1-6-09, 9:39 AM:

So. 2008. Where the hell to begin?

I’ll leave aside the political world, because I doubt even the Unabomber would’ve been able to avoid all the airtime and ink dedicated to those happenings.

Really no need to delve into the economy, either. If it’s hit you, you know it, and if it hasn’t, you’re one of the lucky (and shrinking) few.

In truth, my own 2008 had very little to do with either of those wide canvases. In my 2007 year-end letter, I alluded to the health problems that, as it turned out, would end up defining my year. Here, then, is my tale of woe.

In 1998, my famously iron stomach began to crack. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since metabolisms tend to slow down eventually, and I’d been treating my innards like a toxic waste dump for at least the previous decade. No food was too cheap or crappy to ingest, preferably in large quantities. What most young adults do to their livers, I had been doing to my gut, and it quite naturally began to protest. However, I found that I was still able to keep things under control if I simply rationed out my bad gastric behavior rather than misbehaving 24/7.

One of the things I began to notice was that I could only eat so much bread at a time without feeling ill. I took note and adjusted my eating habits accordingly. More on that shortly.

Another thing that developed over the next few years was an increase in fatigue. It crept up slowly enough that by the time I noticed it, I had already attributed it to other factors. What I had actually developed was hypothyroidism, which I finally got diagnosed in late 2007.

However, though improved, my fatigue lingered. One persistent irritant was recurrent sinus infections, something fairly common in my family. I saw a specialist, who threw all manner of antibiotics at the problem and nonetheless failed to permanently resolve it. Again, more on that shortly.

Upon switching to a different specialist, I quite literally got my head examined. As it turned out, my top left sinus was completely blocked off by a combination of a deviated septum and chronically inflamed tissue. The only real long-term solution was surgery to clear the blockage, and a simultaneous removal of my tonsils, which ran the risk of reinfecting the whole shebang if they were allowed to stay there and putrefy.

Which brings us to late May. My surgery.

Many of you probably recall all the drama queening I worked up prior to the procedure, in fear that I’d be on the wrong side of the odds and wind up dying on the table through some bizarrely rare surgical error. As it turned out, the actual surgery was the least of my worries. It was upon waking up that the horror began.

A nurse I know told me that the procedure I underwent was known as the “deadly duo.” Not because it’s particularly deadly, but because afterwards, you really and truly want to die. I can vouch for the veracity of this statement. Pain all over my head, couldn’t breathe out of my nose, and my throat—the only airhole—totally aflame. Add this to general post-surgery funk, and you’ve got quite a cocktail. To which you then add drugs.

I am told by reliable sources that there are people who enjoy being under the influence of opium-based chemicals. In 2008, I discovered that I am not one of them. The variety of painkillers I was fed, mostly opium-based, served only to take my existing depressive tendencies and turn them up to 11. I’ve heard stories of people staying up all night “talking down” someone who had taken some bad drugs. This task fell to my wife, a brave heroine who was simultaneously taking care of every illness my son brought home from daycare during that period. She needs a vacation, is what I’m saying.

All of this would’ve been bad enough. A couple of weeks went by and I was at least functional, with the aforementioned help, and I had the expectation that gradually, I would improve. It was then, however, that I again fell under attack, not from surgical implements, but from evil microorganisms.

A short word about antibiotics: These wonders of medicine are designed to wipe out bacteria on a large scale. Some have a wider scope than others, but in general, there is a great deal of collateral damage. You see, a human being is by and large a giant bacteria farm. We need them more than they need us, in fact. Most of them live in complete harmony with us, and we scarcely notice them. However, when you take out enough of the good ones, it leaves a vacuum. And as I discovered in 2008, there exist some very enthusiastic critters who will seize the hell out of that vacuum.

Meet Clostridium difficile. If it were human, you wouldn’t want to meet it in a dark alley. You remember those aliens from Independence Day? The ones who land on a planet, beat the shit out of it, and then leave once it’s dead? That’s these guys on a microscopic scale. They will make your intestines a place of unimaginable horror, if given the chance. Normally they are not given such a chance, because they’re vastly outnumbered by other bacteria who have an interest in keeping the status quo. But if antibiotics have reduced the good bacteria’s numbers, this little bastard will move right the fuck in.

And so it did, two weeks after my surgery, largely as a result of the huge number of antibiotics shoved through my system by my previous specialist. I’ll spare you the details, but take the existing post-surgery horror show I described above and add most of the symptoms of food poisoning, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of my condition in June of 2008. Thankfully there is an antibiotic created specifically for the purpose of hunting down and killing C. difficile, as well as probiotics such as Align that eventually got my system back into balance, though hardly overnight.

When the worst of these trials was over, I still found myself feeling oddly weak, and couldn’t figure out why. Over the last half of 2008 I visited a number of different specialists, and learned two things:

One - I have an Immunoglobulin A deficiency.

Two – I am now completely intolerant of wheat and barley.

The first issue is rather interesting. In our blood, there are many different types of antibodies. Immunoglobulin A is one. People with this deficiency lack immunoglobulin A (IgA), a type of antibody that protects against infections of the mucous membranes lining the sinus, mouth, airways, and digestive tract.

Some of these pieces starting to come together now?

They certainly do, and the second issue enumerated above is, I believe, a direct result of the first. Since an IgA deficiency complicates diagnosis of certain autoimmune diseases, I don’t have a formal diagnosis, but for all intents and purposes, I now have celiac disease.

Celiac is an autoimmune disease that afflicts an estimated 1 in every 133 Americans. It is an allergic reaction to anything made with wheat or barley, which contains what is known as gluten. In our society, gluten is a component of damned near everything. Fortunately for me, this condition has now become common enough that there are products catering specifically to the celiac community. Thus I can eat sandwiches made with amaranth bread and drink beer made with sorghum (Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge label is wheat gluten free). In our neighborhood, there is even a gluten-free restaurant, and many chains such as Outback Steakhouse have started offering gluten-free menus.

I am a member of a celiac support group in Plano, and though it hasn’t been officially documented, there appears to be a rather widespread incidence of celiac popping up in the aftermath of surgery. I’m not a doctor, and don’t even play one on TV, but I do know that prior to the surgery, I was able to eat perhaps one glutenous sandwich a day without many repercussions. I now get a little weak upon eating a cookie.

So, to recap: My genetic IgA deficiency and deviated septum led to my chronic sinus issues, which led to the surgery. My previous doctor’s over-use of antibiotics led to my C. difficile infection. And a combination of these factors led to a major shock in my system that kicked me into full-blown celiac.

Thus, I hope you’ll forgive me if I say that 2008 can kiss my hairy ass and never return.

However, I will give the past year its props. Were it not for the fact that during my tribulation, I had a finished album in the can and an enthusiastic record label interested in releasing it to the world, my year would’ve been far worse.

february is the album I wanted it to be, and based on the response I’ve gotten, it was worth doing. It’s very good to have that out of my heart and into the air. I have a firm belief that once a piece of music is released, it no longer belongs solely to the creator, but is free to find its own meaning among those who have heard it. I like to wonder what february will become in other people’s lives. While I’ll never completely know, I have heard from a large number of you who it has touched, and that makes me very glad to have done it.

When I was in junior high, my friend Jonathan Miller made me a tape of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. In the days, months, and years following that first listen, I have come to know that album as well as the nooks and crannies of my own face in the mirror. It is a part of me, an irreplaceable piece of my psyche. Roger Waters & company didn’t and don’t know that, and really never can. Sure, they created it. But like any creation, be it artistic or a flesh-and-blood child, it is only yours up to a point. It grows up and becomes what it will be, and there is only so much control one can exercise over it. Indeed, the goal of creating it is to facilitate its freedom and independence in the world.

In the final analysis, this is why I continue to make music. Its other potential uses to me (income, scoring chicks, fame) have either failed outright or have become irrelevant. I have come back to where I began. The memory of a seed being planted in me, and the desire to plant seeds of my own in people I may never meet. But we will have communicated. We will have shared something of each other in that exchange, and there is beauty in that. This pursuit will continue to be my life’s work.

Of course, there’s another creation that’s busily making its presence known in the world, and that is my son. This year he has grown far more aware of the world around him, and the questions are multiplying. Thankfully, questions are my lifeblood, so this has been a fun time with the little fellow, even if I don’t always know the answers. He, too, is becoming more independent, spending more and more time untethered from his parents in social situations. This both relieves and creates stress, but is an inevitable step in his development.

I confess a gnawing wonder as to whether he’ll show any long-term interest in the musical paraphernalia we now have around the house. He’s got a little drum set, I’ve got a newly-acquired piano which I keep available to him, and there are miscellaneous percussive implements lying around the house. Then, of course, I remember that I was in my teens before I showed the slightest interest in music, and indeed I hated the hell out of it before then. He will be who he will be.

The kid definitely has an interest in how things work. Bob the Builder is his hero, and since Christmas, he has been prone to wearing his new toolbelt. He’s got the right genes. One grandfather was an electrician. The other is a woodworker and building hobbyist. He’s got great-grandfathers who have been train engineers and have built a wide variety of objects from stained glass & fossils. I’ve mentioned before how he studies things very closely, taking more time with each object than many other kids. And like his father, his attention span for things that don’t interest him is next to zero. He’s a work in progress, but in many ways a familiar one.

I can’t be certain of what lies ahead for my family and I. Or you, for that matter. In uncertain times, I have learned to periodically take a break from private ruminations and search the words of others. Here, then, are some salient thoughts for the times ahead of us:

“Depending on whichever book you read, sometimes it takes a lifetime to get what you need.” – Aimee Mann, Mr. Harris

“They flutter behind you, your possible pasts; some bright-eyed and crazy, some frightened and lost…a warning to anyone still in command of their possible futures, to take care.” – Pink Floyd, Your Possible Pasts

“You’re so much like me; I’m sorry.” – Ben Folds, Still Fighting It

“There comes a time in life, to put on your coat and go outside; taste the vinegar and find bitter life; taste a second time, a sweet surprise.” – Glen Phillips, There Comes A Time from Mutual Admiration Society’s self-titled debut

“The more you try to shake the cat, the more the thing will bite and scratch.” – Cake, Tougher Than It Is

“The surest sign that the end is coming soon is right there in the bathroom mirror.” – Eels, Rock Hard Times

“Hang on, hang on, there’s a twilight, a nighttime and a dawn; who knows how long? Just hang on.” – Guster, Hang On

“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down.” – Mary Pickford

“As long as you have simply not given up yet, then as ludicrous as it may seem, there is still hope.” – Paul Shapera Gwynne-Craig, from my february album

We will be who we will be. The above-mentioned Paul had a baby this year, and while watching his transition into parenthood, I have been able to gain some perspective on my own journey down that road. Major life events such as births and deaths peel back the masks we so carefully craft to present our best faces to the world. Crises show us who we are. The late Heath Ledger’s Joker was partially right on that, although impending death is not the only thing that can bring our true selves out into the light. In time, fear can turn to pleasant surprise at what we are capable of. It has certainly done so in my life, and I have no reason to believe that such revelations can’t continue.

2008, for me, was about turning fear and pain into understanding and wisdom. It is my hope that in 2009, I can put to use that which I have earned.

Won’t you join me?

1-6-09, 8:31 PM –

A cold night in Dallas. Shadow drivers in solitary cars carry out their business and scoot quickly out of halogen-lit parking lots, occupied now only by dried leaves and oil patches.

This is my home, as much as any place ever has been. I am no more or less an alien here than I have been in any of my other cities of residence. But I am part of its fabric, like a dust mite, whether it wants me or not. I love and hate its music scene, cheer and boo its artistic pretensions, and scratch my head in confusion in regard to its most profitable pastimes (that giant dome to the west, damn near visible from my house, for instance).

In most ways, Dallas is as it has been since my youth, a city of contradictions. Delusions of grandeur, yet often lacking basic imagination. Stubbornly proud, yet vaguely ordinary. Not unfriendly, but not really cozy either. Prosperous, but only in spots (although compared to much of the country, we’re doing surprisingly well at the moment).

People ask how a creative person could live in such a place, away from the standard creative havens of the U.S. Having lived in one of them, I can tell you.

In New York, there are stories for the asking. Ask anyone you pass, they’ve got a story. They’re interesting for a while, until you’ve heard enough of them. In Dallas, you have to make up your own stories. As urban settings go, it is a relatively blank canvas. Much like the high grass of my small hometown, there is a lot of space to fill. Locals may look at you askance for filling those spaces with dreams, but at least there aren’t fifty other people behind you, pushing to fill in the same space, as in NYC.

I understand why vaqueros sang songs to the empty, rolling hills. There they were, ripe for the echoing. Why the hell not?

And of course, like New York, this town can be incredibly frustrating. Local news reports about signs welcoming home the prodigal president raise my blood pressure something fierce, but then, the new guy carried Dallas county in November, so I can’t get too worked up.

What I continue to find interesting about this city is that though it has been a magnet for country folk and foreigners alike for generations, it really doesn’t emanate much identity. It differs from NYC in that very key respect. While newcomers to New York immediately proceed to carve out niche neighborhoods, Dallas essentially remains Dallas no matter who moves here.

I live on a block with whites, blacks, Asians & Latinos. Apart from the accents, you wouldn’t know the variety of cultures mixing here. Just people living in suburban houses, kids playing in the yard, parents mowing the lawns. When I lived among the Puerto Ricans and Hasidim in Brooklyn, you knew from the moment you turned the corner. They brought the old country with them. Here, new arrivals seem to want to leave the old country behind.

I can identify with that. There are plenty of pieces of my redneck past that I’d just as soon keep to myself. If I wanted honky pride, I’d live further from town, in Palin yard sign country. Here in my neighborhood, I just want to get along. I want my son to go to school with kids who believe many different things, and who look many different ways. Here, no cracker-ass neighbor leans over the fence and mumbles about the weirdos who moved in down the street, assuming I must give a shit because my ass is also crackered. Here, hipsters don’t have a high enough majority to be properly derisive to straights on the train. And on that train, no one shouts in my face about imaginary beings saving my soul from damnation. Which seems weird, because this is fucking Dallas. But there you go.

Certainly, Dallas has problems. The U.S. has problems. Hell, humanity has problems. But oddly, I take a certain amount of comfort in knowing that my town, in all its mundane splendor, is not trying to define me.

It’s a cold night in Dallas. From my window, I see…whatever I decide to see.

Happy 2009.





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the matthew show