Archives for category: relationships

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.

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After our Saturday night date on June 1, 2013 I started researching Al-Anon, reading about it online, looking up meeting schedules. I knew that Al-Anon was a 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics. I wasn’t enthusiastic about going to a meeting, but I also knew that I had reached the end of my coping strategies: nine months with Johnny hadn’t taught me how to deal with his drinking. He still drank; I got upset that he drank.

Tuesday evening found me catching the bus to a beginner’s meeting at a North Berkeley church. I walked across the path that bisected the green lawn and entered the building, climbing the stairs to a hallway with doors on either side.

I found myself in a white room with rows of folding chairs in a semicircle, facing a small podium and the door. A wall of hopper windows at the back of the room tilted open to let in the late spring air. I took a seat near the end of a row and watched as the room filled with people. A woman went to the podium and began to read a welcome. She said that people who had lived with the problem of alcoholism could understand others who lived with it.

That seemed reasonable to me: I hadn’t known what I was up against with Johnny until I saw him slide from punctual, reliable, good-humored Johnny to a sarcastic man who did not bother to eat, shower or change his clothes and could not keep track of time.

The speaker went on to say that we could find contentment whether the alcoholics in our lives were drinking or not. I found this harder to accept: I wasn’t happy at all with the changes in Johnny’s behavior and condition. But when she said “living with an alcoholic is too much for most of us” I said a silent (“Yes!”). Then she read “Al-Anon has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps, by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics, and by giving understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic.”

The speaker left the podium, walked to the end of the row and handed a printed copy of the twelve steps to the person sitting there. That person read aloud: “One. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Really?” I thought. “I’m not powerless over alcohol. I can take it or leave it. Johnny has a problem with alcohol and I have a problem with Johnny.”

The reader passed the paper to the next person, who read “Two. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

“Wait. I’m insane now? I’m not insane. I have a real problem. Never mind ‘Power greater than ourselves’”

“Three. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I’m not turning over anything. I don’t believe in God.”

I had spent part of my childhood and teenage years in the Episcopal Church, drawn there by an opportunity to sing in the junior choir. I went through a fervent religious phase in tandem with singing the music of Byrd, Vittoria, Bach, Handel, hymns, Gregorian chant and service music by Healey Willan, augmented with stained glass windows and the poetic language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. But when I was nineteen my atheist father died and the church offered me no answers for what would happen to him now. I began to leave out sections of the creeds when I recited them, doubting many things I had once believed. Plus, I had been curious about sex and wanting to find a love other than God’s love, which seemed completely out of reach.

Now here I was in a plain room without the music, poetry and stained glass, hearing people talk about turning their lives over to God. They continued rolling through the steps. “Seven. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

“Why is this about me? Now if God wanted to remove Johnny’s shortcomings we might have something to talk about.”

The next two people read steps eight and nine about making amends.

“Unclear on the concept,” said the voice in my head. “I am the victim here. I am the one who has been harmed.” But underneath that I knew that I did not always use what Buddhists call “skillful means” — I suspected there might be better ways to respond to Johnny’s behavior than what came naturally to me: blaming, accusing, judging. When I thought I had made a mild suggestion that Johnny come up with a better way to handle his stress, he said “That’s some cold shit, baby.”

“Ten. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

“Uh-oh. Do you know what happens in my family if you ever admit you are wrong? Ridicule. Punishment. No thanks. It is not safe to admit you are wrong. People are out to get you.”

“Eleven. Sought through prayer and meditation…”

“Okay. Meditation. I’m down with that. Meditation is helpful. I can do that. Maybe I should go back to sitting everyday.”

“Twelve. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“Geez, Louise. How is this going to help me with Johnny. This sounds like a cult…”

Someone began to pass around a second sheet in plastic. This one was called “The Twelve Traditions.” Someone read out number six, the designated tradition for the month of June, something about cooperating with A.A.

After the communal readings, the moderator said, “The meeting is open for sharing.”

A man raised his hand and received a nod. “Hi, My name is Bob…”

The entire population of the room except me chorused “Hi Bob” before he could finish a sentence. We were back in full cult territory.

I had a sudden flashback to an evening in high school when a girl I liked invited me to an est or Erhard Seminars Training meeting. Est looked like a cult, smelled like a cult, rows of people gave rapt attention to the speaker, repeating whatever words he asked them to repeat.

The “sharing” continued, each time with the same formulaic call and response between the sharer and the group: “Hi, my name is ex,” followed by “Hi ex!”

I found this pattern unnerving and longed for someone to say, “Please don’t do that.” But I tried to listen to the stories people told, hoping that I would find a clue to dealing with Johnny in one of them.

I don’t. People talk about gratitude and letting go. People talk about their Higher Power. People talk and talk, the beginning of each story punctuated by the ridiculous echo of the speaker’s name.

When the time for sharing ends, the moderator reminds us that the meeting needs to be self-supporting. I dig in my jeans for a couple of quarters when the money basket goes around. “This is like church,” I think.

The moderator chooses someone to read the closing statement. It contains a message to newcomers like myself: “A few special words to those who haven’t been with us long: whatever your problems, there are those among us who have had them too.”

The meeting closes with the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” People join hands before they recite it and when it ends they squeeze hands and say “Keep coming back. It works.”

I do not know if it will work. I do not know what to hope for. Without speaking to anyone, I walk out the door. No one notices because most people are staying for another meeting. I walk down the hall, down the stairs, up a block and across the street to the nearest bus stop where I wait for the last bus home. But I don’t have anything else to do, no bright ideas of my own for solving my problems with Johnny so I get up the next morning and catch another bus at 6:40 AM to go to another meeting, taking my guitar with me so that I can go straight to my busking shift.

Before I leave for the second Al-Anon meeting of my life I write Johnny a long email before six in the morning. He has sent an email at 3 AM while I am sleeping. He is still angry that I refused to speak to him when he called me from a bar. He is angry that I wrote to him asking him how he would like me to endorse a check repaying him the loan for my air fare to France. He is angry that I closed that email with “Sincerely” rather than “Love.” He is angry to learn that I have gone to an Al-Anon meeting where he imagines I have talked about him, that I have called him “an alcoholic” and “a rock musician.”

I tell him I did not break up with him, that we are in this together until one of us says that we want or need to break up. I tell him I will call him after my morning shift if he wants me to. I tell him I love him and, this time, I sign the email “Love, Sharyn.”

Before I continue the dark tale of my life with Johnny in 2013, I’d like to address a question I sometimes hear, especially from people who did not know Johnny and who are only meeting him in these blog posts. What drew me to Johnny? What did I like about him? One of my writing friends recently quipped, “It was all about the music.”

It was partly about the music. Johnny and I met at a musical gathering. He attended for two years before he and I got together as a couple. Johnny came alive around music he loved or even liked: he had acute hearing and when one of us sang in the ballad group he focused his entire attention on the song. I noticed his rapt focus right away. “This man listens,” I thought. He also listened to discussions around the ballad table, some of which were about music, and participated in those conversations. He did not have the annoying habit some guitar-players have of noodling in the background while waiting for their next chance to play and he never played on songs unless someone asked him to do so.

In those ballad-table conversations I picked up a few other bits of information that I stowed for future reference. One time Johnny was telling a story of his experiences in the Navy during the Viet Nam war. He mentioned shore leaves where his shipmates would go whoring and he would hie himself to the nearest record store to listen to the latest music because he was sweet on a gal at home. “Faithful,” my mind ticked off my imaginary checklist of the qualities of a good man.

Also, Johnny was good-natured, good-humored. I would have called him sunny. He would have talked about “positive energy.” Most times when I saw Johnny he smiled, seemed relaxed, said nice things to other people, laughed at amusing moments. Because I had grown up with a hot-tempered brother and an erratic father I enjoyed Johnny’s temperment. And when Johnny played and sang he radiated positive energy, pulsed with life.

He was also romantic and affectionate. He liked to hold hands. He liked to spoon in bed, or let me lay my head on his chest. He’d tell me I looked beautiful in something I was wearing. He printed red hearts after my name on his schedules and on file folders with my name on them.

Johnny was generous: I saw this first in the comments he made about other people’s songs and singing. He always praised a version he liked, or told someone their singing was beautiful or wonderful. When I came to know him better, he told me that if he had a dedicated student who had hit a financial snag and wanted to come for lessons he would teach for free, as his grandmother had done during the Depression. He did this, despite the fact that he himself was often short of money. I saw him take care of his band members financially, paying them first even if he had to short his own share. And, once we became a couple, Johnny took me out on birthdays, Valentine’s Day and our anniversary without fail, although we went Dutch on other occasions. When we moved in together (twice), he paid the moving expenses and, when I said I couldn’t afford to pay rent, he said, “I’m paying the rent anyway. Just move in.”

Johnny and I both wanted a real partnership, which, to both of us, looked like appearing in public as a couple and, eventually, living in the same house and sharing daily life. When we decided to become a couple, after a two-year acquaintance in the ballad group, Johnny was good about introducing me to friends and family and bringing me to parties, friends’ gatherings and family events. He wrote to friends to tell them he had met me. He met friends of mine as well and started spending Christmas and Thanksgiving Day with my family.

I had lived with one man back in the early ‘80s and had wanted to live with the man who was my partner in the early ‘90s. Johnny and I talked of getting married — he was not opposed to it, sometimes said he wanted to marry me — but I had some legal and financial reasons not to marry him as things stood, so we began our daily life together by sharing his house.

Some time after I moved in, seeing how hard I worked, how much time I put into busking shifts, planting and tending a garden, cooking nourishing breakfasts and dinners for us each day, and seeing that I sometimes earned under ten dollars a day, Johnny instituted the practice of giving me “Johnny money.” “Johnny money” was a twenty-dollar cash infusion only to be used for specific things: I could use it for cab rides, BART tickets or other emergency transportation, or to buy coffee. I carried the twenty in my wallet until I had to spend it and, once I had spent part of it, I would say, “Honey, I spent seven dollars on a cab” and he would top it up again. This was Johnny’s way of seeing that I never got stranded somewhere without a way to get home or the means to get a cup of coffee. I honored our agreement about Johnny money and if I really wanted to spend some of it on another item, I would call and ask permission to buy something for the house or a food item for cooking (in general, I was restricted from using Johnny money on groceries).

When we had a common goal, Johnny and I could work together, whether it was boxing up the kitchen to protect our kitchen goods and food during cockroach spraying (more about that later), packing the refrigerator with groceries, or planning how to get out of the house in time to get to a movie, party or concert.

Johnny was better than I at getting things done, specifically about making decisions. I admired his ability to look at a situation, decide what to do and move into action while I was still weighing the pros and cons. He was used to improvising, thinking quickly on his feet, but he was also good at planning things, working out what steps to take. He used this in his teaching to help students to get from one skill level to the next. We were both good at deciding what we were going to do and sticking to it: I went out busking five or six days a week at the same time, played a two or two-and-a-half hour shift, closed my case, counted my money and went home. I played in rain or shine, day after day, unless I was sick or unduly tired from a few late nights in a row. Johnny had routines, too, from checking his bank balance first thing each morning, to typing and printing a daily schedule to work from each day.

Johnny and I were both articulate, verbally adept people. We had similar vocabularies and facility with grammar, spelling and English usage. We both liked to read. He turned me on to Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill series and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (He had shelves of them). He and I made up little songs about my cat Fiona — he wrote “Fiona’s Lullaby” (based on Emmett’s Lullaby), which became part of our bedtime ritual: Fiona would settle on the bed and Johnny and I would sing to her:

“Lullaby and good night, be a sweet little kitty,
Lullaby and good night, don’t fuss and don’t bite!
Go to sleep, go to sleep and don’t make a peep
Go to sleep now and rest and don’t be a pest.”

Johnny met my needs for a smart, committed, loving partner. Except when he didn’t. But isn’t that the story of all relationships?

Right after the Labor Day debacle when Johnny got restricted from visiting me, Johnny invited me to sing several things with him for a gig at his niece Lucy’s wedding in Santa Cruz. He first asked me to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song dear to the bride-to-be, which I had recorded on my CD “Paris,” and to sing “Ingenue,” which I had just written about falling in love with Johnny himself. He mentioned including Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and Alan Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” which we had been singing together.

But on Friday September 7th, eight days before Lucy’s wedding, he sent me a long list of songs to sing back-up on, some of which I did not know, some of which I had never heard. I immediately requested lyrics and details via email. He said breezily, “You’ll do fine.”

Fast forward to the rehearsal on Tuesday. Johnny had asked me to rehearse at his house, to go over all of the parts before his band came to rehearse with us. He booked two and a half to three hours for us to go over all of the parts.

Now, I have a reasonably good ear and I have sung most of my life, starting with singing along with records as a small child. I have two primary harmony-singing traditions: I have done a lot of choral singing where you sing fixed parts from written music and you have weekly rehearsals to go over your parts. I also sing with groups of folk musicians where we all improvise harmonies when we are not leading a song and singing the melody.

Rehearsing parts with Johnny was something else again. He either sang a harmony line for me, played it on his guitar, or used some combination of singing and playing to produce the line. He expected me to learn a harmony line, reproduce it in perfect rhythm, memorize it and then go on to learning the next line in that song, or the first harmony line in a different song. The only thing I had to rely on was my musical memory. Also, I was working in genres that I didn’t sing in — R&B, for example.

Johnny spoon-fed me lines for a few hours. Many different lines. I struggled to jam them all into my head. And then he started to complain about my vocal tone, that it didn’t match his. “You don’t sound like a soul singer,” he said.

“Excuse me?,” said the voice in my head. “I never said I was a soul singer. Hello! I’m a white girl, soprano in the upstairs choir, folk musician.”

I had been working hard to please Johnny, but I was working in unfamiliar territory. I tried again. Once we had gone through all of my parts we started singing the songs.

After awhile, Johnny said, “I’m not feeling it. You can stay for rehearsal if you want, or you can go home. Your choice.”

I felt abruptly dismissed. My thoughts raced. “Is he really cutting me from the gig? Am I not going to sing at all at the wedding? What about ‘Fire?’ What about ‘our song?’”

Drawing a deep breath and pushing aside my emotions, I said, “I have a question.”

He looked at me.

“Do you want me to sing on anything?”

“That’s a good question. You can sing on ‘Fire’ and on ‘Center of the World.’ You’ll have to stay for rehearsal.”

Just like that my participation went from a dozen or more complicated parts to the ones I knew in the first place.

The conflict did not end there. We began to rehearse “Fire,” which we had sung together informally a couple of times. I was singing on the tag line and then full out on the third verse, “Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah…” I sang the part the way I always had, with a rising inflection on the second syllable of “Delilah,” the same way you say the name: De-LI-lah.

Johnny keyed in on that word. He asked me to stay on one note for all three syllables.

I tried it. I didn’t like it. I argued for my position. “I’m singing it the way you say it. De-LI-lah.”

“The note’s not in the chord.”

Oh, give me a break! Technically, I was singing a suspension. I didn’t think to say that. Suspensions are common one-note variations from chords that add drama or tension (and resolution when you move off of them). I am an intuitive singer and was singing what felt right to me in the harmony line. Johnny had never objected to my singing the word that way before. When not bound by written music I was used to choosing the notes I wanted to sing.

Johnny didn’t like my line. I didn’t like his. I gave in and sang it his way because I like the song and I liked singing it with Johnny.

Next, we worked out a cue for me to come in on the third verse, which came after an extended guitar solo and some schtick Johnny did vamping over it. We agreed on the cue.

Meanwhile, the band came in, all smiles, greeted each other, set up and began to play. Johnny came alive and on fire during rehearsal. The musicians laughed, joked with each other, called out low-key compliments. I sat listening with one hand over my left ear because the drums were too loud for me to bear, feeling increasingly alienated: the band sounded good, was having a good time, grooved together — I was the odd one out.

When it came time to sing “Fire,” Johnny forgot to cue me and I missed my entrance to verse three. I pointed out that he had forgotten to cue me and he cued me the next time. We sang the song and moved on. No one said a word to me. Not “nice voice.” Not, “Nice to hear the harmony.”

The rehearsal went on into the night. At one point, Johnny called a short break and maneuvered me into the hallway. “What do you think?,” he asked.

“I’ve been thinking how different we are,” I said.

This was already an old conversation between us, only usually he said “We’re so different” and I’d laugh and say “I was just thinking how much alike we are.”

I might have added, “I don’t belong here.” I was certainly feeling that.

Johnny looked puzzled, then hurt. He shone with excitement. “Did you notice the guitar solos? I played every one differently for you. Did you hear me put your name in “Cripple Creek?”

I hadn’t been following the guitar solos. I rarely did: music, for me, is about lyrics and melody and harmony. And I hadn’t heard my name in “Cripple Creek,” maybe because I didn’t know the song and maybe because I had my hand over my ear to ameliorate the sound of the over-loud drums.

Johnny said, “I’ll talk to you later” and went back to rehearsing. When the evening broke up I got a ride home from Patrick the bass player. I told him how frustrated I was: “I can’t learn several parts in a few hours.”

“Of course not,” he said.

Later Johnny and I rehashed the whole rehearsal from my feeling that I might as well not exist in that context to his feeling that I wasn’t happy for him. I was happy for him: it’s just hard to sit through a multi-hour rehearsal when you don’t feel included or appreciated. I saw Johnny in his element no question and I couldn’t see where or how I fit in. We didn’t go over my musical numbers with the band, other than “Fire”: “Hallelujah” and “Ingenue” would be solo performances for me while the band was on break. In fact, while I was onstage singing a love song for Johnny at the wedding, Johnny was having a conversation with the wedding officiant. I told him that I had looked out in the crowd for him while I was singing, “Here I am falling, falling for you,” only to see him talking to someone rather than listening to me.

Johnny told me he had picked out a spot from which to listen to me sing and the wedding guy had found him and button-holed him with questions about the schedule. I don’t know why he couldn’t have said “Shh. That’s my girlfriend onstage. I’ll be with you in five.”

A month after the wedding I got me and Johnny a gig to play at The Arlington cafe in Kensington on December 21st. I wrote in a Facebook publicity announcement “Johnny Harper, the great and powerful, and Sharyn Dimmick, the small and meek (well, small anyway) will be playing at The Arlington. You heard Johnny at Cur-Ville, now come hear him sing with his new love thing in bucolic Kensington, California.” I had hopes for us as a duet act as well as for us as a couple, despite the emergence of early differences.