Category Archives: love and marriage

Alone Again (Unnaturally): On Changes and Such

OK, so, several things here.

First off: The widowed thing, once again. Really?

THAT again? Haven’t you said enough about it already? asks one of my nine faithful readers.

Sorry to be so single-minded, but…well, you know, these days it’s kind of unavoidable.

As is a mandatory thing for the recently widdered, I’ve been delving into widdablogs and grieflit hither and yon, trying to make Sense Out Of The Thing That Maketh Not Sense. As with anything, the quality varies widely; there’s a lot of schlock out there (save me from all those awful country songs), but also much beauty. Because my mind functions oddly (always has), I especially appreciate blogs that find the humor in such a manifestly unfunny situation; this award-winning British blog is a shining example (the writer’s also done a book).

To take a leaf from the great Irish writer Myles na gCopaleen’s parody of the Catechism:

Q: What does one do when one’s spouse dies?

A: One reels.

(I input “reeling from his wife’s death” into Google, and came up with some 15,200 results. “Reeling from her husband’s death” is even more popular: 17,200 results. Clearly, reeling is the thing to do; it’s what all the cool bereaved kids are doing. Reeling in the years, then, reeling and listing and rocking and rolling and suchlike uncontrolled motion.)

It’s soon drummed into all fresh widderfolk (spousal-death toddlers?) that each loss is as unique as each individual life, and that even the same person’s death is felt differently by everyone close to them. As a corollary, I might add that although losing a spouse changes you irrevocably, it doesn’t change you into a totally different person. If you were basically good, kind and compassionate before being widowed, you will continue to be so afterwards, but certain character traits may be intensified or bent in unforeseen ways. One worldly literary acquaintance of mine writes elegantly of her increased empathy for victims of diverse tragedies resulting from terrorism and geopolitical chaos. On the other hand, if you were a son of a bitch before losing your wife, you’ll probably remain one afterwards.

So I wouldn’t say I’m better or worse, just somewhat different. A more honest person: yes. Less afraid to speak my mind: check. Less afraid to offend when it’s warranted (at least in my mind): uh huh. I’ve always been resistant to follow trends and crowds, more inclined to go my own stubborn way; now, even more so. I have no patience with the tired tropes of the widowed (so many of whom I find little common cause with, except for, you know, that one thing), the assumptions of how I’m supposed to be now, how I’m supposed to behave. If that makes me a worse person in your opinion, so be it — again, I care so much less what other people think of me, am so much less afraid to be myself. If not now, when? What else can they do to me?

In the end, I figure, how I am is between me and my late wife.

In my experience, liver disease is as bad as cancer both in terms of how it affects its victims and their families, and the way it turns lives upside down (and sometimes ends them), but it doesn’t have cancer’s press agent; it’s not as much in the public space. It’s still acceptable in some quarters to make cirrhosis jokes. (No, I hasten to explain when asked how she died, Donna wasn’t an alcoholic; no, she didn’t die from excessive drinking.) Although she had been ill for well over a year, I never expected her to actually die until the actual day; perhaps naive, but also, to my mind, unthinkable, but true. And although, unlike some widowed folk, I got to say goodbye in person, it was also the worst experience I’ve ever been through, nor will I ever get over it.

I know: that’s not very funny. But it can ultimately be emboldening, in a the-hell-with-it kind of way.

Recently I commented on a post made by an old friend on Facebook, someone I’d known in Boston in the ’80s. She was a writer of some talent and a traveler in the underground zine scene, making her way post-college scribbling various screeds. In the decades since she’d combined a straight day job with various underground zine-y pursuits. After she posted something about her latest endeavor, I reacted negatively, calling it uninteresting (I don’t want to get into specifics to maintain privacy). When a friend of hers asked what I meant, I responded with an expletive. She then messaged me and called my response “out of character, rude and unwarranted.” Which was true enough, but I messaged her back thusly:

“Don’t care anymore, will call bullshit for what it is. I’m actually very disappointed with your life and career. You could have been a writer of promise but chose to throw it away on stuff very few people care about. I’ve reached a point in my life where I will say what I think and don’t care if it ruffles feathers. You should be doing significant work, not stupid zine-y crap like this. Sorry to hurt feelings but someone should be the one to tell you that as far as I can see you’re wasting your life.”

For some reason she took offense to this, and de-friended and blocked me. I wasn’t surprised, but I also don’t regret it. The truth was, it was incredibly refreshing to, at last, tell someone what I really thought of them, or more specifically, their “artistic endeavors.”

And so I’ve realized, as have so many others before me: There is a whole lot of power and satisfaction in giving zero fucks. Some good may actually come from it, certainly in terms of self-actualization. (Thank you, Untimely Death Fairy. Thank you soooooo much.)

LWD (Life Without Donna) continues, as it has a tendency to do. So does my relationship with Donna, which remains the most important one in my life. I see no need to apologize for that. There’s a lot of bitterness, but also sweetness, and if memories are all I have to hold onto right now, that’s still a whole lot better than nothing.

I think of the famous opening line of the movie (originally a play by Robert Anderson) I Never Sang For My Father: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”

Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.

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Just one quick thought

I really, really hate those news stories about a married couple, usually in their 90s, who were married for 65 years and die within hours of each other.

Okay, they probably had a pretty good marriage. But did they have a BETTER marriage than a couple who died five years apart, or 12 years, or 27 years? (That would be 99.99 percent of us.)

I don’t think you could say that.

Did Grandma and Grandpa have a more intense romance, a purer love, than couples who have the misfortune to suffer a premature death of one of them? Did they survive as long as they did because they loved each other more than couples who didn’t croak off within the same 24-hour period?

Again, I don’t think so. I think it was just the luck of the draw — that, plus that we’re also talking about two very old people who were both ready to die in any case.

I think the majority of married couples — reasonably happy ones, anyway — don’t want to contemplate being widowed, and I don’t blame them. Most of them would hope to go at the same time, although most sane ones would admit it’s statistically quite improbable.

But let’s not imply that dying at the same time is the proof of having had a better marriage than the rest of us, or that they were better people.

Because that’s just not the case.

 

The soundtrack of grief

Donna_Aug_27_2007

Donna, 2007

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new to this blog. Sadly, I’ve had other things on my mind since before the new year. If you haven’t heard, my wife, Donna Young Eichenwald, a really exceptional and good person known to readers of this blog as Mrs. Pogoer, died on January 19 of complications from nonalcoholic liver disease. You can find her obituary here.

Donna was way too young to leave us, and she sure as hell didn’t want to, and hundreds of people prayed for her, but she just couldn’t beat this horrible illness. I’m working on a proper memorial site for her, but in the meanwhile, consider this blog a general vent.

What does it feel like to lose your spouse? A common reaction among friends who haven’t gone through this is “I can’t even imagine.” So let me try…it’s sort of like the world ended, only you’re somehow still standing amid the wreckage, disbelieving. So I suppose I can say I can’t even imagine, either, even though the Most Horrible Thing Just Happened.

It’s not getting better, and although nobody wants to go on what I’m hearing over and over again is a “grief journey,” I suppose that’s the forced march I’m embarked upon. I don’t know what’s at the end of this particular yellow brick road (I know it ain’t the Wizard of Oz), but since Donna and I were both focused on music and songs to an unusual degree — she was a professional musician, I’m a professional audience member — and our earliest email correspondence constantly referenced music, songs, composers and musicians, it’s not surprising that I’ve been trying to find appropriate compositions to help me through the long, silent hours without her.

Here are a few other things I know:

  1. No disrespect to them, but it’s hard to give a shit about Bowie, Prince, or that actor from that old TV show you liked when you’re grieving the death of your wife, best friend, and mother of your children. At such times it’s good to give a wide berth to Facebook and Twitter, lest your anger multiply at reading professions of “grief” from people who don’t have a fucking clue what the real thing is about. Nothing makes me feel more isolated from most of humanity than reading these faux-grief screeds from people who never met the recently departed rock star du jour while you’re processing your own, endlessly painful, personal loss. (At this point, Donna would advise me: “If you don’t want to read it, don’t bother reading it; it has nothing to do with you.” She was right, but I can’t help it sometimes.)
  2. Even if you do have a fucking clue, I don’t want to hear about how much you’re going to miss some rock musician. Get over it.
  3. I don’t wish it on anyone, but if you live long enough the real thing is guaranteed to hit you at some point, whether it’s six months from now or 50 years, and at that time you’re going to know the difference between grieving for your husband or wife and grieving for Bowie, Prince, or Lou Reed.
  4. Although I do have a special place in my heart for Kirsty MacColl, and I would be genuinely upset if Jonathan Richman, Chrissie Hynde, or Christy McWilson, to name a few, died before the age of, say, 90. Call me a hypocrite.
  5. Nobody ever said the grief process was logical.
  6. After a Death That Matters So Much, you just want to stay in bed all the time, occasionally screaming. You subconsciously (or maybe consciously) wouldn’t mind if you had a heart attack and died pretty soon. After all, what does it matter anymore? Yes, I know, there are the boys. They need a dad. Okay, okay. Don’t need a lecture from you.
  7. Spare me the schlocky sentiments about how “God must have wanted another angel” or “He only takes the best.” Or the absolute worst thing you could say, “It was God’s will.” No, actually, he takes everyone, and anyway, how do you know what God wants? And it it was God’s will, then fuck God.I much prefer “God couldn’t save him/her and is grieving along with you.” Let’s go with that. I think Donna would agree.
  8. Formerly happy (or at least harmless) occasions become toxic grief triggers. Let’s go through my personal calendar, shall we?   a) The anniversary of her death (Jan. 19); b) the twins’ birthday (Feb. 7); c) Valentine’s Day; d) our wedding anniversary (April 13); e) Mother’s Day; f) Father’s Day, ’cause why not; g) her birthday (July 11) (special added bonus, ’cause it’s my birthday too!); h) the anniversary of the day we met (Aug. 24, a minor holiday in our house); i) Thanksgiving; j) Christmas, with the tree and the presents and so many significant memories and everything, yay! Not to mention every other day of the year for one reason or another, or whenever some rock star dies and the faux grief displays take over Facebook like fireworks on the Fourth. Oh, and in case I forgot: Happy New Year!
  9. Bitter? Who’s bitter? No, let the world do without a selfless, giving, brilliant, multitalented woman who only wanted to play music, raise her kids right, and give good advice to her family and friends.
  10. I know there is a life beyond this one, and it’s probably so nice that if more facts about it were know, there would be a massive wave of suicides across the globe. But it doesn’t make getting left behind any easier. At this point I don’t know whether I should pray for Donna, or she should pray for me.
  11. Does Donna’s death make a mockery of her search for happiness, or mine, or the happy ending we both thought we’d found when we found each other in a demonstration of the sublime mysteries of the universe? No, it doesn’t. But at the moment, it’s impossible for me to find light in this darkness.
  12. Of course I know why the fuss over the dead rock stars is so irksome. To the rest of us, commenting on the dead rock star is just something to do, a way to fill the void. But to you, the very personal loss you suffered meant everything. You just want others to acknowledge it, too.
  13. Some of my friends on Facebook have never been married and are childless, and are well into their 50s. Their deepest relationship appears to be with their dog. Nothing against dogs, but at least I know what it’s like to be married and have a family, and I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs, even with all the pain that loss brings.

31 things about me

1. When I was about 11 or 12, I ran a race with my sister in the driveway of our house, racing toward the garage door, and stopped by putting my hands out on a window of the selfsame garage door. My right arm went through the window, slicing open the underside of my arm. I required stitches at the hospital. I still have a long, curving scar reaching nearly from elbow to wrist, plus a small scar shaped like a fish on the underside of my right wrist. I don’t mind the scars. They’re part of me now.

2. In 1983, while driving down a mountain on Maui, my sister drew my attention to a picture in a magazine of a pig at a luau, and I looked at it, drove off the road and down a cliff. The car was stopped by a thicket of bushes, and we were both fine. A few feet in either direction and we would have probably died there.

3.  Despite the evidence of #1 and #2, I do not consider my sister to be a jinx.
4. My wife and I were born eight minutes and about 25 miles apart on a hot day in July.

5. I spent my last birthday ending in a zero alone at the Pivo in Cvetje (Beer and Flowers) Festival in Laško, Slovenia. It rained.

6. Although that had its charms, my next birthday, which also ends in a zero, will be spent someplace else.

7. I am good at putting on accents and imitating voices, and have a pretty good ear for pitch. Or think I do.
8. I believe I have suffered some hearing loss from my years of clubgoing (mainly in Boston), although not badly enough for it to be a serious handicap.

9. Politically, I am more liberal now than I was in high school.
10. I didn’t go to a funeral until I was 29 years old. Over the following six years I went to three more.

11. I like drawing cartoon heads and have done so from an early age. My wife thinks I missed a calling as a cartoonist.

12. I like to sing, but have never done so in public apart from one evening of karaoke in the Water Tank bar in Austin, Texas. My wife tells me I could be a good singer if I took it seriously.

13. I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia, from the fall of 1996 to the end of 2001.

14. And I haven’t shut up about it since.

15. I saw Bill Clinton speak in the center of Ljubljana to a massive crowd in the pouring rain on a June day in 1999, and later wrote about it for publication. A photo I took from the press bleachers shows a sea of umbrellas in Kongresni trg.

16. I have visited 20 countries in the world aside from the two I’ve lived in. I’d like to visit many more before I die.

17. On my short list of places I’d like to visit that I haven’t previously: Russia, Bali, Bulgaria, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Iceland.
18. One of the most daring (or craziest) things I’ve ever done was spend two weeks as the second-oldest camper participant in Outward Bound Romania in the summer of 1998. I think the main reason I stuck it out was that I didn’t want to be talked about as “the American who quit.” (You can read an extended diary of my experiences here.)
19. Most people think I’m younger than I actually am. Including me.

20. I’m probably the only person who has interviewed both Richard Hell and Joel Osteen. (Not at the same time, alas.)
21. I saw Bambi for the first time at the age of 31. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone younger than that see that sick movie.
22. In person I may seem quite introverted, although not nearly as much as I used to. I am more comfortable as an observer than as a participant, in the way of writers.

23. I interviewed Joan Jett at a club in New Hampshire in 1984. It wasn’t one of my better interviews.

24. I participated in plays and musicals in high school and can still sing much of the score from “Guys and Dolls.”

25. While in high school, I amused myself by writing parodies of the plays I was acting in and showing them to my fellow performers for their amusement.

26. One of these fellow performers suggested I abandon plans to become an actor and focus on writing instead. This was good advice.

27. I like all different sorts of music, but always seem to come back to new wave, punk and garage rock (both original and neo).

28. Since marrying, my wife’s tastes for cabaret, classical music and opera have rubbed off on me. To a certain extent.

29. My wife never ceases to amaze me.

30. I am the proud father of two nearly four-year-old fraternal twin boys who couldn’t be more different, yet delight me in equal measure. Yes, it’s worth it.

31. My favorite quote is from Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”

How I got to this point, part II: Christy’s letter, the groom’s toast and farewell to Slovenia

As I wrote in my preceding post (which you should read before this one), Kirsty’s death sent me into a downspiraling period of prolonged and somewhat inexplicable grief in the first weeks of 2001, quite out of proportion to my connection to her (never met her, never spoke with or wrote to her; I was a fan who saw her in concert once and had a few of her records). Perhaps the best way I can explain my reaction is that it seemed to me, at the time, to be a personal insult; here was someone whose taste and craft I admired, who had something to say to the world in general and to me in particular, and what does the world do with her? Have her killed by a speedboat owned by someone who never even had the grace to admit guilt or even apologize, instead framing a hapless boathand to take the rap. Agh.
Of course, I didn’t know Kirsty, and it wasn’t my tragedy. Not really. But still I felt as if I was connected to it in some way, and wanted the world to notice as far as I could. Writing about it for the Boston weekly seemed a good excuse to pay my respects; I was far from the only person who felt going to St. Martin in the Fields was something he had to do.
The day after Kirsty’s memorial service was a classic gray, cold and rainy day in London. Looking for something with which to occupy myself, I visited the colorful Indian neighborhood around Brick Lane in the East End. After lunch and a bit of walking around, I boarded a double-decker bus for the ride back to my hotel, and climbed to the upper deck, which held no other passengers except for me.
I stared out of the windows at the gray and the rain, listening on my Walkman to a cassette tape of an ’80s band from Boston, music I knew very well. I began to cry, for Kirsty and myself and the world and for the hopelessness of it all, for all the shattered dreams of lost childhoods, for vanished youth and wasted potential, for the finality of death, for anything and everything. For its own sake.
Something cracked inside of me, huge sobs arose from deep inside and I began heaving and bucking around the bus, and I cried like I hadn’t since the death of my mother over a decade before.
Something had to change; that I knew. Something had opened up inside, and I knew it was important that I investigate what was going on.
But for now, it was time to return to Slovenia.
*****
As noted, I had taken to singing in the days and weeks following Kirsty’s death. I didn’t sing in public, but I would grab lyrics off the Internet for songs I liked, everything from the Johnny Mercer classic “Laura” to “I’m Talking To You” (a single released in 1979 by a Boston band called the Maps), print them up, memorize them, and sing them out loud, by myself, in my kitchen. Was I trying to get closer to the source of music? Assuage my grief with self-therapy in this way? Whatever it was, it helped.
I also dug through the collection of CDs I’d brought with me from the US, looking for sounds I hadn’t heard in awhile. One of them was a record by the alt-country Seattle band the Picketts, featuring Christy McWilson. I’d never paid particular attention to the Picketts before; I’d first encountered them back in the rockcrit days of 1990 when I came across a single of theirs, a cutesy country cover of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” The CD, Euphonium, came out in ’96, the same year I’d left Framingham for Ljubljana (anyone stuck in Framingham should move to Ljubljana, by the way; no contest there).
I played Euphonium again, and yet again. The world-weary wisdom in the songs — most of which McWilson had written — and her experienced yet tender voice spoke to me, and gave me comfort, especially these lines in a song called “Night Fell”:
Night fell as if retrieving
all hopes and boundaries from my sight
please tell me that the darkness is deceiving
and somewhere down this tunnel there is light
Sometimes when you need help you receive it from where you least expect it, such as from a CD you’ve had for five years and never paid too much attention to before.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t even given Kirsty a thought for years before her death, before everything changed.
It was painful, slow and difficult, but I gradually succeeded in knitting myself back a little more into the fabric of humanity. I felt it was about time I took some serious steps in that direction.
Donna and I continued e-mailing each other.
*****
On my previous Web site, I’d written about meeting Christy McWilson in person at a folk festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on the first day of September, 2001 (this was a few days after I’d first met Donna in New York). However, I didn’t tell the whole story behind it.
As a side effect of the Kirsty grief, I’d gone on a limited mission to Appreciate Artists While They Still Lived! and Tell Them How Much They Mean To You! which in real life can get kind of awkward — it meant I was a man in his early 40s writing fan letters (or, more usually, e-mails) to musicians I knew slightly if at all, something that should have gotten me drummed out of the Rock Critic club (as if I even cared to belong to that little band any longer). But I did write an actual letter to Christy McWilson, who had recently released a solo album, The Lucky One, which I ordered directly from her label stateside. I told her about how she’d helped me through Kirsty’s death, and thanked her for putting her own songs out there, and some other things which are none of your business.
Some time later — two or three months, perhaps, it was July — I received in the mail a large padded envelope from Seattle, containing a homemade CD and a two-page handwritten letter from Christy McWilson.
The CD — which she had her then-husband Scott McCaughey, of the Young Fresh Fellows, burn for me — contained the Picketts’ cover of Kirsty’s “Chip Shop” and the YFF’s cover of “They Don’t Know,” neither of which I’d heard before. (I was a YFF fan too, and I’d actually met and interviewed McCaughey back in 1991 when I traveled to Seattle in service of a piece on that city’s burgeoning music scene for the Boston Phoenix; this was about five minutes before Nirvana broke, and although Scott made a passing reference to them, I didn’t mention Cobain and Co. in the article at all; who knew? If you’ve never heard of Scott McCaughey, he’s a noted indie rocker with a great sense of humor who also plays with R.E.M., Minus 5, and various other side projects.)
I don’t make a habit of putting letters people have written privately to me on the Web, and I apologize if I’m offending anyone, but this stone is just too pertinent to be left unturned:
Christy told me that she, too, had been affected by what happened to Kirsty. Death and transition are at the bottom of all of this, somehow (she said).
“I’m a huge Kirsty MacColl fan,” Christy wrote. “Her death looms large.
“I’m not sure what I believe — or what is proven — I just know what I know — and I’ve come to know that there are no coincidences (finding-refinding Picketts etc.).
“I think music, and maybe my kind of music in particular, acts like a dog whistle. Some people hear it — or the dog whistle tones of it – and most people don’t.” To her, it suggested an image out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of all sorts of people gathering to meet at the foot of Devil’s Tower.
*****
Dog whistle or not, I did travel to the Johnstown FolkFest, in an area of rural western Pennsylvania whose green rolling hills reminded me strongly of Slovenia.
I found Christy sitting at a portable table set up outdoors near a stage, and after I ascertained that it was her, I told her I was Wes. (Oh, yeah: I hadn’t told her I was coming.)
“You’re Wes,” she said. “You’re Wes.”
She then stood up and gave me a hug.
We talked a bit between her sets, and I made a point of telling her my life was on an upswing, and she said she was intuitive and could tell that. We made our goodbyes, and I went off to find my car in the vast parking lot. (We haven’t had any contact since and I don’t want to bother her, but I’m glad she’s still out there recording and if she ever plays Austin again, I’ll be there. )
*****
Donna, the future Mrs. Pogoer, who grew up on a tree-shaded suburban street in the Vailsburg section of Newark, had an interesting past — in addition to a successful career as a corporate writer, she was a skilled musician proficient on several instruments. Her principal instrument was double bass, which she had played with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and other classical ensembles, and with which she had also made something of a name for herself on the small, but very happening, lower Manhattan cabaret circuit. Donna’s natural habitat was a piano bar. She had worked closely with, among others, the singing ringmaster of the Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as this guy, and was an excellent and dedicated cook, a Reiki practitioner, and a very entertaining raconteuse (without even trying, she had had encounters with a large number of celebrities, from Kathleen Turner and Liza Minnelli to Jackie Mason, Harvey Fierstein and Jonathan Richman, the latter of whom she had even helped inspire to write the song “You Can’t Talk To The Dude”). Clearly, this was someone worth getting to know.
After I returned from Pennsylvania, on our second rendezvous in early September, the future Mrs. Pogoer and I wound our way through midtown Manhattan from Bryant Park to Central Park, where, sitting on a bench near a lake, I gathered my nerve, said some things I’ve totally forgotten, and kissed her for real-no-mistake, startling her but not in a bad way, and we nearly ended up doing indecent things in public.
I returned to Ljubljana a few days before 9/11 — Donna had had a dream about the towers’ fall a few hours before it occurred, yes, she really did — and we stayed in touch and agreed to meet in October in London, where the Kirsty fans would be meeting to celebrate her birthday by playing her songs in a pub (a tradition that’s continued every year since; Kirsty’s family and friends often stop by, and now there’s a memorial bench in Soho Square where the event commences).
We indeed met up in London, and decided to move in together back in the States, and after a while, after considering various other cities, we decided to set up shop in Austin, Texas because it seemed like a good enough place to make a new start, and Donna wanted to leave the New York/New Jersey area and I didn’t want to go back there myself.
And so I went on a “farewell tour” of Central Europe, stopping in Budapest, Bratislava and Brno, and put my things in storage and flew home to New York on the day after Christmas of 2001. After a few weeks staying with a friend in Brooklyn, we winged our way to the Lone Star State.
The rabbi at our wedding, who knew our story, remarked at the ceremony that it took the death of a poet to bring us together, and that out of tragedy new beginnings and good things can come.
And here we are, nearly five years since that day, and we have three-year-old twin boys walkin’ around here and everything, and there have been challenges and struggles along the way, and still are. (That’s life, that’s what the people say.)
But I still think that if Donna agreed to marry me, I can’t be all bad as a human being.
And you know, that’s good.
And even if Kirsty died so senselessly, yet our lives are utterly changed because of this tragedy, and there are two new people beginning to unfold their own stories in this sad yet sometimes beautiful world.
As Matthew Fox wrote in his book Creation Spirituality:
Compassion is a kind of fire…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears, and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

And I think of what Christy wrote on the CD I gave her to sign back on the first day of September in 2001:

To Wes–

Here’s to them mysterious mysteries.

Christy Sue

How I got to this point, part I: Kirsty and Donna and the mysteries of the universe

Getting from here to there, thereby hangs a tale. And since it’s past time to tell it…

Well, it’s like this. Sometimes the divine spark, call it what you will — God, or the Great Hand that Writes, or the Fickle Finger of Fate — makes itself known in a damned heavy-handed manner that leaves you reeling and wondering why me? and what’s going on? and thinking I’d better ride this wave for all it’s worth, because something bigger than just my little old life is going on here. And sometimes, like nature, the Great Hand likes to hide (thanks for the tip, Heraclitus).

Sometimes it hides for a very long time, indeed.

As the summer of 2000 turned to fall, and fall cooled further to winter, my life in Slovenia had become, if not exactly tiresome, then predictable; I couldn’t see much of a future ahead. Work had slowed, and I had by then long intuited that certain avenues would be forever closed to me if I remained there, and I would never be truly accepted by most of the locals. I loved Slovenia — still do — but the reverse didn’t hold: Slovenia didn’t love me back. The sense of wonder and discovery (and occasional moments of horror) that marks Year One of the experience of any expat worth the plane fare had, in that time-honored expat way, long since given way to same old same old. Not a bad existence, but still. It was static and holding.

I couldn’t escape a certain restlessness. I felt an inescapable sense of things coming to an end, as if my life in Ljubljana, rewarding, quirky and different as it was, had reached a point of no return. The wheels were still turning, but I was staying in place. I felt myself at loose ends, and didn’t quite know what to do about it except go into the old town, have another coffee, and stare into the distance.

The house in which I was living, my third and, as it turned out, final residence in LJ, was, for all its flaws, by far the best place I’d lived, and certainly the roomiest. I occupied the ground floor of Number 41 F. ulica, a modest two-story home in Bezigrad; the old couple who had previously lived there had died within weeks of each other, as old couples sometimes do, and their married daughter, a no-nonsense but fair enough woman who worked for a security company, rented out the flat; the second story was vacant except for a couple of weeks a year when the woman’s aunt, who lived in Switzerland, returned for a homecoming vacation.

The house wasn’t in the best condition, mold darkened corners of the ceiling, and the old man’s clothes were still stored in the cupboard and other artifacts (including a funeral album showing yet another old guy in his coffin) were in drawers in the house and the old quilts were still on the bed (my landlady obviously had no conception of giving away or discarding such effects). A crack in the bedroom window resulted in some very cold mornings. Hey, perhaps this was the way things were done here — garage sales in Slovenia were virtually unheard of, since nobody ever threw anything out even when someone died. But springtime strawberries grew in the garden, the house’s cool, dark cellar was ideal for storing wine, and I’d long gotten used to the slowness of dial-up Internet connections on my Mac laptop.
And so I passed the days, cooking my own meals, walking to the market, riding the bus to and from downtown, attending concerts and festivals, writing articles for various publications, editing for translators, and surfing the Net. Life passed rather glacially, and there was a vague sense of disquiet to it all.
New Year’s Eve arrived, and suddenly it was 2001 — the real start of the 21st century (so I was told).
On the second day of the year, I was sitting idly at the kitchen table and checking a site I hadn’t visited in awhile, which chronicled the recent deaths of celebrities and other notables, to catch up on anyone I might have missed. And read the following.

Kirsty MacColl (singer/songwriter) — Dead. Boat hit her while she was swimming. Died December 18, 2000.

Kirsty MacColl??? My God.

I’d seen Kirsty perform on March 19, 1995, when I paid $8 to see her and her band at the Paradise, a smallish club in Boston. The house was far from packed, but her fans were, as ever, much appreciative.
My reaction at the terrible manner of her death — killed by a speedboat while scuba diving (you can easily look up the details elsewhere) — soon sent me spiraling from disbelief into full-on grief. I started crying uncontrollably for a time every day for about two weeks.
I printed out various song lyrics, memorized them, and sung them out loud while standing alone in my sun-washed kitchen with its window looking out on the garden.
I soon found a Kirsty-devoted group on the Internet, where the members were sharing their grief, and I introduced myself and started sharing.
Although I always thought Kirsty was great [I wrote], and am happy to say I saw her perform live once in 1995, I don’t own every record she ever put out and frankly, hadn’t even thought about her for several years. I found out about her death shortly after New Year’s and was completely unprepared for the depth of my feelings, my sense of bereavement and profound loss. I suppose I always took her for granted.

I’m of the opinion that it’s dangerous to have heroes, since, politician or musician, they’re bound to let you down in the end, but everything I’ve read about Kirsty so far suggests that she was admirable and courageous (to the last moments) and — well, I can say that she was, if not my heroine, someone whose legacy appeals to what I’d like to think of as the better parts of myself. For me the infuriating thing is that it’s taken her death to make me realize this. It seems so obvious now. I think the major difference between Kirsty and most of the practitioners of what passes for the product of the pop scene today is only this: She was a completely realized adult human being; she knew who she was and did what she wanted to do, and damn the chart-topping fads and followers of fashion. And it’s only now I realize what I’m going to miss. Right now the fact that people with one-tenth her talent have enjoyed a hundred times the success she did, and the stupid, infuriating way she died (about which I could spit nails) seem like exhibits A and B in Resolved: Why the World is an Awful Place.
On the other hand, I can’t stand cheap sentiment and bathos, and one of the reasons I care for Kirsty is that she didn’t either, she saw reality and talked about it, and the last thing she’d want is a weepy overblown flowery tribute. Put away the rose-colored glasses; keep it real and it’ll be fine.

Kirsty was three months younger than me, and when you’re a teenager and discovering and exploring a new thing called punk rock, something of the spirit of it remains a touchstone for you, however much growing up you do over the decades. At the least, euphemisms and greeting-card sentiments won’t do.
So I don’t really know what else to say right now. Except that it’s still so hard to take; to echo what others have said, it’s as if I’ve lost a personal friend or a part of myself, maybe one of the truest, best parts. I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve thought about attending the memorial service but aren’t sure. In any case, “Walking Down Madison,” “My Affair,” and “They Don’t Know” keep playing in my head, in heavy rotation.The Kirsty concert I saw happened one Sunday night at a small club in Boston, filled with her proverbial small but loyal band of local New England followers. She teased us from the stage as “you Sunday night rockers, you,” and did all of those varied gems that belonged to her, and everyone loved it and was glad they’d come. Before the last encore, she hinted that the appropriate way to close such a show would be with something soft, gentle, filled with reverie. Then she and the band slammed into “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I went home with a big grin on my face.
And thinking to myself: Oh, yeah — she’s one of us.
Later that month I traveled to London to cover Kirsty’s memorial service for the Boston Phoenix (which I’ve reprinted here); I didn’t write, however, that I cried through much of it. (Well, so did a lot of people in the Church of St. Martin in the Fields.)
A woman in the US named Donna wrote back, saying how much she appreciated my post. I wrote back and thanked her.
About two days later, she e-mailed me again, asking if I was the same Wes that someone named Symboline (a/k/a Sally Cragin, astrologer and an active freelance writer based in Massachusetts) had mentioned in an e-mail to her a couple of years before.
What?? Yes, I was. I’d known Sally since the mid-’80s, in fact, when we were both doing the guest-list music-scribbling thing at clubs around Boston.
Before too long, Donna and I found out that we had been born on the same day, in the same year (as we later found out, I was eight minutes older), she in New Jersey and me in New York.
We started writing to each other, and for me, sorry if this sounds corny, it was like discovering a long-lost other half. We wrote about our families and our beliefs and a lot of things that aren’t anybody’s business but our own, and she had also seen Kirsty (in New York a couple of years before I had — her brother, also a big fan, had introduced Donna to Kirsty’s music).
In late August of that eventful year, I flew to New York ostensibly to see my family, but really to meet Donna in person. The future Mrs. Pogoer and I finally met on August 24 at a downtown Manhattan bistro (known as a hangout for writers and editors, although that’s not why I selected it). It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for the encounter. Time seemed to stop, we fell to talking as if we’d known each other for ages, everything seemed perfect, and it was one of the most memorable days of my life and set the tone for every day I’ve had since then.
We continued the date with a concert at the Knitting Factory that same night. I remember we had to wait an interminable amount of time before a cab came to take Donna to the train station, and she kissed me goodbye in the cab as if signaling me to stay in touch, and do some thinking.
I then drove to Pennsylvania to visit friends and take in a music festival in Johnstown (more about that in an upcoming post), and returned in early September, where Donna and I met up again in Manhattan, in Bryant Park in midtown, near the main branch of the Public Library.

I realize that many couples have “met cute” stories, but I don’t think a lot of them can , in all honesty, come up to ours.

To recap, here’s an excerpt from our wedding Web page, circa 2003, on The Knot:

<<It’s a long and twisted story, but here goes. We met on the Internet – but not on any of the usual sites. In April, 2000, Donna e-mailed a question to an online astrologer named Symboline, who in real life is Wes’s longtime friend Sally. Sally/Symboline recognized that Donna shared a birthdate with Wes…and told Donna to check out Wes’s website, which Donna duly did. Hm, she thought, a bit peeved: this sounds like a person I’d really get along with, too bad he’s an ocean and half a continent away. Flash forward to January, 2001. British singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl (a favorite of both Donna and Wes) had been killed the previous month in a freak accident in Mexico. Donna logged onto an online bulletin board of MacColl fans, and the first thing she read was a posting by…Wes. Not realizing he was THAT Wes, she e-mailed him to tell him she liked what he’d written; he courteously replied. Soon afterwards, she put two and two together and realized: Hey! A whirlwind exchange of e-mail followed as winter turned into summer; in August, 2001 the two met face-to-face…in Manhattan. The rest is history. Make of it what you will… Wes and Donna would like to thank Symboline and Kirsty for making it all possible…and the fates for finally bringing them together after having been born one river and eight minutes apart on a hot day in July.

[to be continued]

Really stretching out those special occasions

Fruit or flowers. The traditional gifts for one’s fourth wedding anniversary. (The ‘modern’ equivalent is appliances — how very romantic. But who follows such egregiously bad suggestions, anyway?)

I confess, I love wedding tat — all those engraved cake knives and champagne glasses and platters and wedding albums and wedding candids and even picture frames and those chrome flasks you give to the groomsmen as gifts, and the horrible dresses the bridesmaids are made to buy for themselves. Even though I see such things with a healthy dose of post-postmodern, Web 2.0 irony, an equally valid truth is I’m attracted to all that commercial wedding paraphernalia because I looked on it all as an outsider for decades before walking down the aisle myself at the age of 43, as did my bride of identical vintage.

Mrs. Pogoer and I were married four years ago last April 13 at a hightoned restaurant in a mansion in West Orange, New Jersey (which proved, in the end, an excellent choice, view of the Manhattan skyline during the dances and all). Even though I’ve only been through one wedding as a principal myself — and once was enough, although I can’t help wanting to do it all over again and tweak a few details, wish I’d have thought to do this and that — it seems that the tone for a marriage is set by the themes and setting of the wedding ceremony and reception. Of course it’s not that simple, but everything has to have a beginning, and the wedding, as everyone knows, marks a transition between courtship and ‘settling down,’ in full view of one’s nearest and dearest which is the point. The pledges made, the toasts uttered, the remarks by the marryin’ officiant — all serve to carve in bedrock the expectations on how the future course of the Joining Together of the Blessed Couple will unfold in weeks, months, years to come.

All this is prelude to the fact that sometimes, a feast has to be postponed because, well, we have these twins, and work intervenes, and — well, just read the previous post if you need further explication.

Like most of the Western world, both Mrs. Pogoer’s and my family like to send cards and occasionally presents back and forth to mark birthdays and anniversaries and those festive gift-giving, stupor-inducing holidays in December. Mrs. Pogoer, a/k/a Donna, is especially good, if not a tad obsessed sometimes, about giving gifts and of course you can’t help but keep track of who gives you one in return, not that she begrudges anyone because she really does think of other people before herself, but there was the time her mother threw a wedding shower for Mrs. P’s then-best friend (let’s call her Peggy), and Mrs. P. and the bride-to-be’s sister (let’s call her Helen) shared the cost of an expensive china service as a gift for Peggy. Peggy’s mother then chipped in for the cost of one plate in the service and signed the gift card “From Mom, Helen and Donna.” My wife never set the record straight with Peggy. Why bother…in the end she’s given far more than she’s received, but that’s no nevermind and karma will get you (or give to you) in the end. I hope.

Anyway, the point is that everyone’s busy these days and in Mrs. P’s family the Christmas gifts often end up getting shipped out a bit late, but arrive by Valentine’s Day at the latest, and mailing things out three weeks after one’s birthday or anniversary is considered a not-so-terrible thing even if it’s your mom or sister because there are the kids, and the work, and hey sometimes it’s hard to get out of the house let alone go to the mall, and everyone knows they’ll be happy with a gift card and God knows with the cost of shipping things these days you spend more on shipping than on the gift itself, ack, it’s not worth it [we must have spent a good $400 getting all our wedding gifts from Jersey City to Austin back in ’03, right?] and whaddaya whaddaya. The way things are, they’re lucky to get anything from us, and in the end they always do. Right? Right.

As far as the no-time-because-there-are-the-kids thing goes, our fruit-and-flower anniversary (I think it should be called the Diploma Anniversary, four years and all: you receive a B.N.M.M.F.G. [Bachelor No More, Married For Good] degree and a mortarboard with the kids’ pictures on it, now you’re talkin’) is a good case in point. Our actual anniversary fell on a Friday the 13th this year, yeah, and although I don’t believe in that superstition there were so many things going on around that time that Mrs. Pogoer never had time to shop for that new dress she wanted to wear; hell, she never even got the chance to buy a card for me, and although I bought one for her I misplaced it and so we went to an alternate last-minute restaurant we didn’t have to dress up so much for, an overpriced Italian place in a strip mall that we’d liked before but this time was somewhat less than satisfying (she liked the food and hated the service, I hated both food and service, and we didn’t even get the free anniversary dessert we were expecting, so the hell with that place in the future).

So I scheduled a Real Anniversary Dinner in a Historic Local Mansion for Tuesday the 24th. Due to one thing and another, and Mrs. P not feeling so hot (a sinus infection and extraction of a diseased molar was only three days from full Vesuvius), we decided to retain the sitter but go to our local mall instead, which actually ended up an enjoyable experience for both of us, much more so than the stupid Italian place — she bought a pair of Crocs for herself and one for me, and I bought her a small but tasteful golden heart on a chain and a pretzel dog (not at the same place) and we came home to find Leo still awake and being entertained by and entertaining Allison the Fabulous Nanny.

So the upshot is, we’re going to the Historic Local Mansion on May Day, Tuesday the 1st. Wish us luck.

When anniversary time rolls around, I often like to remark to Mrs. P (channeling Telly Savalas), “The honeymoon never ends, baby!” Maybe that’s actually true, because who has the time to celebrate your anniversary punctually? Or something to that effect. Moveable feast? Sure — moveable in time.

Like, y’know, whatever.

[Update and Postscript: Unfortunately, the May Day dinner was postponed yet again, due to circumstances and complications beyond our control; I’ll spare you the details, but we finally got to the Historic Mansion on Wednesday, May 23, and had a delightful evening.]