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,


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