Thursday, January 11, 2024

Day Five Thousand Four Hundred and Ninety Three . . . Food For Thought.

Part One: Judy's World

I never understood radishes. 

My mom loved them. And she'd munch the little red devils by the bowlful. 

I can picture her slowly cutting the tops in a fancy manner with her trusty paring knife and soaking them in water. This magically made them look like little roses when they came out. Then tossing them in a white and green Corelle bowl with a paper towel underneath and then onto one of the many bright orange trays she "borrowed" from work. And finally, with a satisfied smile bringing them out into the TV room. 

Those suckers were loud, too. I could be sitting in one of our big, green armchairs with the changeable upholstery on them across the room and still be able to hear the "crunch,” which also drew the attention of our dogs who were never quite satisfied until trying a cautious nibble. I'd look over and there she would be chewing away in her little heaven. She was always so happy when she was eating. When I think of my mom often the image I see in my head is of her chomping on something delicious with raised eyebrows--a quick glance my way as if to say "isn't this something?" If the eyes are the window to one’s soul, I think one’s mouth is the window to one’s heart.

Though there were just as many things she didn't like to eat. 

Spaghetti, for instance. Yep, she claimed spaghetti (and noodles in general) reminded her of worms. For an earth science teacher, you'd think this would be a plus. But I guess I can understand it to a point. It wasn't the fact that it was pasta, mind you. Ziti, rigatoni, rotelli, those were all fair game. But spaghetti was out, no two ways about it. Rice, too, for that matter. Whenever we went for Chinese food (The China Royal, for those in the know) she would ask for "lettuce and tomato on the side" instead of rice. Some phrases are emblazoned in my brain. "Lettuce and tomato on the side" must have been said in my presence at least 100 times (we ate a lot of Chinese food). And for that matter, she didn't really like Chinese food, either. Her go-to at the China Diner as it was affectionately called, was a Spanish cod dish with a tomato sauce topping. I remember always feeling like it was so out of place amongst the crab rangoon, chicken fingers, chow mein, lo mein, and pork fried rice that would take up the bulk of our table's real estate. But that was how my mom rolled. There weren't too many gray areas where food was concerned. She either liked it or loathed it. 

Later in life, when I worked at a restaurant called Amber Waves, I'd sometimes make their version of lo mein (with egg noodles) and, that, she somehow managed to eat. I guess she thought she was living on the edge. That, and her boy made it for her, and it was hard for her to say no to me.

But as much as I tried I could never understand the radish's appeal. That bitter sting on the tongue and the rough mouthfeel. To me, they seemed much more like a garnish, though truth be told I eat a lot of things these days that were considered garnishes when I was younger. Kale leaves, I'm looking in your direction. 

For me, though, I'd much rather chomp on uncooked potatoes. And that's not me being facetious. I really liked raw potatoes--still do. 

Mom made mashed potatoes quite often and one of her favorite ways to prepare them was paring them (she hardly ever used a peeler for round things). Then she'd cut them into small cubes and soak them cold water in our kitchen sink. Cut to a six-year-old me reaching my hand up and into the water hurriedly fishing around for the perfect piece to chomp on on my way back to the TV, water dripping from my hands all over the carpet. 

For that matter, I also enjoy chomping on uncooked pasta. Or better yet, pasta that's just been dropped into boiling water. I think for a former fat kid it all makes perfect sense. Why wait for food to be "cooked" when it's right there in front of you waiting to go inside and make that brain (and heart) happy. 

But getting back to mashed potatoes, I don't know too many people who whip their mashed potatoes with an electric mixer at home. Most people just use a masher. But that's how Judy J. did it, adding in a copious amount of butter and milk and the perfect salt-to-pepper ratio. She called them “smash-em-up potatoes,” as she had to have a cute name for most everything. 

The next day--if there was any left--we'd have Judy's famous "rusty potatoes," which just meant she'd put them in a frying pan with even more butter, mix in some dried onion flakes, and cook them until they developed a golden crisp on the bottom. A few scrapes with the heavy-duty spatula and the process would be repeated, until these once smooth and fluffy as a cloud “smash-em-up potatoes” had some texture and character. These could be eaten on their own or as a side dish to a quick pork chop or her special "hamburg and gravy" dish that included a pound of ground beef, a couple of jars of mushroom gravy, and canned mushrooms. She'd also add in some canned peas for "color." 

When I think back to the days of growing up in the 1970s and try to envision what veggies we consumed, it was mainly either canned peas or corn and not much more in between save for a boiled potato or onion. We put that electric can opener through its paces. Crack open a can of Green Giant into a Revere Ware copper-bottom pan, and add a pat of butter and salt and pepper. Heat on low for ten minutes and there you have it--healthy eating for all! I used to enjoy drinking the "pea juice" when the peas were gone. Basically water with butter, salt, and pepper. Yum! 

And yeah, we ate a lot of beef. And you better believe my mom had her own version of a hamburger, aptly named the "Momburger." A few spices and (again) dried onion flakes were all it took to turn the average burger on its end. Growing up in Fall River we were never short of amazing bakeries, and the rolls for these burgers were simply perfect. They weren't buns, mind you. These were Portuguese rolls--thick yet fluffy and dusted with delicious, nutritious white flour. I can still remember how impossibly wide I had to open my mouth to try and fit one in--with ketchup, mustard, and hot American cheese dripping onto my chin down to my OshKosh B’gosh overalls. We'd pair these with dill pickle spears and either Wise potato chips or my mom's hand-cut french fries. 

Part One-and-a-half: Eyes On The Fries:

When my mom made fries it was the most dangerous time in the kitchen. If she had a biohazard sign it would have been hung along with an orange cone or two whenever they were on the menu.  

One of the hardest things to let go of was the famous, heavy-bottom french fry pot that spent its off time in the back of the fridge half filled with oil and draped with aluminum foil. She'd reuse the oil two or three times before it was tossed and I will posit that on each successive use, the fries tasted that much better. 

I can hear the sharp, midrangey pop and crackle as the potato strips--the size of a Lincoln Log--were dropped into the slowly swirling oil. Most of my memories of this time are from when I was too short to see it from above.

This pic is our kitchen which I grabbed off the web (she sold the house decades ago). They're recent photos but the placement of the sink and stove is the same as I remember (though the fridge would be to the left of the person taking the pic). 

But yeah, her fries were incredible. What she did with potatoes, in general, was astonishing. But growing up in the 40s and 50s with an English/Irish dad and a full-blooded Polish mom will do that to you, I suppose. 

For Judy's fries, she used long Russet potatoes. So while one might call them "steak fries" they were more than this. Cooked just long enough so the ends were a bit crispy and the middles bendable but not soggy. Salty but not shockingly so. Most were long and wide but, of course, the edge pieces were thinner and ended up crisped. I've never shied away from hyperbole and now is certainly no time to change my ways. So to say they were like a beautiful song, each piece having a place among the others—verse, chorus, solo and outro—is not far from the truth. It was a delicate maneuver to create such harmony with a bag of potatoes, and while it didn't need to be a special occasion for her to make her fries, whenever she did that's exactly what it was. 

Here's another pic of the kitchen, taken from where the seat was that nobody sat at because there was always too much stuff near the window. 

It's really incredible for me to see these, because while there have been some improvements over the years (flooring, a paint job, the sink backboard) that is the same damn sink from 45 years ago that I stuck my grubby little paws in. 

Like I was saying . . . 

Here's a pic of me from more than fifty years ago, as I can't be more than two. You can see the sink behind me, and you can also see my future in front of me--once a Cake Guy always a Cake Guy. 

It's the same ceramic sink my mom would empty a bag of steamers into (long-neck clams if you don't know) and then sprinkle some black pepper so they would "sneeze" out any ingested sand. I was once asked by a co-worker, "What does a clam sound like when it sneezes?" I laughed it off at the time, but I suppose the question was robust enough to stick with me for twenty years. 

And the kitchen is the room we ate most of our meals in as well. 

Sure, we had a dining room table for special events, but breakfast was always eaten in here--usually Cheerios and milk with a cup of orange juice and a Pyrex percolator bubbling away with the weakest coffee anyone had ever put in a cup for Judy and Lynda. 

My mom would have the same breakfast I did, but out again would come the paring knife and I will forever be amazed at how she could slice a banana lengthwise, then slowly across from the outside in towards her thumb watching with wonder as the bite-size crescents dropped into the bowl clinging to any number of puffed wheat life rafts. 

It took me years to open myself up to bananas. That was always a Judy thing, and I was happy to let her have it. But yeah, I get it now, though I leave the sugar in the sugar bowl. 

And while I wasn't allowed artificially sweetened cereal growing up (Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, etc, all taste terrible to me) my mom wasn't shy with the real stuff, topping her otherwise healthy-ish breakfast choice with a teaspoon of crystalline glucose. We see cantaloupe here in Japan quite often. And that was another thing she liked to "accent." But yeah, no sugary cereal in the house. No sir-ee. :)

From time to time I come across a food here that reminds me of her cooking.

Just the other day we went to a buffet (we don't do this often, believe me) and they had--shockingly--a clam chowder that was very close to my mom's version. Super creamy and not too thick with a layer of butter floating on top that might have been enough to cook another meal with. 

There's a tsukemen place (like ramen but the noodles are separate for dipping purposes) that makes a bowl of spicy pork soup that reminds me of my mom's meat sauce. 

Now, if you remember what I said about Judy and noodles you'll know which part she'd ask to be subbed with "lettuce and tomato on the side, please." 

But her meat sauce had ground beef (of course) chuck, two kinds of pork, green peppers, onions, plenty of garlic, three kinds of canned tomatoes, loads of salt and pepper, and just the right amount of red pepper flakes (I can see her handwriting on the recipe sheets she gave me with giant squiggles under the lines "NOT TOO MUCH"). 

She had a special three or four-gallon pot (Revere Ware, once again--the choice for any self-respecting Yankee of a certain generation or two) that she would fill to the brim. It took half a day to make and when it was cooking I think the whole neighborhood knew (and longed for an invite). 

I'd enjoy this over a bowl of hot spaghetti. But Judy just ate it by the bowlful with a Portuguese roll (yes, the ones we used for Momburgers) torn up for dipping. The rest was portioned into freezer bags (or just plastic bags well before there was any differentiation). And as if we were in olden times and the hunters had taken down a wildebeest Judy's Famous Meat Sauce would be ceremoniously eaten throughout the following month or two. I think I learned a lot about enjoying what we have from the sad feeling I got seeing the last two bags in the back of the freezer and just knowing--nay, believing--there was more somewhere when there simply was not. 

Part Two: My World

 I haven't cried in a long time. 

Not that one can portion that sort of stuff and say "I got that all out of my system," but I had a lot of sadness in my life around when I started this blog (2008/2009). And there were days when the tears just never stopped. 

So I remember the feeling fairly well--the tingling, the energy shifting from my chest to my head and then out through my eyes, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand and then looking for a place to wash my face. There's that pain at the shoulders from how it makes your body tense, and then the aching neck that reminds you all day that you were, in case you had forgotten, sad enough to cry. 

It's a feeling I had really pushed to the back of my memory. Because for better or worse after going through all that loss and renewal I began cheating myself out of real emotions. At the sign of any negativity, my go-to has been to focus on the positives and possibly create falsehoods if necessary to buffet whatever fallout may tumble down the mountain. 

Some may call it, at best, being a Pollyanna, and at worst exhibiting toxic positivity. I don't want to look it up because, well, I would rather assume I know what it means and move on to stuff that's actually important. See? That's exactly what I'm talking about. 

Anyway, I just lost a part of my life here in Kyoto. 

I don't want to say too much, because it's really not a public matter, even though anyone walking around my neighborhood could see that something is different. 

But the other day I went by one of my favorite pastry shops. They made things that everyone here makes--cream puffs, chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, and pastries--but they made them better and they made them differently. That last part doesn't always work in this town, and I had been wondering about their sales since I started going. There was rarely anyone else in the shop on my visits. But really, that can be said for a lot of places that are still in business here. 

One of the specialties was marshmallows. Yep, craft marshmallows, sold in a small, clear, rectangular, plastic box. Sometimes they were raspberry flavored; other times they were yuzu (Japanese citrus) and Jodi loved them so much. They were seasonal, and the last time I went in they had sold the last container, but the woman who worked there found one spare in the back--perhaps one she was saving for herself--and gave it to me to share with Jodi. She was that sweet to me. And while her English was quite good, she'd always allow me to stumble through my elementary school Japanese and smile while repeating the thing I thought I was saying but the right way. 

They made the best cream puff—or Shoo Kureemu—in Kyoto (a very popular item) with the perfect ratio of custard-to-shell. The shell was crispy but not brittle and each bite was a cause for celebration until the last (usually one that could have been two) and then the cleanup of powdered sugar from my clothes and surrounding area. 

When I rode by the other day I noticed the lights were off. It was a Friday, a day they're usually open. But people take random days off here so my first reaction was, “Oh well, if they’re closed I’ll just come back tomorrow.”

I parked my bike and walked slowly toward the door to check. A hand-written sign hung in the window. I noticed their outdoor bulletin board was empty, with only a shadow from where their menu used to be. I pulled out my phone and opened my translator app, but as I awkwardly held it up to the handwritten sign my peripheral vision alerted me that the shelves inside were empty. 

Maybe they were just moving, I thought. Maybe not too far. Maybe to a bigger spot. Perhaps business wasn't that bad after all and I just went on off-hours. 

But the sign didn't say any of those things. It simply, politely thanked their customers for all the patronage and said they would be closing as of last month with no further information. 

I had backup places, of course, but none of them had the cream puff I wanted. And so I rode back home and made some coffee and texted my wife with the news. 

The pandemic had shuttered several places we cared for,  but anyone who was still around, it seemed, was in it for the long haul. This is Japan, where perseverance through adversity is the unofficial national motto.

The next day I stopped in at the bread shop next door to the bakery to pick up a loaf. I asked the owner if she knew what had happened. 

She lowered her voice and told me the owner had died.

He was younger than me. 

What? How could this be?

He was always so sweet to me, albeit from behind the plexiglass window that provided a glimpse into his magical workshop of flour, sugar, butter, and milk, mixing up the next batch of goodies. 

I was gutted, and at a loss for words even more so than usual.

But we chatted for a half minute more and I expressed my shock that he could have possibly be gone at such a young age. I fumbled for something to say—something to show I cared. But the best I could come up with was that they had the best cream puffs in town, to which she politely agreed  I thanked her for the info, wishing I could have said more but thankful I’ve learned the ancient art of when to stop talking.  

Then I went home and did what my mom would have done--what she taught me to do--I wrote out a small card thanking the couple for making me and my wife so happy with their food. I left out anything to do with condolences as this info was gotten second hand and people here are extremely private.

I rode to the shop, got off my bike--possibly for the last time--and approached the stairs. But this time, as I got closer, I saw some of the lights were on. I could have easily turned around and come back after hours when nobody was there, but something pulled me closer.

I peered in and saw his wife in the back. I tapped on the glass and waited as she hurriedly unlocked the door I had walked through so many times. But she didn’t welcome me in. Instead, she joined me on the stairs  

It was at that moment we both knew--at least on the surface--and as I handed her the card I said, in Japanese, "I just wanted to thank you so much for all the joy you brought me and my wife with your food."

After a few stumbles back and forth we switched to English--the most we had ever spoken to each other. 

She told me he had died after a more than year-long battle with cancer. She also confirmed that he was younger than I was and that while it was unexpected he did his best to fight it while keeping the shop open. She told me how these last few months they had only been open a few days a week so he could rest from the treatments, and it reminded me of my mom, and how she insisted on trying to maintain a semblance of normality through the most harrowing time in her life  

I was beside myself. I didn't know what to do or say and as the tears slowly ran down my cheek she began to cry as well. I told her how I had lost my mother and most of my family to cancer and how dreadful a disease it was. I tried to refrain from saying things like "I know how it feels," because nobody wants to hear that, not when their pain is so fresh. 

A deep feeling of confusion arose from trying to filter what I should say from what I shouldn't say and filtering that through the language barrier so I did what any full-blooded American would do, I leaned in and gave her a hug. 

Normally, this behavior is frowned upon here, but it was the only thing I could think of and she obliged and we stood in an awkward tearful embrace over this man who I had only seen and waved to from afar. 

I said I would let her go but she told me to wait. Then she went inside for a moment and came out with a small, brown plastic bag branded with their store's name.

"These are some of his last chocolates. I want you to have them. Enjoy them with your wife. Have them with a glass of wine or coffee and be happy."

I mean . . . yeah. This really happened. And as I'm typing this I'm in tears again. 

I stood there with the box that she had taken from the freezer and cried some more. I knew this would most likely be the last time I saw her--at least in a situation where we could clearly recognize each other. I told her how I would miss her and her husband and the cream puffs they made, feeling slightly ashamed that one of the last things I could impart to her was how much I would miss a piece of food. 

She smiled and told me that he was so proud of his work and that what I said--while unfortunate--would have made him so happy to know. 

I thanked her again and wished her the best of luck in the future. 

I stopped short of saying one of the many trite things people say in these situations like "Please let me know if there's anything I can do," because, really, what was there?

But I gave her my card and said that my music is there and I wrote much of it with love about people I care about--including my mother. I told her I hoped I would see her again. 

I took one last swing at trying to connect and said, “So . . . what will you do now?” knowing full well that was about the dumbest question I could have come up with  

“I will have to find a new job.”

I lowered my head and said, “I’m so, so sorry.”

She thanked me for all the times I came in and bought something and wished me the best of luck. 

I turned and walked down the stairs and waved slowly. Then I got back on my bicycle and rode out the driveway and back home, the bag of chocolates securely fastened around my wrist.. 

When I got home I put the box in the freezer which is where they still are as of this post. 

Part Three: Made With Love

When my mom died on January 11, 2007, she left a freezer full of her food.

Soups, chowders, and, of course, her meat sauce. This was all food, mind you, that she made while pancreatic cancer and the chemicals used to battle it consumed her. 

There was a lot of it at first, and for many months it stayed put, neither me nor my aunt able to bring ourselves to defrost a "little piece of Judy." But we did eventually start eating it, enjoying it, and talking about her while we did. I know she would have been tickled pink to see it all transpire, as my aunt and I had for years been at odds, only recently really overcoming it due to my newfound sobriety. 

But food has that innate ability to connect people--to remind us of places we visited, people we knew, events we celebrated, and even mundane everyday things like weekday breakfasts before trotting off to another day of elementary school, wondering what it must be like to get to eat colorful, sugary, crispy cereal. 

So when the last bag of meat sauce finally made its way from the freezer to the fridge to defrost it was as sad a day as it was sweet. I remember staring at it in the little Revere Ware saucepan we brought back from her house and wondering if I could ever make it as good. 

But I tried, and I got as close as anyone who wasn't her could get. Each generation, I'm sure, suffers that same uncertainty: "Did I make it as good as _____ did?"

But life is, if anything, an eternal uncertainty. And that's something that I think keeps it interesting. Because it leaves as much room for failure as success, and what tips it one way or the other is different for everyone and for everything. 

So as I sit here writing this to remember my mother on the 17th anniversary of her passing, I'll wonder, once again, if today is the day to take those chocolates out of the freezer and enjoy them with Jodi. 

I don't know if it is, and I don't know if it isn't. But I do know that once they're gone, they're gone.

As are we all. 

Thanks for reading, and helping keep these memories alive.

And thank you, Mom, for everything else.

Your son, Frederick

For Judy: 5/14/41-1/11/07

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Day Five Thousand Three Hundred and Fifty Three . . . Change Your Whole Room Around

My downstairs neighbor must think we moved out. 

Perhaps he's wondering where the loud couple who lived above him went (at least the husband)--or maybe he may be thinking his hearing is going. 

But it's neither of those things. It just seems like I'm changing. 

Today, as I was closing one of the cupboard doors in the kitchen I noticed something was different--I didn't let it slam shut. Instead, I closed it slowly and gently and the soft and low "boosh" sound it produced was almost comforting. The noise I previously made closing said door (somewhat akin to a mid-toned "bakk") is just one of many my mere existence on this earth in any room creates that would be considered louder in Japan than in my home country of the US, where--if my observations from our recent visit are consistent--anything goes. I added some felt pads to the inside of the doors, and while they do help in this instance, it's still my hand that is in charge of how much noise is made from almost any given motion. 

My wife and I live on the top floor of a four-floor apartment building and are lucky enough to have high ceilings. Every now and then we hear a strange "click" sound out on the balcony that to this day (and after four years) we still can't figure out the source. But that's about the extent of the extraneous noise from the outside world. And now that I come to think of it, even going back past the homes we lived in since 2009, I haven't had upstairs neighbors since well before the turn of the millennium--and that's a long time ago. So it's safe to say I don't know what it's like to have another person's life-sounds forced upon us, literally. We occasionally hear our downstairs neighbor sneeze, and when we do I always am shocked at how thin the floors must be. Other than that he is very quiet, and that sometimes makes me nervous. 

"You're not going to change me!"

These words I have said in varying shades of overblown dramatic contempt to my selfless, patient, brilliant, kind, compassionate, and beautiful wife since, oh I don't know, maybe the first six months of our fifteen years together. And every time I'm pretty sure I meant it. And every time I was saying the words I knew what I was really saying was "You're not going to make me a person more aware of my surroundings, Goddammit!"

This is a hard lesson to learn from a male, only child, raised by women. 

Each time I am reminded of how loud the sound is coming from my potato farmer feet shuffling across the floor the more it speaks to how unfortunate it was that I was raised as a little king by my mother, God rest her soul. Though she did the best she could as a single mom in the 1970s, the word wasn't yet out on the street that if you tell your offspring he can do no wrong, he will believe you and will carry that kidney stone of regrettable parenting in him for a lifetime, fumbling with it in his pocket as the person most near and dear to him stands arms folded waiting for a response to the question of why you didn't hear that door slam . . . again. 

Well, I didn't. And, of course, I did. 

You see, I've changed so very much since I quit drinking in 2008, that it's hard to really keep track of what's different. Of course, along with all the plusses that come with that kind of lifestyle shift come the odd changes age brings--graying hair, extra hair, reading glasses, creaky bones, shifting facial features, and all the rest that I'm not going to get into here. 

My hearing has gotten worse. I do use earplugs at concerts and stuff tissue in for some of my louder kids classes (I teach groups of 5-8-year-olds, and it does get loud). But simple things are harder to hear for me, and I feel awful for my wife who has to constantly repeat herself. This could possibly play a part in why I don't think I'm as noisy as I am. Maybe I just can't hear myself like she can. But then again, I'm always the closest person to me, so I guess that theory just got nosily shot out of the water. 

About two decades ago a good friend of mine had a fling with a mutual friend. One night this friend drunkenly confided in me that one morning, as a joke, she had taken certain items in his bedroom and put them in places they didn't belong. She moved his golf balls from the closet and put them in his underwear drawer, balled up his T-shirts, stuffed them in his pillowcase, and mismatched all his shoes and sneakers.

"I changed his whole room around!" she chuckled as if this was the funniest thing that anyone had done to another person. Thinking back on it, it was pretty hilarious considering who it was done to. But the end result was simple and pure--someone was forced to look at their world differently not due to any major calamity, but from a completely harmless prank that was easily reversed. It made him think and it made him laugh, and, while ultimately this dalliance was short-lived, it provided a quote as famous in our little circle as any line from a movie. Following any life event one could be certain to hear, "That ordeal really changed your whole room around, eh?" Or if someone was stuck in an impasse and needed some life advice, "You really need to change your whole room around," would likely be among the suggestions. 

We all knew what it meant, and we all knew it was right and true then as it is today. 

Well, it's safe to say that when I met my wife she changed my whole room around. 

Whether it was making sure to take our shoes off at the front door or placing glasses upside down so dust wouldn't settle inside, the changes came. There was the shift from curling my finger at her (admittedly it is probably something I wouldn't even do to a naughty dog now) to a softer whole-hand bending motion. Why nobody ever told me to close my mouth after filling it with popcorn as I chewed I will never understand, but my wife showed me the way and it simply blew my mind. 

It's easy to forget these things all happened for a reason. And it's also easy to get mad when I'm shown new ways to do things that are just clearly better. 

 But the words "You're not going to change me" have become somewhat of a punch line in my head.

I say them as I'm making sure to put my slippers on as I walk to the bathroom at 5 a.m. to cut down on the squeaking.

I say them as I slowly open the bathroom door in an effort to prevent the air from rattling the sliders to the living room.

I say them as I slowly turn on the faucet in the kitchen sink.

I say them as I hold the door to the refrigerator until it is softly shut--same goes for the freezer. 

I say them as I let my wife decompress from work before peppering her with honest questions about her day like a little puppy who just learned how to speak. 

Hell, I even wrote a song about it. 

It's amazing to me to say things like "You're not going to change me," even as I know full well that it's already happened. 

Even when it's clear that there's no turning back. 

Even as the sounds come out of my mouth like I'm practicing a new language.

Even as I look around the room and see that it's completely different from the way I went to sleep. 

There's just no arguing with a better way.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, May 8, 2023

Day Five Thousand Two Hundred and Forty-Five . . . May Day.

 May always wrecks me.

This time of renewal and hope with flowers blooming, birds chirping, and days warming as spring gets into full swing. Yes, it is a beautiful time of year. Yes, I'd rather have this over the dark days of your average winter. But for several Mays now, as the month with the fewest letters creeps closer on life's immovable calendar, I have felt a sense of dread wash over me, and it's all I can do to shake it. 

Writing has always helped me cope--taking over for the other things I used to use. In fact, this past December, I celebrated fifteen years of alcohol abstinence. Apologies to those who have read my words since I started making them public in 2008 and wondered what the hell had happened to me. Looking at my page, it seems like I have been, as they say, absent. But we don't always say what we need to in a timely manner, and I guess that's why I'm tapping away here in my bedroom on May 8th, 2023. But believe me when I say all is actually well, and I've never been happier.

That said . . . 

I'm feeling the dread again. And it starts earlier and earlier each year. 

Tomorrow is my birthday, May 9th. I'll be 53.

When my wife and I moved to Japan in 2019, I was excited to turn the big 5-0 without the threat of a party hanging overhead. I wanted no fanfare or funny business. Not that I don't like parties or--heaven forbid--attention. In fact, my incredible wife arranged for untold numbers of people in my orbit to send me birthday videos. She made a scavenger hunt out of it with clues to the big reveal hidden around the apartment. It was one of the best gifts ever. 

And to say that I didn't want a party seems ludicrous now, knowing what transpired around the globe that spring and up to just recently. Nobody was having guests over in May 2020, let alone a birthday party. Here in Japan, the effects of Covid-19 still linger. People--myself included--still wear masks just about everywhere. It's nuts, but I go along with it. And hell, in the still chilly weather, it keeps my face warm. But I digress.

This dread, the malaise, the heightened nerves, and the awkward encounters all stem from one place.

I just hate getting old.

I'm lying down on my bed with a belly full of low-strength ibuprofen because the other day, I bent down and pulled a muscle in my left knee, and it hurts like hell and makes me yelp at the worst possible times. I can't describe it other than the feeling of someone pinching my knee with snub nose pliers. And my job entails sitting on the floor teaching kids English for 50 minutes at a stretch over four or five hours. Sometimes we do "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." I think today I'll skip the "knees" portion. I wasn't doing anything strenuous at the time of the injury, just bending down to rest for a second after a nice walk.

Getting old, for me, also means an inordinate amount of food getting stuck between my teeth. I mean, seriously, WTF? I never really understood the whole idea of toothpicks. Seemed a bit savage since I was a kid. But now I keep an interdental brush in my bag because I don't want my tongue to end up raw from trying to extricate whatever brave salad survivors don't want to join their brethren in my belly.

Besides the tangible effects of time, I'm also acutely aware of the track record my family has with longevity. 

My grandmother died at 68. My mom and uncle both died at 65, and my aunt had just turned 60 when she went. So yeah, I'm still on this side of the decade in question, but it's enough to keep me on edge. 

My grandfather lived until he was 86, though he and my family spent several years dealing with dementia. I kind of removed myself from that by moving to Western Mass in 1991, a year before he passed. It's one of a few regrets I have, not being there for them when they needed it. Though my mom--selfless almost to a fault--was supportive of my move. I remember his funeral vaguely. My aunt and I weren't on speaking terms over what I had done while my mother was away over two summers (having friends over and using my house as a party pad, among other things). It was a sad period of my life that I'm thankful I was able to rectify--with the help of time, strangely enough.

Now, of course, I realize there are many factors that contribute to one's lifespan. And thank goodness I was shown the light fifteen years ago, or I'd dare say I wouldn't have made it to forty. I definitely wouldn't have met Jodi, or if I had, it wouldn't have lasted long. And if it had, I shudder to think what she would have had to go through dealing with my issues. 

So now I lay here moping to myself about how it feels to get old. Nobody wants to hear it, let alone take the time to read about it.

So if you've made it this far, let me tell you about making peace with coat hangers. 

Yep, that's right. My fight with coat hangers and all they've put me through has been resolved. 

Let me explain.

I buy my coat hangers from a store called MUJI. They come in a few sizes--something I didn't realize until I was trying to hang up a tee shirt that I thought had shrunk in the dryer. Anyway, they're made of aluminum, which means they are extremely light, impervious to rust, and they make a godawful racket when you drop one, which I do quite often. 

I used to blame the hangers for being so loud. When I tried to pull one off from a clump of them on the laundry rack and two or three fell, it used to drive me nuts. Why, why, why couldn't they just fall into place and sit comfortably on the rack until I needed them? I had been so good to the hangers keeping them from getting bent, scratched, or chipped. I kept the ones with the ridges separate from the regular ones to use for my wife's camisoles. I even figured out how to save the foam covers from dry cleaning and reuse them on the new hangers for dresses, sweaters, or blouses with wide necklines. In my head, I was running the best damn hanger sanctuary the world had seen. And I asked for nothing in return except for the hangers to keep their act together and behave when I needed to take one down and use it. 

And yet there they were, just laughing at me when I'd pull one up, and three would fall on the ground. "Pingg," "crash," "smash."

One day, I realized something that was difficult for me to swallow: the problem was me. 

Yep, seems there was nobody and nothing exerting force on these incredibly useful triangularly tied lengths of aluminum wire, but the hands on the ends of my arms. I was forced to admit, as well, that these hands were controlled by my head--an incredibly useful organ that seemed to be--up until this point--unable to square my ultimate responsibility for the effects of my body movements. They were just lengths of wire that I purchased. I took them home and unpacked them, and hung them in the closet myself. There are no hanger parties that I am aware of in which they yuck it up, telling stories of who got me the maddest and how I should have known better than to try and yank my tee shirts off them, and of course, that's why the collars get all stretched out. 

But it's so easy to blame the damn hangers. 

This is what I had to come to terms with. I had fallen into a thought trap wherein I was making it easy for myself to attribute power to inanimate objects. It wasn't my fault for being careless when I pulled the hanger off the rack. No, it was those damn hangers. I hate them so much!

But, of course, it was always me. And it is and always will be me--at least for the things I can control. 

Like taking a breath before making a decision, especially when there are others involved. Or not being careless with hard-earned money, even if I think I deserve it. Or remembering to call, text, or write the people in my life that are important. 

These are things I can control, along with the hangers.

I can't bring my mother back as much as I miss everything about her. Though I can celebrate her birthday on the 14th, which, incidentally, is Mother's Day this year. And I can talk about how much she meant to me with my mother-in-law, who I love dearly and who cares for me like a son.

I can't undo the worry I caused my mom over so many years of treating myself badly. But I can watch what I eat and try to exercise a little every day so my wife doesn't have to worry, and we can be bad on occasion when it counts. 

I can't take back the things I said in the heat of the moment when my temper gets away from me. But I can try to remember to use the mindfulness tools I have at my disposal and not let my ego do the talking. 

I can't control the time, day, and date, and put my birthday off until I'm ready to turn 53.  But I can take solace that I can remain 52 for thirteen hours on the east coast after it turns midnight here in Kyoto. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that sometimes our minds are often too powerful for our own good. And as much as it's easy to feel like a bad day is a bunch of rancorous hangers enjoying a good laugh at our expense, sometimes we need to look deeper into how things got the way they did. The hangers are simply pieces of wire that just about everyone needs in their life, and more often than not, we have total control over them, which is nice. 

So I'll raise a toast to you all tomorrow as I carefully pull a fresh tee shirt off its hanger to get ready to enjoy time with my wife on my birthday.

I guess things could be a lot worse. 

Thanks for reading,


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,