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
Continue reading

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.

And Now, Some Unsolicited Advice For the Recently Widowed

Hush little baby, my poor little thing
You’ve been shuffled about like a pawned wedding ring
It must seem strange, love was here then gone
And the Oklahoma sunrise becomes the Amarillo dawn
What’s important in this life
Ask the man who’s lost his wife

–Chrissie Hynde, “Thumbelina”

 

Hey! Grieving folks! Lost your husband or your wife or your significant something-or-other in the not-too-distant past? Me too. My condolences. The one-year anniversary of my sudden widowing (don’t call it Angel Day or any of that crap around here) is fast approaching. I’d like to offer up some unsolicited advice from what I’ve learned over the past year, so those of you more recently widdered can be forewarned:

  1. Your loved one will stubbornly and selfishly persist in not coming back. So sorry. The sooner you realize and accept this, the better. I know; it sucks. It will continue to for quite some time. Unless you’re secretly happy about it (which I am definitely not).
  2. Don’t make any major changes for at least a year or so. Don’t move house, don’t quit or change your job. Unless you really, really hate your job, or can’t keep it because you’re now the sole caretaker of minor children. Everyone’s mileage will vary, some by a lot.
  3. Expect to be an object of pity for a good while. People will look at you differently. Expect them to think of you as “that poor soul.” They’ll also be keeping a surreptitious eye on you to see how you’re really doing. This can be very disconcerting if you’ve been accustomed to thinking of yourself as a strong, independent man or woman about town, or at least a hipster worth admiring. Instead of “Joe, the cool dude,” you’ll be “So sorry about Joe, poor bastard; he must be really miserable. Maybe I should put him on suicide watch or start not-so-surreptitiously spying on him and see how he’s coping/caring for the kids, so he can be even more miserable. In any event, I’ll start avoiding him except for the semi-obvious surveillance.”
  4. You need to say “The hell with this widow/widower thing” every once in a while. Get out and enjoy yourself. Caveat: If you consider something specific and say “It’s too soon,” it’s probably too soon.
  5. Contrary to the old trope, in my experience time doesn’t stop, but it does warp. Sometimes it will seem like forever since The Death, sometimes it will seem like days, or even hours. Clocks and calendars will become mere suggestions.
  6. Similarly, it’s normal to lose interest in politics, the quotidian doings of your Facebook friends, and what’s happening around the office. If you can take some time away from what now seems inconsequential, avail yourself of the opportunity. Time can be both your enemy (why was I left behind?) and your friend (take all the time you need, and don’t pay attention to people who suggest to you that dreaded phrase It’s Time To Move On. Only you can judge that for yourself, as there is no Grief Czar around your house but you).
  7. Other widders and widderers are valuable folks to connect with. Yes, their circumstances will be different from yours, sometimes vastly. Grief knows no distinction of age, race, class, or intelligence. With good fortune — yes, you may still be the beneficiary of that — you will find your way through the maze. But it will take some time. I hope to let you know when I see daylight. I hope you live to see yours.

Tourists in the Country of the Grieving

So this makes eighteen blog posts by which to measure my grief, since initiated on the nineteenth day of this most widely despised year in a horse’s age. Last year my tally was three, so if you insist on people having things to be thankful for this year, I can at least count not having writer’s block (as well as, OK, not having to deal with Microsoft Excel on a regular basis).

Four of the posts really had nothing to do with the grief thing, so then: Fourteen.

Four days to go, still, so count this an encore. (I don’t know if the organist at a funeral home expects an encore for his dirge, but I wouldn’t be offended.)

Is that enough?

Will anything ever be enough?

Anyway, Facebook bugs me. I should probably avoid it on the days that some beloved musician or actor dies, so I don’t become more enraged than usual at the grief tourism on display. The way things have been going of late, that would mean more time off of The Social Media than on. Probably not such a bad thing.

By grief tourism, to define the term, I mean people complaining, even affecting a guise of sackcloth and ashes (surely this should be an Instagram filter, Pseudogrief Pro II), about things that don’t affect them personally. Deaths of musicians and actors both celebrated and obscure, whether they kicked off at 27 or 97, none of whom they ever, probably, met personally, much less had any kind of relationship with; politics and elections, always tawdry at best, horrifying at worst; real issues of social justice and the environment, which do matter, but it’s hard to tell whether the concern for any of these causes go more than Twitter-deep.

I like my friends (the real ones), I do. I can’t expect all of them to understand what I’m going through, when I barely understand it myself. It’s still a new country, but it’s mine. The other inhabitants of grief land all have their own reasons for being there, their own particular horror stories, and I don’t understand all of them perfectly, just as they don’t understand me. But we’ve all been handed a similar parcel that we never wanted and been told: Deal with this.

As for social media grief tourism, it’s been going on for much longer than a year, but, with the admittedly awful election just past, everything has gotten stuck in a feedback loop. Alan Rickman dies, or Prince, or Harper Lee, or Gene Wilder, or Patty Duke or Garry Shandling or Ali or Elie Wiesel or George Michael or Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds, and the tributes pour in, and I’m sorry about all of them but, you know, I started out the year watching my wife and life partner die in a hospital room, and then was left to figure out the rest of my life, so you might excuse me that it angers me when people complain about 2016 being so awful when they themselves are, by any measure, doing great, and I have no patience for the tributes and reminiscences by those who, by any measure, didn’t know them beyond their public face. To scan a Facebook feed (mine, anyway) is to consume a constant stream of this person died, that person died, happy birthday to someone who died years ago, death, cancer, riots, misery, death, political horrors, and more death. It’s hip to be a grief tourist.

clueless_tourists

Yup. Dead, dead, dead.

But why lay claim to misery you didn’t earn?

Not like misery is such a great thing to be in. It’s miserable. But at least I came by it honestly.

To the grietouristcartoonf tourists, I say: Sorry, but you can’t spend the whole year on Facebook bragging about your family and friends and your extensive travels (Venice! Colorado! Hawaii! France! Alaska!) and how great everything is, and then throw in something about how 2016 sucked, and you can’t wait for it to be over (because obviously, come January nobody will die anymore).

You’re clueless tourists in the land of the grieving, I might say. You wear shorts and bathing suits in churches, you take photos of the bereaved relatives and post them to your page, you set out a picnic in the cathedral built of skulls.

I am open to the possibility that maybe after you die, you realize that dying was the best thing that ever happened to you. But you’re not supposed to know this yet.

We’re not supposed to know this yet.

Because it’s beyond the parameters of the game.

And so we keep playing.

It’s My Birthday, So Worship Me For The Day, Part 2

donna_wes_2009_birthday

Mrs. Pogoer and me with birthday cake, around the time of the fateful dinner.

So to continue with the birthday theme from where I left off over five years ago, this tale begins a couple of years prior to that. It’s a prequel, as it were. As has been previously established, my late wife Mrs. Pogoer, a/k/a Donna, and I shared a birthdate — same day, same year, me being all of eight minutes older, yadda yadda yadda. And this year was one of those joint birthdays that ended in a zero, so I felt considerable self-administered pressure to Do It Up Right.

We — or, rather, I — decided to spend our birthday dinner at a celebrated restaurant outside of town. This eatery — let’s call it Thames on the Creek — specialized in gourmet preparations of wild game, and although this wasn’t Mrs. Pogoer’s favorite cuisine by a long shot, she very graciously decided to humor me and accompany me there for “my” portion of the birthday festivities. In my defense, it was a place I’d wanted to visit for a very long time.

Not too long before these events, I had contracted with a major travel publisher to review hotels and restaurants in Austin and environs. When we arrived at Thames on the Creek, Mrs. Pogoer mentioned to the server that I was a restaurant reviewer, perhaps hoping to score an extra complimentary dessert in addition to the double-birthday cake that most half-decent restaurants provide for the occasion (writers know how to work the angles).

While the wife ordered wine and a salad, I busily set about ordering the likes of venison tartare, salamander mousse, bison bites with Béarnaise sauce, and rattlesnake cakes with chipotle remoulade (not the exact things I actually ordered, but you get the idea). I tackled the offerings greedily. After all, hey, it’s my birthday! Our birthday! One that ends in a zero!

And so we celebrated the amazing accomplishment of not dying for 12 months. And at some point, Donna noticed that I was turning green around the gills. My gorge was rising as a result of scarfing down one or four unfamiliar foodstuffs, and I bolted towards the restroom, where I threw back a toilet stall door and vomited up assorted wild game and wine into the bowl.

Donna was sufficiently alarmed to phone 911 and call for the EMTs, and within ten minutes or so an ambulance pulled up and, once in the entranceway, I groggily submitted to various checks for life signs.

Management informed Donna that the meal was comped for both of us. I don’t know whether this was because of the upchucking or the fact that I was an off-the-clock “restaurant critic,” but I’ve never been so embarrassed to get a free meal.

And the moral of the story is…All things considered, we should’ve just gone to the Melting Pot. She always liked that place.

We didn’t stay for desserts; I’d already received mine, and it was just.

 

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Widower Sitcoms, Celebrity Grief-O-Rama, Standing Rock, and Similar Diversions For the Discerning Media Consumer

Until his wife died last April, I had only the slightest bit more knowledge of the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s existence than he has of mine, which is to say nil.

Let’s be clear: I am truly sorry for Oswalt’s devastating and untimely loss, and that he now has to raise their seven-year-old daughter by himself.

Nevertheless, as a card-carrying member of Reluctant Widower Nation, Parents of Minor Children Subdivision, I believe I’m entitled to say this: Compared to some of us, including me, he has it relatively easy.

Mr. Oswalt is responsible for raising one neurotypical, probably bright and delightful seven-year-old girl. I am raising two 11-year-old boys, one of whom is nonverbal, with developmental and learning delays (although they fall under the big autism umbrella, my late wife and I were and are highly dubious about applying the A-word to what’s going on with the boy).

On top of that, Oswalt has a huge fan base and presumably extended support system, including over three million Twitter followers and over half a million Facebook likes. I don’t begrudge him any of this — he earned it by dint of the original, amusing and sometimes poignant stuff that comes out of his brain. I know he didn’t ask for the role of Celebrity Widower, just as I didn’t ask for the role of Occasionally Humorous Grief Blogger, but here we both are.

I don’t know what kind of grief counseling Oswalt is getting, but for most widowers, it doesn’t include appearing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, where he compared his new life to “every bad ’80s sitcom” in which “there’s no punchlines, there’s a lot of insomnia, there’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner…”

Except for the part about Cheetos (I can manage to put together semi-decent meals for myself and the boys), this is familiar ground. There are nights when I stay up far too late watching Donna’s old cabaret videos on YouTube, or just mindlessly surfing through Internet detritus, or playing Clash of Clans on my son’s iPad, or just watching whatever’s recorded on TV. Anything to avoid facing the lack of being part of a duo.

So what would my sitcom resemble? Perhaps something like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” if you’d give Eddie a nonverbal special-needs twin and lose the housekeeper. Or crossbreed “My Three Sons” with “Speechless,” “King of the Hill” and  “Married With Children” or throw in a spinoff to “Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon and Amy are the parents of two very different fraternal twins, one nonverbal, one too smart for his own good.

More recently, Oswalt wrote this honest, engaging piece for GQ magazine. Among other things, he said, “It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.” I can, also, relate to this; I feel much the same about my late wife as he does about his, an extraordinary person gone from the world for no discernible reason.

Add the awful political year we’ve just gone through and the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our nation, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling burned out on pretty much everything on top of the first year of widowerhood. Lately, too, I’ve found reading my Facebook feed to be intolerable, due, I suppose, to the constant barrage of posts about Trump and Clinton and the Electoral College (the latter of which I’ve railed about in the wilderness for years; evidently, it takes the horse escaping to get anyone interested in closing the damn barn door). Then there’s the business with the pipeline and the Native Americans and the standoff at Standing Rock, ending in an apparent victory for the protesters, which I suppose is a good thing, but the truth is I can’t bring myself to care the least bit about it. In fact, the primary reason I’m relieved the standoff is over is that I won’t have to read about it every fucking day on Facebook.

I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about this. People without immediate pressing personal problems have the luxury of caring about social justice issues. Right now, I don’t have that. This is an important thing to remember.

I won’t be signing petitions for anything any time soon, and I don’t feel bad about it. If anyone objects to this, that’s their problem, not mine. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel compassion; I just need it all for myself, and my immediate family, right now. We have lives to run.