By this time I had acquired a permanent half-time position as a recreation leader and was required to be on my feet a lot, going on field trips, pushing children in wheelchairs, supervising art projects and taking part in sports. The medical professionals who could not bring me relief said things like “Well, you are getting older” and “Well, you have cerebral palsy.”

I would say in response, “I’ve had cerebral palsy all of my life, but it doesn’t cause pain or swelling. Before I had this accident I could hike, dance, walk four miles. Now I can’t do any of that.”

Eventually I decided I needed to see a sports medicine specialist because sports medicine doctors are dedicated to getting their patients back to their pre-injury condition. A receptionist at a Berkeley acupuncture clinic gave me the number for the Center for Sports Medicine in Walnut Creek. I called and explained that I had an unresolved Workers’ Comp injury, an ankle sprain, and the appointment clerk gave me an appointment to see their foot doc.

Doctor Hiatt was a former basketball player, young, friendly and an excellent listener. I sat on an examination table, telling him the sad tale of my ankle sprain, enumerating all of the things I could not do anymore and all of the things that caused pain. When I finished my recitation, Dr. Hiatt examined both of my feet and ankles, and gently worked my left foot through its limited range of motion. Then he looked up, watching my face as he said, “What if I told you I could make your pain go away and stabilize your ankle?”

I had pursued every treatment anyone suggested while waiting six years to hear those words: when I heard them I started to cry.

Dr. Hiatt had made my left ankle better. After prescribing custom-made orthotics for my shoes, enrolling me in a program of physical therapy and electronic stimulation, after having my nerves tested (all viable), and after an MRI that showed a “mangled and shredded” tendon, Dr. Hiatt received approval for a tendon transfer surgery. He split the tendon that runs by the inside of the foot into three sections, leaving one third of it in place, running another third across the top of my foot and wrapping the last third around the outside of my ankle. After surgery and follow-up physical therapy to restore my strength my ankle was back to normal strength and stability.

Johnny gave me permission to make an appointment for him to see my foot doc at the Center for Sports Medicine in Walnut Creek, a city to the east of San Leandro with a per capita income of $69,000. I usually take public transit to medical appointments, involving a combination of buses, trains, shuttle buses and walking, but Johnny cannot walk at all without pain, so he gets a guitar student to drive him to his appointment. I will meet them at Johnny’s house and go along to provide encouragement and moral support. It is the third week of September and I have not seen Johnny since making a surprise visit to his house in July to check to see if he was still alive after no one had seen him since the end of June.

I watch Johnny hobble down his front step, down the walkway. At the driveway, he supports his weight with an arm on the cyclone fence, crosses slowly to the curb. When I open the car door for him he grabs the outside roof of the car to help lower himself into the passenger seat. I climb into the back seat and sit directly behind him, resting my forearm on the top of the front seat so that he can hold my hand while we drive. Rob parks in the garage beneath the medical center so that we could take an elevator up to the lobby to save Johnny as many steps as we can.

I don’t remember what Johnny wore on his feet the day of his first appointment. I think by then he had bought himself a pair of shoes in a larger size to accommodate his swollen feet, but I don’t remember if he came in wearing socks, slippers or flip-flops. I don’t think he walked in barefoot.

Johnny didn’t own any clothing beyond the basics: black jeans, black long-sleeved dress shirts, black socks, black leather shoes, a heavy black cotton sweater, a black knit watch cap, a black leather jacket and belt. He did have ties in red, green and purple, but he seldom wore a tie. To facilitate the doctor’s examination of his legs and feet, Johnny has taken a pair of scissors and cut off his oldest pair of jeans just below the knee, leaving a raggedy hem. Although he has shaved and showered and combed his silver hair, he looks tough and disreputable in the blue-chaired, carpeted suburban waiting room with his self-fringing pants. He sits as much as possible, getting to his feet only when he is called to the front counter to sign in as a self-paying patient. Today Johnny has no banter for the friendly front office staff and no energy to summon it. I don’t know what is going through his head, but I suspect it is a potent brew of hope, fear and shame, seasoned with foot pain. Johnny hates medical appointments and medical settings and medical terminology — only fear and pain would cause him to consult a doctor for any reason.

Doctor Hiatt greets Johnny with a smile and a firm handshake and introduces himself. Then he focuses on Johnny’s story, watching Johnny’s drawn face. To his credit, Johnny tells Dr. Hiatt that he had sat and slept slumped on a couch with his shoes on for the better part of several weeks before he had removed his shoes and found himself in pain. He tells him he had consulted a physician, who had prescribed an antibiotic cream and then recommended an additional consultation.

Dr. Hiatt listens. Then, as gently as he can, he examines Johnny’s swollen feet and calves.

“You have cellulitus. Your doctor gave you good treatment. He told you to do the right things. I would have done the same things. You are going to get better. What I’m going to do is wrap your legs and calves. The compression will help the swelling go down. When the swelling goes down, the pain will lessen.”

“I’ll prescribe some pain medication for you. And I’ll need to see you once a week for awhile. Do you have any questions?”

Johnny shakes his head. He does not like medical conversations. He does not want to talk about any of this. He just wants to walk pain-free the way he used to.

I listen carefully to everything the good doctor says, listening for telltale words such as “sepsis” and “necrosis.” Thankfully, I didn’t hear any of them. In true Harper fashion, Johnny has dodged a bullet.

Johnny doesn’t say much while Dr. Hiatt wraps his legs and feet, although he winces from time to time and shadows of pain cross his face. I can see that he is tired from the excursion. I do think he appreciates Dr. Hiatt’s positive attitude and he makes a follow-up appointment for the following week.


Dear Readers:

Some of you know that Johnny Harper was a storyteller. In a fictional experiment here I decided to tell a few stories that he told me. I have no way of knowing what he exaggerated (you know how storytellers are — they tell you what makes a good story), nor of verifying the events. I am sure that bits of the stories are true, but I am fictionalizing elements that I cannot know. Incidentally, my Grandmother Carroll used to say, “You’re a stinking storyteller,” meaning “You are lying.”

“Shhhh,”Johnny told his little brother David as they crept partway down the staircase in their cowboy pajamas. Johnny knew they were supposed to be in bed, but he couldn’t resist the sound of the party downstairs, the clinking glasses, the laughter and the sound of their father Art singing over his guitar:

“I ride an old paint,
I lead an old dan
I’m goin’ to Montana
For to throw the hooley-ann.”

Johnny didn’t know what a “hooley-ann” was, but he bet it was fun to throw. He hadn’t been roping or riding, but he heard cowboy stories on the radio and had begged bits of cowboy gear from his parents. At four, he already organized mock gun battles between him and his brother, but now he was intent on hearing all of the words to the song.

Long after David fell asleep in his own bed, Johnny lay awake, humming the tune he had heard and turning over the words in his mind:

“Ride around, little dogies,
Ride around real slow.
The fiery and the snuffy
Are rarin’ to go.”

Johnny was rarin’ to go himself the day his first grade teacher asked if anyone would like to sing a song for the class. He shot his hand into the air and strode up to the front of the classroom, where he opened his mouth and spun the long tale of how some drunken cowboys in the Sierra de-horned the devil, branded him and left him howling with his tail tied in knots.

Mrs. Teacher called Johnny’s mother Marian Lumsdaine to talk about that performance, not because of the surprising themes of rowdy behavior and drinking, but because Johnny had given a flawless account in eight long verses, singing in tune and keeping the attention of his classmates.

Marian Lumsdaine thanked Mrs. Teacher, but she was not surprised. Johnny had been memorizing songs since at least age three and singing bits of them at age two. She boasted of this one night at when she and her husband Art had friends over, colleagues from the psychological institute, friends in the foreign service, all people interested in aspects of human behavior. “Johnny sings beautifully.”

Tom Diplomat said, “Oh, come on, Marian, toddlers can’t sing.”

“Johnny can.”

“Two-year-olds don’t sing. Perhaps a bit of sing-song.”

“No, Tom. Johnny sings.”

“Sure he does.”

“Come with me, Tom.”

Marian put down her glass, stubbed out her cigarette in the beanbag ashtray, and rose from the blue tweed sofa, followed by Art and a couple of curious guests. Up the stairs she marched, flipping on the light in Johnny’s room to find him lying in bed staring at the ceiling, although she had put him to bed an hour ago.

“Johnny, will you sing us something, please?”

Johnny sat up, leaned against the headboard, cocked his head at the adults and began:

“As I walked out in the streets of Laredo.
As I walked out in Laredo one day…”

Marian flashed a smile at Tom. The others looked at each other, listening to the child who had only been walking himself for a year singing the recognizable melody in a high clear voice.

When Johnny finished, Marian nodded at him and said, “Thank you, Johnny. You try to get some sleep. I’m going to turn out your light now.”

She flicked the switch, leaving only the light of a nightlight plugged into the wall socket. The guests filed out of the room and back down the stairs as Marian softly closed the door.

Johnny is back on email after the Cur-ville festival. He contacts his bandmates and his former students and gets a disappointing email from a sound engineer he has been working with, who says that he will not work with Johnny professionally anymore. Johnny starts catastrophizing about the end of his career: really, he is hurt because he likes the sound guy a lot and thought all would be forgiven and life would resume as before. Johnny knows — this time he knows — that the loss of work is due to his months long bender.

But work is not all Johnny has lost. On August 23rd, 2013 I ask if we can make a plan to celebrate our first anniversary, two days hence. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” he says. I haven’t seen him in person since early June.

The following day he tells me that he cannot walk. Why? Because he kept his shoes on during his entire drinking bout and slept slumped over on the living room love seat with his feet on the floor. Johnny is a big guy: he can’t stretch out on the love seat or elevate his feet.When he finally removes his shoes after the over two months he has been sitting and sleeping there his feet have swollen, are tender and painful. He has consulted a doctor friend who has given him an antibiotic and some cream for his feet. When they do not improve in a week, his friend prescribes a painkiller and tells him he ought to see a podiatrist. Johnny does not invite me to come see him and I do not invite myself.

We will not see each other on our anniversary, which bums me out entirely. What good is it having a sentimental boyfriend if you cannot get together on your anniversary? All we will get to do is talk on the phone, Which we do: we are talking on the eve of our anniversary and decide we will stay up until midnight to commemorate the occasion. At midnight I say “Happy Platform Day”

“Happy Anniversary” says Johnny.

I email him the next morning to request that, since he is sending me a song to listen to every day, that he send me a romantic song for our anniversary. He responds by sending me “Devoted to You” by the Everly Brothers. He suggests that I learn the high part so that we can sing it together.

I never do.

On our anniversary we have another phone conversation in which Johnny says he has been staying up all night and sleeping during the day. His solution for getting back on a daylight working schedule is to drink coffee all day after staying up all night. I suggest instead that he open the curtains to his living room, allow light to come in, and let exposure to light adjust his circadian rhythm. He does not like this idea. And I remember, belatedly, that our chief relationship rule is that we do not tell each other what to do (Like any rule, both of us break this one sometimes, but we try to be mindful of it: we are both strong-willed people, apt to bridle and dig in our heels and to charge if necessary).

Three days after our anniversary I take a fall on brick steps while I am taking out the compost at my house. I have either sprained or fractured my right wrist. I make a medical appointment to have it checked out. The hand doctor does not find a fracture, but six days later, on September 4th, I am unable to play my guitar: playing aggravates my hand, arm and wrist, so I stop playing, stop earning money and start icing, elevating, resting and wrapping my wrist on a regular basis.

Now Johnny can’t walk and I can’t work. He spends hours practicing music and sends me songs to listen to, notes on particular artists and arrangements, reviews of albums. He has moved a small amp into his office so that he can play along with things he finds on the internet. I tell him about a few songs I like as well: James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters” and Pierce Pettis’s song “Legacy.”

Johnny’s feet are not getting better. He is soaking his feet regularly and taking ibuprofen and the pain is keeping him up at night. Meanwhile I go to see an acupuncturist about the continued pain and swelling in my right wrist. We are quite a pair.

While we are convalescing and coping with our maladies I start talking to Johnny about the great British guitarist Richard Thompson. I give him lists of songs to listen to and he likes them all. Soon he is finding Thompson documentaries for me to watch. We will revisit Richard Thompson’s music many times down the road. I am pleased that Johnny likes Thompson’s music: Johnny is basically an American roots music specialist, whereas I skew toward music from the British Isles.

Three weeks after my fall I still cannot use my right wrist normally and Johnny’s feet are still swollen, itchy and painful. His friend Jeff, the M.D. who has been advising him and prescribing antibiotic cream, tells him again he ought to see a podiatrist. I know a wonderful podiatrist and surgeon who successfully treated an unresolved ankle sprain of mine after six years of unsuccessful efforts by others. I make an appointment for Johnny to see Dr. Hiatt on Monday September 23rd. I will accompany him to the appointment. I coach Johnny on what he’ll need for the medical exam: a list of all the medications he has been taking, what dosage, how long he has been taking them. I tell him that he must tell Dr. Hiatt the truth about how long he had his shoes on and what he was or was not doing during the period of time before he injured his feet.

Dear Readers,

I have recently had to assume a care-giving responsibility of unknown duration that will take me awhile to get my head around. I cannot tell you when I will have the time and space to write more Johnny and Sharyn stories (There are plenty more!). Thank you for reading. — Sharyn

A year after I followed Johnny up to the Cur-ville festival in Kenwood and heard his triumphant performance of “Burnin’ Up,” a year after he called me “the fabulous Sharyn,” a year after everyone I talked to at the festival told me what a great guy he was, I go back on my own to sing a small set at Cur-ville on a secondary stage. I have taught myself to play an accompaniment for my own song “Clueless,” which I had been relying on Johnny to play since I wrote it. I will perform it for whatever crowd I have while Johnny sits in San Leandro doing whatever he is doing. It is August and he has only made it out of the house since June to buy booze and to get himself a new phone charger, but he cuts his fingernails the day before my gig, which will allow him to start playing guitar again.

Busking has prepared me well for singing at Cur-ville. The stage is near a couple of food trucks, some small tables. People order their food, chat to each other. They are not listening to my lyrics, hanging on my every word.

The M.C. admires my vintage pawnshop Harmony guitar. People applaud when I sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Others look up when my friend Mary comes to the stage to sing a duet with me on “Morning Shanty.” Another performer sings a snatch of my “Wallflower Waltz” and says she has meant to learn it. I wish Johnny were present to hear my set, to comment on what he felt I did well.

My friends Mary and Alan give me a ride home so I get home at a decent hour. I am able to call Johnny. Reviewing the festival for him I say “Lots of chops, no taste.” Many of the musicians I have heard play can play and sing well, but their songs are forgettable. I, on the other hand, can write a memorable song, but have no chops. I fantasize about making a record with Johnny, either Johnny producing and playing on my next album, or perhaps making a duet record with him, but neither of us are making records today.

Johnny tells me he is drinking more water. His voice sounds stronger and more spirited. He expresses some interest in music performances, recordings and documentaries about musicians. He talks to me about the arrangements and personnel on Dale Geist’s record (Johnny produced it and is 99% happy with it). The fact that Johnny is talking about music shows me that he is on the mend.

In teaching myself to play “Clueless,” working out an accompaniment, I am learning what I will have to learn many times over: hanging out with a great musician can be fun and they can enhance your performances or arrangements if they are in the mood, but you still need to build your own skills, rather than relying on them for the hard bits.

A few days after my Cur-ville mini-set I am possessed by the desire to learn to play Richard Thompson’s “Walking on a Wire.” I know the song to sing it, but it is a minefield of hard chords to play: C# minor, G# minor, B major. If a song has just one chord I find hard to play, such as a B minor, I can work out a way to cheat the chord, or I can capo, in some cases, and play an A minor shape, which is easier, but there is no key in which I can sing Thompson’s song that will not require some difficult chords. I am limited by my inability to play barre chords, chords where you place your left index finger across all of the guitar strings and make the shapes of the chords with your other three fingers: it takes strength and practice to hold down a barre and get a clean sound on all the strings. Johnny, of course, when he is playing, can play any chord. He likes to call himself “a twelve-key man,” meaning he can play in any key anyone wants to play in.

Johnny suggests that I just play the root and the fifth of each chord instead of trying to play the whole thing. I try this out, but I don’t like the way it sounds, so I go back to the real chords. I can play two finger barre chords — just — where I can use both my index and middle fingers to hold down the strings, which means I can play F# minor and G# minor, but other chords require a full barre, so I decide I will practice barre chords for ten minutes a day.

I ask Johnny for tips on how to play barre chords and I also find some online information: someone says you use tiny muscles in your middle knuckle to play barre chords and recommends standing while curling and extending your fingers as fast as you can for a hundred repetitions. I have never tried this before. The online sage also mentions that no other thing you do in normal life works these knuckle muscles.

It turns out that ten minutes a day of barre chord practice is too ambitious for me: by the time I play for two minutes sweat is pouring off my forehead, my left hand is cramping both in the palm and at the base of the thumb and my forearm is hurting as well. I will have to practice two minutes five times a day to get ten minutes in.

On August 16th I get an email from Johnny. He is back to using his email and has contacted his bandmates and the Avonova venue and a recording studio. Good. Progress for Mr. Harper in reclaiming his life. He also starts the practice of sending me one song a day to listen to. Sometimes he sends me the words and some background on the song, sometimes just the link to a video. His first selection is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Somewhere in this time period Johnny has actually quit drinking — he doesn’t send me an email saying “I’ve quit.” Instead, he sends me an email saying that he has been going through all of his old email from before he started isolating until now and he has had some really bad news. He says he is “in the kind of pain that sure would have sent me to the bottle.” He says he does not want to drink and he doesn’t know what else to do. He says there is nothing on T.V. and he can’t talk to me because I am at the Farmers’ Market singing for tips. He concludes, “Music is my refuge, I guess.”

Although I call Johnny back as soon as I discover his message, I don’t reach him for a couple of days. When I do get him on the phone he sounds shut down. He is still watching movies around the clock and using “small amounts of alcohol.” Like the narrator of “Alice’s Restaurant” he becomes “open and honest on the telephone.” He begins to cry about how stressful it is for him to stay on top of his life as an independent musician. He says that when the stress gets to him he is unable to stop the slide into depression, inactivity, withdrawal, increased drinking. I don’t remember how he refers to it this time around, but he has used the words “stress” and “depression” before to me.

“I’m afraid to pick up my life again,” he tells me. “I just can’t deal with the stress.”

I am not surprised that Johnny is stressed: he has been drinking for six weeks at least, not eating. I can’t imagine putting my body through the amount of stress his is under. His coping mechanisms are drinking and watching movies and T.V. with one call to his friend and former therapist a day. I want to tell him that his body needs food and vitamins, but I do not raise the issue. Today I just listen.

Johnny tells me that the plan for me to move in had been a source of stress for him and that he is still worried about my not wanting to share every bit of his music. He told me he had a conversation with a thirty-year-old woman about New Orleans at Les Blank’s memorial. I want to say, “Johnny, you are a charismatic musician. There are always going to be fans and younger women wanting a piece of what you’ve got.” I want him to say to those women, like Paul Newman, that he has “steak at home.” But if he is having doubts about me it is good for him to voice them. Maybe he will work through them. He does tell me it helps him to hear my voice.

At the end of our long conversation Johnny says, “I’ll call you tomorrow. Or you can call me.”

* * *

The next morning Johnny and I talk again. He jumps a level in honesty. He tells me he goes out once a day to replenish his liquor supply. I think this is fucked up — he cannot walk a quarter mile to Walgreen’s to get himself vitamins or simple food; he will not go to a grocery store. But I am not an alcoholic, do not sustain myself on booze.

“How many days do you think it would take you to get to Berkeley?” I ask. “I’ll buy you lunch when you come. I’m worried about your not eating. You are cannibalizing your own organs. Your body steals nutrients from them. Couldn’t you at least get some vitamins?”

“This is not a good direction,” he says.

Just like that I have fallen back into making suggestions.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’ll stop. I’m just so worried about you.”
“My problems are emotional, not physical.”
“Physical and emotional states are connected,” I say.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he says. Then “I’m having a hard time forgiving myself for letting McCord and Edie down.”
“We all fuck up sometimes, Johnny.”
“I feel like a terrible person.”
“You’re not a terrible person. You made a mistake. We all do. A hundred people would say you helped and inspired them. McCord and Edie would say that about you.” (They would while also acknowledging that he had let them down at two important album release gigs).

When I hang up I reflect on how powerless I am to help Johnny. All I can do is listen and say compassion meditation for him. All I can do is try to take care of myself so that I can talk to him without rancor or pleading or insisting that he do something.

* * *

The next day he tells me that he has not showered or shaved or changed his clothes for a month. Yow!
“Maybe that’s something you can do today, Johnny.”
“I’m not ready.”
I don’t ask any more questions or make another suggestion.
“I might turn on my computer or start getting rid of the beer bottles.”

I tell Johnny I am reading a book called Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist who studies guitar and studies his own learning process.
“I’m interested in how people learn,” he says.
“Do you know about Gardner? He writes about different learning styles.”
“I don’t know his first name. He wrote a whole book about learning.”

July has passed into August and Johnny is still holed up in his house. But on August 2nd he tells me “I want to stop drinking. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I don’t want to go to A.A.”
“My brother goes to Life Ring. And Eric Maisel, a psychologist who works with artists, has written a book on recovery for artists.”

Johnny makes an interested noise. He tells me he has been drinking two six-packs of beer and a pint of whiskey each day. He says there are seven hundred bottles in his living room and he might call a hauling service to get rid of them.

I tell him he will have to come up with healthier ways of coping with stress if he gives up drinking, that there will certainly be some hard times ahead.

“I want to take better care of myself. I’m worried about not eating. I see food on T.V. and it looks good, but I don’t feel the urge to eat.”
“I’m worried about that, too. Sometimes it’s easier to eat with other people. Start with something plain, maybe some soup or some eggs.”

I remind Johnny that he does not need to punish himself, that it would be enough to put his life back together and face other people again.

Johnny likes to quote a line from the movie, “The Right Stuff”: someone asks a pilot, “Do you wish to declare a state of emergency?”

The pilot always answers “No.”

* * *

I myself have been hollow-eyed, despite my best efforts to take care of myself during Johnny’s extended drinking binge. I need to set firmer boundaries around phone calls, tell Johnny that I need my head to hit the pillow by 9:30 at night because I am getting up at 5:30 each morning. I decide to take a day off the next day, spending much of it in bed, sleeping off accumulated weariness from the summer’s long ordeal. I call Johnny and say “I wish to declare a state of emergency,” telling him I’m staying home for the day.

I had been thinking since I was in France in June that I would wait to have a conversation with Johnny about his drinking until he and I could see each other in a public place, have lunch, have a cup of coffee. One night in late July 2013 Johnny told me he wanted to talk to me “about people.”

When he called me the next afternoon to ask about my day I mentioned renting a room at the Kensington Community Center “where I go to an Al-Anon meeting.”

“You went to a 12-step meeting?”
“I told you in June I was going to Al-Anon.”
“How many meetings a week do you go to?”
“I used to go to five. Now I go to three.”
“Johnny, I don’t love going to meetings. But sometimes someone says something I find helpful.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about people.”
“Now is not the time.”
“Okay. Call me when you want to.”
“I will call you,” he said. “In the morning, if not tonight.”

* * *

When Johnny called the next morning he told me it upset him that I mentioned going to Al-Anon. He said, “I thought I’d get better and that we could see each other and I could have a few drinks if I wanted.”

“Did you think your drinking was not a problem?” I asked. “Johnny, I love you. Whatever you do, I can continue to be your friend. You can call me and I’ll be there for you, but if you continue to drink I can’t be in a relationship with you. Your drinking is hurting you. I think you need help.”

“What would that look like?”

I waded into uncertain waters. In retrospect I wish I had turned the question on him and asked him what he thought he needed, but instead I told him I thought he needed to detox under medical supervision and then to get some kind of ongoing support for sobriety. I told him it didn’t have to be AA if he hated AA.

“I’m not abandoning you, Johnny. You can always reach me by phone. You can take time to think about what I’ve said.”

After a long silence, he said “Thank you for sharing. I’ll be calling you sometime.” Then he hung up on me.

After Johnny hung up I notified his brother and a few friends of our conversation and then I went to an Al-Anon meeting.

When I got back, the phone calls started. In one he said I had “dynamited the trust between us.” He called me “arrogant.” Then he called again to call me “an amateur,” presumably because he knew more about drinking and sobering up than I did. He also said I was “judging him” and “laying trips on him.” In still another call he forbade me to talk to his friends and family.

“Johnny, if people call me and want to talk to me it’s my decision whether to talk to them.”
“Now you’re fucking with me. If you do that, you’re out of my life.”
“Johnny, you’re going to do what you are going to do, but if people call me I get to decide how to respond.”
“If people call you, refer them to me.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to say, “Maybe they want to talk to someone who will talk to them.” But I didn’t laugh or say that aloud.

The last thing that Johnny said to me was that talking to me made him feel like him feel like dying and he didn’t want to feel like that so he wasn’t going to talk to me. Then he hung up again.

I understood in the moment that Johnny was hurt and angry, that my decision was threatening his drinking, that he was wounded and lashing out. I initially felt lighter to have had the conversation about his drinking at last. Then I felt relieved briefly when the angry phone calls stopped. By the next day I was crying in meditation and asking to be given a heart of love, to be freed from my own anger. The day after that the internal jukebox tormented me during meditation by playing the line “White Lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all” from “Okie from Muskogee” over and over. I missed Johnny and I worried about him and I still daydreamed about a future with him, but I didn’t know how things were going to go.

Johnny called me again two days after our conversation, but my phone was off the hook and I missed the call. I got the message the next morning. His voice sounded stronger, more like it used to. He didn’t sound angry and said, “Call me, please. Thanks, Johnny.”

On July 22, 2013, eleven days after Eric and I go to San Leandro to check on him, Johnny calls me in the morning at the time I would normally be leaving for my busking shift: I decide to talk with him and take a later bus. When I ask him how he is, he characterizes his life as “moment-to-moment survival.” He says he is watching T.V. around the clock to keep his pain away, filling his waking hours with cowboy and crime films.

Johnny cries often during our conversation. He says he feels bad that he has let people down.

“Johnny, lots of people love you and care about you, even when they are pissed at you. People are meditating and praying for you.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

He bursts into tears again.

“I miss David,” he says. “David always knew what to say to me.”

His brother David died in February.

“Maybe you could repeat to yourself some of the things David used to say.”

“It’s not the same,” he says.

“No. It isn’t.”

Johnny says he is talking to his friend and former therapist Deborah. He says he can’t afford to get other help. I do not confront Johnny on this point, but I know it is not true: what Johnny can’t afford to do is use the money from David’s estate to fund all of the projects he would like to fund and also hire a therapist. Besides, a good therapist might confront his drinking or require him to make agreements about it.

In the mean time, Johnny is taking a few actions. He has made the effort to call me. He tells me he plans to call his brother Peter later in the day, calling it “one of my projects.”

“I’ve been in touch with Peter,” I tell him.

“Good,” he says.

“I’ve been in touch with a few other people.”

“Good,” he says again.

“Honey, are you playing your guitar?”

“No. I haven’t touched a guitar since Les’s memorial. I’ve lost all my callouses.”

Guitar players build up callouses on the fingertips of each hand from repeatedly pressing their fingertips to metal strings, holding the strings down on wooden fretboards. The callouses extend both over and under the surface of the skin. If you stop playing for a few weeks you lose your callouses and your fingers become those of a tender beginner: it hurts to play. The only remedy is to play frequently for short but increasing periods of time until you develop calloused tissue again. Johnny has not played for more than five weeks.

Johnny normally keeps his guitars on stands within easy reach in his office or living room, amplifiers adjacent. All he has to do to begin playing is pick up a guitar, plug in a cord and flip a switch. He tells me that his guitars are still in their cases.

Johnny is punishing himself big time. Music is his chief solace, joy and inspiration.

“I dream about music though. Wild dreams.”

“Your unconscious is giving you music. It’s such a big part of your life.”

“You know, Johnny, when I have stopped playing I make it a practice to take my guitar out of its case. I don’t have to play it, I just have to get it out. Maybe you could take a tiny step, like just listening to music for a few minutes, or putting a guitar on a stand.”

I don’t remember if he replies to my suggestion.

I think now, in 2022, that perhaps Johnny was protecting his guitars from the effects of his drinking (he wouldn’t want to knock one over as he stumbled through the living room) as well as avoiding the pain that playing music might unleash: music often opens us to our emotions.

I asked Johnny if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to call sometimes. He said it helped to get calls, even if he did not pick up the phone. He thanked me for my call about Bob Chrisman’s death and for coming out to see him earlier in the month.

For the most part our conversation is devoid of anger and defensiveness. Johnny even laughs at one point.

“There’s that laugh,” I say.

He does tell me, however, that the difficulties we were having in June (our differences of opinion over particular pieces of music) contributed to his slide into depression. Note the subtle placement of blame and the omission of the role of his favorite depressant drug.

Before I went off to work I told Johnny I loved him and he said he loved me and cared about me. We ended the phone call with our characteristic sign off:

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

I feel relieved and grateful to know that Johnny is alive, happy to hear his voice on the telephone. Later I email his brother Peter to say that we had spoken and I speak to Patrick and Eric about our call.

* * *

That evening I call Johnny to say good night as I used to do. I do not reach him directly, but he calls me back about half an hour after I phone him. He tells me he called Peter and that it a wasn’t warm and fuzzy experience. He breaks off his conversation with me because he wants to check in with his friend Deborah, but says he wants to talk with me again tomorrow.

I am not raising issues with Johnny when I talk with him, but focusing on listening to what he says and giving him support and encouragement when I can. I guess I have learned a thing or two from all of those Al-Anon meetings after all.

Before I go to bed that night I am thinking about what to say when Johnny and I have our next “O.R. talk” (Johnny-speak for “our relationship”). I do not know yet when that talk will be: it depends on when he reduces his drinking and can leave his house. I envision us talking in person.

The next day Johnny doesn’t call and I am back on the roller coaster again, worrying about him. The day after that he calls in the afternoon in a panic. He says his phone battery is low and his charger isn’t working and he is afraid he will be cut off from the phone calls that are his current lifeline.

“What do you want me to do, Johnny?” I ask.

“Could you call a few people and ask if they can help me get a charger?”


Before I make the calls I check in with my brother, who is in recovery from his own addiction. He tells me I am “enabling” Johnny, that Johnny needs to deal with his own problem, get his own charger. But I have promised Johnny I will call some people, so I do.

I call Johnny’s old faithful friends Eric and Patrick. I leave a message for one. The other is en route to a dentist appointment.

I call Johnny back to tell him I have been unable to secure help for him.

“Maybe I could call a cab, go to the AT&T store and get a new charger.”

“That sounds like a good plan, honey.”

I go off to my afternoon busking shift. By the time I get home Johnny has left me a message telling me he has gotten a new phone charger and that I can call him “anytime.”

When I call him later that afternoon, Johnny answers. “How was your shift?,” he asks, as he used to ask every day.

I give him a rundown of the latest day in the busking trade. Then I tell him I am looking at renting a room in the Kensington Community Center to teach writing practice classes.

Johnny responds by giving me unasked-for advice on how I could advertise my writing classes more effectively. Although this breaks our ancient rule of not telling each other what to do, I listen carefully, and let him know he has a couple of valid points. I do not, however, commit to doing anything he suggests — I merely avoid getting into a fight about advice-giving or the particulars of his suggestions.

Johnny signs off, saying he has to go, but he will call me later. I tell him I am home for the afternoon and evening and he is welcome to call when he likes.

After we hang up I reflect that I do not know what normal behavior is and I do not know how I am going to find out what normal behavior is. Am I going to learn it at Al-Anon meetings? I hadn’t known how to respond appropriately to Johnny’s phone charger crisis or to his drinking and depression. I want to be a good girlfriend, a loving and supportive partner, and I do not know what “the rules” are. Johnny’s drinking and isolating are far outside the norms of conventional behavior, far outside Johnny’s former functioning, although his ability to acquire the phone charger, to make and answer phone calls and to take some interest in what I am doing signals an upswing.

[A note to readers: this is the original version of the piece called “A touching gesture.” I wrote it. It disappeared in an internet fluke. I rewrote it from memory and published it last week. Today it inexplicably resurfaced in my WordPress drafts so I have replaced the old version with this one. There will also be a new Johnny and Sharyn story tonight 9-18-22.]

Today, in the aftermath of a multi-day heat wave, I was sitting in our upstairs library with my mother. We had just finished lunch. She had been talking about various issues with the house (roof, floors, etc.) when she said, “You have a personal letter.”

Personal letters are rare these days. I carry on much of my correspondence by email and Facebook message. She handed me a large envelope.

I did not recognize the name or the writing on the envelope. The address was in Berkeley, headed The ____ Family. “The writing looks like a child’s,” I commented, looking at the outsize letters, sprawling “r”s in “Sharyn” and “Oberlin,” the uneven spacing and the way the “i” and “a” of “California” went almost to the edge of the paper.

Slipping my fingers under the flap I tore through the bottom petals of a yellow and white rose to reach a large gold-bordered print of the same rose above the dark green inscription “With Deepest Sympathy.”

Before I became a busker in the Berkeley BART station, before I became a writing practice teacher on Zoom, I worked for eleven years in the City of Berkeley’s Inclusion Program in the Department of Recreation. The inclusion program was an after school and vacation program for able-bodied neurotypical children and children with various disabilities to learn and play together.

Two of my favorite children in the program were a Filipino brother and sister. Both were smart, lively, engaging, curious. The boy became a special pal of mine — I often took him swimming, worked with him in the garden or the kitchen at James Kenney Recreation Center, had conversations with him. I watched him pass from elementary school into middle school and, after I left the program, I would see him traveling on BART with groups of kids or going to appointments by himself after he graduated from Berkeley High.

When I began busking in the fall of 2012 this boy began to stop by to have brief conversations with me. We talked about his grandparents and I asked after his sister. He came from a close, loving family. One day I told him I would be moving to San Leandro.

“Why?” he asked.

I explained that I had met a man named Johnny Harper who lived there and was moving there to live with him.

My pal asked how I got there and I said I took BART to Bay Fair station and walked, took a bus, or took a cab. Thereafter, he asked me when he saw me if I was going to San Leandro to see Johnny Harper, always using his full name.

When I opened the card, turquoise ink spelled out “Dear Sharyn” above the printed message “May you find comfort in the knowledge that the memory of your loved one will live forever in your heart.” My old friend had written below this “I’m so sorry to hear about Johnny Harper. May he rest in peace Amen With Much Love from ___ (He signed his name).

The left side of the card informed me that “my departed loved one” and my family had been enrolled in the Seraphic Mass Association and will share perpetually in Special Novenas and also be remembered in the prayers, Masses, and good works of Capuchin Friars throughout the world. And, on the back, the card displayed The Blessing of St. Francis of Assisi:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
May the Lord smile upon you
and give you His peace.

I have had no contact with my old James Kenney pal since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when I stopped busking in March 2020. I did not have his address and wouldn’t have thought to notify him of Johnny’s death. But my old friend is a whiz with the internet on his cell phone and, for all I know, has tracked me and Johnny quietly through the years. He is a sweet and shy young man and I feel protective of his privacy and that of his family, which is why I do not name him here, but I am touched beyond words that he has followed the story of Johnny Harper and was thoughtful enough to send me a condolence card and to make a donation for friars to say masses. Johnny, although he was not Catholic, or even Christian, would be touched that his memory and our love for each other rippled out into the world in this unexpected way. I thank my old friend and the friars who keep Johnny in remembrance and I write this to remind us all that you never know the effects of a kind word or a sympathy between people. In case he is reading this some day I tell my old friend I have never forgotten him or his family, that I was blessed to know him, that I wish for him the happiness he bestows on others and that he is always welcome to keep up with me online here at The Kale Chronicles or elsewhere.

The day after Eric and I go to Johnny’s house to see him, one of my old friends, Bob Chrisman, dies in Kansas City. I learn of his death via email two days later and decide that I will honor him in the Buddhist way, sitting zazen and reciting the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days. To do this I will get up in time to be on my meditation cushion by 5:30 AM, which will allow me to sit, chant, write, have breakfast and get out the door to my busking day job by 7:15 AM.

Because Johnny has asked me to call him occasionally I call to leave him the message that Bob has died and that I will be sitting for him every morning. I understand this as Bob’s gift to me in a dark time because his death assures my daily return to meditation.

The day before I learn of Bob’s death, I note in my morning writing that “my life without Johnny has opened up a hole of time. Al-Anon fills some of it.”

Five days after I see Johnny at his house I miss him terribly. I cry on my zafu, for him and for me, and the whole time I meditate “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which they play at New Orleans funerals, plays in my head. I think about having a big party for Johnny while he can still appreciate it, drafting his friend Mike Goodwin to cook vats of red beans and rice, hiring the Savoy family and a second-line band Johnny has recently discovered. I fantasize about inviting all of his friends and family and combining the party with an intervention, telling him “This is what you are going to lose if you keep drinking.”

One minute later I think that it will never work. Johnny will wonder where the booze is, will send out for it, or nip from a pint flask.

I still go to Al-Anon meetings three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do not like them, but sometimes someone says something useful. In my spare time I read passages from AA’s Big Book and memoirs about addiction. My motivation for this reading is to try to understand alcoholism so that I do not blame Johnny for his choices or his denial: denial is a symptom or feature of alcohol addiction — it comes with the territory. Johnny will be telling himself that he can drink if he wants to, that he can control his drinking, that his drinking is not a problem, whatever he needs to tell himself that allows him to drink whenever he feels the need. Unfortunately for me, the more I read about alcoholism the more hopeless I feel. This reminds me of a nun I knew who liked to say, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Eight days after Eric and I have gone to see Johnny I feel angry.

I am angry at the intractable disease of alcoholism. I am angry that it is hurting someone I love and I am powerless to do anything about it. I am angry that there are no guarantees, no fool-proof intervention. I am angry that reading about alcoholism, as Al-Anon instructs me to do, fills me not with hope, but with horror, as the hopelessness of my situation and Johnny’s seeps into my pores. I have dreams where things are out of control at Johnny’s house, water pouring from first one, then two, faucets, as I try to turn them off, but can only reduce the flow, twist and turn though I might. Dream Johnny says, “Leave it alone.” Dream Sharyn says, “I am going to slip in the water and fall, I need to clean it up.”

I am angry to realize that I would not want to follow AA’s solution to the problem of alcoholism with it’s “God this” and “God that.” If I would not want to do it, how can I expect Johnny to embrace a 12-step recovery program? I meditate. I go to 12-step meetings. I read spiritual literature and the Big Book and I feel like nothing is getting better. I post an oblique message on Facebook, telling my friends I feel angry and hopeless.

Some of them answer me. A friend in recovery calls me and I feel better hearing her voice. Then I go to see a movie I have run across, a documentary about back-up singers. I buy myself a dollar ice cream cone before paying for my ticket and settling into a cushy seat at the Landmark Shattuck.

Johnny would have loved the movie, would have known every singer and every band, would have followed each frame avidly, would have told me stories about the singers and bands later. He would have lapped up the interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting. Even without Johnny’s presence I feel lighter for having taken a break from my troubles.

The next morning the jukebox in my head plays “The First Nowell.” WTF? It follows that with “Puff the Magic Dragon.” There is usually a message for me in the song selections, but I cannot decipher today’s bulletins from the unconscious. I learned both songs way back in childhood, around the piano at Christmas, and from the Magic Drawing Board on “Captain Kangaroo.” I do not understand what they are saying to me now. I am still shaking, crying and thinking about Johnny as I meditate.

I get up from my cushion and go downstairs for breakfast. Just as I am about to leave for my busking shift, at the time when I used to call him each morning, Johnny calls me.