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On June 12, 2013 I leave California for a meditation retreat in France with my zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg and a number of students I know. And, on June 16, 2013 Johnny crawls out of his house and shows up to play at the memorial for Les Blank.

What we do on retreats with Natalie is spend a week in noble silence, speaking only during question and answer periods, or to give or receive instructions during work periods, or in dokusan, brief group interviews with Natalie late in the week. We sit zazen, write in our notebooks, eat in silence. We study assigned books (memoirs, novels) and read aloud from those books and from our own notebooks.

We study our minds: sitting on chairs or makeshift cushions in the converted barn at Villefavard we focus on our breath, following it all the way in or all the way out, or focus on sound: church bells ringing, rain falling on stone, birds calling, cows lowing, the low hum of cars on the road. We also study our minds as our thoughts, emotions and memories spool out through our hands and arms, inked on the blank pages of our notebooks.

Natalie gives us topics. Or her assistants give us topics. We start out with “What is your material?” We quickly move to “What is your ‘Fuck-It’ List?” My anger spews out quickly: “What kind of a hell of a choice is this? Resign myself to a life as a drinking man’s wife, a drinking man’s girlfriend, grateful for the crumbs of the days when he is only drinking moderately, highly functioning, sweet and funny — and doing what during the other times? Going home to mother? Going to meditation retreats and Al-Anon meetings. Blech. And what is the alternative — excuse me, the fucking alternative — giving up the man I love entirely because he will not give up drinking, who will not even see the slightest possibility that he might have a drinking problem… Give up my love or suffer the consequences of his drinking. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it — what kind of a choice is that?…Fuck it all — it does not need to be fucked — it’s already about as fucked up as a situation can get.”

Natalie sometimes calls herself good Natalie and stinky Natalie. Using that polarity leads to this pair of portraits:

Good Johnny follows instructions in the kitchen. Tells me he loves me. Looks at me with soft eyes. Snuggles up to me in bed. Says he’s lucky to have found me. Dresses in clean clothes, shaves and showers before he comes to see me. Looks forward to seeing me and spending time together. Laughs. Listens well. Tells stories. Is sensitive to my feelings, aware of how I’m feeling, reassures me. Good Johnny talks about telling the truth.

Stinky Johnny passes out, calls me from a bar. Doesn’t call or email for eight days. Doesn’t shower, shave or change his clothes. Flips bottle caps on the floor. Leaves bottles all over the house. Is argumentative. Challenges me. Cooks up dramas (example: soul music debacle). Evades (calls two D.U.I.s “traffic tickets”). Doesn’t show any awareness of my feelings or needs. Stinky Johnny says “What are you doing here?” when I come over for a date.

And then there is “How we find ourselves”:

“We find ourselves in a jam. We said we loved each other. We said we were committed to each other. Being committed to Johnny is like being committed to an insane asylum, being committed to rows and rows of unwashed bottles, being committed to a lover who does not answer the door when I come to see him, being committed to a week of silence, hard variety, silently worrying about him while he doesn’t answer emails and his phone gets full, when his brother confides that he has been suicidal in the past (Big deal, so have I, but it’s just another thing to worry about). Being committed to an actively-drinking alcoholic is marrying the drinking bouts, the holing up, the isolating, the disorder, the accusations, the undermining of perceptions. I find myself facing all of this in a sweet man that I really like when he is only drinking his daily maintenance dose, whatever that is (I have no idea).”

Later, we take on “What I brought with me”:

“I brought with me the weight of Johnny and his drinking, all of those beer bottles in the living room, stirring up my retreat, the open jar of peanut butter and the butter melting on the kitchen stool in the heat, the sound of a bottle cap hitting a hardwood floor, the moldy dishes in the sink, the bloodshot-ness of his eyes, the greasiness of his hair and him trying to be jovial and jocular as he sank into an alcohol-induced depression and called out from it that I was cold and unfeeling.

I brought with me the weight of my childhood in an alcoholic house in an alcoholic family — it’s a wonder that they let me get on the plane with all that. I brought my not knowing what to do about any of this.”

On and on we go. I keep wanting an answer: what should I do about Johnny and my relationship with him? I am angry and sad and frustrated by our situation, sarcastic by turns, then a little compassionate toward him. And then in the first sitting period of the day on the third day of the retreat, what to say to Johnny appears in my head:

“You can have what you want — the happy marriage, the fantastic record. You can have all that, but you cannot have it if you are drinking. The flourishing student trade, all of it. You can have what you want, but you can’t drink and have it…I’m going to ask him to make a choice between alcohol and me because I can’t live with Johnny’s drinking.”

Decision made, I settle down. I write about meditation retreats. I write about a Jungian doll class I took. I write about childhood punishments. I write a description of the zendo and its furnishings.

When the retreat ends I travel back to Paris with another retreatant. Paris hotels are full. I have not made a reservation; she has. We talk the desk clerk into letting me stay in her room. He agrees as long as I am gone before the 6:00 AM shift change.

I clear out early in the morning, find my way back to the Gare du Nord, have a six Euro breakfast at a cafe, go to the Metro where I buy a bottle of water to get change for a ticket machine. I get on the RER train to Charles DeGaulle, where the flight is delayed. I use my last few Euros to buy a muffin, hoping they will give us real food on the plane: fruit, vegetables, some kind of protein. It is 2 AM California time. I want nothing more than to buckle myself into my airplane seat and sleep.

I arrive back in California late in the evening, too late to take the bus home. I take BART instead to an El Cerrito station. I am dead tired. When I get home I do not open my email or check my phone messages, but, when I do, there is nothing from Johnny.

Over the next few days I call, leaving messages like “I’m back from France. I’m wondering how you are doing. I hope you are feeling better. I love you.”

Johnny does not respond, even when I call to ask if he can just leave me a message to say he is alive. Welcome home. Apparently not much has changed since I left.


At my second Al-Anon meeting someone gives me a bookmark, or I purchase one, that says “Just for Today.” Below the title the following text is printed:

Just for today I will try to live through this day only and not tackle my whole life problem all at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appall me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my ‘luck’ as it comes and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out: if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do — just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, talk low, act courteously, criticize not one bit, nor find fault with anything and try not to improve or regulate anybody except myself.

Just for today I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me. *

(* This material comes from the literature of various 12-step programs. I am not the copyright holder.)

This list of aspirations or intentions helps remind me not to criticize Johnny, but to be aware of my own tendency to be critical. It instructs me to focus on being pleasant and courteous myself rather than on focusing on how others are treating me. It emphasizes things I can do. Apart from not criticizing and fault-finding, I find it challenging not to show my hurt feelings when I am hurt: I have the kind of face that shows every feeling I have and I don’t relish the idea of covering up how I feel, but I don’t have to dwell on my hurt feelings or broadcast them.

When I get home after the Al-Anon meeting and my busking shift I find an email apology from Johnny for the events of Saturday night. He apologizes for being sarcastic, for being unkempt, for criticizing my sleeping posture, for talking too much about the movie he was watching. He says he is having a hard time. He points out that he is often considerate, compassionate, polite and generous, which he is when he is at his best. He also points out “in the past you have overreacted to me having a few drinks.” He closes with “I still love you.”

I write back to tell him “This is a beautiful letter.” I talk about how I react to the smell of stale alcohol, to the sight of lots of bottles, to any sign of anger in a person who has been drinking. I promise not to make trouble for him at this stressful time. I tell him I want him to succeed and that I love him.

Johnny does not answer my email, nor does he call me. I do hear from his bass player that afternoon. He has not heard from Johnny for three days and they have a rehearsal that afternoon for a double CD-release party for the clients Johnny has been working with for months. The bass player tells me he will hold the rehearsal without Johnny but they need him on the gig. I tell the bass player that Johnny and I have been fighting about his drinking, but that we are not fighting now and I am going to Al-Anon for help in dealing with my feelings. He tells me Johnny does have a drinking problem, says he is worried about Johnny’s health. I tell him I will call him if I hear from Johnny.

I don’t hear from Johnny. When I call to leave messages I discover that his voicemail is full. I send him an email each day, keeping them cheerful and positive: “I love you. Never doubt it. Many others love you, too.”

By Saturday morning I am wondering how to get in touch with Johnny’s younger brother: I send a Facebook message to his niece, asking for her father’s email address or phone number. I play a shift at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market and then go to Down Home Music in El Cerrito to the first of two CD-release events. The bass player holds the musicians together, Johnny’s clients sing an entertaining duet of Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” that Johnny had arranged for them, plus cuts from their new CDs. Johnny does not show up at all.

I leave that show uncertain about whether I will attend the evening show: I’ll need to find a ride and money is tight — I’ll be leaving for France in four days. In the end I stay home and have a phone conversation with Johnny’s younger brother Peter. It comes out in our conversation that Johnny received two tickets for driving under the influence of alcohol, that Johnny has previously expressed suicidal ideation and discussed means of suicide. Peter tells me that Johnny has a pattern of falling apart when he has an important gig or other important project.

That night I email the bass player to see if he wants to go out to Johnny’s the next day to check on Johnny. I do not hear back from him. I do hear from Peter by email: he thinks I should find somebody to take over for Johnny for the June 16th memorial for Les Blank. He is concerned how Johnny’s being a potential no-show will affect Johnny’s career and his standing in the community.

I tell Peter I can’t begin to find a sub for Johnny, that I don’t know who to ask, don’t know who is on the committee for the memorial, have no contact information for either the musicians or organizers. I remind him that I am flying to France in two day’s time.

Next I hear from a filmmaker, a colleague of Les Blank’s. She wonders what is up with Johnny. I tell her he has experienced a lot of recent losses, that he has been drinking and incommunicado and that he has just blown off a gig that was months in the making. She tells me one of Les Blank’s sons will go to check on Johnny. We email back and forth and somehow I hear that Johnny has phoned his brother Peter. I give the filmmaker my contact information and tell her I will be away until June 26th, on silent retreat in France.

At an Al-Anon meeting on Monday someone suggests that I do not have to make any decisions if I am not ready to make them. This is helpful: I decide not to decide anything until I return from France. I also decide to stop calling and emailing Johnny — enough is enough: I leave in two days. I must do laundry, pack, exchange dollars for Euros, check in with my airline, mail a check to Johnny.

I get all of that done on Tuesday. I am just settling down to write about how hurt I feel that Johnny has not called me before I leave for France when the phone rings.

It’s Johnny.

“Hi Sharyn. I wanted to call you before you left for France.”

We talk for about an hour. Most of the conversation is about how much he misses his brother David who “always knew the right things to say” to him. I am grateful to hear from him and manage to remain calm. We do not talk about his drinking. I do not talk about my hurt feelings. He is sad and shaky.

“Call me when you get back,” he says.



On the afternoon of June 1, 2013 I leave a singing session in Albany, cadging a lift to the North Berkeley BART station to begin my journey out to Johnny’s house in San Leandro. I borrow a friend’s cell phone to dial Johnny’s number. Johnny does not answer, so I leave him a message that I am en route to North Berkeley BART and I’ll see him in an hour or so. I call him again from the BART station and again from Bay Fair BART when I arrive in San Leandro. Still no answer.

Perhaps Johnny has fallen asleep — he works hard and is often up both late and early. I stop at the Walgreen’s on East 14th Street to pick up a pint of half and half for my morning coffee and then continue up the hill to Marcella Street, turn right and walk to Johnny’s house.

When I arrive at 6:35 the drapes are pulled shut and the front door is closed with the security door locked. The doorbell does not work. I knock on the window and call out to Johnny. When he does not appear I think perhaps he’s gone to BART thinking to meet me, or perhaps he’s gone to the grocery store to pick up a last-minute item. Johnny almost always has his cell phone with him, but I do not have a cell phone of my own with which to call him. Surely he’ll be back soon, I think. I sit on the front lawn underneath the redwood tree and wait for him to come back.

I wait. I read. I write in a notebook. I listen to birds and watch them fly. I see a seagull and a couple of dark birds with white bellies. I see a man in a billed cap push an ice cream cart down the street. I see him push it back on the sidewalk several minutes later.

About every half hour I knock on the living room window and call to Johnny. I can see a light and a fan turning in one room, probably the bedroom that I have never been in. Finally, I get up and walk up and down Marcella Street for awhile. I am looking for someone in their yard with a cell phone so that I can ask to borrow it to phone Johnny again. I don’t spot anyone and return to his yard. I am beginning to wonder if I can find somewhere to use the bathroom. I get up and knock on the window again at 8:00 PM.

A disheveled Johnny opens the door. He looks like he has been drinking and one living room chair holds a third of a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey. Uh-oh.

“I just woke up,” he says.
“I need to use your bathroom,” I say.

I do that. I go into his kitchen. I put my half and half in his fridge where the pint I bought last time I came over is still rotting. One small counter by the stove is covered with empty bottles. Passing back through the hallway to the living room I see that the floor of his office is similarly festooned. One lone bottle rolls next to the love seat in the living room.

When I come back and sit on a chair to remove my shoes and socks, Johnny asks me “What are you doing here?”

“It’s Saturday night,” I say. “I’m supposed to be here.”

“I didn’t know if it was night or morning,” he says.

I take a good look at him, at his dirty hair and rumpled clothes. I breathe in the smell of sweat and stale beer. “You are not in a fit condition to receive a visitor,” I tell him. I start to put my shoes and socks back on and begin to pack up to go home again.

Johnny took exception to that: he said he was sad and he didn’t want me to go home.

We talk for awhile. I do not want to fight — I just want to go home and not deal with him when he has been drinking. He has not showered or changed his clothes — he usually cleans up for me — and he makes no offer to do that.

I am tired and sunburned from my Farmers’ Market shift that morning and from waiting outside in the yard earlier and, now, sad: I don’t like to be around people who have been drinking. I do not want to fight. If I even mention his drinking he gets hostile and accusatory, blaming me — he likes to say I give him shit.

Making a real effort not to fight and not to leave, I go into the kitchen and start cleaning the counters, washing glasses and plates, wiping away coffee rings and grounds, wiping up moldy containers with a sponge soaked with dishwashing liquid. At one point I ask him if he has a clean dish towel because I’m not able to stack more things in the dish drainer, which is small. He tells me to use paper towels. I hate paper towels (so wasteful), but I do not complain about them. I tear them off the roll and set them on the parts of the counter I have just cleaned and set more clean glasses on them.

“Stop doing dishes,” Johnny says.

“I’m trying to do something positive,” I say. (There’s no point in conversing with drunks).

Johnny acquiesces. He proceeds to stand and tell me long rambling music stories while I work. He could have pitched in, but no, he is recounting incidents, leading to his playing me a Fats Domino record. All of his conversation is about what he has heard, what he has seen, what he has done.

“Johnny, have you had dinner?”

“I haven’t eaten anything in twenty-four hours.”

“Honey, that’s not taking good care of yourself.”

Johnny blows up at me (I’ve blanked out the details). Then he says, “I thought we’d go out to dinner.”

It is 9:30 at night. I am not going anywhere with this man in this condition. I am not hungry — I just want to curl up and go to bed.

Johnny makes no move to eat anything. He wants to play another record but his turntable locks up and won’t play. He curses at it: “Fucking piece of shit.”

“Johnny, my turntable has a security mechanism on the bottom. You use it to lock it when you are going to move it.”

I’m thinking he has accidentally triggered the mechanism. He looks, but he can’t find anything.

“Do you have the manual?” I ask, thinking I might be able to figure out what’s wrong.

“No,” he says.

“Sometimes you can find them online.”

I go off to brush my teeth. Johnny goes off to his office to use his computer. I hear the sound of bottles being opened, or rather the sound of bottle caps hitting the office floor.

“Johnny, can I move some chairs?” I call to him.

“You can do whatever you want.”

I wish. If only I had a magic wand. I would erase this evening, take a time-turner and turn it back. Instead I stack up a couple of chairs in the hallway and drag Johnny’s single futon out onto the edge of the living room floor. This is where we sleep when I come over — God knows when that will change.

I lie on the futon, covering my eyes with my dress because Johnny leaves lights on all night and I need to sleep in a dark, quiet room. I lie there for perhaps an hour, breathing, unable to sleep. Then I get up and go to him and ask if there is anything I can do.

He says, “You could try to comfort me.”

I tell him I’m sorry he is having a hard time and sorry he is under stress. I massage his neck and shoulders for awhile. But then I ask him how he is going to work with the stress and he acts like I have just stabbed him in the back.

I think it is a fair question: he isn’t handling things well. After awhile I tell him I need to get off my feet.

“I’m going to lie down,” I say. “You can hang out with me if you want.”

I lie down again, but I do not fall asleep.

Eventually, Johnny comes into the living room and turns on the T.V. I get up again and reach for my ear plugs, throw my dress around my head again, grab the blanket and put my head under the covers. I can hear him laughing and moving.

I try to sleep and can’t. Finally, I ask him, from my muffled corner, “What are you watching?”

He takes that as an occasion to recite half the movie plot. Then he says, “When you move in with me I won’t watch T.V. in the middle of the night. I just need to wind down.”

I need to sleep. I put my ear plugs back in and keep trying, watching my breath, in and out. I get up a few times to use the bathroom and finally fall asleep for awhile until Johnny wakes me up to talk to me about his dreams. By now I want to kill him for sulking and raging and rambling and keep me up most of the night.

The next time I wake up he is gone. I do not know where he is. I try to go back to sleep, stay in bed for another half an hour. Then I get up to find him wandering around the house stark naked.

“I’m going to make coffee,” I say. “Do you want some?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I thought we would go out to breakfast and I could have coffee then. Do you want to go out to breakfast?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I want to have my coffee.”

I make myself some coffee and sit on his couch drinking it. We start talking again. He talks about how much stress he is under. I finish my coffee while he embarks on another long story and I get up to fix myself a second cup (I was prescient enough to bring enough beans for two cups). I enjoy sipping my coffee, but I do not enjoy being around Johnny who had taken a slug of whiskey some time after he had gotten up. I could smell it on his breath when I hugged him good morning.

We talk a little more and he is getting accusatory and blaming and I say “I find it hard to take care of myself in this house.”

Which is true — there is no clean, orderly, serene space I can retreat to when Johnny is causing trouble, nowhere I can sleep peacefully, no food in the cupboards that meets my standards unless I bring it over myself. There is only a coffee set up because Mom gave him an old coffee grinder and I gave him a coffee spoon. He had a filter and a measuring cup and some mugs. I brought him two pounds of coffee and a few paper filters. He bought himself some more filters after he ran out. There are bottles everywhere and bags that match the one that came from the liquor store — I stacked up perhaps twenty of them, picking them up from the kitchen floor. I stacked up a few grocery bags, too, and I predict that the next time I go over there it will be back to the filthy state it was in last night. I put his butter on a plate and put it in the refrigerator because it was melting all over a leather stool that he uses as an auxiliary counter. I put the lid on the peanut butter and put it back on top of the refrigerator where he keeps it. I washed the mold off the side of the dishpan. I wish I had had a gallon of bleach. It is not that bad, but it is bad enough and I don’t want to live like this, face messes like this, which I have never made in my life, and I am not a clean freak, white-glove-type.

I talk to him about his conspicuous lack of empathy for me last night. He goes into an exaggerated riff about what a bad person he was.

I tell him I did not say that.

Finally, as a peace offering, I ask him if he still wants to go out for breakfast. I pack and rearrange my stuff while he gets ready, which consists of putting on his clothes from yesterday and combing his hair and calling a cab to take us to the restaurant. I am so upset, I find myself ransacking my backpack for my hat, which is on my head. When I discover that I start to laugh and then I start to cry. Johnny comes over to me, says he is sorry, strokes my arm.

We go off to breakfast where we have a moderately good time. He is still telling stories about a 1984 tour in Montana. He has an attack of reflux (or perhaps alcoholic gastritis) and has to leave the table. When he comes back he is able to eat.

Johnny pays the bill and calls a cab. He will ride with me to Bay Fair BART. Then he will go home, shower, shave, change his clothes and go to a recording session.

It takes me a few days, but, on June 4th, reflecting on my Saturday night with Johnny, I read some Al-Anon literature online and think about going to my first meeting. He calls me that afternoon from a bar. “I’m not doing well,” he says. “I haven’t eaten for a day and a half.”

“Please don’t call me from a bar,” I say. “I’ll talk to you later. I’m going to hang up now.”

The phone begins to ring immediately. I let it ring. He leaves me two messages: first a sarcastic comment about the fact that I have no cell phone and then a message suggesting that I have broken up with him and he will not call me, that I can call him if I want.

I do not plan to call him right away. Instead I will eat dinner and catch the bus to that Al-Anon meeting.

I grew up in a family where each member had different musical tastes. My mother loved opera and blasted recordings of Gounod’s Faust or Verdi’s Aida whenever she painted the stairwell of the house. My parents and I loved Gilbert and Sullivan. My older brother Kevin holed up in his room listening to The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles’ White Album. Down the hall I listened to Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Both brothers and I were all obsessed with Christmas with the Happy Crickets and played it whenever we were allowed to, singing through our noses. We three loved The Beatles, too and watched their cartoon show on Saturday mornings.

I always liked to sing. I sang 19th century songs Mom played on the piano. I sang in church and school choirs: hymns and anthems, madrigals, Gregorian chants, Handel and Bach. When I went to summer camp I learned everything people sang, from rounds to Peter, Paul and Mary hits. I brought my guitar to junior high and high school and sang with small groups of friends. We learnt songs from each other: one girl sang “Candles in the Rain” by Melanie Safka, “Lola” by the Kinks and “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tenille.

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I didn’t listen to the radio much. When I was in seventh grade my choir teacher, Mrs. Cox, used to play popular recordings for us to sing with to warm up our voices. I remember hearing Michael Jackson singing “Ben” and Mungo Jerry singing “In the Summertime.” I didn’t listen to much rock music, R&B or soul. I learned popular songs when singers I liked, such as Linda Ronstadt, put them on their records. I gravitated toward songs with intelligent lyrics and tuneful melodies, rather than to dance music, and I often preferred the first version of a song that I heard.

In May 2013 I was planning to move to Johnny’s house in July. When I wasn’t working I measured each piece of my bedroom furniture and went over to Johnny’s to measure his kitchen counters, cupboards and walls. I scavenged a coffee grinder and spare filter cone from my Mom’s house and bought a pastry blender for my kitchen-to-be. Mom gave me her old electric mixer and made promises to gift me with a case or two of cat food for Fiona.

Johnny, meanwhile, had some studio work, some guitar students and a late-night band gig in San Francisco. I met a woman who wanted to locate a studio to make a recording: after I told her what I knew, I referred her to Johnny to talk about studios and production.

On Monday May 20th, Johnny summons me to San Leandro in the afternoon after my second busking shift. “We need to talk,” he tells me on the phone. He does not tell me what we need to talk about.

I make the two-hour trip to Marcella Street. Johnny is clearly upset. It is a beautiful day and the last thing I want to do is sit in his crowded living room. I want to feel the sun and air and the ground beneath me so I ask if we can sit outside on the front lawn.

Johnny drags an oak chair out for himself. I sit on the grass, as I prefer. Johnny begins to talk. He seems to be talking about my musical tastes. He has called me to his house on a Monday afternoon because he wonders, all of a sudden, if he can be with me because I don’t love or like some pieces of music, some styles of music, some artists that he loves.

I am dumbfounded and probably scared: I have spent nearly nine months with this man and am on the verge of moving in with him and he is considering ending the relationship because of musical differences? We do have musical differences and we also have a body of music in common. Johnny often introduces me to songs and recordings I have not heard. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t.

We talk until the sun sinks. I leave in time to catch the last bus home, which leaves downtown Berkeley at 7:00 PM. Not long after I get home the first email from Johnny arrives, titled “aanh.” During our extended conversation it came out that I am not especially fond of two of the songs Johnny has written, “Work With What You Got,” a funky, rhythm-driven piece and “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” a folksy farewell song. If the test for loving Johnny and being his partner comes down to loving these two songs I am not going to pass the test.

His email reflects this:


“Work With What You Got.  Aaanh.  Y’know.  Another kinda so-so song.  Yeah, y’know, people sing along, applaud and shit, some sort of positive message, but aanh, y’know, just another kinda so-so song.  Some people seem to like it, but what the fuck.  I like the guy, though, nice guy, but just another song.”

I answer by return email:

“I don’t ‘like the guy.’ I love the guy and admire him. I like his character and dedication and I like some of his songs better than others. So sue me. Everybody has opinions. Many people love many of your songs. I don’t understand why that isn’t enough for you, but that is between you and your psyche.

I want to be in this relationship, Johnny. I have chosen it over and over and am still choosing it. If you want something else, I hope you get what you want. I want you to be happy. If my opinions get in the way of your being happy and you can find someone who loves you and shares all of your most cherished opinions I say go and be happy. At least I had you for awhile. For that I am grateful.

Sharynxo of Opinions-R-US”

Over the next four days in emails and phone calls, I tell Johnny in every way I can that I love other songs he has written: “Burnin’ Up,” “I Found My Home in Your Heart,” “Nine Lives,” “Love’s Little Ups and Downs.” I tell him I know that “Work With What You Got” is a well-written song. I acknowledge that I know he loves it and is proud of it and that other people love it, like it and admire it. I say I understand that it expresses his philosophy. I tell him that the fact that he loves it is the most important thing, not what I think of it.

I tell Johnny that I love him, that I want him to be happy, that I want to continue our relationship, but that he gets to decide what he wants and what he needs. I tell him that I love and respect his music, that I support him following his musical dreams —I said right away that he should record a CD of his music. I cannot, however, be his fan-in-chief, loving absolutely everything he loves to the degree that he loves it.

He responds in writing “Why is it so hard for you to say ‘Work With What You Got,’ my god, that is an amazing song! … Why don’t you just dig it? Why don’t you just love it?”

I email him “I can say it if you like. It doesn’t grab me, Johnny.”

I write, “I know this is hard for you. I wish that I loved the song because it would make things easier between us. But all that my not loving the song or being thrilled by it means is that it doesn’t hit me the way you want it to. That is not your fault or mine: we all respond to different things.”

In the past, I, too, have had the fantasy that someone will love everything about me, including my songwriting, my repertory, my singing voice. But my experience has been that no one likes everything I write or everything I sing. No one likes every song or singer I like to listen to. No one likes all of my favorite records. Most people I know, including romantic partners I have had, liked some of my work and some of my music. Some liked my voice, but not what I chose to sing. I understand that I have things I would like to be loved for, but that I don’t get to choose what people love me for or what they love at all.

We go back and forth. Johnny tells me he is a more accomplished musician than I am. I am not arguing about this. He tells me his songs are technically superior to mine. I am not arguing about that either. He tells me he deserves someone who loves his music. I do love his music — I just don’t love every single note that he sings or plays or listens to.

Looking back on all of this from the vantage point of 2022 I would say I underestimated how important music was to Johnny. I did not underestimate his skill or his talent, but I may have missed the degree to which he identified with his music, how he felt that his music was him and he was his music, how deeply disappointed he was that his chosen companion did not love everything he loved.

Johnny and I simmer down in a phone conversation on May 21st. I promise that I will listen to music that he loves. I do not promise that I will love it, but I agree to listen to it. He says it means a lot to him that I will listen to it — I do it to create some peace between us. And, underneath that, I resent it: why should I have to school myself in music I am not attracted to? Why can’t I lead with love, ask about the music I hear from Johnny that I do like, that I am curious about? And, I realize that if I am going to devote time to listening to Johnny’s choice of music that I am going to have to devote equal time to my own music because otherwise it is going to get lost in the shuffle. Johnny says to me, “I just made this up, didn’t I?,” meaning that he had created the whole drama out of his own anxiety.

By Friday May 24th Johnny is upset again over my response to music. I’ve heard Eva Cassidy sing “People Get Ready,” and I am thinking about whether I want to learn to sing it for the busking trade. He asks me to listen Aretha’s Franklin’s version of the song. I have tried to tell him that I don’t like Aretha Franklin’s singing, that I find it florid and over the top, that I prefer singers who use more restraint. I don’t remember if I listened to that track then, but I listened to it the other day and I still object to the same characteristics in Franklin’s singing style.

He responds by telling me my tastes are “too white” He tells me I only like white singers who sing watered-down Black styles and only Black artists who tone themselves down to appeal to white audiences (This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a Black coworker, who accused me of not having any Black friends. I replied that I was friends with another Black coworker of ours and she shot back: “Fulani’s not Black!”). Johnny expresses real reservations about whether he wants to share his life with someone who doesn’t love a lot of the music he loves. He thinks he will not be comfortable with my not liking some artists he loves. He is genuinely upset about this and I am tired of talking about it, tired of sending him emails listing every Black artist that I like, every Black artist in my record collection. I am tired of trying to explain which Black music I like and which I don’t. I wish he would adopt a “live and let live” attitude about this or declare “Vive la différence.”

Johnny tells me he has never met anyone who does not love soul music. He tells me everyone in “our generation” loves it. I remind him that he and I belong to different generations, twelve years apart. When he was discovering “Sgt Pepper” I was nine years old. When he heard The Band’s Music from Big Pink for the first time I was learning camp songs at summer camp. When his peers were dancing to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” I was listening to my first Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell records and learning to play guitar (Our paths may have crossed briefly in the early ‘70s when I was in high school: he and I both sometimes went to hear “The Good Ol’ Persons” play bluegrass at the Red Vest Pizza Parlor in El Cerrito). I know many people from Johnny’s generation. I tend to like them. I have often wished that I had been in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s or at the Newport Folk Festival, but I was too young to be there and lived on the other coast.

After more anguished emails, Johnny and I finally talk on the phone Friday night for an hour and a half. At the end of that conversation he says “Let’s take living together off the table.” He also says “We need to take a break.”

The words “We need to take a break” strike terror to my heart. My beloved former partner used to announce “We need to take a break” or “I don’t think we should see each other for awhile” at random times in our relationship. I always reacted with grief and fear that the relationship was over, but I eventually learned to ask for a specific date when we would see each other again, or a specific time we would talk because that helped me manage my anxiety.

I say as much to Johnny, that I need to know when we will speak again. He responds “There are no rules. You can call in five minutes.”

Johnny and I are in the habit of speaking to each other on the phone two or three times a day and emailing each other in between calls. I call him that evening to say goodnight. He does not pick up the call or leave me a voicemail. I call the next morning and the next afternoon. I send brief emails. Every time he does not respond my anxiety ratchets up another notch. Johnny remains silent for nearly twenty-four hours, at which point he emails me the synopsis of a crime novel he has been meaning to finish writing. I read it and respond with interest.

Apparently my reading his writing resets our communication and we begin talking regularly, emailing frequently, discussing possible options for Memorial Day weekend. I am relieved. We finally settle on a plan for me to visit him on the evening of Saturday June 1: I will come to his house directly from an afternoon singing session in Albany.

Dear Readers,

I so appreciate you coming to read the Johnny and Sharyn stories.

I am working with difficult material once again, complex interactions about music this time. I’d like to have a few more days to work on my next post. I will publish it by Wednesday the 13th. Thank you for your understanding.

Sharyn

One of the things that I am trying to figure out in my relationship with Johnny is how to compromise: when should I compromise and when should I stick to my own inclinations. When I take up with Johnny it has been many years since I have been in a committed relationship (and my last serious relationship ended because we could not create a compromise in how/where to live). I don’t know how people learn the skills they need in relationships: compromise was not big in my family of origin, which was authoritarian in nature. Previous rounds of couples therapy with prior partners had not taught me either. Johnny could be both easygoing and flexible and utterly uncompromising. Perhaps that is true of me, too — after all, we were twelve years apart (plus four days) and shared a sun sign and a Chinese zodiac animal.

After Johnny’s successful blues gig at the Point Reyes Station House, the next thing on his plate was a Carnival gig featuring the music of The Band just six days later. He would cram in a movie, another memorial gathering, and three rehearsals before the gig. He wanted me to go to the movie and the memorial gathering, which I did.

Just two days after our luxurious dinner at the Station House, Johnny asks me if I will make soup for sixty people for his next gig. He remembers that I made two pots of soup in December for a caroling party at my house. Unlike Johnny, I know the difference between feeding a dozen people and feeding sixty. I start to demur and he says, “You can just make one pot of soup.”

Johnny will reimburse me for the soup costs. And, because he has a cushion from his brother’s insurance money, he offers to front me some money for an airline ticket to France (I have been singing extra shifts at BART for months to save the air fare, but the prices keep rising). I have saved $1000 and fares are now running about $1600.

I think I have two days off for the weekend — I have no Farmers’ Market shift — and I have been imagining reading, writing, resting, lounging around and only rousing myself to go to Johnny’s gig on Sunday afternoon. But Johnny is helping me out with airfare, so I will cook: Sunday morning finds me stirring up two pots of the simplest soup I make, a Mexican corn soup concocted of frozen corn, fresh lime juice, cilantro and jarred salsa. I have to chop the cilantro and squeeze the limes, but the rest of the preparation is dump and stir and heat. Then I puree half of the mixture in a blender and I am done: I have made soup for thirty, rather than sixty.

I am supposed to buy disposable bowls for the soup, but I am so used to avoiding the disposable aisle I forget to get them, although we have discussed it twice. I kick the bowl task back to Johnny. I do, however, buy baguettes to slice to go with the soup.

I arrive at Avonova in Oakland, a concert space built into a private home. I arrive before the show starts and Jimmy, the club owner, shows me the mezzanine kitchen overlooking the seats and stage. I admire some handleless conical measuring cups — I have never seen anything like them. Jimmy tells me they belonged to his grandmother.

The seats fill up as the crowd comes in. The band takes the stage. Johnny straps on his red Telecaster. The bass player and the keyboard player sing harmony to Johnny’s lead. They play “The Weight” and “ Up on Cripple Creek,” but also the rarely-sung parable “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.” The volume is a problem for me: the venue offers foam ear plugs, which I use, but they do not reduce the volume enough for me. I go up to the kitchen before intermission to reheat soup and slice baguettes. People line up and I ladle soup into bowls for them.

Johnny buys my airline ticket on his debit card as promised. I want to pay him what I have immediately, but he urges me to wait until I have the entire sum. A neighbor gives me a nylon-strung guitar, which I sell on consignment for $140.00. Every little bit helps.

The following Saturday, Johnny plays another gig at a private party. Although there is plenty of delicious catered food, I observe Johnny drinking and not eating. It looks to me like he is chasing a high. Someone else packs up a plate of food for him and I put it aside. First I ask him if he has eaten. Then I tell him he ought to eat. . He summons me to look at his lip to see if it is bleeding. It isn’t, but I guess he has seen a chip on the edge of a beer bottle.

The next night at my house we discuss the party. I tell him about chasing the high. He tells me, “The high was from music.”

Fair enough, but then it looks like the alcohol was to keep the high going when the music was over. I like listening to Johnny play gigs, but I get anxious when I see him drinking, schmoozing, drinking some more.

“Johnny, maybe I shouldn’t come to your gigs. Then I won’t have to watch you drink.”

Johnny says, “That is unacceptable. You need to have a different standard for my drinking than other people’s drinking.”

There it is. The old “I am not like other people.”

I don’t know what to do. When Johnny drinks — when Johnny seems to be focused on drinking — I feel anxious and scared. That is my problem, really: they are my feelings. I cannot rely on Johnny to ameliorate them because his behavior triggers them for me. If I cannot absent myself when he drinks, what options do I have? I can’t always find a friend to go to the gig with me, which would at least give me someone to talk to or check in with. I can’t drink with him: I have liver damage from mononucleosis and a family history of alcoholism. Drinking gives me insomnia even if I chase a drink with a lot of water. Also, I practice Buddhism and one of the precepts is not to use substances that cloud the mind, reminding me to be mindful of the occasions when I choose to drink. I already have the habit, developed in childhood, of watching when drinkers drink and how much they drink and what they do and say when they drink.

Johnny and I talk and we listen to each other. We make efforts for each other. He does not promise not to drink or to drink less. I do not promise not to have the feelings I have. I thank him for talking and listening and spending time with me.

The next morning he has booked a 9 AM meeting at the Berkeley BART station so he comes busking with me, singing and playing on my shift. This makes it a lot more fun for me than playing solo. I hope it will make a nice change for the commuters. Many nod and smile and some say “Beautiful,” but this does not translate to tips. This disgruntles Johnny, who mutters, “If it’s beautiful, drop a dollar.”

I am surprised that Johnny and I do not do better singing together — he is so good — but I am used to the world of busking where you can sing beautifully some days and gain nothing and you can stumble and falter and stop to tune or burst into tears and the passers-by throw money in your guitar case.

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?

When Johnny and I arrived back in the Bay Area from our trip for his brother David’s funeral I was still trying to process the sights of Johnny vomiting in public and drinking whiskey at seven in the morning. Although my father and brothers were all alcoholics I had never seen them vomit from drinking or drink before early afternoon. My childhood gave me a baseline for how drinkers behaved, but Johnny did not adhere to conventions such as drinking only at proscribed times and he had shown no embarrassment at losing his dinner in a restaurant while servers scurried to clean the floor.

During our first post-trip night together, soon after I closed the bedroom door, I set to re-stringing my guitar, struggling to loosen stubborn bridge pins and pricking a finger on sharp lead wires. Johnny offered to change strings for me but I said no, feeling it was good practice for me to do it myself. Johnny pulled a bottle of whiskey from his omnipresent black satchel. I went silent. He drank and played aggressively with my cat. I let him put on the last two strings after my pricked finger started bleeding.

I do not know how to talk to Johnny about his drinking without resorting to blaming and judgments. I know I don’t know how to talk to him about it. When I say his drinking makes me sad he calls me “mopey.” When I say that “regular” people don’t drink in the morning, he says he is not a regular person. He tells me he accepts everything about me (poverty, cerebral palsy, my living at home) and he wants the same acceptance from me (but he does not accept my discomfort over his drinking, which he thinks I should get over).

I consider reading the AA Big Book. I consider attending Al-Anon meetings, although I never cared for Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings I attended in the past. I write him an unsent letter that begins “Dear One, I can’t handle your drinking” and ends “I do not like it when you are belting whiskey morning and night and I do not like it when you turn on me and make it my fault. You keep saying you are being charged with another man’s crimes, but I am talking about your drinking, not my father’s drinking or my brothers’ drinking or anyone’s else.”

Johnny has gigs in March and April 2013 — he’s playing a private party in late March, and appearing at an April 1st benefit for fiddler Sue Draheim. He and I will play our second duet gig at The Arlington cafe on April 5th and he has a blues gig scheduled for April 15th in Marin County and a band gig on April 21st in Oakland.

Johnny and I rehearse for our gig. We enjoy running through our songs on April 3rd and 4th, fine-tuning our arrangements and laughing as he drills me on the pronunciation of “one” in “My One Desire.” He pronounces it “wun,” reminding me of a movie gangster who says “dese” and “dose.” We take in The Good Ol’ Persons reunion show at Freight and Salvage on the third as well.

After we play The Arlington I need to get down to the annual business of preparing my tax returns. I dread doing my taxes every year because I am a self-employed sole proprietor with no business background: I dutifully slog through IRS publications and forms for the creative pursuits that produce my tiny income, counting CD sales, gig money, painting sales and writing consultations. I do not earn enough to pay someone else to prepare my returns and my record keeping is idiosyncratic to say the least. I tackle my returns with a mixture of confusion and resignation: I will get them done (I always do). I live in fear of an audit: I am scrupulously honest, but I am afraid my documentation might not pass muster.

On Sunday night April 7th, just as I am about to start my taxes, filmmaker Les Blank dies of cancer. Johnny stays up half the night writing a five-page obituary for his friend and mentor and emails it to me. I read it and inform Johnny of a discrepancy in the titles of two films in the piece (like me, Johnny is a stickler for accuracy), but I don’t fully take in the meaning that Les’s life, art and philosophy had for Johnny. The obituary lays this out beautifully and yet I don’t absorb just how important Les was to Johnny (Later Johnny will request that he himself be buried in Sunset View Cemetery as close to Les’s grave as possible). I do register that Les’s death is a second loss for Johnny, closely following the death of his brother David.

On Tuesday morning of tax week, Johnny emails me to say that he’s been invited to a gathering to remember Les, organized by Les’s ex-wife Chris Simon. Johnny wants me to go with him. I have told him I can only do three things during tax week: talk to him, work at my day job and do my tax returns. I answer that I do not want to go to the memorial, that I did not know Les well, that I would go if it weren’t tax week or if I had finished my tax returns.

Johnny fires back an email telling me how he would handle my tax returns (skip work until I get them done or file an extension). He tells me that it is important to him that I appear as his partner. And then he writes this paragraph, in which he criticizes me for taking a two-hour break from tax prep to watch an episode of “American Idol.”

“I know how stressful this week is for you,” he writes. “And of course you need to relax sometimes. Still, you were okay with taking two hours last night to watch a T.V. show starting at 8:00. And my impression is that you actually stopped working on your tax stuff at least a little before that hour. I hope making this appearance with me could be given at least this much time.”

The morning of the Les Blank memorial, Johnny receives notice that Sue Draheim has died — death #3 in the space of less than two months. I agree to attend the Les Blank gathering and Johnny agrees to spend the night with me following the get-together. He tells me he will pick me up at 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM party in the Berkeley hills near my home.

Unbeknownst to me, Johnny has passed out at his home in San Leandro that evening while I sit, dressed and ready to go, anticipating a ride or a phone call informing me of a change of plans. Johnny’s driver cannot rouse him until 7:30 PM, at which point they drive to my house where I have been waiting for two and a half hours. Johnny’s driver has not cleared space in his station wagon for me to sit, so I perch on Johnny’s lap in the passenger seat for the ride to Les’s house.

Unwinding myself gingerly at the curb, I pick my way over a grassy strip, turning at the sidewalk to see Johnny lurching his way across the grass, barely able to remain upright.

We enter the house. Johnny introduces me to a few people, including the hostess, and accepts the first drink on offer. In no time at all, he has vomited mucus on a leather chair and part of the hardwood floor. I speed to the kitchen for paper towels to clean up the mess and a woman I don’t know says to me “He shouldn’t drink.”

I shrug my shoulders. Does she think I am responsible for him? How is it my job to control his drinking?

Meanwhile, Johnny, feeling better after vomiting, has grabbed another beer. I drink a ceremonial champagne toast with a couple of musicians I know, raising a glass to Les’s memory, and then I am ready to go home. Johnny, however, wants to have a long conversation with each person remaining at the party.

We got back to my mother’s house around midnight and got into bed. I began to cry. I could not fathom how someone could be too sick to eat, throw up the contents of his stomach and then open another beer: when I vomit, I rest and take cautious sips of ginger ale. I considered breaking up with Johnny that night, doubting whether I could sustain a commitment to him, having visions of being dragged to more parties where I knew few people, could not participate in music beyond my skill level, and got stuck listening to the all-afternoon or late-night drinkers rambling on to one another.

By the next morning, after little sleep, Johnny was his kind and loving self again. He ate a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and salsa, toast and butter. Later on he sent me a sweet email: “Thinking of you with love, honey. Good luck with everything today. XXX JH.”

I finish my tax returns on April 14th, and mail them on April 15th before Johnny whisks me off to his evening gig at the Station House in Point Reyes. He calls me up to the stage to sing “Sitting on Top of the World.” I get polite applause for that and sit down again. He calls me up again to sing “Clueless,” my own song about the mishaps of our courtship, and the crowd loves it. In fact, every single musician there makes a point of telling me how much they enjoy it.

Johnny and I sing “New Love Thing” together. One couple gets up to dance and some people sing along. Also, Johnny and I get to sit down to a delicious dinner on the house: I eat skirt steak and broccolini and half of Johnny’s bread pudding. He orders a rich, cream-based oyster stew. I am happy to have an elegant meal and a relaxing evening. The drummer plays tastefully. The bass is not overloud. And the piano player is smokin’.

Dear readers,

I don’t have it in me to write a Johnny and Sharyn story tonight. “Soon come,” as Johnny used to say.

In 2013 Johnny and I are discussing moving in together, but I have still not stayed a night at his house. My mother starts to complain again about Johnny’s visits to her house, although we follow the rules about no consecutive overnights. She says she wants to spend her old age in peace.

Meanwhile, both Johnny and I have financial challenges: the guitar student trade has dips and ebbs and my busking income is tiny. I am advertising regularly for writing practice students on Craigslist, which usually brings in complaints that I don’t teach for free or people wanting to rent me writing space. Counting my pennies and trying to save for a retreat with my teacher Natalie Goldberg in France, I decide I will do an extra busking shift five days a week: after I play two hours in the Berkeley BART station in the morning I will return to either Downtown Berkeley or Ashby in the afternoon and play another hour. To make the afternoon shift more palatable I decide that I will only play the songs I most want to play during my second shift. Things are slow enough for Johnny that he muses about busking himself and goes so far as to make a busking set list. He says that if he busks he will make a large sign informing people that he teaches guitar.

On February 22nd, 2013 Johnny’s brother David has multiple cardiac arrests and lands in the hospital in Boston. His doctors sedate him, put him on a ventilator and chill him down to protect his organs. Members of his church come to sit with him and pray over him while Johnny and I sit in California.

Johnny and I both have late February birthdays. I ask Johnny if he wants to forgo celebrating because of his brother’s condition and he tells me no, that we are alive and need to celebrate. Earlier in the month we have gone to hear both Alan Toussaint and Dr. John at Yoshi’s as they pass through town on tour. Toussaint is particularly engaging, interpolating Mozart’s death march into “St. James Infirmary” and leading the audience in a sing-along of “City of New Orleans,” assuring us that “All white people know this song,” and turning his mic toward us as we sing.

I buy Johnny a card for his 67th birthday and bake him a pear tarte tatin. His birthday falls on Super Bowl Sunday, so I come out to San Leandro for awhile to see him and to avoid the Super Bowl at my house. Three days after that, on February 27th, Johnny’s brother David dies and, the next day, Johnny treats me to dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

I wake up sick the following day, no doubt stressed by David’s illness and death. I stay home from work for a few days, trying to get well before a road trip to Seattle for David’s funeral. Johnny and I will be traveling by car with his niece Lucy and her husband Adam. I sort out black clothes, shoes and raincoat for the service. I cannot find a black beret, so I decide to pack tights and a hat in Lenten purple. Since Johnny’s entire wardrobe is black, he will have no trouble dressing for the funeral where he will sing a few folk hymns.

Lucy and Adam propose camping in Ashland for the first night of the trip, but I look at a forecast showing 90% chance of rain and Johnny books us motel rooms for the night. By then we know that David’s estate will cover our expenses for the funeral trip: meals, lodging, etc., including a couple of nights in Seattle.

Johnny’s family gather at David’s Seattle house for a few hours. Someone brings in some beer for that occasion, but there is no food, no ceremony. We sit in the living room of a house that has been closed-up for months, talking of Johnny’s parents who used to live there. We gather again at a cemetery in the rain for prayers and songs. Those who wish to can use a spade to throw dirt on David’s coffin. We gather that night for a salmon dinner at Ivar’s, a restaurant that has been in Seattle since 1938 and then we go our separate ways.

Johnny is drinking heavily. He gets sick in the car and again in Ashland when we go out to have dinner. At least once during the trip I wake up to see him swigging whiskey from a pint bottle first thing in the morning.


“Whiskey before breakfast?” I ask.
“A good old Irish tradition,” he answers.

I do not say anything else about Johnny’s drinking right then because his beloved brother has just died: he is grieving and does not need extra pressure from me. And I am still trying to figure out whether Johnny is merely someone who drinks heavily on occasion or whether he has a true addiction to alcohol.

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads