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,