Monday, January 10, 2022

Day five thousand one hundred and twenty four . . . Predecessors To Hope.

It's a shame I can't remember much.

As I get older and more of my friends start to lose loved ones, I often say the same thing. I tell them that my most profound regret is that I lacked a clear mind to appreciate and remember the time I spent with my mother at the end of her life. I tell them I hope there is a way they can be present in the moments that allow visitors. I try to express this in as few words as possible because my words are not what these people need to hear. 

But I tell them anyway because I feel I have to. And because most people are kind and do what society expects of them, they say "thank you for your kindness" and go on with their process.

Today, in the part of the world where I live, it is January 11, 2022, meaning my mother has been gone from this earth for fifteen years. 

I have no idea how this time has passed under my feet and through my hands. Time is so elusive to me--so bratty and selfish some days; hopeful, slaphappy, and aloof others, rigid, unyielding, acrimonious, and ultimately artificial, transparent, and mainly for show.   

Humans created the clock and the calendar. The rest of life on planet earth just goes about its day, though I'm guessing it wouldn't use that word. 

If you look around you, most people have agreed to it--whether because they have to or because it makes sense. Some people in far-off places probably use their own system to keep track of time. We hear about some of these areas now and then but only when comparing how the modern world exists, and, of course, the modern world is the one we want to live in, right? Maybe. Maybe not. 

I live in Japan--fourteen hours ahead of where I come from for half of the year. It will only be thirteen hours when daylight saving time comes around again because Japan doesn't adhere to that antiquated tradition. But then again, neither does Arizona. Go figure. 

So see, what does it all really mean, anyway? 

But my mother. My poor, selfless mother. She did what she could with me, instilling a sense of self-worth and pride in hard work. She spent more than half of her life as a teacher in Fall River, Massachusetts, somewhere that was never quite famous for its feel-good headlines. 

I remember saying to her and my aunt (also a teacher) that I would never be a teacher. My days would not be spent explaining to people much younger than myself how to do something I couldn't. I recoiled from the prospect of regurgitating facts and figures in hopes that kids with minds drunk with options like mine once was might have the wherewithal to pause and listen. 

My path was going to be paved with gold records and fine, Corinthian leather. I was going to be a rock star . . . or at the very least, I was going to make my living in music and leave the "real work" to the rest of the world. 

That was the plan for the first thirty-odd years anyway. Many of those were spent slugging it out on the road, playing hundreds of shows a year across the country and abroad. Hours upon hours of writing, recording, promoting, bullshitting, begging, and borrowing. It may not have been 9-5, but I can assure you it was "real work," and I know it shaved years off my life. Hopefully, there was already going to be a surplus. 

It shows that one can make a to-do list, but it's really just your to-do list at the end of the day.

So I did a bunch of stuff, and now I'm 51, living in Asia. By the time my mom was 51 (in 1992), I had been living in Western Massachusetts for a year (at 22) and beginning the second phase of my life, just far enough away from my family so that a surprise visit wasn't really on the table, but far enough so they wouldn't be my one phone call. 

She would live only fourteen more years and die at the age of 65, not having seen her son living without alcohol since his teenage years. 

But I celebrated that many years of sobriety on December 27 on vacation from my job as--yes, you guessed it--a teacher. 

Three days a week, I teach English to kids as young as three and adults older than myself. One day a week, I even teach guitar. And guess what else? I actually kind of like it. It's not slugging it out in the Fall River school system or even close to how hard my wife works Monday through Friday 8:30-4:30, but it's a real job, and I seem to be making an actual difference in people's lives.

See, nobody prepares you for the addictiveness of acceptance. 

And really, acceptance is a byproduct of rejection--or at least that's how it would stand to reason in a healthy mind. But once I started to accept things instead of fighting them, life took on new meaning. And I don't mean accepting I had a problem with alcohol. That was life-or-death. No, I mean just realizing that these expectations are only in our heads. And if we can create them, then it stands to reason we can dismantle them. And once you realize that doing away with an expectation is as easy as blowing out a candle, it can become a great tool to keep one's sanity. 

This isn't to say that there's no price to pay. 

My wife dislikes the smell of a blown-out candle. I'll never understand this because blown-out candles always remind me of birthdays, and I love birthdays. But there is indeed an odor, and there is smoke. So yes, there can be regrets that come from dissolved expectations. 

And this is precisely why one must take care when making them in the first place. 

So yeah, as you can probably tell, I'm a little out of sorts today. 

I wish I remembered more of what my mom said to me growing up. I regret not recording some of our random day-to-day conversations. I have some phone messages, which will have to do. 

I wish I could feel how my head felt in her lap, my ear against her belly, staring at the ceiling. 

I wish the dog would jump on top of us, fighting for attention and getting it. 

I wish I could taste her food again--or even just watch that pat of butter melt into green peas on the stove--her stove--her happiness contraption.

I wish I could hear her voice sing to me again, soft and low. 

I wish I could again feel how she hugged me--as if she was saving me from falling off a cliff. 

I wish I had visited more. 

I wish I had made her cry less--especially all the times I never knew about. 

I wish I had been a better son when less was on the line.

I wish. 

But I also accept.

I accept that these are wishes. And wishes are predecessors to hope. 

As for hope. Hope, I will have, no matter what. 

Please--somebody, anybody--remind me to read this if someday I seem to have forgotten I ever said it. 

And if anyone out there who is reading this needs a reason to hope, reach out to me. 

I'm here because I had it when I needed it most.

I love you, mom. But you always knew that. 

Thank you for never giving up your hope in me. 

My love always,



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Day four thousand eight hundred and eighty two . . . Superlatives

This is a picture from my mom's surprise 40th birthday party on May 14th 1981. I wrote about this party ten years ago to the day.

Today she would have been 80. 

You see, on Wednesday, May 14 1941--seven months before America threw their hat in the ring and made the decision to join the second world war--my mother was born.

Judith Ann Johnson. Judith Ann. Yuuditta. Judy. Momma. Mumma. Mummy. 


Judy was born into a then-happy family. My grandfather and grandmother had only been married for a little over ten years and had already had a son--my Uncle Alex--so they were used to the whole child rearing thing. Judy was showered with love and laughter. Togetherness was the rule of the day. She was cherished and adored by her brother, and she loved to sing and dance and walk her poodle, Trixie, up and down Bedford St. regaling the neighbors with tales of kings, queens, princes, princesses, knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, or so the stories go. 

It was my Aunt Lynda--born six years later--who got the "shitty end of the stick" as she used to say. 

She was the child some couples have to help "save the marriage." I don't know the statistics on how often these work, but let's just say that Aunty would have admitted she belonged in the "not successful" category. 

But Judy. Judy was the princess. Judy was the queen. Judy was the angel.

Judy was . . . the best. 

I can attest to this because . . . well, because I can. And I can because I know who she was better than most people.

My mom had a lot of friends. Teacher friends, mostly, but people who she knew well-enough to talk to about many things. 

She had a best friend named Adele--my "Aunt Del"--who recently just turned 80 herself. And these two were "thick as thieves" though even the thought of stealing so much as a paperclip, I'm sure, would be out of the question. 

But my mom was a private person. Not as private as her sister, mind you, but private enough so she kept a lot of things hidden from the world.

These days nobody hides much. Everyone wants to share everything they know and everything they do. It's like the whole world is one big only child and the internet is the guest who stops over ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every little thing that's pulled out of our collective room for show. It grows tiring. We turn off. And it gets easier and easier to ignore. I see it and feel it all around me every day. 

But Judy's secrets--and I know a few, though I'll never say--weren't very salacious compared with what is commonly known about many people these days. Pull up even a venerable outlet such as CNN and there you have more people's dirty laundry out for inspection than you could ever imagine.

But my mom rarely used a computer.

She never sent an email by herself.

She only used a cell phone when it was connected to a giant curly cord in her car and ONLY for an emergency. I think it was around $2 a minute or something crazy.

But it's not because she didn't want to. She just had better things to do with her time. 

My mom once told me that when she was young--in her teens--a fun thing she liked to do was to stand on the corner and just stare up into the sky. She would just keep looking up into the heavens as if there was something incredulous up there. Maybe exclaiming "wow"--softly under her breath--with one hand on her hip and one cupped over her eyes. She said she would do this until she got several people to join her--just staring into the sky. I remember her telling me this story more than a few times. She wanted to impress upon me that joyful living could involve something as simple as looking up into nothing. 

My mom was the best. 

I have so many "forever moments" from my lifetime. Those glimpses of time--almost as long as the average GIF--that will stay with one forever. 

As I go about my days I often wonder if the moment I'm experiencing will become one of these in time. Anything is fair game. I've had several of these since moving to Japan. They aren't burned in like most are yet, but the color and contour on them is still sharp. I feel they have promise. 

One of my favorite examples of this involves a trip my mom and I were on when I was in my early teens. I think it was somewhat far away--far enough so we weren't familiar with the area. And we were walking along a riverbank. There came a point on the river where several large rocks made a sort of walkway out to the very middle of this very active river. 

My mom said to me (in her low and gentle voice) "Alex, look at that! I bet you could run right out to the middle if you wanted." And before she could take the next breath I was off and running. I hopped lithely from stone to stone until I was in the middle of a rushing, gushing river. I could barely hear her "Eeeeeee!" from where I stood the water was so loud.

It was this moment in time that happened nearly 40 years ago that I learned the word "facetious."

My mom said, "Sweetheart, I was being facetious." But I told her I didn't know that word yet and it made her laugh and I was still alive so it couldn't have been a bad thing to do.

And again, this is a loop in my mind that encompasses probably three seconds in all, but I will take it to the end of my days. 

My mom and I had a game we'd play when I'd come home--two games actually.

When I'd get off the bus at the station in New Bedford my mom would always be in her car in the same exact spot around the corner. I'm sure she got there wayyy early just to make sure she'd be in that exact same spot. 

And when I got off the bus I would always--always--walk in her direction and pretend to not see her. I would be looking the other way, or up in the sky, or behind me with a bewildered look on my face. I'd walk past the car knowing full well she was watching me the whole time--enjoying the show--and when I got to the other side of the parking lot I would dramatically look back with amazement. 

"Mamma!!," I'd yell. And then run to the car and open the back door to put my backpack in and say "I thought you forgot about me!" Then I'd get in the passenger side and give her a big hug around her big belly and a kiss on the cheek. I'd slink back into the seat and slowly put my seatbelt on and my mom Judy would say, "Oh Alex, you are a crackpot."

A crackpot. How funny is that. Who says that? Who ever said that?

Judy did. Judy was the best. 

The other game involved the next step in our journey from the bus station to her house. We would always stop for a gallon of milk at the store. See, I may have moved away from home at 21 but she could still give me errands to do. And one of the errands was to go into the store with one of her crisp $5 bills and pick out a big ol' orange-cap gallon jug of 2%. Always Guida's Dairy. Always tasty. I could drink a gallon in a little over two days. 

I'd get the change (usually a little over $2) and put it in my pocket.

I'd get into her car and strap on my seatbelt--the one with the rainbow colored fur wrap so that it was comfortable on whomever was seated in the passenger side (which would more than likely be either me or my aunt) and put the gallon of milk on the floor and then I'd wait. 

My mom knew I got change back. I knew I got change back. The cashier certainly knew I got change back. 

But Judy would sit in that car and wait to turn the key in the ignition for as long as it took . . . until I said (with mock surprise) "Oh! You want the change back? Oh! I'm so sorry I forgot. Okay, here you go."

And yes, she called me a crackpot then too. 

Funny, I don't think I've drank a glass of plain milk since the last gallon she bought for me over 15 years ago. 


My mom died of pancreatic cancer on January 11, 2007. 

She was 65.

We had way more time with her than many people who get that awful diagnosis. I wrote about the fender-bender that gave the doctors a reason to do x-rays a while ago. If it hadn't been for that who knows when it would have been found. 

Cancer runs in my family. It also took my grandmother (and many of her brothers), my uncle and my aunt.

Even though I quit 16 years ago, I still was a heavy smoker from age 16-35.

I lived a "rock and roll" lifestyle for almost that long.

I had a pretty average (read: awful) diet growing up. Basically endless meats, starches, sugars and salt including TV dinners and lots of microwaved foods. 

I worry just a little bit every day if and when cancer will become part of my life.

But I am reminded by my incredible wife that one never can just lump it all in and expect that sort of outcome. 

I have a whole other side of my genetics that I really know little about. And though I did treat my body poorly for a long time I have been making up for it for many, many years. 

I just turned 51 five days ago. I don't want to assign a number to it but I'd like to tack on a bunch more years to my life now that I seem to have figured out what is important. 

Yeah. I figured that thing out. 

Oh, you want to know what it is? 

You want the change back from the milk? 

You've been sitting in this car the whole time???

Well, okay, I'll tell you. But you gotta promise me this doesn't go any further than you and me.

Okay, here goes . . . 

What's important is . . . 

It's that feeling that you get when you don't want to go to sleep because the day hasn't finished telling you its story.

It's the feeling that you get when you wake up and you don't want to look at the clock because it could be 4:00am and you still have over two hours to sleep or the alarm on your phone might actually go off when you pick it up.

It's the look on a friend's face when they see you and smile--the moment you can both stop thinking about what you were going to talk about and just start talking.

It's the feeling when somebody buys you dinner. 

It's the feeling when you pay for your first meal for your parents (even if it entails finding the waiter on the other side of the room and giving them your new debit card).

It's the feeling when you make a decision for somebody who isn't thinking straight--somebody who might tell you it's no problem and also won't remember saying it.

It's the note you find on your lunch bag. The one that's worth getting made fun of for. 

It's the first button you learned to sew back on. 

It's the dog you loved almost as much as they loved you.

It's the people you had to excise from your life.

It's the magic trick you still can't figure out.

It's the kid that you taught how to read, and the way you realize the reason he or she suddenly can't make out a word is because your excitedly hovering finger hasn't moved on from the last one.

It's that first kiss.

It's remembering how your mom's breath felt as she reached her lips out to kiss your bearded cheek and wondering why it wasn't long after she passed away that you started shaving all the time. 

It's the last kiss.

It's the way spaghetti tastes plucked from a rolling boiling pan when you know it has no chance of being done for ten more minutes but you just love half-cooked pasta that much. 

It's the color black.

It's the color of jade.

It's knowing your mom never got her ears pierced yet she never went one day without wearing earrings. 

It's gaudy lipstick.

It's cat hair.

It's not Pepsi but it's definitely Coke.

It's real whipped cream.

It's Easy Cheese and Triscuits.

It's the last batch of frozen home cooking she made for you--the last bite even--and knowing it's really over.

It's that last clock you forgot to turn back.

It's realizing you're not actually late for work after all.

It's the smell of lavender fabric softener.

It's knowing you don't use it anymore but you remember who it reminds you of. 

It's that last cigarette.

It's that last drink.

It's the first early morning. 

It's the first late night.

It's loving yourself.

It's knowing you are loved.

It's knowing you can return the feeling. 

It's how she says "I love you" before you can even open your eyes.

It's the way she waves at you from her bicycle each and every morning on her way to work.

It's the smell when she made dinner unexpectedly.

It's knowing it's okay to let go of the wrapping paper.

It's a good cry.

It's now.

It's then.

It's just being good.

That's what's important.

See, you should have just pretended the milk cost $5. :)

Happy Birthday, Mom!!!

Sto lat!

All my love, always.


Thank you all for reading. 


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Day four thousand seven hundred and fourteen . . . Thanks.

Today is Friday morning at 9:16am where I am. But where I'm from it's a very different day.

On the east coast of the US it is 7:16pm on Thanksgiving Day, and that usually means you're either on the couch watching TV or in the kitchen cleaning up.

I'm here on my couch thinking back on all the years gone by, all the Novembers come and gone, and all the ways I have changed as a person. My wife is at work all day as usual, and I'll be going in later on to teach my kids like I do three days a week. I'm a teacher now--albeit part-time--and that's something my mom and aunt would be so happy to know. 

But I've been thinking a lot, today especially. And last night it was a bit bittersweet going to bed knowing that here it's just another Thursday. 

I'm thinking how lucky I am to still be here. 

Growing up I never thought I'd make it to 40, let alone 50, and those who knew me pre-2007 will understand. My life was so much different then. But some people just take longer than others to get the hint that life can be worth living. Some, sadly, don't get it in time.

I'm feeling very odd for a lot of reasons. When I moved to Japan in late-July 2019 I knew the world was going to change, but I had no idea how drastically and how fast that would happen. And I didn't really think that where I'm from was going to be going through a transformation at all. 

But here we all are in the middle of it, and nobody being born now will ever understand it fully. 

But I am thankful. 


Well, I don't want to bore you with the details but I'll tell you a story. 

I had a few great guitar teachers throughout my life, beginning around age 10. 

Lots of things changed during my 10th year on earth, but most importantly my grandmother--my babusha--died. She was 68 when she passed in November of 1980. Her and my mom had never lived apart. 

That incredible loss sent my mom into a bit of a tailspin, and I don't know if she ever fully recovered from it. For many years afterwards I had asked her if I could hunt for our super 8 movie projector that I knew was stashed somewhere in the attic of our three story tenement house in Fall River. She would always give me some excuse about the bulb being blown and a replacement being very hard to find. I sort of believed her at the time but was always saddened that we couldn't watch those old movies that I had never even seen once.

But now--after inheriting them and having watched a few reels with the same projector with an easy-to-find replacement bulb--I understand the reason she didn't want to see them: she just couldn't bear to see her mother on-screen. It would have just been too much. 

Judy and Jean were too close. They shared everything. And their connection was deeper than anyone I have ever known. But that's probably because I knew them as I was getting to know myself. Those early memories are some of my most vivid recollections. My wife is constantly amazed that I can remember things I did at age 5 or seven or whatever. Just childhood stuff. It's all like apples on a tree in October to me. I can pick 'em off all day. 

But like I was saying, 1980 into 1981 was a big year. I don't remember much about John Lennon's death because my Babush's passing the month before had eclipsed any and all news for that year and for many months to come. 

But one thing I did was start taking guitar lessons. 

My grandfather had given me a full-sized guitar in the summer of 1980. I didn't really know much about how to play it except that I could play "Taps" (of all things) on mostly open strings and I only had to fret one note. I wrote about that back in 2008 right here. So cool, right?

But my first actual guitar teacher was a man named Mr Normandin. His first name was Bob but I would never have called him that. I have no idea if children today still call people older than them "Mister" or "Mrs" or "Miss" anything. But living in Japan I use honorifics all the time (my name is "Johnson-san" to most receptionists). 

But Mr Normandin was a wonderful man and he was a fantastic teacher. And if I let my mind go I can put myself right back in that tiny, dark, musty back-of-the-building "lesson room" with my much-too-big-for-me acoustic twanging away at a "Mel Bay Method For Guitar" book or any number of "1980s Top Hits for Piano, Vocal and Guitar" compilations. 

This was at a place called Ferreira's Music Store up the Flint section of Fall River. Once a week I would haul my chipboard case with my dreadnaught inside all the way to the other side of town. It's not that far in reality, but my chubby legs considered it "endurance training". But the store was a wonderland of all things music. From the wrought iron music note/scale/clef security gates in past the drums, cymbals, basses, amps, guitars, electric pianos (which I loved banging on and hearing their faint notes chime out un-amplified), cases full of microphones and guitar effects (some highly sought after now) and the racks and racks of sheet music and music books. Let's not forget about the recorders, flutes, saxes, trumpets, violins and everything else that makes a great music store great. Ferreira's had it all. And Mr Ferreira was one-of-a-kind as well with his thick Portuguese accent and former-major-player-dude combover. 

Where Mr Ferreira was boisterous and brash, Mr Normandin was patient and easygoing. He taught me my first few chords, scales and rhythm. He helped me work out most of the "John Denver Greatest Hits" book and he helped me with my posture, picking and fretting. Really, everything.

I don't remember too many specifics, but at age 10 one gets the shadows and feelings and one just has to trust in the process. 

But through this process he helped me focus and find the notes on the fretboard--the ones I heard in my head as well as the ones I saw on the page--and let them come out of the guitar single file or in pairs, threes and even sixes. And because of that he made my whole family happy. And all I really ever wanted to do in life was to make my mom happy, because after her mom died there was so much sadness in our house. 

She often told me over the years that I had forever been her "greatest gift and joy" in life. I only wish I had understood how tricky that kind of unconditional praise can be to navigate the pitfalls one faces growing up in this world. 

But getting back to Mr Normandin, I remember being so distraught when he had to move on from teaching at the store. I cried and I cried and my mom even cried, I think. I'm sure she did. 

But life goes on and I had some other teachers who would prove to be just what I needed as I got older and more advanced. I owe a debt of gratitude to Charlie Hodgate and Jon Varney, respectively. 

In the years after Mr Normandin moved on from teaching me he became the thing of family lore. 

I don't remember how it started but I think we saw him out at lunch at the same restaurant a few times--Greggs, I believe, or maybe The Beef Hearth--and that became a running thing. 

"Hey mom, is that Mr Normandin?"

"I think so, Alex! Good eye!"

And of course it was just a random 40-something guy with a goatee who would wonder why this middle age lady and her 13 year old son were giggling. 

A few years ago I found Mr Normandin on Facebook and wrote him. One of his daughters, Melody (I love that he named her that) wrote me and told me that he had had a stroke and couldn't write me himself, but she relayed my message to him about where my life has taken me through music. She said he was thrilled to hear it all and know that he had played a part in it. 

A couple of weeks ago I received the news that Mr Normandin had passed away at age 74. 

Within this past 40 year span (from age 10 to 50) I have done nothing much other than play and teach guitar. And Mr Normandin started that all for me

It's unfortunate that I did not try to keep in touch earlier, but that's just how life goes sometimes. People are important to you, they make a difference in your life, and you fly with that knowledge for a while and don't always remember who inspired the hard work. 

It's a reminder to reach out to those who made a difference while you can.

But just a couple of days after I received the sad news about Mr Normandin something extraordinary happened . . . 


I've always wanted a nylon string guitar. Not sure what stopped me. There are plenty out there at reasonable prices. But for whatever reason it has always eluded me. 

But I was on my way to the laundromat with my wet laundry last week (home dryers are uncommon here) and something stopped me dead in my tracks. 

I see a lot of strange things as I ride my bike around town. But nothing quite like this. 

Propped up against my next door neighbor's wall was a Yamaha, mahogany body, made-in-Japan, nylon string guitar! 

And upon closer inspection I saw that it had the appropriate tag for the garbage people to come by and pick it up and "recycle" it. 

Looks like I was just in time. 

Now, growing up on Bedford St I was a self-confessed barrel picker (I wrote all about that here). It was always my favorite day of the week. Some days I was late to school after scoring some treasures from the neighbors. But this goodie was my first here in Kyoto. And there appeared to be nothing wrong with it except the need for a new set of strings. So I promptly ordered a pack and learned how to put them on (it's a whole different world without ball ends to hold them in place). 

And I even decided on a name for my new find: Mr Normandin. Because it seems he has made another appearance in my life, just this time it was in the form of a guitar!

Just the other day I took "Mr Normandin" down to the river near where I live. People bring all kinds of instruments down here to practice and even do live streams. I've seen thumb pianos to tubas and everything in between. Small apartments mean close quarters and not much privacy. So music is made outside or in rehearsal studios.

People here in Japan seem to keep their distance from not just foreigners like me, but each other as well. Pandemic-aside, standoffishness is just a part of life here. One rarely hears a hello from a stranger. It took me a while to get used to that but a year and change in and it's become normal: keep your distance. 

But the other day I was strumming this guitar on a bench by the river and a new mother was walking by with her infant in a baby pouch hanging around her neck (I'm not sure what those things are called, lol) and she heard me playing.

Instead of walking past she stopped. 

I had been trying to write a pop-rock song, but seeing her and her baby there I switched to a sort of slower lullaby rhythm. 

We made brief eye contact and she started to sway and gently swing her baby to the simple chords I was playing. 

Her baby was quiet and smiling as she gazed down. 

The music came out of the guitar--"Mr Normandin", if you will--and for close to a minute we connected. 

She smiled at me and nodded, and I nodded back and we both smiled beneath our masks. She kept walking down the river and I went back to my pop-rock song.

It was a beautiful moment. 


Every Thanksgiving I try and assess what I have to be thankful for and what I can look to improve upon in the future. 

This year I think more than ever I am needing to remember the lessons that I have learned from my many teachers.

I have learned to be patient.

I have learned to be kind.

I have learned what is worth arguing over.

I have learned what is worth keeping and what is not needed anymore.

I have learned that life can be cruel and indifferent. 

I have learned that life can be kind and glorious.

And most of all I have learned and continue to learn to be thankful just to be.

But funny enough I am a teacher now. Whether it's with a guitar or an English lesson book or a friend who has reached out to learn how to live a sober life, I am showing how to practice and progress. 

I need to try to remember this as I get older and I see my face following suit. 

I need to try to remember this as I realize that some people I haven't checked in on in years may be struggling. 

I need to try to remember this when I see the people I trying to teach start to lose interest as I did a thousand times.

I need to try to remember this as I get ready for bed and wonder if I've done enough for that day.

I need to try to remember this when I wake up and wonder . . . what's next?

But trying to remember, I guess, is better than not trying at all. 

I dedicate this to all my great teachers in life who never stopped trying.

Thank you for giving.

Thank you for teaching.

Thank you for sharing.

I guess it's my turn now. 

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, May 7, 2020

Day Four Thousand One Hundred and Fifty . . . Going Up?

10:24 AM
May 8, 2020

I woke up this morning thinking about elevators.

Humans have a very peculiar relationship with elevators. We give up a lot of our power to a semi-automated box with numbers, buttons and lights on a regular basis. Depending on location and purpose they may even be designed with a window or two. Or it may be completely clear and on the outside of a building adding to its cool/elegance factor.

I'm sure there are people who chose not to use them. I shy away from them when I can just for exercise sake. But this internal agreement has its limits. I'd say five (maybe six) floors is all I'd really want to climb for health's sake. And of course this all is dependent on if and what I'm carrying. I'm lazy at heart. It doesn't take much to sway my resolve.

The four floor apartment complex I live in here in Kyoto is a new building. And as such it's got a cute little elevator that's big enough for maybe four people. It's got windows on its doors to see each floor as it goes by. There aren't that many tenants here and so I rarely see anyone waiting for it--I think it's happened once that I had to ride with somebody else. Sometimes I use it, but mainly I take the stairs. Regardless of whether or not I can see the floors going by I've still managed to get off on the wrong one on occasion.

But the elevators I woke up thinking about today are not the kind with windows.

No, I'm talking about your standard issue, big, boxy elevator that you walk into and the doors close and if it wasn't for the light above you it would be black as night.

We make so many casual, unspoken agreements on a day-to-day basis. So many things we do where we put our trust in something or someone else to work like it should--an ATM, revolving door, subway, traffic signal, etc. I'm not a statistician but I'd say it's safe to assume that those agreements more often than not end up all shaking out about even, or at least winning more than losing. I'd like to hope so. Either way I'm not going to look it up.

But your average, department store elevator comes designed with a feature that we all rely on in exchange for putting our trust in it. This goes beyond just safety and the assumption that it will stay powered, maintained and safe.

I'm talking about the numbers we all watch as it moves.

They may be digital or they may be (in the case of an old-timey version) an arrow that follows an arc with numerals on it as it goes up and down. Every elevator has to have them because we rely on these numbers to know where we are in relation to where we want to go.

If those numbers weren't there it would make using an elevator a challenge to say the least.

Can you imagine getting into an elevator in an unfamiliar skyscraper needing to go to the 50th floor, pushing the button marked "50" and not knowing absolutely for sure when you've arrived? Of course this is a ridiculous question. Nobody would ever design a system like this. It's counter-intuitive and just bad business sense. The whole point of an elevator is to get you where you need to go quicker than you could using your own limbs under your own power.

The numbers on the inside tell us what to expect so we can prepare and make our move. Sometimes I picture myself being announced to the audience of a late night program. The doors open, the band kicks in and God help anyone standing in my way. We got a show to do, people!

Can you tell I'm an only child? Can you?

I'm writing this while I sit on our bed, just after breakfast on May 8th.

At midnight I will be 50 years old.

Holy shit.

How did this happen?

I mean, the easiest explanation was that I was born on May 9, 1970 and I haven't died yet.

But seriously . . . this is how it feels.

This is what it's like to have a half of a century of life under one's belt.

This feeling of the closing of a book "Alex Johnson: 40-49 In Words And Pictures" is a very strange and surreal one.

It's exciting, nerve-racking and a little bit worrisome.

I know, I know, I shouldn't make a big deal out of it. It's just a number.

But god damnit it's my number. And to me it's a big one.

And when I say that, it's not that I feel like I'm old, per se. More so I feel like I'm incredibly lucky to have made it this far. Hell, I had some good friends who didn't make it this far. They had some of the same lifestyle issues as I did and came up in the same era and under a similar set of circumstances as me. But they didn't make it through this crazy maze of choices.

Who knows, maybe they made it as far as they ever were going to and I'm just a nut who thinks we should all have the opportunity to live out the full average lifespan of a human.

If that were to be my case I'd have a good 26 years left to do stupid shit.

But it's an average because . . . well, not everyone's lucky enough to make it that far. And my friends who died in their 40s play into the math. It's just the sad side of the percentage.

But sitting here staring at my empty yogurt and fruit bowl looking back on my last decade I have to sit and smile for the joy and new experiences it has brought me.

When I think about what it felt like to be in the last year or so of my thirties and to have just lost my ballast--my mom and aunt--to have gotten sober, bought my first home and . . . and to have met my future wife.

It's all almost too much for me to really take in.

But it actually happened. Ten years ago Jodi and I celebrated my 40th birthday and began our journey from the farthest edge of the east coast to the middle of Japan where we are writing our latest adventure tale.

But these elevators I woke up thinking about today. They have numbers so you can see where you are on your brief journey between floors. We rely on them for the short time we are in their care. I've never been purposely led astray by an elevator. I may have missed my floor because I was looking at my phone or just not paying attention (which is almost always because I'm looking at my phone). And we trust them to work and not snap off in mid-ride like in the movies. We expect them to work and at least in my case they always have.

But this whole life thing.

To me it feels like an elevator with no numbers.

I mean, I can feel it's pretty far up.

I can see in my reflection of the shiny door that my face tells the story of almost five decades.

I guess as long as I'm alive that this elevator I'm in is going up. But I have no choice but to believe it is from the way it feels deep down inside. I have to know that what I'm doing has been building on what's come before it--that it's been growing, expanding, learning and evolving.

I can feel in my heart and soul that I've lived several distinct lifetimes: precocious child, mama's boy, inquisitive adolescent, unabashed hellion, wanderer, rocky rocker rock star, insolent party boy, substance abuser, deathwish enthusiast, seeker of redemption, lovestruck fool, clear-headed creator and assumed expatriate.

And with most of these lifetimes comes a place in time, a way to put my life into some sort of order. Because as haphazard as my time on earth has seemed at times there's definitely been an arc to it all, not that an elevator travels in an arc. No, that would be a bridge. But I'm not going to digress again.

Tonight before I go to sleep I'm going to push the button on the inside of my elevator and when I wake up it's going to be the 50th floor. But I won't have any way to prove it means anything because I won't really be able to see the outside to tell how far up I am. I just have to trust that I am where my birth certificate says I am in life and believe in my capacity for trusting and loving whatever I find outside when I walk through the doors.

Not like I have a choice.

It's trust and love or nothing as far as I'm concerned.

Trust and love is all I have and all I have ever wanted.

Trust and love is all I get from the most important person in my world.

Trust and love guide me through my day.

Trust and love will let me sleep deeply and soundly into the night.

Trust and love will be what I hope to leave as memories of me when my time is done.

50th floor: trust and love.

Life is unpredictable. Nobody knows for sure what's around the corner.

I want to be alive for a long time from now. I've got things to eat, stuff to do, shows to watch and dumb jokes to hear and tell.

But, you know, nobody ever gets into an elevator thinking they won't be eventually coming out.

Maybe I'll take the stairs for a while.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, December 21, 2018

Day Three Thousand Six Hundred and Forty Two . . . Thoughts.

This life is just too much.

I mean that in a good way.

It seems that every day for as long as I can recall when I open my eyes I experience a mix of terror and overwhelming joy. This--I believe--has nothing to do with this "world we are living in these days" or the "air of uncertainty" that I hear my fellow humans lamenting over as we attempt to connect with each other.

No, this has been going on forever. It's just that as I get older I'm learning to appreciate these distinct emotions and their depth of flavor and character.

Thankfully--as it does each day--the morning fog quickly lifts from my brain as I begin to raise the blinds from one room to the next. The bedroom first and then the bathroom (with a quick splash of warm water on my face) and onto the hallway. And I realize that the morning that has greeted me is like a gift from a secret admirer. There's no name attached so I never really know who to thank for it. I just know inside that it was left for me to do with as I wish. I wish I could repay whoever or whatever is responsible but part of me just enjoys the game.

So I just keep walking forward towards the espresso maker and start turning on the kitchen lights and my day begins to unwrap itself.

And this is my life right now, which is very different from my life a year ago and way different from my life ten years ago. As I write this I'm actively trying to divest myself of much of the stuff I've accumulated over the past decade since my mom and aunt died and since Jodi and I met. While I have to admit that I did end up with a hearty amount of my mom's penchant for collecting (shoulder bags, especially) I do have an off switch. And it seems as if I have managed to gain at least a bit of the perspective that my mom either couldn't or refused to utilize.

I feel like these things that I bought or absorbed from previous generations has a way of mirroring the layers of stress in my head and heart. And each time I see something move out of the house in a box or in somebody's truck or car it makes me feel good. I realize that I don't need much more than the basics even if my idea of "basics" may be a bit more involved than the average person.

This coming year I hope to reduce what I have by 50% or more. It's not impossible and I'm up for the challenge.

But I often think back to ten years ago.

My aunt had passed away in September of 2008 having lived long enough to see me sober for nine full months. This is something my mom (who died in January of 2007) had never experienced. She had asked me to try to do this as she was going through treatments for terminal cancer. She wanted to see me sober for more than a week. I had told her I couldn't do it for her and I meant it at the time. I wasn't ready to make this change for myself and I didn't want to "fake it" for her and then have no safety net when she left me.

What a selfish prick.

But then who knows how life would have turned out. I could have relapsed when she died and ended up in an accident or worse.

But ten years ago this December I was shopping for furniture for my first home. A bed, bureau, couches, kitchen stuff, curtains, blinds, rugs, bath mats, all of it. A new home, a new life, a new me, a chance to repair, renew and rebuild.

There was no Jodi yet even thought that was percolating right beneath the surface (we had connected online and in person but a first real in-person meeting was still a few weeks away).

That Christmas was one of the strangest I have ever had. But great loss usually brings about experiences that one cannot explain or expect. So I just chalk it up to that. One learns a great deal about the people who are left when a loved one passes. And we are all extremely complicated and imperfect creatures.

My life since that year has been filled with so much excitement and joy I cannot even begin to express. I think I've done a pretty good job outlining the big points on this blog, even if the number of entries has dwindled from over 200 the first year down to 50 down to one every two or three months. But I don't really feel the need to overshare anymore. That time in my life has come and gone.


Today, December 21, 2018 is the winter solstice. The darkness will have it's final long laugh at us. Tomorrow--and each day on until this time next June--the light will begin to win a daily battle. Two minutes a day, that's what we get. It's not a lot, but it's these little tokens of light and life that accumulate in our pockets.

Before we know we will have a wealth of light that we don't know what to do with.

And then the coins start to fall though the holes in our pockets and we're back at even . . . if we're lucky.


There are people in my life right now who are experiencing great pain. With this gift of life sadness is inevitable. Every one of us feels it at some point. But I'm thinking of these people as I write this and I'm wishing I could do something to help. "Let me know if there is anything I can do" is such a strange group of words to write to somebody who is fighting an unfair battle.

But these are the things we say to try to connect.

These are the things we do because we have seen it done before.

We wake up in the morning on the same planet and we wonder where we are.

We turn to the left or right and reach for someone or something to share our dream with.

We feel the breath come into our lungs and exit like accidentally opening the door to a room full of people in a party we weren't part of.

We have moments of calm yet severe insight and understanding that we can only hope will stay within us somehow for longer than we know.

We strive to connect.

We fight to survive.

We wonder who will hold our hand someday--and just how many hands will hold ours and think "this will be the last one."

We think this is a gift to keep.

We know it is only on loan.

We close our eyes and drift away.

We wake up.

We begin again.

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays to you all,


Monday, September 24, 2018

Day Three Thousand Nine Hundred and Nineteen . . . Only the living.

What makes this life exciting?

Do you know? Does it really matter?

I don't know about you, but I often have to check myself and make sure I'm still living here in the present tense--seeing, feeling, thinking, doing . . . being here. 

So much of my brain has been portioned off over the last few years to process the news coming at it at light speed. I need to remind myself that "the news" in any format has to pay the bills. And if people aren't paying attention to it in one way shape or form then the lights will eventually get turned off. So while I appreciate keeping up-to-date on what's going on in the world I know that the news is a business and I am a consumer. 

Consuming anything in too large a quantity will eventually lead to bloating. And that's never a good look. 

So it's time for a rest . . . 

I love the autumn in New England and today was (and still is) a perfect specimen. 

Just last week I had to break out the wool-lined slippers that had enjoyed a comfortable couple of seasons in the back of the closet. They take the place of my blue, suede, made-for-the-Japanese-market Birkenstock sandals that take me from the bedroom door to the mud room and back again hundreds if not a thousand or more times from sometime in May until the middle of September. I used to walk through the bedroom across the white carpet (came with the house) but my very smart and very patient wife, Jodi, has gently convinced me that that is not in the white carpet's best interest. So they stay just outside the door like a well-behaved black lab ready for action at a moment's notice. 

The Birks can eventually commiserate with my boxer pajama bottoms that are in semi-retirement. My flannel PJs have sent the equipment truck to the ball park in wait for opening day. That'll be sometime in the first week of October. 

And my precious wool blazers are starting to feel a little less conspicuous. They fit in better with the shorter and colder days.

Tee shirts will always be in season, but my black (almost always black) crewneck sweaters usually get the lead story in my wardrobe this time of year. They ask so little while providing such a solid base of sartorial confidence.

But I love any season, really. Because I love this life. And I don't mean my life, necessarily. I don't mean what I do for a living or even what I do for enjoyment. 

I just mean life. 

I can only speak for myself, of course. After all it is the story that I can see from my two eyes bouncing around the ether and interweaving with other people's--hopefully for the better of both. The people and the places and the events that transpire--even if it's just holding the door for somebody or a smile exchanged while passing by in the supermarket. These are the things that only the living can do. 

On so many occasions in past years I would lament having to get up early and go to work, or have to meet somebody who I didn't really know--having to make small talk and hoping I didn't come off as shallow or uninterested or worse . . . uninteresting. But that almost always goes both ways. 

These are things we all do. These are all bullet points in the social contract we sign as we grow and mature into a person. It can take all our time worrying that we might have said the wrong thing or should have said something when we left an awkward pause. Conversely we can feel such joy in sharing a laugh over something that connects us. We can feel proud that we did well on a test after working so hard and pushing ourselves into a place we're uncomfortable with. 

Sometimes just walking into a building is a test in itself. We have so many interactions out and about on any given day that fall somewhere in between a pass and a fail. I can look back on ten of them in the last hour of running errands and give myself a grade: a solid B+.

But I don't normally do that. And I definitely am being generous with that B+ . . . but this is my life and I hold the black pen as well as the red one. I correct my own tests.

There is love and life and happiness everywhere I look. I see it in the faces of the people who live in my town. I saw it last night when we gathered on the lawn of the local library to sing some songs together. Some songs we all knew and some were learned on the spot. But the breath of two hundred or more people under the light of the harvest moon made magic out of an otherwise uneventful September Sunday. 

Only the living can do that. 

I have begun to learn another language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet. Finally I have a chance to learn how to write with a pen so that it is actually readable, even if only by a few hundred million people. This language uses straight and curved lines, yes, but they make shapes that most Americans only associate with ethnic foods and action movies. I'm learning how to combine them to make whole and cogent thoughts. Soon they will become longer sentences with verbs and adjectives and some day they will become actual paragraphs just like this one you are reading in English. Each time I attach a new meaning to these letters and words it helps me realize that all I know isn't all there is. 

Only the living can do that. 

I still procrastinate and put things off that I should do today. I'll never fully outgrow that. But the lifestyle I have allows me to at least pull away from time to time and assess where I am now in relation to where I want to be. I have a long ways to go in a few aspects and there are life tasks that I have to get done with however many years I have left on this earth. 

I get distracted.

I get excited.

I feel overwhelmed.

I let emotions get the better of me.

I overstep.

I make corrections. 

I feel regret.

I feel whole.

I feel less than.

I fear the dark.

I find a dollar on the ground.

I smile and nod and feel a wave of acceptance.

I think I'm twenty one again. 

I see a new wrinkle.

I see it go away when I smile. 

I turn out the light.

I wake up with love in my heart. 

Only the living can do that. 

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Day Three Thousand Eight Hundred and Forty Eight . . . Odd jobs.

There's a corner of my house I look at every time I go out to the back yard.

It's right next to the outdoor faucet which has a long garden hose connected to it so it gets a lot of use. I mean, nothing gets "done" in that corner right outside the perimeter of the deck, but it gets looked at every time we water the plants which is pretty often these days.

"Man, those leaves have been there since the fall", I'll often say to myself. "I need to clean that up." And then I move on and do three or four other things and it gets left and forgotten about until the next time I fill up the watering can or roll the hose back up.

In fact, now that I think about it I did clean that corner up this spring. But I guess not well enough, because up until just this past weekend there was a fine matted and thick layer of maple tree leaves c. November of 2017.

The job never fully got done.

But this weekend was a beautiful one indeed. The five day heatwave finally broke and we had temps in the high 70s and low 80s. Some nights it got downright chilly. And so I found myself outside a good deal of the time.

One of these days I did a bunch of weeding and Jodi did a bunch of watering and planting. As I was headed over to turn on the hose faucet for her I saw--as I had twenty times at least since the springtime kicked in--this very high profile corner with the matted carpet of leaves . . . and I began to put handfuls of them into one of the the many trusty Wegman's bags Jodi's mom had given us. It took all of four minutes for me to clear out this corner. And when I say clear out I mean I actually did a "good" job as opposed to my lifetime history of providing the barest of bare minimums in most situations that involve any kind of manual labor.

Upon putting the last brown brittle leaf in the bag I walked over to the side of the yard and emptied the contents onto one of the many piles of garden refuse amassed there, and then I returned to see the grand renovation I had spearheaded.

It was glorious.

This 5' x 5' area that I had overlooked for so many weeks if not months seemed like it was actually smiling at me. The landscape rocks that had spent the entire springtime in darkness were finally seeing the brilliant sunshine of July. The deck's damp lower corner's lattice work was finally breathing the same cool dry air I was. And the lines of the red bricks connecting with the foundation seemed to be showing off their pristine and prominent right angles.

Everything made sense again. 

And all because I took four minutes to throw a few handfuls of leaves in a bag.

It's really incredible to me to look at something like this and think how such a small amount of effort can pay off in such rich visual and emotional dividends. And I know that not everyone gets a thrill from cleaning and organizing as I do. My mom, God bless her soul, was a "pack rat" as they used to call them. And there weren't too many corners of her house which didn't have something taking up space. Whether it was a life-sized ceramic baby lamb wearing a straw hat, or a Sterlite tub of gifts--still with their tags attached--purchased at a going-out-of-business sale earmarked for somebody who she hadn't yet met, the space she called her own was seemingly always filled to the max. I don't know if she could have lived in a house devoid of some sort of clutter without feeling the need for change. All I know is that an simple minimal life is one I hope to someday achieve. And each day I work towards that goal bit by bit, selling things on eBay, giving to the Good Will or making hard decision of what to throw away.

I have lots of areas in my life that are covered with a thin but stubborn layer of old leaves. Places where I meant to keep up with something or stay in touch with someone, but somehow every time I think about it my attention is either thrown overboard or gets dragged away by someone or something beyond my control. I know that this is a combination of intentional avoidance and legitimate overstimulation. But neither is an excuse for at least not addressing it.

I have learned over these ten years and counting that this life I'm trying to live--a sober life--isn't something that is achieved with the decision to stop putting specific things into my body.

Of course that is the big one.

It's the all-encompassing goal.

It's the house.

But it's the little things that pop up on a daily basis that help this dream become a reality.

It's the little piles of mental leaves that nag and taunt from an often used corner of my mind. An issue in my world that I keep meaning to address but never seem to "find" the time.

It's the weeds that pop up in the driveway--the ones that found life from the cracks that a long winter's thaw made--these are the places that need attending.

The loose boards in the deck that I walk over day after day after day and I keep saying "I need to really put a nail in that thing" and then I remember I never checked on the mail.

If I put a nail in the board it will fix it for a long time. But takes finding a hammer and, of course, a nail and putting the effort into it. It's not easy but it's not hard. It's just something I would rather put off. Most days I'm not expecting anything special in the mail, but it's easier to walk down the driveway and check it mindlessly, and then look at my phone and feel it is my duty to comment on something that someone said on some stupid social media site.

The next day I'll walk out on the deck and the board will still be broken and I'll have nobody to blame but myself.

The weird thing is, when you fix something, or clean something, or deal with something, for the most part that's it. It's done. It's done and you don't notice it again. I can fix the board in the deck today (and maybe I will) and the next time I walk on it I might notice it's not broken anymore. But that detail fades away pretty quickly and the stimulation is absorbed into the ether. Maybe part of me liked the constant reminder. Maybe part of me enjoyed knowing that that area to the right of the faucet needed to be cleaned. I don't really know, because I don't really notice that corner anymore.

I have some corners in my life that need attending to. They're mainly areas that I've put off for years because things have been going well. I don't feel like they've been growing from neglect like a patch of weeds. They're more like a thick rug of brown leaves that have amazingly kept in some moisture from a couple of seasons ago. There may be a mushroom or two underneath, who knows?

I've grown accustomed to the way that part of my world looks and feels, but I know inside that there is work to be done.

I realize that if I peel away these layers--and this job will take longer than the four minute bagging that I did to the right of the faucet in my tangible world--but if I peel away these layers, or put a nail in the stubborn loose board that I keep walking over, that this will keep my own house healthy and this will keep my relationships with others strong.

The payoff for all of this is different than just stepping back and being able to look at a corner of the yard you've just weeded and saying, "Wow, that looks so much better!"

In fact, there is no guarantee that there will actually be any noticeable difference.

There's no promise that the path one takes to mend a broken fencepost will lead to lasting change.

This life--I'm learning--doesn't get any easier the more days that go by.

Because a fence is more than one post, a house is more than one brick, a garden is more than one weed and a tree's leaves will always fall.

The job never fully gets done.

But there's a moment to strive for when one can hopefully lay back in bed and see a lifetime of little accomplishments and smile.

And sleep.

And wake.

And see the beauty in the job itself.

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Day Three Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty Six . . . Birds Of Prey

Something happened yesterday that affected me more deeply than I thought.

A couple of years ago my wife and I installed a birdhouse in our back yard. We got it specifically for the bluebirds who spend time here seemingly all throughout the year. They are so sublime in their coloring and they seem to just enjoy sitting, eating, and sleeping. They aren't too big and they aren't tiny. They are round and fluffy and they almost seem to smile from time to time. When I see them I can't help singing "Mr Bluebird's on my shoulder . . . "

In short, they make us happy.

We were told that the best place for the birdhouse is on a tall pole in the middle of the most wide open area in the yard. It seems that the bluebirds enjoy not only the inside of the house but also sitting on top and being able to survey what's going on around them. So we bought a pole that screws into the ground--it's about 6' tall--and it has a podium to screw the birdhouse onto.

We have a couple of pairs of binoculars which we use to watch all manner of wildlife that enjoy what we call our backyard to go about their lives. We call it ours but it's really just an area that abuts a sizable parcel of conservation land. So really it's for any non-human who cares to walk, hop, crawl of fly into its boundaries. My mom and aunt would love it.

So these bluebirds--there seem to be three or four of them--enjoy this birdhouse very much. Every time either Jodi or I see one we get so happy. My eyesight isn't as great as it used to be but I can still spot the bright blue tufts on the birds head and back. I say out loud "blue-bird" to her and we both get the binoculars and check them out for a minute or so.

I had to clean the birdhouse out last year. It was incredible how thick, neat and well made their nest was. I rather hated to remove it. But we were instructed that this is something that needs to be done every year so that the following spring the bluebirds can start afresh and build a new nest, lay their eggs and raise their family.

We have a good friend who is well versed in birds, plants and gardening. She is somewhat of an oracle. She had warned us recently that if we saw sparrows going in and out of the birdhouse then that is a sign of trouble, as sparrows typically end up invading the birdhouse, killing the inhabitants and taking over. They eventually mark their territory by adding onto the well-made and meticulous bluebird-made nest with their own haphazard and indiscriminate scraps. They pile it on top and use what was there as a foundation.

Yesterday she was over and we decided to have a look.

We turned the lock on the back door of the bird house and lifted it open. To our shock we were greeted with a bright blue feather sticking out from the middle of the cross section of nest. But this feather was connected. It was connected to the rest of a once-beautiful bluebird. The poor thing had been killed sitting on its own nest, and it seemed that the sparrow that did it had begun piling onto it a mess of twigs and grass.

Our friend immediately pulled the nest out and angrily threw it on the ground.

"This is just horrible!", she said. "Those sparrows are so brutal."

I proceeded to dust out what I could from the bottom of the house and we decided to put it back up in case the bluebirds who were left needed a home. I had said if I saw any sparrows in it I'd take it down and we'd put it away for a while.

Today I saw exactly that and went to check the house. Sure enough there was a mess of straw and grass and twigs inside it--the start of a sparrow house--so I shook it out and brought it inside.

We will have to see if the bluebirds return and, if so, whether it is safe to put the house back up. I don't really want to feel responsible for any more preventable bird deaths. Once again, I have too much of my mom and aunt inside me to let this happen.

But this all was very much unsettling.

We are living in increasingly unstable times, and many mornings I wake up in a bit of a panic. This feeling subsides as I my consciousness settles in and my day gets rolling. But some days it's enough to make me just want to just stay in bed until it gets dark again.

I know I'm not alone in this.

I feel like the world is so fractious and unpredictable that sometimes when I make it through to the end of the day and I'm brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed I get so excited that I get to sleep and turn off for seven hours.

It used to be that I hated to go to sleep because there was so much to do--so much to live for in the waking world.

I'd call this a byproduct of getting older (today is my 48th birthday) but I think it's a combination of many things.

I think the reason seeing the bluebird's lifeless body trapped between two disparate nests affected me so deeply is that it is a significant analogy to the way my life used to be. And I see how every day I am faced with uncertain dangers from most directions.

I try and keep my life orderly and organized. And while I'm far from perfect I'm happy to say that the streams of responsibility--bills, meetings, rehearsals, gigs, life events, etc--they all seem to flow pretty smoothly into the ocean that is existence in my world today.

I like to keep an eye on what's going on around me--not in a paranoid sense, but more so just to try and stay aware in case I need to make a sudden decision.

But I like to also be able to crawl inside my box and peer out from within, while sitting atop the nest that I created--my everyday version of sticks, grass, stone and mud. But, of course, this perspective only allows for so much in ones view. They say "don't look back" but reflection is important, and awareness is even more essential.

And I admittedly show off a little bit--fluffing my plumage here and there (I am a performer after all)--but I try to keep things in check and realize that life isn't all about attention. This is extremely difficult for me to remember being the only child of an overly doting mother.

I enjoy making the bed every morning and smoothing out the wrinkles in the sheets and preparing for the coming sleep in a matter of thirteen hours of conscious living. It's my way of sweeping out the nest for the next cycle of slumber.

But the sparrows are everywhere. Some are very much real and some are self-made. They exist in every city in every state in every country all around the world. And they are not content to live life on life's terms. They exist to take what they want and smother anyone who gets in their way. They see a doorway to a sanctuary and decide that this is what they want and they come in and take it without warning.

I don't struggle with temptation often, but it happens from time to time. And when it does I feel like a sparrow is staring at me square in the face waiting for just the right moment to pounce. I see people all around me who are dealing with their demons (or, rather, not dealing with) and I wish I could help. I have reached out to many but it is often not easy to accept help until help is the only option.

And all that said, I will try to live like the bluebird today.

I will enjoy my surroundings and the neat little nest I have built--a personal ecosystem created with rational, healthy, and conscious decisions.

I will attempt to live in the moment and not look too far ahead or too far behind.

I will fluff my feathers just the tiniest little bit at how far I've come, while at the same time remaining humble and grateful for what I have.

And I will accept love from those who care to show it to me.

I was raised by a family of bluebirds. They are gone now but the joy they brought to this world remains unchanged and unparalleled.

I may be the last of my kind but my time here is hopefully far from done. And I have many smiles to bring out.

Like the bluebird, I will try to make others happy, even if it is from far, far away.

The animal kingdom extends farther than the eye can see.

We are all capable of great and beautiful things before we fly away.

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Day Three Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Three . . . The Plan.

I had a plan.

Oh man, oh man, did I have a plan.

I was going to get my shit together and clean up my act. After twenty years of debauchery which began in high school--a lifestyle which kept evolving and growing slowly but surely from teenage experimentation to full-on, ugly, self-destructive and morally compromising co-dependence--I was going to kick it all.

I was going to enter an outpatient program in Florence, Mass (just a couple miles from where I was living in Northampton, and coincidentally where I live now) and get on some craving-reducing medication, clear out the old liquor cabinet (read: freezer) and start living life better and cleaner.

That was my plan.

Hell, I had only been in the habit of ruining gig after gig with my band at the time. To the point where I had to be physically taken off stage at one show in Boston and made to watch the quintet which was now four people work their way through songs I co-wrote and played an important role in. I don't remember riding home in my friend Paul's car, leaving my car parked outside the club near Fenway Park overnight. I barely remember waking up the next day and--finding my car gone--figuring out what had happened and sheepishly taking a cab to the New Bedford bus terminal where I somehow got to Boston and on a Green Line and found my way to the club--in the middle of December--and got my keys back from the bartender (a good friend, Matty C) who I promptly asked to spot me a drink as I had spent my last dime on the subway (he told me he was broke, thank goodness, and couldn't help with the booze). I had shown up to the show in a tattered and oversized Minnie Mouse tee shirt and sweatpants and Steve, my bandmate, made me ask to borrow a staff shirt from the club. Then, after realizing I didn't have a guitar to play, making friends with the opening band and getting them to agree to lend this guy, who could barely stand, a guitar for a 90 minute set which turned out to be--for me--only about ten minutes long. Thank God I don't remember much of that because that kind of stuff is just so hard for me to believe I lived through. But I know it happened and I remember how I felt--cold, alone, but connected to the one thing that made everything else seem okay: alcohol.

I had only spent a week continuously fucked up at my aunt's house while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. This was a time I was supposed to be taking care of her cats (one with a very serious medical condition requiring eye drops) and watching the house while at the same time pilfering the pill collection I had amassed from the remnants of a family friend who had recently passed away. There was no need on her part to feel like she had to get rid of the Klonopin. I mean, she knew that her nephew liked to drink too much and smoke some weed, but he didn't know anything about pills, right?

And on Christmas Eve I had only waited for 45 minutes at the wrong hospital entrance to pick her up--the reason being because I had a head full of those little green devils. When I finally rolled slowly up to the right ramp and found her sobbing hysterically and she saw my face with my sunken eyes and blotchy-red skin, that was a horrible moment to have to remember. I can almost still hear her scream, "Oh Alex, what is wrong with you? You look like a monster!"

And when we sat face to face later that day, and I admitted I was taking pills on top of the alcohol I remember her getting madder and madder and seeing her head shaking violently, finally ripping open the top of her pants to reveal her wound from her surgery and screaming, "I have half my guts taken out and spend a week in the hospital trying to save my life and you cope by popping pills to get through it all?"

I don't remember anything about Christmas Day that year. Not one goddammed thing.

All I remember thinking--in general--was how much easier all of this would be to deal with if I had some vodka.

But I told her I had a plan.

I was going to start right after Christmas. Shortly after Christmas I was going to get it all going and try this thing for real.

I had even called that outpatient clinic in Florence and made an appointment to begin the course. I wanted to learn more about how to live life on life's terms.

But before all of that happened I was going to go out for one last night.

I was going to spin the wheel and see where it landed and make this one last night make up for however many nights I was going to stay sober for in the future.

So on the evening of December 26 I picked up a .750 of Smirnoff--my all-time favorite--and drank half of it (in a rocks glass with ice, nothing else) in about an hour.

I called up my buddy, Paul, and had a short conversation with him. We had been friends at that point for twenty years and he had been sober for a while. I shared with him some of the worst of my problems. We were in it together and he understood.

I told him that I was going to get my shit together the following week but--as I swept up a handful of pills from my table into my hand and brought them to my mouth--I was going to go "out with a bang" or something to that effect. I think I even made an audible "glug glug" noise on the phone with the cold-as-ice vodka as I let the pills slide down.

I don't remember what he said to me. I wish I did. I'm sure he tried to warn me against driving--or walking for that matter. I'm sure he told me he loved me and that he was worried about me.

But whatever he said to me didn't matter because I had a plan.

I needed to go to _____'s to get a little bit of _____ to keep the night going. Mind you, my idea of a night out on the town was basically spent in my bedroom with the windows covered with a heavy blanket so that when the sun came up I might be able to get an hour of sleep before calling in sick to work. I don't really want to get into too much of that part of the story. I never got into that stuff so heavy because I didn't know enough of the people who could get me it to get to the point where it was a serious issue, if you know what I mean.

But this night I had called a friend and asked if The Guy was there and he said yes.

So I got in my car and peeled out of my driveway. I only know that I peeled out of my driveway because my former neighbor told me so afterwards. I owned a Subaru Forester at the time. These cars are not known for being the best at peeling out.

But I had a plan.

It was in motion.

And so was I.

I took the back way through the industrial park area so as to evade whatever police might be lurking. I knew how to get around under the influence. I must have done it more times than not.

But this time was different.

And as the pills kicked in I found myself not at the edge of the parking lot of the place where I needed to go. I found myself in front of a main Northampton thoroughfare. Because, of course, I had to stop at the ATM down the road to get money for my guy.

I was only about 800 feet from where I needed to be.

If I just took a left and then pulled into that parking lot . . .

The police report that Officer Satkowski and Officer Liptak filled out said they observed me exiting the parking lot at a high rate of speed.

They said they saw me cross the white fog lines on the right and that's when they put on the blue lights for me to pull over.

And that's when my plan merged with their plan.

Among my possessions I have a photo of me taken shortly after December 26th turned into December 27th, 2007. Almost a year since my mom had died at 65 and just about nine months before my aunt would join her--the youngest of three--at age 60. It was taken by the cops and it's not a pretty sight. 

When I blew the breathalyzer my blood alcohol content was .25%--three times the legal limit but pretty standard for me. I think that was more or less my goal on any given night of drinking, sad but true. 

I probably would have never made it to 40. Hell, who knows if I would have made it to 38 (I'm 37 in the photo above). My guess is that I would have tried to clean up--again--and done well for a while. Maybe I would have gone back here and there and used and maybe I would have bounced back. Maybe it would have stuck this time, who knows?  

Anyone who has kept up with my story over these past ten years will know that shortly after my aunt passed away in September of 2008 I had a bout with Oxys which had been delivered to her (or me, really). So I can't claim ten full years of sobriety. That comes in the fall and I don't really celebrate the date. Alcohol was my demon and that demon stopped terrorizing me on December 27, 2007.

Since then I have rebuilt my life. 

I found the joy of all joys in Jodi, my amazing wife and best friend. 

Together we cleared out and sold my family's home on the Cape.

I began my new musical venture, Colorway, and have put out two albums with a third in the works. I don't wear my heart on my sleeve in my writing, but I do touch on issues of recovery and the joys of a life spent free from my vices. 

I have begun sharing what I know about the guitar with students of all ages. I've even seen some go from knowing absolutely zero about how to play, to becoming the proficient lead guitarist in a popular teen band in the area. My mother and aunt--lifelong teachers--would be so proud. 

I have been a big part of the Young@Heart Chorus pit band. I luckily get to travel the country and the globe on a regular basis making people of all ages happy. 

I have, for almost two years, hosted a weekly open mic night at a local brewery (ironically enough) showcasing the amazing talent that exists here in the valley. 

And I have helped many people who thought they were too far gone to change their ways and seek help for addiction. Some of them have written me and thanked me. Others I know are struggling and may be reading this at this very moment. I am always here and easy to find and will lend a hand to anyone who may need help. 

And, of course, there are far too many friends of mine who weren't so lucky. I haven't updated this blog since this past June. That's because one of my former bandmates--a guy who had to play on that stage while I was forced to watch from the audience ten years ago at that Boston club--died from complications of pneumonia that stemmed from a lifestyle that his body just couldn't sustain. 

His name was and is J. Scott Brandon and he was a beautiful, kind, compassionate, funny and insightful man. When I last saw him he was in a bad way and I wish I had made more of an effort to try and help him. But people who were closer to him than I say they tried and tried and nothing was working.

We had discussed getting clean and what it would take to change his lifestyle but it never ended up more than talk. 

My last post was inspired by that last run in with him. Shortly after I posted it his sister wrote me to say he was in the hospital. 

He never made it back home. I will miss that man forever. 

We all have our directives in life. Some people figure these things out early on. I was always jealous of the people who knew what they wanted to do in life and then just went for it. They knew what schools to go to (or try to get into anyway) and how to climb whatever ladder their profession entailed. Some made it and some didn't. But at least they had a plan. 

I just knew I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to make music and be funny and be around funny people. I never really thought too hard about how I was going to sustain that directive. But alcohol kind of provided a goal for a while--make enough for rent and beer and the rest will fall into place. 

My plan came later in life, as happens sometimes. 

And it's still not clear cut. I'm getting older and feeling the effects of middle age settling in. 

But my plan is sturdy.

My plan is strong.

My plan will hopefully carry me the rest of the way through life.

Be good.

Be kind.

Stay clean.

Remember that no emotion or moment--no matter how awkward or uncomfortable (or amazing, for that matter)--lasts forever. 

Stay strong.

Love fully and with all my heart.

Do not fear death.

Remember and cherish those who shaped you, whether that was when you were younger than you can remember or even just something small that happened yesterday. We are all products of our environment and we are evolving every second of every day. 

And finally, try to the best of your ability to help those you can, and remember that we are all here on this crazy planet trying to get by in our own way . . . 

We all have a plan . . .  even if it takes someone else to reveal it. 

Here's to the plan and the next ten years.

Thanks for reading,


Friday, June 2, 2017

Day Three Thousand Four Hundred and Forty Five . . . Disk Almost Full.

My computer is pretty slow.

It's at the point now where it's kind of an embarrassment and I can't let anyone else use it. And if Jodi and I are on it together--researching wedding stuff or making getaway plans or just general web surfing--I inadvertently end up getting self-conscious because I know her computer is so much faster than mine. And I know that there are only so many fifteen second waits for a page to load before she wonders aloud, "what do you have on that thing?"

Well, everything. Almost.

I've invested hundreds of dollars over the years on backups to help divert the flow of HD videos of gigs I played, posters I made, pictures I've taken, recipes I've stored and zip files that I've unzipped and never zipped back up. But in short order the accumulation seems to just creep back up little by little until I get that pop-up that tells me . . . "disk almost full."

And when that happens, of course, I always head to my go to: I empty the trash.

But lots of times there's nothing in there . . .  because I hate throwing things away.

So I'll go to my disk utility and run a program that will take 30 minutes to execute and render my laptop useless while it searches to find all the little fragments of stuff that I don't need and won't ever know about.

That'll free up a few gigabytes which will last about a week, maybe less.

But this is the computer in my lap we are talking about. It's something I bought and rely on but it's something that I don't need to keep me alive, and it's something I didn't have as a kid. I was born and raised in the 1970s and for a long while we barely had flashing lights on any of our toys let alone a touch screen.

But I never really thought about the computer we are all born with until yesterday.

I was at Young at Heart Chorus rehearsal and we were going through a set of about fifteen songs. The folks in the group are 74 and older and many are way older than that. And these men and women are tasked with remembering the lyrics to a seemingly endless list of songs from the 1960s through today. And most of them do it without having to resort to looking at the lyrics sheet. It's truly amazing because these are songs that more often than not were popular to a different generation--the Boomers or the Gen Xers, not the Greatest Generation.

I have a hard enough time remembering the words to my own songs, and some of these guys are twice as old as me and they have no problem remembering the (sometimes esoteric) lyrics to Radiohead, MGMT or The The.

And that got me wondering about the little computers we all have inside our heads. I simply couldn't get over the idea of how much storage our hard drives must have.

Now, of course, everyone is different. There are plenty of people (some we may even know) who have a hard time remembering something we just told them. Or others who's attention span is so narrow that new ideas have to take a number and may never be absorbed to the point where they can be utilized.

But every single thing we do and every little piece of information we see and hear gets stored away in that grey matter. It's all in there whether we remember it or not because that's what it's job is--well, one of it's many jobs, anyway.

There was a very long period in my life where I drank myself into a near coma each and every night. I would pick up a clear plastic pint of Smirnoff and maybe a six pack of beer at the local package store. I'd drink it all while I watched TV. In time it progressed to just a bottle of Smirnoff--the .750L in the glass bottle because I wanted to lose some weight and the beer had to go. I'd drink most of that bottle in one evening. When I opened the freezer in the morning I would always have that last 2oz or so left in there. I will never really know if I left it in there because I was passed out, or if I wanted to save it in case I really needed it in the morning, or if I just couldn't handle the idea of it being over--the bottle being empty and therefore of no use anymore. Like I said, I hate throwing things away.

I really owe my brain a debt of gratitude. It took so much unbelievable abuse from me--at my own hands--and kept going and going and just chugging along logging the days, hours, minutes and seconds in my life. Compiling all the things I did, all the things I had to do, all the things I hoped I'd do, all the people I cared about, all the people I envied, and on top of it all, all the words I wrote to the songs I composed as well as those of my bandmates. And when it was time to put that all in play at a show it would more often than not come through for me.

Now, of course, my brain is not immune from prosecution. And it fear it must also bear much of the burden of getting me so fucked up to begin with. Because let's face it, that's where this all comes from, right? Our heart is supposed to have this magical power to make us feel certain ways about people and movements and drive us to great lengths to make our dreams come true. But we all know there would be none of this, that or the other without the brain. And if I have a family history of something, sure it's encoded in my genes, but my brain is the headmaster, so to speak. I may have been born with a proclivity towards overeating but my brain is what allows me to see the numbers on the scale, my image in the mirror and the amount of food on my plate.

If there was a way to stop the madness in the world I would have to guess its genesis could be traced back to the rubbery lobes inside our skull. And isn't that quite a paradox?

So let's see, where are we now? My brain is amazing because it ceaselessly works to keep me alive, moving forward, remembering myriad data and processing everything new that my eyes, ears, nose and mouth take in.

And it is also to blame for me nearly killing myself possibly hundreds of times during an almost 20 year span of drug and alcohol abuse.

Well, I don't know, looking at it from where I am now I'd have to say that I'm okay with all of that.

But there are too many people in my world that haven't been or weren't so lucky.

I just saw a birthday notification the other day on Facebook for a friend who drank himself to death last year. He had reached out to me to talk about getting sober. We hung out a bit and he had a good attitude but we lost touch and I didn't keep on him and now he's gone. Friends of his told me there was "nothing anyone could have done" to change his path. I guess I have to live with that but I wish I had tried harder.

There are at least five people I know who over the past ten years I've been sober have not been able to get the help they needed and who died because of their addictions.

There are many that are still with us that I know could use some help.

I see friends of mine who didn't get the wakeup call like I did and are still going about their daily routine like they're 25. I tend to want to keep to myself. I don't go to AA because I feel that talking about my past problems only can do so much good. I like to live by example--an example to me, really--keep moving forward and seeing how just doing the next right thing (a trusty AA adage) is really all that one needs to do. But a new goal of mine is to reach out to the people I know who could use some help in the hopes that there may be a way to introduce the idea of a different way to be. I know this can be exceedingly difficult because as we get older our identities become so entangled with what we know and what we've done that to give that up is more than just giving up a way to relax, as it were. It's more like getting a limb removed. We wonder how we could survive with only one leg or one arm--how would we do the basic things in life that we need to do to survive. But I see examples every day of people from all walks of life overcoming adversity--sometimes mental, physical or both--picking up the broken pieces, finding a way to connect them back together and learning to live again.

But just because others do it and just because I did it doesn't mean anyone else can or will.

Our brain is our brain and our brain is the final word on the subject. And me seeing something one way and feeling like it's the way life makes the most sense doesn't mean anyone else will get it. It's all just data coming in and one would hope that there is enough space on the disk inside our head that the information is accessible.

I'm constantly having visions from the earliest parts of my childhood and beyond. It seems to be happening more and more these days, but I know it's been a constant since my last drink on December 27, 2007. The memories are all there--the swing set at Columbus Park, the snake show at Southeastern Mass University when I was five, that first fateful attempt at a kiss at 13, my first guitar, my first gig, my mother's hugs, her big pink hands that used to smooth my hair back and hold my head straight when I was trying to wriggle away because I was too cool for school, her kiss on my forehead, my first apartment away from home, my first hangover, my worst hangover, my cross-country tours, my European tours, my mother's joy at how far her boy had come, the late night talks on the phone with my her and holding the receiver away from the rocks glass so she couldn't hear the ice clink, her audible tears, her visible tears, the hospital visits, the hopeful doctors, the resigned doctors, the last Christmas, the last New Year's, the long, labored last kiss on my bearded, bloated cheek, the unbeknownst last visit to the nursing home, the news at the nurses station, the shrieking, my aunt's furiously grasping hand, the sun over the ocean, the keys in the door, the empty house, the cats knowing all, the year of accelerated self-destruction and the day it all stopped.

It stopped because I was arrested. I've told you all about that. That was almost 3,500 days ago.

But this story could have had a much different ending. In fact, it could have ended nine years ago after my aunt left this world to be with her sister.

But it didn't.

And I guess I have to thank whatever part of the computer in my head it was that decided that no matter how much data was crammed in there and no matter how much of it was seemingly trash that needed to be purged, that it was going to keep things in order and keep this whole system moving forward.

I never thought I had the will to stay sober. I never thought I'd ever really do it for very long even if I tried (and I tried many times). But I somehow managed to convince whatever part of my brain that the things in front of me and the possibilities down the line are greater than that which I'd grown accustomed to. It wasn't easy and it didn't happen overnight. But it happened and I am living, breathing proof that it is possible.

So today I dedicate this post to anyone who is struggling with their addictions. There is help available to you and it's as easy as visiting a website like AA or NA and seeing how you can find a way out. I'm happy to talk with anyone who would like to write me. You can write to and I'll be sure to get back to you.

And if my words here on this page or anywhere in this blog have made even a little bit of difference in anyone's life I urge you to keep on going.

The disk up there in your head will never fill to the point where new ideas are not allowed. You may need to empty the trash or fix some of the fragments that aren't connected to see it through.

I had my pop-up almost ten years ago. It was a warning that I heeded and is why I sit here today.

Let the world open itself to you and bring joy and magic inside.

Believe me, there's room.