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Coffeehouse Teenagers

At the tender age of 47, I am a lover of social media and technology.  Facebook and Twitter are two ways in which I stay in contact with family and with friends, new and old.  They provide a great way to advertise and keep on top of things too.

Recently, I performed at a local coffeehouse.  A large group of teenagers stumbled in about halfway through my show.  They laughed and carried on and were having fun after a school event (and they were not laughing at the old fart on the stage!).  After some time passed, the large group separated into two smaller groups.  One remained at the table near the front of the coffeehouse, the other plunked onto the couch beside the stage.

All of these kids had cell phones.  No surprises there.  They texted and snapped photos of each other, me, their coffee, etc.  I realized they weren’t just texting other people who weren’t present; they were texting each other.  One boy at the table near the front snapped a photo of the group on the couch and sent it to the kids sitting there.  He shouted “Roy, did you get that?”  The girls on the couch snickered and snapped a photo of the kids at the table.  “Very funny,” said Boy At Front Table.

This is where I show my age.  As I sang, I witnessed “conversations” between the two groups via texting.  I found it strange they were not talking directly to one another.  It’s a very small coffeehouse.  I wondered what this type of behavior means for society on a larger scale.  The girls put the photo of Table Near Front on Facebook.

When I was that age, I did silly things every day.  A lot of it was captured on film.  When I see photos of younger “friends” or coworkers out at bars or parties, I recall how I was in my partying days.  I was photo crazy, and I’d have been posting shots online all the time.  Drink in hand, wearing a miniskirt, makeup smudged, on the floor after tripping over something, and gesturing at the camera.  Yes, such pictures exist.

But what if, moments after I fell, hundreds of people witnessed it via Facebook or text?  A lot of people would have considered it funny or even cool, but what would it look like to college admissions people or employers?  What if my careless comments about Debbie’s tight clothes or Marty’s weight or a professor’s incompetence suddenly got tweeted out for all to see? With a few beers on board, I have said terrible things for the sake of being funny and regretted it later.  But at least in the 1980s you had time to implement some degree of damage control.  Pictures were seen by friends and, if seen by an unintended audience, they did not go viral.  And comments were limited to word-of-mouth.  Sure, things got around, but not at lightning speed.  Employers, parents, the police, etc., could not see your personal profile and read what you posted and said.  Not that the police were ever after me.  Don’t go spreading that around!

I considered all of this while writing my novel, “The Greeley Stain”.  Marvin, the main character, is fourteen and deathly afraid his secrets will be revealed thanks to social media contagion and easy access to personal information.  It’s something his antagonists use to try to bring him down and helps to bring them down.  Marvin’s cousin, Charlie, is always losing his phones and devices and forgetting to log off of sites he uses.  Charlie has a history of putting his and his family’s identity at risk on account of his forgetfulness.  Will one of Charlie’s mistakes lead to Marvin’s demise? This is a major source of tension between the two characters.

All of this was inspired by what I observed in the coffeehouse that night.  I thank those teenagers for the idea, and for making me all the more grateful I grew up when I did.  Bullying and gossip were problematic enough without technology to make it worse.

You Can’t Put Your Purse in my Back Seat Because….

Many of you who know me as an acquaintance are often shocked to hear one of my deepest, darkest secrets: I am a hoarder.  Although not as bad as the hoarding cases featured on reality TV, I am definitely on the fringes of that world.   I have always been this way, from my earliest memories.  No one can explain why, not even me.

Although I like neat environments, I don’t feel particularly compelled to keep one.  As with neat freaks, my hoarding behavior seems to stem from underlying anxiety.  I have come to view my stuff as a weird comfort and I tend to see the redundancy of things like putting the laundry away as a waste of energy.  When there is stuff lying around, an intruder will bang into something should he or she manage to get into my home.  This will create noise and maybe give me an extra second or two to wake or reach the phone or get out through a window.   In a neat environment, such a person could sneak up on me and overtake me.  Weapons of opportunity are not as visible if they are covered by magazines or towels or if books are sitting on top of them.

My car is identical to my living space.  I keep a blanket, shovel, my bike rack (in winter), extra antifreeze and fluids, a broom, a stool, my speaker stands, foldaway table, an old camera tripod, and large plastic bags in the back seat.  These things all have a purpose for when I am driving, lest I get stuck somewhere or come upon an accident.  Many of the other items are things I carry in and out of coffeehouses for my shows, and it’s just easier to leave them there.  It’s also harder for a criminal to hide out in my backseat,  lying in wait for me to return to the car in the dark.  When I am in “fitness mode”, I tend to leave extra sneakers on the passenger side floor, along with my yoga mat.  I have some extra gloves and a pair of boots for winter.  At any given time, you might find four or five pairs of sunglasses floating around in there, or paperwork from an oil change back in 2005.

Maybe I shouldn’t be okay with this, but I usually am.  That is, until something goes wrong with the car and I have to take it to be serviced, or someone wants a ride.  I have managed to come up with every excuse in the book to explain my stuff to mechanics or to convince someone I really want to give them a ride but cannot.  I’ve taken to being honest lately, and even so people do not believe how my car is until they see it.  Then they politely defer the ride and I am left embarrassed.  When the question of a ride comes up, it’s like when someone unexpectedly rings my doorbell:  I panic.

I panic because I know people will judge me for this behavior.  I panic because I fear people will look at me in disgust.  I panic because of what the landlord might say, even though my place is not “food and waste” dirty (it’s just full of books and magazines and gym equipment and clothes and pet toys).  I panic because I fear people will think of less of me if they know the truth.

I am facing the “ride” situation with regard to a trip to Philadelphia next Monday to see the band Arcade Fire.  I bought two tickets several months back, with the hope of finding someone who could come along.  I rarely get to see a concert with another person, and I thought it would be fun.  I also thought that once this “concert mate” decided to come along, I could somehow convince him or her that we should take the train or that they should drive and I pay for everything else.

That’s not going to happen this time, however.  My friend is giving me the well-meant “I don’t care, my car is a mess too” promise, leaving me in a sudden rush to at least straighten up my front seat.  In the coming days, I will have to dedicate another hour or so just to make it tolerable for her.  My fear is that it won’t be clean enough, especially if she is a neat freak.  I have horrific ideas about the things she might say about me and my car to our other friends, or to her friends I’ve never met.  This person has never spent a good chunk of time with me either, and my quirky personality might make things worse.  I am as nervous as I would be if Arcade Fire themselves wanted me to drive them to the show, maybe more so since they are not people I interact with every weekend and who know the same people I know.  They are a quirky band, so maybe they would “get” me.  But most regular people do not think as I do, and I am acutely aware of this in these situations.

The same thing happened when a friend insisted we take my car to a U2 concert in Pittsburgh a few years ago.  I was all set to take the train and tried explaining how relaxing the train is and how much time we will get to chat and whatnot, to no avail.  She said if I didn’t want to drive, she would drive my car (gas prices were the issue.  I have a Honda sedan and she has a Hummer).  I think I spent the better part of an entire day moving things into the apartment and dusting and scrubbing and vacuuming, things that happen once or twice a year, maybe.  I am sure my neighbors were looking on, as they will be tomorrow, as I burrow and dig and rearrange things.  They’ve all seen the inside of my car, for sure, as they walk past it en route to the front door.

I have, over the course of my life, made promise after promise to myself and to others that I will change my behavior.  I meant it each time.  But I am now middle-aged, and I know this behavior is part and parcel with my personality.  I am not sure how to make myself want to change.  Any short-lived efforts I’ve made in the past have been centered on what other people want.  Like losing weight or quitting smoking to impress others, it doesn’t last because I need to want it badly enough.  That, and I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with it.

A Clogged Drain and a Thorn in My Side

           It was October, 2013.  For the second time in a week, I found myself snaking a clog out of the shower drain.  I was horrified by the massive, slimy monster I retrieved.  More so, I was haunted by what it meant.

           I maintained a thin state of denial, diagnosing myself with a condition called “telogen effluvium”, like the first time I had massive hair loss.  Telogen effluvium (TE) occurs when you experience massive hair loss in response to a stressor occurring three to six months earlier.  The timing was right for this to be a TE episode, since I was sick with a respiratory illness the previous June. 

          My first hair loss episode happened in 2010.  A dermatologist, finding nothing wrong with my scalp, diagnosed me with possible TE.  He also said my hair loss could be due to tension from headband use.  Just to be sure, he told me to report the hair loss to my primary care physician.  So I did.  My PCP concurred that it could be TE or headband tension but sent a plethora of blood tests to cover his bases.

          The blood work opened a gate to a difficult path and a hormonal nightmare.  My prolactin level was very high while my cortisol, DHEA, and growth hormone levels were very low.  These indicated the presence of a tumor.  I was immediately referred to an endocrinologist and scheduled for an MRI.  The tumor, though small, stood out as if to say “here I am!”

           Low DHEA levels cause hair loss.  So much for TE and tension-related damage.

           Although pituitary tumors are usually benign, there is only so much space inside the skull.  All tumors of the brain have to be carefully monitored and treated or they will cause pressure.  My little tumor was suppressing some of the other functions of the pituitary, putting me in a life-threatening situation.  The doctor started me on a drug to shrink the tumor and put me on oral steroids.

           Being on oral steroids meant I had to wear a MedicAlert bracelet and carry an injectable “rescue dose” everywhere I went.  The rescue dose would be needed in the event I contracted a vomiting illness.  If my system is suddenly cut off from the hydrocortisone, I will go into a crisis and possibly die within two days.  Sooner if I have a fever.  A vomiting illness means a hospital stay until I am able to absorb the pills.  The thought of contracting a vomiting illness under these conditions created a severe phobia of social situations.  Even for non-vomiting illnesses, like head colds, I had to follow a formula.  Double up my oral dose if I have a cold.  Triple it and get to my PCP if I have a fever.  Make sure the anesthesiologist and surgeons know my condition before any surgery, so they can give me a stress dose.  Double the dose on days when I do distance races or hard training.  It was a real headache.

           The Medic Alert bracelet and the rescue injection each served to remind me I am no longer completely healthy and that I don’t have as much control over my body as I thought.  They served as markers of weakness and made me feel chained.

           Yet a few days after diagnosis I realized that because I don’t have complete control over my body, I have no clue what other illnesses or problems might be brewing at any given time.  I had a paradigm shift.  Suddenly, there was no room for negative things or people in my life.  I focused on the things that add value and meaning, while breaking free of my selfish, self-loathing, and depressed mind set.  I even started to write a book about my experience.

          People who had my type of tumor assured me theirs was treated and cured to the point where they were off all medication, within a two year period.  The doctor herself expected me to recover quickly.  That helped me maintain a positive attitude too.  By fall of 2012, I was deemed well enough to come off the steroids and I even did the Harrisburg Marathon without causing a drop hormone levels.  My cortisol level remained good and I had a full head of hair.

           Things went well for about seven months.  I had tough colds in April and June, but my cortisol level was still normal.  Then my hair started falling out again in September.  Once again, I thought it had to be TE or the tension of ponytails and headbands, since I assumed all my hormone levels were good. 

           I finished the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton the second weekend in October, and I felt fine afterwards.  By that point I accepted my hair loss as “the way it is”, bringing middle age in as a factor.  I could see my scalp this time around and contemplated buying a wig. 

The following weekend, I did my last long session before the New York Marathon and again felt fine afterwards.  The day after that session, I started taking a medication to treat a longstanding hoarseness issue as a part of a treatment regimen to get my singing voice back.

            I had a terrible reaction to the drug.  I experienced what is known as a die-off reaction.  Die off reactions are the result of a massive immune system attack against the offending organism or tumor, and the effort to expel the toxins released by the invader.  Six days into this aggressive therapy, I started to feel very weak.  One night I was at work and experienced a “panic attack” that lasted most of my shift.  By morning, my thinking was cloudy and I started retching.  I was not well enough to drive home, so I ended up in the emergency room.

           My cortisol level had bottomed out.  It was the Wednesday before the race, and I was forced to drop out of the New York Marathon.

           I cannot tell you how disappointed I was.  My two year window for a cure was almost closed, yet my pituitary failed me at the last minute.  I needed an emergency injection of hydrocortisone and was put back on the oral steroid.  I had to order another MedicAlert bracelet and carry the rescue dose again.  Both serve as tokens of weakness and remind me of constant threat.

          The endocrinologist is puzzled.  She thought maybe it was a one-time episode and rechecked my levels a month later.  There was no improvement.  A second month later, on the two year anniversary of my diagnosis, there was still no improvement.  I was placed on a higher dose of steroid.  Today, February 27, 2014, I learned my DHEA level is also much lower than it was at the time of diagnosis.  On almost all fronts, I am worse than I was two years ago. 

          My gut feeling about the clogged drain was right.  It seems like such a trivial thing, yet look what it meant for me.  This has forced me to question whether or not I will ever be cured.  The benign, “easily treatable” tumor and its insane hormonal influences might very well be a thorn in my side for many years to come, wreaking havoc on my body.  The low DHEA and the steroids are sapping calcium from my bones, as we know from newly diagnosed hyperparathyroidism.  I am only forty six and already a high risk for osteoporosis on account of all this.  The drug they gave me to shrink the tumor has most likely caused scarring in my lungs, which is interfering with my heart function.  I have dreamed of the New York Marathon for a long time, a race that’s very hard to get into.  I am beginning to think it will never happen.  I wonder what else “won’t happen” as a result of this nagging problem.

Telogen effluvium.  Head bands.  Clogged drains.  Disrupted life.

 

The Miracle of an Unanswered Prayer

When I think back now about things I wanted in my youth, I see my life would be really messed up if I got my way.  Sometimes it pays to be grateful we do not get everything we ask for, no matter how unfair it seems as we go through our trials.

When I met Bono and Edge of U2 last year it was much more than just a superficial, thrilling experience.  I learned several valuable lessons that day:

1)      God knows me, cares about me, and is aware of the things I desire and need

2)      Anything is possible

3)      I could not handle fame

You see, for most of my life I envisioned myself as a talented singer.  My childhood dream was to be snatched up by Nashville or New York so I could get on the world’s stages and the top 40.  I loved singing and performing, a passion I have to this day.  I also imagined having throngs of enamored fans, people who were reasonably inspired by my music and story, people who would love me.  I saw this type of fame—the kind of fame enjoyed by U2, Madonna, and Lady Gaga—as a guarantee that someone would always be thinking about me.  I thought it would eliminate any future danger of loneliness and would guarantee friendship.  Most of all I thought it would validate me, convince  me  that I am a worthy human being who is as good as anyone else.  It would ideally make all the people who ever put me down realize they were wrong.  I needed to know I was wrong about how I viewed myself.

In my late teens I became familiar with Leonard Cohen’s music.  My family wanted me to learn “The Song of Bernadette” and sing it to them.  We bought a copy of Jennifer Warnes’ “Famous Blue Raincoat”, her tribute to Cohen.  Many of the songs intrigued me, including “Song of Bernadette”.  But the one that affected me most even at that young age was “I Came So Far For Beauty”.

At the time I thought about a boy I was obsessed with through my teen years and how nothing I did impressed him.  I made myself physically attractive.  I took modeling lessons.  I tried to do heroic things.  I changed my style, the way I carried myself, and became fashion conscious.  Many people were impressed and amazed by my transformation from geek to attractive popular girl.  Some were even jealous.  Boys noticed.  Yet in spite of everything, the one boy I wanted was bullet proof.

Cohen’s frustration and sadness were very real to me.  He created a masterpiece yet still felt it was somehow in vain.  In time, I stopped focusing on the boy but continued to seek affirmation among coworkers, friends, and men.  I still thought even a fraction of U2-like fame would erase these insecurities.  I’d have been happy to be a regular on the folk music scene, traveling the country to festivals or with tours like the Lilith Fair.  I still wanted someone to see my “masterpiece” and value me for it.

As I grew older, past the age when models and young singers get signed and into the age where one hopes for a last chance while realizing all chances have gone, I grew angry and depressed.  I demanded of God to tell me why.  Why did He give me a strong singing voice and ability to write moving songs and a desire to perform while sealing off all doors that would allow me to share these things with the world?  Why, if it wasn’t to be, did I still have this torturous desire?  I felt, in a self-defeating way, that I had so much to offer, that I could really make a difference in the world if I could make it as a singer.  After eighteen years as a “plain, invisible bedside nurse” who is constantly put down and named “incompetent” by coworkers (and the occasional patient), I wondered why I am stuck in a profession where I will clearly never be someone other nurses will look up to and cannot make an impact.  Although I love the critical care environment and hospital, I feel my skills in those areas are not as strong as other nurses’ skills.  Yet my ability to sing, write songs, and perform are still my strong point.  And I cannot use them to reach people because I cannot get my songs heard.  I went through a long period of kicking myself for not trying harder in the music business and even for not being pretty enough to sell records!

Last year I wrote a song called “Stay (An Anthem)”, based on my experience of meeting Bono and Edge, the inspiration I get from Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and the influence Leonard Cohen had on my life.  I couldn’t believe a song like that came from me.  It is the best song I have ever written.  I perform it with power and conviction and gusto.  It inspired me to go into the studio and record another album and to think this is the song that will finally get through to people.  It would get to the core of people, to their souls, inspire them and fill them with hope.  It was my masterpiece.

Unsigned.

“Stay (An Anthem)” got no votes on Ourstage.com or the other websites and contests where I posted it.  It got no comments, positive or negative, and actually confused a few people.  One close friend was spooked, thinking the song was about suicidal ideations and hearing voices! I can’t tell you how disappointed and frustrated I was.  Although two of the other songs on the CD got positive reviews and a few votes, this experience threw another entire humble pie in my face.  It was a harsh lesson in humility.

I came to a point where I accepted, without feeling down on myself, that “Stay” really is my trophy song regardless of who hears it or likes it.  I like it.  It makes me feel so uplifted and hopeful when I sing it.  It may be best kept as a “diary song”.  And I realized God was answering my prayer about “getting to do what I love” because I’ve constantly had small-time gigs and a few supporters all these years.  This really was all I needed.

When Bono and Edge signed their autographs in my journal and when Bono spoke to me that day I was stunned and profoundly grateful.  Yet as I watched them work the eager crowd, I realized I could not do what they do every day.  I took note of the rapt attention every person gave to Bono, each person longing for a piece of him, each vying for his attention.  He seemed to be giving as much as he could to everyone, but it was impossible.  I thought I wanted what U2 has, but I realized if I earned fame in my twenties, like I wanted, it would have probably destroyed me.

I still want to inspire people with my work, change lives for the better, and know people love some of the work I do.  Yet in my experience of following U2 and Heart on their most recent tours I have seen that not all fans are mere admirers.  What about the delusional stalkers who sneak onto tour buses or wait in back alleys behind clubs?  What is it like to need a bodyguard all the time or to have to arrange for privacy?  Lady Gaga has been posting to Facebook the past few days about her tour experiences.  Today there was a post directed at fans chanting outside her hotel when she was apparently trying to sleep.  She clearly enjoys and respects her fans but I can’t help but wonder if that sort of thing gets old.  The other day I read a story about some U2 fans who got drunk at a pub near Bono’s house then scaled the wall surrounding his property.  They were immediately captured by security and escorted off the private grounds.  This occurred around three in the morning and was apparently a dare, almost for sport, but it still made me think about how a famous person must constantly deal with people trying to get close.  There are people out there who think Nancy Wilson is their wife, or whatever.  I know how I felt when an older delusional guy stalked me when I was in college.  I was terrified all the time.  He would show up unexpectedly and profess undying love for me, call me a bitch, threaten revenge if I didn’t go out with him, and fight with boys he saw me with.

No way.  If God gave me my way regarding fame, my life would likely be a real mess.  People would look at me and see nothing but disaster, the way they look at rock stars or models who stumble into substance abuse or psychosis.  I might have even been an Amy Winehouse or Kurt Kobain.  At best, I’d be an aloof diva with a reputation for scorning fans and wanting to be left alone.  It would be fun for a few months, if that, and would have been an awful prison.

I have great admiration for people who can handle the demands of stardom and remain sane.  I am also very grateful for the gift of anonymity.  Invisibility can indeed be sacred.  God only gives us what we can handle.  I still hope to be “discovered”, either for my writing or speaking, but I am content to stay here with my “masterpiece unsigned”, my sage wisdom, my ability to handle future successes as they are metered out to me.  I gave up the pointless fight to be recognized en masse, and I also gave up the feeling of failure for not having achieved this “dream”.  The extra energy I now have can be devoted to actually doing something reasonable.

Winter, Song Writing, and Misunderstood Meaning

This has been the best winter since I moved to Pennsylvania 20 years ago.  There was no need to put the bicycle away.  I hardly wore my winter coat, didn’t get to or care about the ski slopes.  Yet spring is officially still over a week away.  We could still get hit with a massive Noreaster or ice storm, and I might be kicking myself this time next week for speaking too soon.  Even if snow happens, I cannot complain.  February is typically the month when my mood takes a nosedive, when I feel as though I am  trapped in cold darkness, surrounded by others who feel the same.  I am not sure how much the weather contributed to my mood this year, however the expected February nadir did not happen.

When I go into what I call “The February Downer”, I typically write a lot of poems and songs.  Sometimes, bursts of creativity emerge at the beginning of March when, like a bear coming out of hibernation, I start to awaken and become energetic.  Since I didn’t have a February Downer this year, I don’t have fodder for new songs. 

When I think about it, I haven’t written a song since August.  The current musical dry spell is ongoing, without even a day when I sit down and try to force a new song into being.  It might be because I’ve become more interested in writing memoirs and stories lately.  Or it could be that I gave birth to my ultimate song last spring.  By “ultimate”, I don’t mean a top 40 smash that will one day be a classic.  At least not on a worldwide level.  Every songwriter dreams of writing a song that will lead to fame and fortune, and I am no different.  But I’ve learned to redefine songwriting success on my own terms. 

My ultimate song came into existence rather suddenly, taking me by surprise.  I did not have to grasp to find lyrics and did not have to figure out the best way to put it together.   “Stay (An Anthem)” was borne of a delayed burst of creativity following last year’s February Downer.  It was one of the many miraculous things that happened to me in 2011.   Late last summer, I compiled some of the strongest songs I’ve written over the past fifteen years and recorded a low-budget CD. “Stay”, of course, was to be the shining light, the pick of the litter, the supersong.  Full of confidence, I uploaded the CD to several music websites and started performing “Stay” at all my shows.  Although the songs are not winning contests or attracting listeners (meaning no sales), people feel my energy when I perform them live.  “Stay” usually starts a positive feedback loop that enhances my confidence and energy on the stage.

I decided to surprise my friends with little gift bags and copies of the CD when we got together for dinner in early October.  Hoping to amaze my girls with how much I’ve grown as a songwriter over the years, I waited enthusuastically for feedback.  “Stay” is written in such a way that people can feel inspired without knowing the story behind the song.  If some people knew what it is really about, they might consider it hokey or even foolish.  But I want them to feel the sense of hope I had when I wrote it.  It is intended to be uplifting, mysterious, and ethereal.  I wanted my friends to sense these things.

Much to my horror, “Stay (An Anthem)” had an unanticipated effect on those who are closest to me.  A few days after I distributed the CD a best friend called me, scared.  She knew I normally had a pessimistic nature and bouts of depression in the past and was especially concerned about the song’s reference to angels.  Her voice shaking, she said “you say you spent all night praying and an angel came and told you to ‘stay’.  Were you thinking of going somewhere?  Do angels talk to you?”  Uh oh, I thought.  How do I get out of this?  In her mind, I wrote it out of desperation.  Suddenly I saw an unintended interpretation of the song.  She thought I was suicidal.  Worse, she thought I might be hearing voices.  How could this happen?  Did I really conceal my muses that well, but without conveying the intended positive message?  My friend got so hung up on the “angel conversation” in the chorus that she totally missed the lines about knowing hope exists, my faith being “anchored in solid ground”, and the valuable life lessons I learned from the experiences that inspired the song.

Nothing I said calmed my friend down so, against my better judgement, I had to tell her “Stay” is about the incredible experience I had at the U2 concert in Denver last May.  I had the rare and unexpected honor of meeting Bono and Edge.  I had to tell her it was about listening to U2 perform their “Stay” (Faraway, So Close), the song that consistently brought me to tears throughout the 360 Tour (the word “stay” is the hook of my own song, and I could not think of another appropriate title).  I had to tell her they also performed “Please” that night, that Bono is the “angel”, that I envision Ann Wilson’s performance of “Love, Reign O’er Me” as I sing, and that I also wanted to honor Leonard Cohen.  In short, it was written in honor of the groups/artists who have been most influential for me.  My friends tend to look down on me for being a  fan of U2 and Heart, openly stating their opinion that I should be spending my money on more sensible things, not concert tickets, band memorabilia, or things like the “I Came So Far for Beauty” DVD.  They don’t get that U2′s and Heart’s music offers me solace at times when I am down and excitement when I am happy.   They don’t get the impact meeting Bono and Edge had: things that good…that incredible…don’t happen to people like me.  The incident forced a paradigm shift on me, making me see there may still be good things in my future.  Although I still have some pessimistic tendencies, that experience made me see possibilities.  It was more than “just meeting famous people”.  So much for the image of a person who’s had a major breakthrough.  So much for “wait, people, and your prayers will be answered”.  And who, my friends wondered, is Leonard Cohen? 

I was both embarrassed and frustrated to have to reveal this information.  My friend was quick to point out that the second song on the CD is called “When the Angels Come”.  That song, though ultimately positive, is reflective of times when I was either angry or down.  It was inspired by a song by Blink 182 and, later, Green Day’s “American Idiot” album (it took over 10 years to complete).  Despite the obvious mood, the song is very cathartic and has always helped me feel better.  Again, the reference to angels sent up red flags.  Our phone call went on for over an hour before I convinced my friend I was not planning to jump of the Harvey Taylor Bridge or the roof of the parking garage.  It ended with her feeling cautiously reassured (and certainly not “inspired and hopeful”).

Perhaps that’s the difference between people who have a writer’s brain (or artistic tendency) and people who do not.  My friends take things literally.  Sometimes, when a song comes on the radio, my friends wonder aloud what a certain line means.  They look at artists like David Bowie or Peter Gabriel and don’t fully appreciate the depth of their songs.  When I describe Stevie Nicks as a workhorse and fantastic songwriter, they make reference to her flowing clothes or past drug use.  I don’t say these things because believe my way of thinking is better.  My friends are certainly more adept at running households, keeping things neat, managing finances, building relationships, and sharing job-related skills with others (I am the only one out of our group who is not regarded as a mentor for new nurses, a manager, or a “good resource person”).

Perhaps I should have kept “Stay (An Anthem)” and my other five powersongs private.  Maybe they were meant to be “journal songs”.  Maybe the public feels the same way about them as my friends did, and that’s why they aren’t selling or winning prizes. In the time following the disastrous phone call, I’ve questioned the role of my pride and I have learned to keep my mouth shut about how great I think these songs are.  I thought I was presenting them humbly and sincerely.  Maybe I should not share such things.  I believe in God, and perhaps that phone call was His way of stopping me in my tracks, keeping future arrogance in check.  Maybe I shouldn’t have shared such personal things hoping to feel I’ve done good for the world in the process.

Then again, I bare my soul in my songs, and that’s what is at the heart of writing.

As I said before, 2011 was a miraculous year for me.  I am satisfied in a lot of areas of my life, at least for now.  The year is a tough act to follow, full pleasant surprises and dreams that came true.  I can’t foresee writing another song like “Stay (An Anthem)”, for it feels like the capstone of my songwriting years, and I am happy with it no matter who misunderstands its meaning.  This songwriting dry spell can therefore go on indefinitely and I don’t think I’ll ever get upset about it.  Besides, I’m exploring other creative writing avenues.  It’s almost like a new beginning.   Who needs winter doldrums for inspiration?  I’ll give up a few “good tunes” if it means staying clear of the February Downer and the selfishness that goes along with it.  And if I’m to write good memoirs and non-fiction, the February Downer will not serve me well.  People don’t want to consistently hear about misery.  While in Denver, on “Stay Day”, it occurred to me that there might be lots of “small” miracles around me every day.  I have to actively look for these miracles.

Should I call my friend and tell her this is yet another “message” I got from the angels?  Just kidding.

Oh, and if you are now curious about “Stay (An Anthem)” and the other “powersongs”, have a go at it (if the link works!): http://www.ourstage.com/profile/mariesmith/songs

The Deadly Question….”Why?”

When I started keeping this blog I was full of excitement and enthusiasm.  I am also a singer/songwriter and was full of vigor and determination when I recorded my latest project in August.  Both projects, when I made them available to the world, felt like bold leaps of faith.  The positive feelings were strong enough to trump the vulnerability that comes with introducing original work.  I told myself no matter how things turned out with either endeavor, I could handle it.

Well, I was wrong.  I uploaded songs to a website that sells music through 23 different vendors, including Amazon.com and iTunes.  So far, I haven’t sold one track!  The song that carries the most emotional weight and personal meaning for me has gone virtually unnoticed.  I’ve entered it into several channel contests on Ourstage.com.  Not only does the song not make the top 100, it places dead last every time I enter it.  This has happened three times so far.  When I perform the song live, people tell me they love it.  Great passion comes alive within me when I sing it.   Yet I can’t seem to get anyone on the Internet to even listen to it.  The Ourstage dashboard tells me it has been played 60 times (the current contest leader’s song has been played something like 1000 times, and she only posted it a little over a month ago).  There is absolutely no feedback from anyone.  I don’t know whether it’s the song itself, the sound quality, my photograph, or if I’m not “selling” it properly.  I ask myself why people don’t like it, why it’s not making an impact on anybody, and why, if it means so much to me, it doesn’t mean anything to other people.

The same goes for my writing.  I worked for hours on “The Great Mucktown Adventure”, which I posted here a few days ago and on another website last month.  On that other website, I initially got a lot of positive feedback.  “Mucktown” has, however, fallen by the wayside in favor of other U2 fans’ blogs on that site.  The fans who read my entry gave it great reviews for the most part, but it doesn’t seem to have the staying power of other stories.  I posted it here with the same enthusiasm, however I’ve already run into problems convincing people to read it (plus I’ve had some technical difficulty with the links).  So far, no one has “liked” it on Facebook.  Trying to get people interested in my blogs and papers is proving to be far more difficult than I imagined.  Maybe I’m simply being too impatient.  But again, I find myself asking why.  Why don’t my creative works “go anywhere”?  Why can’t I have just a little bit of success?  Why isn’t anyone leaving feedback?  Why is the music industry so age-biased, if that’s even the issue?  Why do people think I am so boring? Why did God give me these passions but not allow me the chance to use them?

Why, why, why.

I managed to “why” myself into a bout of major depression over these two things.  Today, however, I started to read a book by Anne Bruce entitled “Speak For A Living” (an endeavor I hope will accompany my writing projects in the near future).  First, Bruce has the reader complete a questionnaire designed to assess whether or not public speaking is an appropriate career move.  Immediately after the survey, she names the one thing successful speakers should never do……ask “why”.

I realized I am killing myself emotionally by focusing on “why” I’m not getting the immediate, desired response to my songs or my writing.  This is a total waste of energy and time.  I am not sure what to do regarding the music, but I suspect it has something to do with patience, or with accepting the song should simply be a “personal diary song”, not something for the masses to appreciate.  Patience is one of my weakest points.  I guess I need to learn, as Joyce Meyer says, to “wait well” and keep moving forward in the meantime.

I actually wrote a song 10 years ago called “Stop Asking Me Why”.  It’s about dating a man whom I felt friends and family would not have accepted.  Because they could never understand my reasons, it was pointless for them to be concerned with “why”.  Yet here I am on a pathetic, child-like downer because I am not using the wisdom I suggested in my own song!

2011 was a fantastic year for me otherwise, so much that I have not given any thought to resolutions for 2012.  Right now, I resolve to stop getting hung up on the whys in my life.  They are power thieves!  What will be will be regarding the songs and stories.

The Great Mucktown Adventure

Although I’ve lived in The States for 20 years, I will always be a Cape Bretoner.  My family still lives there, and most of my friends are scattered throughout the Maritimes.  I left to satisfy a need to experience New York City and try to be like my heroes in the fashion world.  At the time, I was 5’8, 125 pounds, and 21 years old so I figured I had a shot. After being turned down by 3 legit modeling agencies and ripped off by many fakes, I admitted I’d never do a cover shoot with Cindy Crawford or appear in the Victoria’s Secret catalog.  Now that I think about it, I was a prime candidate for human traffickers and scam artists in those days.  I seceded to my “day career”, in which I remain.  When people ask me how I ended up in Pennsylvania, I get as far as “well, I wanted to be a model in New York City” and laughter stops the conversation.  Hey, just because I’m 30 pounds heavier and look like the average Kmart shopper doesn’t mean I wasn’t ever….forget it.

But I digress.  When my aunt told me U2 was coming to Nova Scotia, I cracked up laughing.  Really??  As if!!!  I tried to think about where they could set up The Claw: Archibald Field?  Big Pond?  There was no location that could accommodate both an audience of 100,000 and that stage. No way. Not possible.

Then I remembered Magnetic Hill in Moncton, where the Stones and Bon Jovi played the past few summers.  I checked the discussion boards on U2.com and, sure enough, the Moncton rumor was flying around.  Then the official announcement came.  I couldn’t believe it!  How cool that U2 would hold their final 360 show amidst the culture of my youth (even if not Cape Breton)?  I got a GA ticket.

The chance of actually getting there was pretty slim.  I used a lot of vacation time and cash on the Denver, Philly, and Pittsburgh shows.  An airline which I’ll call “The Fleecing of Maritimers” charges the same fare from Harrisburg to Moncton as most airlines do from here to Japan (this is not an exaggeration, I checked it on Expedia.  Can you say “righteous anger”?).  This meant driving 1800 miles alone in a car that has over 130,000 miles on it.  I made that hell drive enough times that the thought of it makes me want to puke.  My phobia of big rigs and I-95 is borne of experience.  Add to that the miles from Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania turnpike only days before.  I triggered panic writing this section.  Excuse me while I get a Xanax.

Anyway, I booked a hotel in Fredericton, souped up the car, renewed my AAA membership, faced my fears, and hit the road.  14 hours after leaving Pennsylvania, I was in my room at Lakewood Suites.  The plan for concert day was to relax.  I reserved a seat on a charter bus so I could catch up on much needed rest en route to Moncton.  It would save me four hours of driving and spare me the hassle of parking.

When I arrived at the passenger pickup site the following day, rain was coming down heavily.  Two luxurious motorcoaches with the charter company’s name on the sides parked beside Tim Horton’s, and there wasn’t much of a crowd.  I grabbed a sandwich, coffee, and a donut then tried unsuccessfully to board.   What?  These buses are not for us?  What gives?  People gradually gathered in the parking lot, each group following the same order of getting a coffee and donut, trying to board the motorcoaches, then stomping away with looks of dismay (or, in some cases, anger). Six orange school buses entered the parking lot.  Okay, I thought, whatever.

While waiting to board, people started talking to me, including a group of guys in their early 20s.  One of them, dressed in rubber boots and overalls, pointed to my old running shoes and said “That right there, eh, is the worst choice of footwear I ever seen!”  Why, I asked.  He said “You obviously never been there, right?”  Then I saw everyone was wearing boots.

Once on the bus, I quickly realized most people were not on board to avoid traffic or parking hassles.  They were there because they planned to get wasted.  The group of boys brought a “keg” of gin mixed with pink juice on board along with a few six packs of beer.  A group of middle aged women older than me were doing shots they bought at the liquor store across the street.  Both groups were already drunk.  Sandwiched between them, and in spite of their friendliness and generosity, I was terrified.  I made excuses like being pregnant so they’d stop offering me booze (I didn’t want to offend anyone).  The debauchery was loud.  There were only a few other sober dorks like me scattered far apart from one another.  I later learned we wanted each other’s mental support, but it was geographically impossible.

I had to remind myself that when I lived in Cape Breton, my friends and I were totally into this behavior.  In those days I’d have looked forward to a bus ride like this.  I wouldn’t have considered doing it sober.  Profane jokes would spill from my mouth, always eliciting laughter and accolades.  I didn’t quit drinking intentionally.  Time and social isolation extricated me from it and probably saved me from rehab or a liver transplant.  Yet all I could think about was enduring two hours of rainy highway with these people.  Worse, I was in the wheel seat.  I shuddered at the thought of the trip back.

The young guys professed allegiance to Arcade Fire, stating their parents bought the tickets and were the real U2 fans.  Their parents were also going to be at the show.  My mother would have killed me if I showed up in that condition.  We weren’t even out of town before Rubber Overalls decided he had to pee.  Lamenting because the first stop was over an hour away, he tried to go in an empty beer can.  I didn’t dare turn my head to see this.  When we hit a bump, he went airborne and landed in the aisle beside me, beer can still in hand.  His friends nearly died laughing.  Time and time again, he repeated this sequence.  He’d apparently set himself up and be dismantled by a pothole, rock, or bridge joint.  To make matters worse for him, rain leaked through the ceiling in a steady stream.  The middle aged women started cracking up.  Finally, the boy pleaded with the bus driver to pull over.  The two buses behind us followed suit.  I wiped the fog off my window and saw 10 guys lined up facing the woods.  A few women ducked into the bushes.  All I could think was “why the heck did I do this to myself?”

I was never so happy to see Moncton as I was that afternoon and bolted for the parking lot as soon as the driver opened the door.  I didn’t care about the rain.

I found a hot dog stand and desperately texted my Canadian friends :” Thank Heaven I’m off that bus!  You should have seen it!”  Greg responded with “Remember that time we all went to Ingonish Beach?”  Enough said.  I’m a hypocrite.  As I tell this story now I have to admit the charter bus to Moncton was pretty darn funny.

My friends and I had trouble finding one another thanks to the predicted cell tower overload.  A piece of text from Trina came through, something about being on the highway with Edge in a black SUV right in front of her and a motorcade.  No way!!  What, she gets close to U2 at her very first show without even trying?  Not fair!

After several more failed connections and misunderstandings, we found one another.  How awesome to see my home girls!  How awesome too that they were sober and brought their families!  This took an enormous amount of peer pressure off me to drink.  We embraced, told each other how good we looked, and then entered the gates.

It was then I understood Rubber Overalls’ comment about my footwear.  I immediately sank an inch into the mud and my shoes almost came off.  About ten feet inside, mud stains were up to my knees.  Greg nearly wiped out as hundreds of others around us did.  Some people looked like zombies, caked in mud from head to toe, hair messy, eyes glowing white or red depending on degree of intoxication.  We carefully made our way to the T shirt stand, where I found the Achtung Baby era shirt Michele couldn’t find in Pittsburgh.  It was white.  Since The Claw was located at the bottom of a steep hill of quicksand, I tied the shirt around my neck.  Carrying it guaranteed exposure to mud, so putting it around my neck and trusting others not to strangle me was risk management.

My friends had seats in the grandstand behind the stage and I had a GA ticket, so when Arcade Fire took the stage we hugged again and parted ways.  I started my tedious descent/slide towards the Claw and miraculously made it to the thick crowd and more solid ground.  For a late comer, I managed to get pretty close to the stage.  After being bumped by numerous people claiming to be returning to the rail or inner circle, where their spouses or friends supposedly were, I learned I could inch my way forward by telling people I was looking for my husband, or latching onto the end of a “train” of people (thanks to Ruthann in Philly for showing me this “standard concert procedure”).  I figured out how to do this without actually touching the shoulder of the last person.  The moment I spotted a fan with a number on his or her hand/arm, however, I stopped.  Getting ahead of those people is a rule of U2 fan culture I refuse to break. They were the people who may have been waiting in line possibly for more than a day.

The rain stopped and Arcade Fire rocked!  I could see my friends behind the stage.  They were in a position to see the bands entering and leaving, closer to the stage than any of the more expensive tickets.  You should see their pictures!  Arcade Fire proved the best of all of U2′s opening acts on the tour.  Although I initially was not too impressed with their CD, seeing them live was the clincher.  They are totally wild onstage, and I loved every minute of it.  Hopefully they will come to Pennsylvania so I can see them do an entire show of their own.

During the intermission, I was moved to tears when Canadian fighter jets flew overhead.  U2 crashed into the crowd with their first song, “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, while the eager crowd went insane.  Bono said “Moncton…Moncton….Mucktown“.  U2 only arrived in Moncton a few hours before the show, however “muck” was everywhere, and they probably had to muddle through some of it themselves as they entered the grounds.  The show was a treasure, especially when Bono reworded “Stay” to reflect the final performance, when they did the full version of “40” at the end, and when Bono sang “Springhill Mining Disaster”.  How cool it was to hear the B man singing one of “our” folk songs!  It was also cool to remember how culturally unique the Maritimes are compared to everywhere else I’ve lived.  To quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home”.

The end wasn’t as dramatic as it was in Pittsburgh, where a margarita “enhanced” my experience, but it was a nice farewell.  I took a photo during “Out of Control”, which I now have enlarged to 11 x 14 and framed along with the city and date on my wall.  I took it from halfway up the hill.  When I snapped the shot I felt a little disturbed, because “Out of Control” was the song that got U2′s foot in the door, and now they were ending the last show with it.  I wondered if it symbolized retirement.  But I didn’t allow that thought to upset me.  My experiences in Pittsburgh and Moncton gave me a sense of “satisfied enoughness”.  If U2 does retire, I can say I was there for the last show and all that went with it.  Over the music, Edwin McCain’s “I Could Not Ask For More” floated into my awareness.  “These are the moments I thank God that I’m alive”.  “These are the moments I’ll remember all my life”.  “These are the moments I know Heaven must exist”.  Then I stood silent during “40” and listened to the crowd chant.  I stayed there until the band disappeared from sight.  It was all totally worth it.

I could not ask for more!!

The bus back to Fredericton wasn’t nearly as bad since everyone was either passed out or asleep.  I too huddled as much as I could in my wheel seat and drifted off.  I awoke once to see The Big Dipper , a sight obscured by city light in Pennsylvania.  I forget how brilliant the stars are back home.

The drive to Pennsylvania was white knuckled and harrowing….much more so than the drive north…but I made it.  I tapped my car when I got back and said “Nice work, old gal”.  My cats greeted me happily at the door.  That night I listened to Jonny Lang’s “The Last Goodbye” and reminisced about the past two years.  Mission accomplished, I fell asleep.

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