The Cure for What Ailed Me

graduating class 54

Photo of my graduating class

She was a beautiful woman, that much I remember. Her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and her pale neck was visible.

I was sitting in Introduction To Theater, a standard survey course at Kutztown University. Being a survey course, there were many students required to take it. KU is, after all, a liberal arts college. So about 250 of us were packed into the stadium seats of the Rickenbach Research and Learning Center theater. Since I was sitting behind this young woman (I say that now; she was probably 19 at the time, just like me), I was sort of looking down from behind her.

cassette-tape-robert-smith

This will be funny in a moment…

I remember clearly sitting down, noting the students around me in passing, and getting out my book and notepad (yes, we used paper back in those days…). Then something extraordinary happened. I saw the girl, saw her pale neck, her dark hair, and her headphones. She was playing a cassette tape on her portable Walkman (again with the age…), and I heard – through her headphones – for the very first time a sound that would change my life for ever. This discovery has echoed down all the years of my life and, to this very day, influences my thinking. That moment, burned indelibly into my mind, marked a before/after moment, and the discovery gave a voice to a heart that had been mute for 19 years. For the first time in my life I was able to understand that I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did. I was one of many, thousands, millions even, who could feel both pain and joy simultaneously. I was one of many who understood life has so much good, but also so much bad, and they can both be beautiful in their own way. That day, in early September 1989, I heard the first band that empowered me to embrace my pain and to love it unabashedly. That band?

robert smith cure

Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure

The Cure.

I sat there mesmerized for a while, listening rapt to this music. Then the professor came in, and the girl took off the headphones and stopped the music. It was like cold water in the face, but I had the presence of mind to bend down and ask her “What band was that?” “The Cure” she said. The Cure. I didn’t learn anything that class, and as soon as it was over, I walked across the street to a shop called “Young Ones” which sold used cassette tapes and records. This is another memory I can see as clearly as if I was right there. I didn’t even bother to look through the cassettes, I just walked up to the shopkeeper and asked where I could find The Cure. He showed me, and I promptly bought one of every tape they had. There were three as I recall, but the one I had heard was titled Disintegration, andthe-cure-disintegration-cassette-usa-de-coleccion_MLM-O-77218295_4287 remains to this day one of my favorite albums ever. Twenty five years later, those songs still speak to my soul.

Much has happened since then. I graduated from Kutztown, got a job, got married, had two amazing kids, got divorced, lost people, suffered, learned much about myself, got married again – properly – and realized I had a lifetime to write about. So here I am, moving into a new career, struggling to help my kids do better and wander less than I did. I wonder if they’ve found their “Cure” yet, or if that is yet to come. But it will. I think most people find something that ignites their soul. At least that’s my experience. Most of my friends have some of that spark within them, and I really would hope everyone could experience what I did that February day 25 years ago.happy sad

That moment defined who I was, by helping me understand I was what some would call “sensitive”, which is both good and bad, both positive and negative. In the very excellent Doctor Who episode “Blink”, the character Sally Sparrow says that sad is happy for deep people. I guess I’m deep, then. But whatever I am, I’m not the only one.

Tribe

kuTo be clear up front, I can sing. There are better singers around, but I’m a pretty strong voice, and I can hold my own against almost anybody else. I would be embarrassed if that weren’t the case, however, considering how much of my life was spent honing my vocal skills. Church children’s choir from five to twelve years of age and school choir from fourth grade through my senior year, along with county chorus a couple of times, and then on to Kutztown University. At KU one of my two majors was Vocal Performance (not its formal name, which is long and boring, but that’s basically what it was. A “music theater” degree), and I took private voice lessons for six years in college. During my college years I was also in the full choir (about 70 voices most years) and two of the speciality choirs (or “elite” choirs, but I dislike that word…). And I was in multiple musicals during that time, including Cabaret, Jesus Christ, Superstar and H.M.S. Pinafore. My parents tried to get me into playing instruments, french horn and piano, but instruments always felt alien to me. Voice is what called to me, what gave me those wonderful butterflies of anticipation.

5734477_orig

What I feel like when I sing

I tell you all of this not to toot my own horn, but to show that I’ve been tight with music for my entire life. I want you to believe that my opinions on music, although they are just opinions, might be rooted in something worthwhile. I want you to read what I write and, just maybe, appreciate something new, something different. I want you to trust me just a little, so I can share my love with you. Got it? Good. Let’s start at the beginning, for me at least, which is my big brother.

Hooked_on_ClassicsI was already developing an interest in some more popular songs by the time I was ten or twelve. It wasn’t a very good taste in music, but it was mine, gosh darn it! Hooked On Classics was one of the first records (yes, vinyl) I remember having. It came out in 1981 – I was twelve, and that was the same year I discovered a little game called Dungeons and Dragons – and I can still hear it in my head today. Around that time I also purchased my very first 45. For those of you younger Soft-Cell-Tainted-Love---Wa-80323than, say, 35 years of age, a 45 – or 45 RPM – was the vinyl equivalent of a CD single. That first 45 was Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go by Soft Cell. I think I played that a thousand times before I moved on. That would later lead me to ’80’s New Wave, but not yet. First, my brother.

David is four years older than me. That means, of course, that when I was twelve, he was sixteen. He, in his own personal journey, was apparently influenced by music of the ’60’s and ’70’s, especially bands such as the Beatles, the Moody Blues, and Kiss. Keep in mind this was the early ’80’s, so the ’70’s was just a few years before, and not the ‘classic rock’ of today.
long-distance-voyager-535958f77fb2fSo one night, just any old night, David pulled me into his bedroom and played a song for me. It was 22,000 Days by the Moody Blues off of their Long Distance Voyager album, which is still one of the most deeply moving albums in the world for me. It’s a pretty deep song, and I was blown away. I had never heard music like that before, and it opened up a new musical road I was eager to travel down. He did similar things with other music, including the Beatles. He would be so excited, and even then I could tell he was dying to share this with someone. Perhaps it was me specifically that he wanted to share his excitement with, but I’ve never been conceited enough to believe that. I think I was there at the right time. Our parents would have never had enough energy to focus on what he wanted to say, and our younger brother was only about seven at the time, so he was too young. I was the lucky beneficiary, and it changed my life.

Moody-Blues-Seventh-Sojourn-L602498455074I didn’t like the Beatles initially, for various reasons, but the Moody Blues took my breath away. Within a few years I had purchased every album they had put out (on cassette or vinyl). I even had an art teacher in high school give me a couple of their albums (on vinyl). She had purchased them for their album art, which was beautiful, but gave them to me knowing how much I adored the group. I don’t like most of their work since the mid-1980’s, but their work from the ’60’s and ’70’s was full of hard questions and deep thoughts, and so much of what I took from them wasn’t just music. It was a deeper view of the world, a richer understanding of what it was to be a human. And, to make it even better, they didn’t try to dispense the answers because they didn’t claim to know them. They were just asking the questions.

maxresdefaultLooking back on those days, I realize it was my love of words that captivated me. It was the first time in my young life that I had been spellbound by the power of language, in this case in the form of the lyric poetry of music. I began to seek out similar groups, searching for similar minds who refused to blindly accept the world.

In short, because of my brother, I began to seek my tribe.

The Changing Beat

Attributes_of_MusicMy blog has stagnated of late. There are many reasons, but the primary two are some personal issues with family members, and other writing pursuits. Either way, it’s time to focus again on this little corner of the InterWebz. To achieve this, I am starting two new features. I will continue to write more personal blogs when they strike me, but I suspect that will not be very often. Instead, I want to explore two other areas of my life and creativity; my original fiction, and my interest in music. I’ll start with the music, and get to the fiction in a future blog post. Hopefully, my dear readers, you will find something of interest.

Graphic of a digital sound on black bottomFirst of all, if you don’t already know, I have a music degree. The easiest way to explain my degree is to say I have a BFA in Vocal Performance. I have always been interested in music. My parents made me join the children’s choir at my “growin’-up” church when I was very young. I think I was only five or six. I kept singing all through primary and secondary school, and took formal voice lessons for five years in college. Since college I haven’t sung very much in a formal setting, but my interest in music has only grown. It’s safe to say I can enjoy most music. My tastes run from ancient and classical music through folk music, experimental, jazz and blues, rock and roll and up to the modern day. I like almost everything.

Over these long years, I’ve noticed something interesting about how I consume music. I tend to get obsessed with one style or, often, even just one specific group or song. I listen to that music to the exclusion of any other for a few days, perhaps a few weeks, and then it changes. I’ll find another group I love, consume them, and so forth. I usually have no idea where my tastes are going, but in hindsight I can usually tell you how I got there.

In addition to this interest in listening to music, I am also very aware of the history of music. In college there was a period when I seriously considered becoming a music historian. I tend to remember details and facts, and how one artist may have touched or influenced another. I find that interplay, the evolving web of music creation and performance, endlessly fascinating.

piano-picture-image-hd-desktop-351867Finally, I have very strong emotions regarding music. Since I’ve always been hearing music, I can often hear a song and tell you where I was when I first heard it, or how it made me feel. Music is often more than just sound. It’s an event, an experience, a time in my life that is now gone. It is all of those things and more.

So, here’s what I plan on doing. I’ve created a new Category for my blog: Music Is Manna. I am going to write blogs every week or so about music, about what I’m listening to, why it matters musically, and how it makes me feel. All of these will be under the Music Is Manna heading, so you can follow them more easily there. Also, I will be including many clickable links, like this one, to make it easier for you to hear what I’m hearing. Some of the music will be familiar to you, and some of it, hopefully, will be new to you.

Music is so powerful. Yes, we’ve all heard that before; it’s a cliche now, really. But it’s true, and I want to share that experience with the world. I’d love to hear your experiences in return. Music, to me, is manna. It is a form of food I cannot do without. It sustains me and lifts me up when I’m depressed. Just ask my wife. It permeates every aspect of my life.

Music 1And music, like manna, comes from above.

A Poem of My Life

Do you think about your childhood? Do you remember it fondly? Or was it painful and hurtful?

I suspect that most of us would say both. Each childhood is different, each person has a different life.

This is a poem about my life. I hope it means something to you.

 

The Boy

 

I took a walk today where a boy once walked,

in a dream, in a memory, a lifetime ago.

I stepped where he stepped and stood where he stood,

I stared across fields of his long-vanished youth.

And I reached out to touch him…

But then he was gone.

 

He looked somewhat like me,

Brown hair, blue eyes,

But the brown hair was all brown,

Did not yet have gray,

And those blue eyes –

So blue!

So much brighter than mine.

They had not yet seen cruelty

From lover,

From brother.

They had not yet seen someone

For the very last time.

 

His face, it was smooth.

It was bursting with life.

It didn’t yet sag and it carried no pain,

It was not yet a roadmap of worries and woes.

It was young, oh, so young, so impossibly so.

 

I noticed him smiling, though no one was near,

Well, no one but me, but I don’t count, I fear.

He smiled as he built a dam in the creek

That ran behind his house, his trailer with wheels,

With cement blocks under to hold it all up.

He smiled because he was happy,

He was free,

And had no idea the bullies were coming.

Had no idea that his classmates could be

like werewolves, like monsters, like Jekyll and Hyde,

To turn on him suddenly, hateful and cruel.

And drive him to madness, and drive him to tears,

And drive him to beg his mom, “Please, let me stay!

Don’t make me go off to school today!

They’ll hit me, they’ll hurt me, and I don’t know why!”

The car would echo with his cry,

But she would send him off to die, a little, every day.

 

I noticed his shoulders, so small and so fine,

And perfectly built for climbing a tree.

They did not yet bear the weight of a life

They hadn’t yet shouldered the yolk of a job,

And bills, and ills,

And deaths. Or worse,

Of children who slay you,

One day at a time

In discrete little pieces, all numbered and tagged.

And filed alphabetically in small Zip-Lock bags.

 

That boy didn’t know of storms that were coming,

but who ever does? Who am I to complain

That he wasn’t yet ready

To suffer, to suffer,

To suffer and cry and little by little to die,

to die.

And yet live, to live and love.

The ‘Good ‘Ol Boys’ of Gaming

4042346573_45b74490d6_oWhen I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s, I was told directly we’d have flying cars and pick-your-features babies by “the distant future of 2000”. What I wasn’t told directly, but what was strongly implied, was that we would not have racism and sexism. Now, I’ve been trying to live for years with my non-flying car, and my children were not programmed into the computer and picked up at the BabyStore. Funny thing: I can live with both of those.

What I cannot live with is racism and sexism, and yet here it is. I was rudely reminded of that today when I heard that Anita Sarkeesian, who is an advocate for a healthier representation of women in the video game industry, withdrew from a live speaking engagement because gamers threatened to murder her and commit a school massacre!

I’m sorry for putting that in bold and italics, but I am horrified today to say I am, and always have been, a gamer. I feel like that is an embarrassing title, one that I should neglect to mention in polite society because it’s become odious. And I thought we gamers had gotten past all that when we learned what showers and toothbrushes were.

Apparently not.

In an article published on the New York Times website, the details were laid out. You can read it here.

It’s now become apparent that, in spite of a generally egalitarian approach to the world held personally by many gamer-guys, there is a small but vocal – and apparently violent – male segment of the gaming community that thinks women ‘gittin all uppity’ and ‘actin’ like they’s got raits’ exists.

I don’t even know how to process this, because I am disgusted.

People, if you are a gamer and you feel this way, get therapy! If you know someone who is a gamer, especially a young man, please talk with them. The very industry you love needs females to join the ranks: Gaming isn’t a Gentleman’s Club. Women have every right to expect an industry that portrays them respectfully. After all, who really thinks that this is OK?avengers pose

And if you do, you really need to examine your priorities, because you’re a Good ‘Ol Boy in the very worst possible sense.

Rant Ends!

McWhat?!

So this thing just happened. People I know from a church I used to attend held a fundraiser to fight childhood cancer. The corporation that was hosting them is known for philanthropic giving in regards to children’s health, so yay them. Also,sock it this corporation was matching the money these people were raising dollar for dollar. Also, yay. These are all good things, and I want to make sure I am clear on this. Money raised to fight cancer = good! Here’s the problem, in three easy steps.

1) The company is McDonalds, which serves some of the least healthy food-like products on the planet and is a corporate behemoth that does everything possible to increase its profits, no matter the cost to the world or its customers. This information is out there on the internet if anyone cares to look (or ask me and I’ll provide links), but my family won’t go to McDonalds unless we have no other choice. My opposition to this company is so strong that, if I’ve been in a McDonalds 10 times in the last 25 years, I’d be shocked.

2) I made a poorly-worded comment about this on Facebook:  “I don’t want to offend anyone, but trying to stop cancer at a McDonalds is pretty much like trying to prevent hearing loss at a Megadeath concert. McDonalds serves food that *causes* cancer!”

3) People equated my less-than glowing review of the situation as my personal attack on their efforts to fight childhood cancer, resulting in name-calling, derogatory comments on my intelligence and intentions, and even the dreaded “un-friending” of me by a long-time friend on Facebook.

I have since posted a public apology, but in the eyes of those people, I have now been demonized. I carry a taint that can never be erased. I have ceased to be an *us* and become a *them*. I am outsider. I am unclean.

people-arguing-alberto-ruggieriIn America today, discussion and discourse are for all intents and purposes dead. Not one of the people on that Facebook post asked me to clarify my comment, or gave me a chance to discuss what I meant in detail. None of them actually wanted a discussion, I suspect, because that involves possibly being challenged on a belief they hold dear. I don’t really want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but since they aren’t talking to me, my brain struggles to fill in the blanks.

I am so terrified that our country has resorted to the social equivalent of slaughtering each other in the streets. Yes, my comment was ill-conceived and badly worded. Yes, I should have done something different that what I did. Yes, I am very sorry. But people say stupid stuff all the time. If I had to stop associating with people just because they did something that offends me, I’d live in a shack in the woods and never talk to anyone. This is serious, people! We are feeding on ourselves, socially, in some twisted version of Facebook Piranha. Worse yet, we are failing to have the sort of deep conversations that challenge our beliefs and sharpen our minds. You want to know why we are falling behind academically in the world? You want to know why children from dozens of countries outperform us on a wide range of academic tasks? It’s because we don’t think, we react.

When faced with a challenging situation, most Americans don’t try to understand what’s happening. Instead, they have an emotional reaction and respond based on that emotion. You do it. I do it. We all do it, with few exceptions. Here are some increasingly absurd examples of this type of thinking. If  someone cuts you off in traffic, they must be an idiot instead of a worried parent trying to get home to their child. If someone says something that offends you on Facebook, they must be an ass or an attention-seeker instead of someone scared for the damage being done to himself and others. If someone holds different political views than you, they must be uninformed or, worse yet, stupid instead of someone who has weighed the evidence and made a careful decision. If a leader makes a mistake, they must be totally incompetent, and should be fired.

hope-2-570x379_5b2a74a98dc194118606e13bfb555bea30e30e32Look, people are complex. People do things for many reasons. People are, honestly, very much like you. But they aren’t identical to you, and it’s well worth your time to seek the middle-ground. We can’t keep judging each other this way. To do so will lead to madness, or to a circle of friends that only agrees with what you already believe to be true. The Founding Fathers of the United States would be horrified (though not, I suspect, surprised) to see the way we treat other Americans in 2014. They bent over backwards to reach compromises that have made us the most powerful nation in the world. Just imagine what would have happened if those great men had refused to seek compromise, and had instead resorted to calling each other names. Where would we be now?

So I challenge you, dear reader, just as I challenge myself: Do something every day that  involves compromise, or involves getting to know another person’s views better. It’s the American thing to do, it’s the Christian thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do.

Brothers

The Hoffman's, about 1985

The Hoffman’s, about 1985

I am the middle of three brothers. We have never been close. The family we grew up in, our parent’s dysfunctions, our age differences (we span nine years and I’m right in the middle), our own personal issues – all of these have led us to misunderstand each other. They misunderstand me, and I surely misunderstand them.

I have sent both of my brothers to the hospital in the past. My older brother was when I was just a few years old by hitting him in the face with a snow shovel (in summer, no less), and my younger brother was when we were young men during a scuffle. I promise they were both accidents; I didn’t mean to hurt them.

I have tried very hard in my life to avoid hurting anyone. My need to avoid hurting people borders on the pathological. I have a long list of failed attempts – many of them girlfriends – which are a testament to my social awkwardness. To this day I feel guilt and remorse for the way I treated several people. In my heart, I rarely have malicious thoughts. It just isn’t in my nature to want to harm others.

This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. If you wrong me, I hold it inside and let it fester until it makes me sick. So basically, if you harm me, I’ll punish you by harming myself even worse. I know, it doesn’t make any sense. Try living in here.

I also have a habit of coming across to people as arrogant or conceited. We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but trust me when I say I never feel arrogant or conceited. Usually I feel weak and confused, or inept and graceless. Never arrogant. I just come across that way. Call it my personal superpower.

I might have a condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome which makes it hard for me to understand other people’s feelings and emotions. It’s never been diagnosed in me, but my son has it, and it’s often hereditary. Asperger’s kids also often have issues with gross motor control, making them physically clumsy. This condition also makes it hard to read and respond properly to social situations. I might sound arrogant because I’ve read a situation wrong, and I’ve responded inappropriately. But there could be another cause. Please indulge me while I tell you a story.

When I was an infant, my mother noticed something wrong with my eyes. After being examined by an eye doctor, I was diagnosed with Strabismus, a disorder where the eyes fail to line up. In my case, my left eye was fine, but my right eye would turn outward. Sometimes this is called ‘walleye’. The doctors tried to correct the problem but, for a variety of reasons, their efforts failed. When I was 16 years old I had this condition surgically corrected, leaving me legally blind in that eye, but fairly normal looking.

So going into elementary school I was physically awkward, socially crippled and visually different from the other students. Oh, and I was a scrawny runt.

boy-child-being-bullied-by-two-other-boysThings went OK until about fourth grade. That’s when many of my classmates seemed to notice I was different from them. Between fourth grade and 11th grade, I was heavily bullied. I know some kids have had it worse, and this isn’t meant to be a pity party for me, but bad things happened. I was pushed down stairs, had my fingers slammed in lockers, was poked and stabbed with pens and pins and forks. I had my lunch knocked to the cafeteria floor several times, and I was openly mocked and laughed at in the halls and the classes. I was called every name you can think of. I was ‘pantsed’ (had my pants pulled down) in front of a group of cheerleaders. It was ugly.

If you can imagine for a moment what that was like, you can understand that I had, and still have, serious self-esteem issues. I felt there was nothing I had to offer the world, and nobody wanted me in the world with them. Three different principals at three different schools told me I needed to “just stand up to the bullies”. This was the late 1970’s and 1980’s: There were no anti-bullying campaigns. In fact, several of my teachers encouraged the bullying. My gym teacher told a bunch of the boys that he didn’t care if they picked on “faggots like Hoffman.”

I only had one asset, one thing that I could trust and rely on. I’m fairly smart. You might be thinking that’s a good thing. The poor, bullied kid had something he could be proud of. In a sense that’s true, because it was what eventually helped me to compensate for all my other issues. But it had a downside as well.

You see, the bitter irony here is that the only thing which made me special is the one thing that has alienated me from my brothers. Please read that again, so you understand where I’m going here.

And let me be crystal clear as well: My brothers are smart, too. I am not insulting them in any way. But they had other gifts they could rely on, so they didn’t need to rely on their raw intellect to get by in life. They had a toolbox with many tools in it. They are clever as I said, but also both are good with their hands. And they have a grasp of the world at a physical, practical level that blows my mind. They can fix things.

Me, I had one tool. That was it. I had to use my brains or get outta Dodge, and since I’m not the suicidal type, I went to college. Now I write, and I think I do a fair job of it.

But I feel to this day that neither of my brothers really appreciates my college success, or values the stupidly large and mostly useless database of facts and concepts I can draw on. I suspect they believe that when I spout facts and opinions I’m lording over them. That somehow I’m acting ‘uppity’ or superior in some way.

I am not. I never, ever have. I am a 13 year old boy crying in the bathroom, hoping nobody hears me so I don’t get beat up again. I am an 11 year old hiding my face because the teacher dumped my desk onto the floor just to embarrass me. I am a 12 year old boy begging my mother please, please not to make me go to school anymore. I am still that boy inside. I will always be that boy.

misc 00003

My older brother with my father near the end of my father’s battle with cancer

Recently I wrote a story about a painful period in my life, the death of my father, and my brothers were hurt by it. I thought they would understand what I wrote about our father, and my experiences dealing with his death, one way, and they saw it another way. But it was never meant to be hurtful. I was having a reflective moment, and wanted to write down some thoughts and feelings about my father, and about my personal loss.

I am hoping my younger brother will understand this. My older brother and his wife, well, I am afraid too much damage has been done. But I have to try, as awkward and clumsy as my attempts may be. I need to say for the record, and publicly, that I am sorry for hurting them. But I must also ask them to understand this might happen again. I need to write what’s inside of me and sometimes that will involve powerful, volatile, dangerous feelings. That’s what writers do, and that’s how I need to heal.

But how can I write honestly about the world around me if I am not allowed to call it as I see it? My brothers may not have been the way I portrayed them in that story, but am I wrong for writing how I felt, how I experienced them? In this politically correct world of ours, are my feelings really invalidated because they might be hurtful to someone else?

I am very sorry to have caused anger and pain in my brothers, but the story is my story, not theirs, and I stick by my experiences. There is a very fine line between a true story, and a story written about a true experience. I am  not a journalist and I am not a historian. I am a writer, and I draw on my life for experiences. What I wrote was true, from my point of view. That it was hurtful, or had factual errors, was an unintended and unforeseen consequence, and for that I truly am sorry. But I must write what is true for me, and pray that they can understand.

My name is Matt, and I am a writer. Please forgive me for that awkward, difficult truth.