Dark Shadows

A friend of mine died this week. Tracy found her. She died at home, in bed, which is probably the way she wanted it. She’d been declining for a while, and the process accelerated in the usual dismal way.

I first met Pamela Miller at an AA meeting. The year was 1988. I was probably drunk at the time. Lots of people have started going to meetings while they were still  drinking; drinking tended to take the edge off some of the more grating AA aphorisms. Old-timers understood showing up drunk, because they had probably done it themselves, or something like it. Drunks lie in many different ways.

Pamela came in just as the meeting started, and she managed to find the most comfortable seat, a flowered couch with big puffy pillows. Pamela was a big woman, and she made the most of her girth. She spread comfortably. When it was her turn, she launched into a confusing and alarming story about her “near-psychotic break” that very afternoon. The story involved a confrontation with a motorist, another with a cop (female), unwise words that were exchanged, and a small physical injury that someone had incurred. She told the story with great gusto. It was not clear how much was fantasy. She was noisy and chaotic.  She ended by saying, “but at least I didn’t drink.”

I found her terrifying.

A year later, I was sober, just out of rehab and looking for a sponsor. I was doing 90 meetings in 90 days, and every weekday I went to a six o’clock meeting in Berkeley.  Pamela Miller was there. She spoke at almost every meeting. She made sense — emotional sense, practical sense. She talked over and over again about how hard it was to stay sober in a dangerous world. She said: “Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.”

That was my koan. Do what you need to do, but don’t drink.  Eat a quart of ice cream, break up with your spouse, rob a few convenience stores — but don’t drink.

Seems simple enough. A lot of AA is simple. Newly sober drunks need simple. Eventually, if they stay in the program, they get a belief system too. Unless they reject it. Fine. Don’t drink.

After six months or so, I asked Pamela to be my sponsor. I had a therapist, and she was smart and sympathetic and calming, but I needed something else. Pamela was not calming. She took your side in everything. She cursed your villains, sometimes in terms you would not have chosen. She told stories about similar outrages she had encountered. She said “poor baby” and made tea. I drank a lot of tea.

The wisdom of the program is that men should not have women sponsors and vice versa. I can definitely see why that makes sense. On the other hand, I felt I had no choice. It was Pamela or vodka.



We usually met at her house. It, too, was chaotic. She had two children, and she loved them fiercely. She worked as a librarian at a large law firm. Her past, as you might expect, was checkered. She grew up mostly in New York. She had moved around the country. I pieced together the story over the years. I know she carved redwood burls with a chainsaw — it was her first husband’s occupation. She worked construction and knew about tools. She drank at Brennan’s, an old Irish bar right near the freeway. She adapted early to the computer revolution. She loved puzzles; she was in a club where people invented them. Her mind was quick and clever, battle-tested by thousands of double-crostics and industrial-strength anagrams.

She was a woman of strong opinions, and disagreement was futile. I once ventured the idea that male circumcision was not that bad an idea. “Mutilation,” she huffed. “Child torture.” I tried to argue. It was absolutely no good. The only thing to do was change the subject — and even then…

When a friend of mine ventured that nationally televised spelling bees put undue pressure on the children involved, Pamela disagreed. She loved spelling bees; once, when the network changed the time of broadcast and screwed with her DVR, Pamela suggested that bombing their offices might be a good idea. Pamela was not gentle with my friend. Eventually, someone, guess what, changed the subject.

But she was wonderful. I did all my steps with her. The fifth step basically involves telling your sponsor all the rotten stuff you’ve done — that you remembered, anyway — and you couldn’t lie, because you’d have that guilt-shrouded sin living rent free in your brain, making you crazy and, it was thought, more likely to drink.

You have to trust your sponsor with your secrets. “It’s your secrets that kill you,” goes the AA line, and I absolutely believe that. Honesty is a habit; the more you stick to the truth, the easier it becomes. I trusted Pamela because I had no choice.

I found that the program worked. Not entirely, because I will always be an addict, but better. And it was Pamela who brought me that. It was Pamela who made sure I went to meetings; who framed the issues in a more useful way; who took my telephone calls at any time in the evening. I was just one of her sponsees, and her phone rang a lot, and she always had time. She was just a miracle. Her sponsees adored her. I adored her.

I didn’t drink. Stuff got better.

But things change. After 15 years or so, I slowly stopped going to meetings. Part of was the God thing; I was an atheist. “Are you drinking?,” Pamela would ask. “Then don’t worry about it. AA doesn’t care.” And, officially, it doesn’t. But then someone at a meeting says, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and people in the metal folding chairs nod their heads and murmur, and I don’t say, “that’s demonstrably not true. Example one: death,” because even though you’re supposed to be honest, some kinds of honesty will alienate you from the group.

Pamela also stopped going to meetings. She too was a proud atheist, and she couldn’t abide the quasi-religious cant. But she, like me, was eternally grateful to AA. She took what she needed and left the rest, which is itself a AA aphorism.

Some time around there, Pamela started using her middle name as her first name. I thought “Dunn  Miller” was a militantly ugly name, but I think that was part of the point. I’m not sure, because by that time we had drifted apart. There was a fight (I no longer remember the topic), and Dunn was as bad at ordinary human interactions as she was good at sponsoring.

She was a difficult woman. She was a kind, smart woman. She was the whole messy package of humanity rolled into one explosive bundle. I loved her. I didn’t speak to her for years.

But a thing happened: Tracy became closer to Dunn, deciding to help her  because she was grateful for how much Dunn had helped me. Dunn had lost her job. Her mobility was limited. Tracy took her shopping, took her to movies. I went along once; I had lunch with her once. We were slowly making our way to some kind of understanding, but I was, you know, busy.

It’s all sad. I’ve still got to sort out the guilt, the fear, the love. It’s just there right now, sitting on my soul.

Dunn broke her femur, spent some time in rehab, came home, much demoralized, in pain. Her hard living — and she did a lot of that before she stopped — caught up with her. Tracy was buying her groceries, calling her periodically to check in. When Dunn didn’t answer the phone for two straight days, Tracy drove over to her house. Before she left, she told me, “I think she’s going to be dead.” And she was. There were no signs of any kind of death struggle; she went quietly.

My reasons for writing this are twofold. One, I wanted to tell you about Dunn Miller, because there will be no obituaries, no tributes on television. I have this tiny forum to encourage others to mourn with me.

And the second thing I have to say is: Are there people in your life from whom you’ve become estranged? Is there some argument, some outrage, some unforgivable exchange? Forgive anyway. Go to whomever and tell them how important they were, how much you appreciated what they did.  Talk to the best version of that person. Offer grace.

Tell them. For god’s sake tell them. Get the fuck out of your brain and tell them. Because they’re going to die and you’re going to die, and that silence is going to hang in the air like a noxious mist. Maybe, if you’d be willing, do it in memory of Dunn Miller.

Oh, and:  Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.



Photography by Tracy Johnston; Dunn Miller photo by Philip Cohen

Tech help by Michelle Mizera

Pieces of my brain #3

On a cool windy evening in San Francisco, we found ourselves at the corner of Fell and Van Ness. Across the street, there was the brightly lit condo tower.  We decided to investigate, partly to get out of the wind, partly because Tracy’s near-legendary curiosity leads her almost anywhere a  human can go without encountering armed guards.

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TJ at work

The lobby was in that high commercial modern style favored by builders going after millennials, particularly tech-enabled milliennials. Lots of clean blank walls; a lobby desk shaped like an emaciated shark.  There was a tree growing out of a hole in the desk where the shark’s anus would be.

There were perhaps 30 people in the lobby, clustered in conversational groups or checking their phones. We entered, bringing with us a gust of cold air. Everybody turned towards us. It was like one of those science fiction movies where almost everyone (except our hero) is controlled by an alien intelligence. They all looked at us without expression. A telepathic whisper went through the room: Old People among us. Try to stay calm.

We walked around a bit. We tried to make eye contact, but no one would look up. They were afraid the old was contagious. You don’t want to get the old on you; it can decay your teeth and turn your hips into bone-on-bone battlegrounds. No matter how hard you scrub, the old lingers.

This is not the first time my gray beard has provoked silent horror in young people. Many are kind (the old enjoy kindness), although they often feel the need to explain to us things we already know. “The white zone,” they will say considerately, “is for loading and unloading only.” Sometimes that’s entirely charming.

Sometimes: Not.


Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in a stairwell of an old second-floor dance studio. We were waiting to be let in to the space, now repurposed as a theater. Once again, we were the oldest people in the building, but this time we were ignored. Everyone was ignoring everyone else, in the manner of people standing in an elevator. I stared at my phone for a while, but I didn’t want to text anyone. I was just being pretentious.

On the steps below us, four people played a version of charades. One held up a phone to his/her forehead. On the phone was a word. The others tried to get the phone holder to say the word, using only gestures. Splendid idea; this is technology we can believe in.

Then the door above opened, and we poured into the space.

Many years ago, I spent some time as a non-sexual groupie of The Committee, a now-legendary improv comedy group started by Alan and Jessica Myerson, late of the Second City in Chicago. Unlike the Second City, The Committee did not turn out famous comedians who went on to  success. Still, I thought Larry Hankin was the funniest man alive, and Gary Goodrow was a comic genius. Anyway: What I saw in that large room reminded me of The Committee.

Imagine six extremely energetic humans. Imagine a bare stage, minimum props, primitive lighting.  Imagine lots of running around and yelling and standing still and whispering, all at break-neck pace. The players are known collectively as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists.  Their show is called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” It is not improvised;  each of the “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” is written and rehearsed, although a lot of the writing process does seem to have to do with improvisation. The show is funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it’s also poignant and angry and surrealistic.

What reminded me of The Committee was the sense of possibility. The Neo-Futurists have been around since the 80s, but I don’t think the people in the cast can make that claim.  There’s talent up on stage; more importantly, there’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of theater. Ryan Patrick Welsh is clearly the first among equals, but every performer is  enthusiastic and committed.

Here are some of the play titles: “David Mamet’s The Little Mermaid;” “Robo Libido Fugue State:” “Questions for a Twinkie;” “How I Bore Mission Bartenders;” and “WHAT I ASSUME GETTING YOUR PERIOD  IS LIKE ACCORDING TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD  OF TV ADVERTISEMENTS”.

You could spend your entertainment dollar on Meryl Streep pretending to be somebody or other, or, for just a little more, you could see The San Francisco Neo-Futurists. Come early, stand in the stairwell, laugh unreservedly. There’s a soupcon of audience participation (nothing embarrassing, although I was asked politely to eat one bite of a dreadful sandwich, which I did, for which I was called a “hero,” a double-decker sandwich joke) but mostly not; this is not some Vegas hypnotist’s show.

Out by 11. Steps away from BART. Everything perfect.


Last time, in pursuit of happiness, I published a few jokes I’d picked up here and there. (I found 500 banjo jokes, none of them funny). My friend Carol Carr sent me a few she’d saved over the years. If you hang out with the science fiction community, you may know Carol, or have heard of her. She is not, by the way, the Carol Carr who killed two of her sons. Just clarifying.


What do you get when you cross an elephant with a peanut butter sandwich?  Three elephants that stick to the roof of your mouth, and one peanut butter sandwich that never forgets.

What do you get when you cross a Mafia hit man with a performance artist?  Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand.

“I just learned the answer to the question asked in Hamlet, “What is he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him?”  Answer: “The shortest volumes in the encyclopedia.”

A Jew gives a blind man his first piece of matzo.  The blind man takes it and rubs his fingers over the surface for several seconds, then says, “Who wrote this shit?”


This very morning, I was driving home from random errands (grocery store, bank) when I thought: I bet Pancho is in my wire basket now. He’s there most every morning; you can set your watch by it. And then I thought: I really do think a lot about Pancho’s habits.

His smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs, are second nature to me now.

And that’s strange, don’t you think? I can see the point in petting a cat, snuggling with a cat, watching a cat doing cat antics — sure. That’s pet ownership: The cross-species exchange of affection. But I think I have something different: The cross-species crush.

When  I was a young man and subject to crushes, everything about my love object was fascinating. Her handwriting, her lunch preferences, the books she read, the music she listened to, her feelings about insects and aviation and deep soulful kissing. And maybe I would bicycle by her house, not in a stalking way because I didn’t actually stop, except that one time I saw her watering the lawn. “I was in the neighborhood…” I said, which was true. I was in the neighborhood.

And now I have memorized Pancho’s routine. He’s extremely predictable. Cats may be independent creatures, but they like their habits — as do most humans. Habits are comfortable; they free your mind to think of other things. Each night I close up the house, check the doors and windows, straighten up the kitchen, let Pancho in, turn out the lights. Pancho will inevitably check his food bowl, then amble up the stairs, where he curls up on the bed in Tracy’s office.

Once in a while, that doesn’t happen, and I worry that Pancho is sick. But no, he’s exercising his free will — when he remembers that he has free will. I have free will too, but I’ve lived in the same place for 35 years.

I brought the groceries in and checked. Sure enough:


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Find the missing number on the clock!


Photography by Tracy Johnston, except the one that obviously isn’t

Behind-the-scenes competence by Michelle Mizera