Happiest of birthdays, or: To Heck and Back

Yesterday was my birthday, one of those ending in a zero, of which this was the sixth such in my life if you don’t count the actual date of my birth. (Apropos of which, why don’t more people sing “Happy Birthday to You” on the day their children are born? Donna and I did, back in 2005. If you have the opportunity to do so, try it; it’s kind of fun.)

OK, I’m old. That’s what much of the world wants me to say, right? I don’t feel old, but I suppose I am, as they say, not a kid anymore. Nor, to be honest, do I want to be. My feelings about birthdays have long been mixed (take this post, for example), but I’ll take this one standing up. “It beats being dead,” people around my age commonly say around their birthdays (of course, nobody who says this has yet died, so how do they know?).

No, but really. Having been through…some…stuff myself, as people my age tend to have been, I have to say I have a special liking for other people who have been through…some…stuff themselves, not necessarily the same stuff, but some…stuff in general. I don’t want to raise the banner of Barry Manilow, king of cheese, but I’ve been thinking of his old song “I Made It Through The Rain.” Yes, I did, Barry, but the point is, after I got rained on I didn’t keep my world protected and I didn’t keep my point of view. That’s what distinguishes me from those who haven’t been rained on yet. Call me. We’ll talk.

On the afternoon of my birthday the Fiancee and I went to the Celis Brewery’s 2nd anniversary party (fitting, since 20 years ago I spent my 40th birthday at the Beer and Flowers Festival in Laško, Slovenia). I’m calling it a Chapter 11 party, since the owner, Christine Celis, recently declared bankruptcy in order to keep operations going. Wise move, Christine, and better times ahead. Drink ’em if you got ’em. I’ve had better than the pomegranate witbier, but it wasn’t bad, and points for creativity.

Does Carole King have a monopoly on the metaphor of life being a tapestry of multicolored disparate threads? (Mine would be broken and tied back together inexpertly in places, but it would be serviceable.) There are a lot of things I don’t know about — being a drug addict or alcoholic, being the child of abusive parents, spending years in prison, being a touring singer-songwriter — but these are among the things I have experienced in my life:

Being the son of a German Jewish Holocaust survivor.

Being the parent of an autistic child.

Being a widower, of about three and a half years’ standing at this point.

Being an expat, having lived for about five years in lovely Slovenia.

And what have I learned from all these experiences?

Being the son of a Holocaust survivor has taught me to not have any patience for governments who put children (and adults) in concentration camps on the border.

Being the father of an autistic child has taught me to have respect for people of different abilities, and to see potential in unlikely places.

Being an expat has widened my view of international cultures and also of the possibility of living successfully and happily in different lands, among different peoples, and not limiting myself to my home country as the be-all and end-all (don’t get me started on that).

And being a widower on the verge of his second marriage? Among many other things, there’s this positive: It’s opened my eyes and heart to the knowledge that love is infinitely expandable, love is love, and in the words of the old TV theme song, love is indeed all around.

There was one other thing I did on my birthday that I’d like to note: In the early afternoon I walked down to my neighborhood park with my children and the Fiancee, and placed a bouquet of roses there, in colors mirroring the flowers at our wedding (she was partial to a rich orange hue).

Because yesterday would have been her birthday too.

We were born eight minutes apart, after all.

I don’t want to go back, and let us not speak of moving on. But we do go forward, all of us, until the point where we all meet up again, at the gates of Heck.

Thoughts on ‘Your Band Sucks’

Just finished reading Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), by Jon Fine, in which he chronicles his life performing in obscure post-hardcore indie cult bands, most notably Bitch Magnet, in the latter half of  the ‘80s, and a reunion tour in 2011-12. (The book came out in 2015 but it’s new to me, so whaddaya want.) Aside from his present status as a minor duke of media, the guy is a bona fide music obsessive and writes with commendable detail, wit, and clarity about the fine mechanics of being in such endeavors, from the intricacies of tuning a guitar to the interpersonal dynamics of endless road trips in a van with two or three other people (who you love even though you often can’t stand them).

How Fine translates the odd music in his head to something he and his bandmates create on a stage of a cruddy club, whether or not anyone else appreciates it, is the book’s real subject, and he does a decent job of explaining the outsider rage that directed his musical compass to a magnetic North of dissonant noise. It’s not that my musical taste aligns perfectly with Fine’s – far from it – but the book is a welcome change from the typical rock-star autobiography filled with tales of drug abuse, debauchery, and celebrities encountered along the way. Rather, it’s about a low-level, bare-subsistance lifestyle and the network of fellow musicians, fans, and fellow travelers that made it possible for a brief few years (I don’t know Fine personally but we inevitably have only a couple of degrees of separation between us). The last few chapters, about the unlikely reunion in middle age, is as sweet as alternative rock culture gets. To give him the last word, “You may have a complicated relationship with the culture that unorphaned you, but it isn’t easily forgotten.”

Facebook Status, August 19

Out with
The future second wife
At my now favorite
Local Late Boomers/Generation Jones
downtown watering hole
The Townsend
Tonight featuring
The age-appropriate and exemplary musicians
Kathryn Valentine and Peter Livingston Holsapple
(the former, an investor in this joint)
An ex-Go-Go and an ex-dB
Proving there is life beyond both
As indeed there is for me
Not forgetting what went before
(And indeed, playing some of it)
But alert to what may yet come
And what’s going on right now
They’re biting and alive, with joy in their eyes
New bands, new relationships, new pages
Doesn’t matter how old you are
Always reconfiguring and recombining
New chords and time signatures
Working that thing one more time
Because that’s what we do
I include myself, out there in the audience
With phrases, ideas popping into my head as usual
Maybe useful in the end, maybe not
But I’ve got a cocktail in my hand and a smile creasing my face
I’m just grateful to be here
And I’d say everyone else in the room is too.

A Nalepka Noir Novelette

Here it is, the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written;zmajbigNALEPKE a comic noir novelette, complete, unabridged, with special-edition DVD-only extras, hot off the WordPress. Fair warning: there are a lot of in-jokes, puns, and references that only people familiar with Slovenia and Ljubljana will get, but I hope the rest of you will find something there of value. If nothing else, it’s original and it is My Thing. Access is free, but there is a button to donate something via GoFundMe if the spirit moves you. If you like it, share. And enjoy.

That URL again:

https://themesecnikfiles.wordpress.com/

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Alive

Writer Square b&w

Strangers in a strange land

[Nearly six months later]

Transitions, transitions…

I am on my first plane ride in nearly eight years, a direct flight to Denver, a city I’ve never been to. I am traveling with my younger son, K. (not his real initial)*, the nonverbal special-needs kid with the autism diagnosis. It is his first plane ride ever, and I have no idea how he will react. My other kid, M. (also not his real initial), the budding animator and stand-up comic, is visiting the grandparents in Florida.

It is my birthday, and I’m in no mood to reflect on my age. If I’d entered incipient oldcrockitude, by cracky, I was going to fight it with every fiber of my damn being, mainly by ignoring how old I am.

For various reasons I will be going back and forth to the airport a great deal this month, both on my behalf and my sons’. No, I’m not on tour; and if I were, exactly what kind of show would I be putting on for the good people (that’s “people” to rhyme with “monopoly”) of the Colorado metropolis anyway? Would it involve snappy patter, jazz hands, dry ice, broken glass strewn across the stage, strategically placed yams, a drum machine, and a big showstopping finale featuring the flags of the Baltic states? Yeah, let’s go with that.

My last flight was in 2009, when I traveled to Germany for a ceremony related to my family’s experiences in the Holocaust. After a hellish year, which I’ve chronicled on this blog, following the death of my wife in January of 2016, I felt lighter and more optimistic than I had in ages. At least on a personal level, I had the definite sense of an upward arc trending. (In the wider world, let’s just say “very interesting times.”)

The Denver trip was a short city break courtesy of the fiancee, who had some extra miles on good ol’ non-reclining-seat, everything-extra budget airbus Frontier to dump in a hurry and couldn’t take time off from work herself. Yes, I am engaged to be, eventually, married again. Life is odd. Unlike my encounter with Mrs. Pogoer, this one began as prosaically as you can get, with a casual coffee date. Unlike my fellow widower celebrity doppelganger Patton Oswalt, I received absolutely no negative feedback for this. At least to my face, everyone, including Donna’s relatives, has been nothing but supportive: Congratulations, I’m very happy for you. As it should be. Love, as they say, is infinitely expandable.

I look around at my fellow passengers and am struck by a sense of common humanity. I like and sympathize with them all. We’re on the same journey.

My fears about K.’s reactions to flight are, no pun intended, groundless. The kid just likes to be in motion, whether he’s walking, on a train, in a car, or on a nonstop flight to the Mile High City. He sits like an angel for the duration, looking out the window.

While M. bonds with the grandparents, I do my best to bond further with this inscrutable 12-year-old, the boy who likes to listen to the same parts of the same video over and over again throughout the day, who likes to put things together and take them apart, a born engineer, smarter and more capable than almost everyone knows. His family, and a few blessed teachers, know.

K. is game to go with me almost everywhere. I check into a cozy basement Airbnb flat on the northern edge of the Capitol Hill neighborhood downtown, and we explore, walking, Ubering and Lyfting, for two very full days. We go to the Molly Brown House, a well-touristed home restored to its 1910-ish glory, where we’re immediately told that her name was Margaret and that movie with Debbie Reynolds was only about 3 percent true. I love the place, K. doesn’t. Onward.

K. Is game enough for almost all our other urban explorations. We visit the State Capitol and eat at the Delectable Egg (a breakfast joint where I get the inevitable Denver omelette in situ) and a pizzeria called Brik on York and a hipster joint on South Broadway called Sputnik. I went to Sputnik immediately after spending six hours with K. walking the 80-acre Denver Zoo, a fine but exhausting place where we got our fill of giraffes, elephants, a gorilla family group, polar and brown bears, Komodo dragons, lions, red pandas, black rhinos, zebras, hippos, and overpriced mediocre zoo pizza.

Sputnik is next door to the Hi-Dive rock club and across the street from a fantastic place called the Mutiny Information Cafe, which gave me the impression of stepping across the threshold into 1987 Allston, Mass., with its vast collections of used books, LPs, cassettes, comics, rude punkish buttons, and actual paper zines for sale. Oh, and coffee, and a snarky savant of a barista/clerk/know-it-all who clearly wasn’t taking anything from anyone except money. K. and I were both exhausted at that point, but I was on a second wind from the discovery of such a place and the kid really didn’t care, so that was that.

We fly home. For me at least, the magic dust is gone. It’s not eight years now since I last flew, just three days. My fellow passengers are just people again, some annoying as hell, especially the overweight, middle-aged guy who spends at least 20 minutes at the boarding gate barking into an earpiece to a staffer at his tech company that his team doesn’t know what it’s doing, and he’s going to escalate.

Still, he doesn’t come close to ruining the trip. Even pessimists have to agree: Sometimes things go right.

And K. doesn’t mind it a bit. He sits peacefully throughout the flight, contemplating the clouds.

Beyond the sundown mural

One of eight 1940 murals in the first-floor rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol, this one contemplating the future. “Beyond the sundown is Tomorrow’s Wisdom/today is going to be long ago”

 

*in-joke tribute to a late former editor of mine in the Boston days
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So, Who Am I Now?

So, the first anniversary of the Widowing has come and gone. Unlike my late wife I have survived, but the question remains: In what form? Who am I now?

I know it’s my obligation to be moving past the past, but the problem is, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.

Still, I know I can’t continue the way I’ve been, even the way I’ve been for the past year, nor would I want to.

Yet I can’t make a complete break with what came before, nor would I want to.

Let’s face it: I can’t continue to keep writing one finely crafted eulogy after another about how great my late wife was, and how bereft am I without her. It occurs to me that by this point, everyone I’d want to know this already knows it. Multiple condolences have been received, cards answered, sentiments registered.

Yet, it still wouldn’t be right to never mention Donna again. After all, she had an enormous effect on my life and I cherish so many memories connected to her.

Of course.

Some of my friends assumed I’d be all verklempt over the anniversary, as if Donna had suddenly died all over again. An anti-birthday. Me, I thought the day would pass much the same as any other. The truth is I sort of feel relieved, as if I’d just completed a marathon. A grief marathon. Not that it’s over, but, just like completing the first year living in a foreign country (which I’ve done), it gives you a sense of the round of the year, the lay of the new land in all seasons. And a firmer footing than you’d previously had.

At this point, I know Donna isn’t coming back. Probably. And I’m still not happy about it, but I am…what’s the word…resigned. And even open to the possibility that things will, someday, get better.

As for my sons, after several roadblocks they seem to be holding up reasonably well as they approach their joint 12th birthdays (what’s generally assumed to be the last birthday of childhood; yikes). The older twin, Verbal and More or Less Neurotypical Boy, busies himself with riding his bike, which he’s recently learned to do for real, and at night occupies himself with his Playstation with a friend via a headset. Nonverbal Sensory Issues Boy has lately taken to sprinkling glitter and goo on the bathroom and office floors in the wee hours, which Donna took as a signifier of an incipient growth spurt. Otherwise, he’s generally the same happy camper he’s always been, playing his favorite videos, treating Little Einsteins as ’90s hip-hop artists treated turntables.

And so we beat on, condolence cards against the current, saying we’re all right, paddling two strokes forward, one stroke back, sailing ceaselessly into the next incarnation.

And So, One Year On

Today marks one year since the passing of my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, about whom I’ve written a great deal since.

donna_swimsuit_june_1982_edited

Donna, June 1982

Some say that when a loved one dies it seems as if time grinds to a halt. In my experience, it’s more that time’s fabric begins to warp in all directions. Sometimes it seems like decades, sometimes hours. It makes you realize what an artificial construct is time, how inadequate the usual ways we mark its passage, how hollow the ceremonies. And it does still seem like she was here just yesterday.

 
 For several well-known reasons, the past year has been an extremely difficult one for many of us. For me it will always, and far above all, mark the first year I’ve spent without Donna around since I first encountered her via a brief email she sent me some sixteen years ago. She wasn’t just anyone, after all — she was THE Donna Young, and it’s my eternal honor to have been married to her. This photo shows her at 22 — almost 23 — long before we met.
What really strikes me is just when we most needed Donna, I and the many others who loved her were forced to do without her — her wit, warmth, insight, generosity, empathy, multiple talents, and the unique way she went through life in general.
Donna was one of the best expressions of what humanity is capable of producing. Although I know nobody can ever replace her, I continue to be inspired by her life, her example, and the light she shone forth, in which we thrived and reveled.
Donna was very human. And I know I contradict myself, but she is with us still.