Saturday, August 23, 2008

Marriage at 30

from my journal...

I’m getting ever nearer to that momentous 30th birthday. Alone with a few single companions, I have witnessed a parade of weddings in the last five years. Like microwave popcorn that waits until a specified amount of zapping by small invisible waves, so too my friends were infected by the marriage bug – requiring all of them to be married within a short amount of time.

I’m being a bit facetious, of course. Some of those friends had been dating their spouse for years and years. Others met them very recently. But all had decided to take the plunge. Commitment. To one individual. Forever. Oh yes, and kids too.

At 30 (well almost, but it’s nice and round number to refer to :-) I should know everything about dating. I should be a veritable guru, a swami, if you will. People should come to me and say, “Oh, great dating swami, tell me how to date” due to the overwhelming experience which dating has inflicted upon me. Instead, the role is reversed – I end up asking my married friends for consolation and advice, consistently forgetting that married people are the last people to ask for dating advice – for they haven’t dated in forever. They’ve forgotten the dance, the game of chess (like the one played at the end of The Tempest by Ferdinand and Miranda) that dating, courtship, and engagement ultimately is.

Worse still, our parents, unaccustomed to a dating world that includes texting, facebook, email, and, pretend it’s 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago, for that matter) and offer utterly useless platitudes like “Oh, you’ll find her when you’re not looking.” Oh really, Dad? Wasn’t Mom your third different date that week? Time has a way of making married people forget they were once single people.

In fact, married people hate single people. As a business owner I’m in a heavy minority as a single man (the advantage I have found is that I, not my wife, get to run my business, but that’s a discussion to be had another time). I may lunch with these businessmen at my Rotary Club or sit on boards with them or run into them at mixers, but I have never been invited to a dinner party involving a majority of married people. Why? Frankly, we’re unwelcome reminders of so many things.

We are free and unencumbered. We don’t “have” to keep a job at a specific place or “have” to have a mortgage. We don’t have to pick up anyone at school. We have the undaunting task of cooking, cleaning, and shopping and doing errands for one. So, we have few obligations that married people have. In addition, if we possess a modicum of fiscal responsibility, we can travel where we want, with whom we want, and can, in certain cosmically possible circumstances, go on dates with new and exciting people. Youth and the single life, fraught as it is with uncertainty (which married people necessarily, and rightly despise) is similarly fraught with the excitement that uncertainty thankfully brings. Single people remind married people that they were single once, and having them around is horribly awkward.

Nor do I pretend that single people rush to hang out with married people. The few I hang out with are uncommonly cool and don’t douse me with ironic pity for being single, but rather, treat me as an equal and predicate our relationships on the idea that I may indeed never get married. And that would be okay. As for the other married people, well, their parties often resemble gatherings of the dead. One particularly infamous memory among some friends of mine, which occurred last Christmas, is referred to as “the Wake” or “the Funeral.” We arrived to deviled eggs and people engrossed (and engrossed as the very pith of that word was intended to mean, I kid you not) in a game which involved guessing the names of Christmas carols based on charade-like clues provided in 28 neatly cut squares. Brows were furrowed and pencils touched lips in rapt attention, like they were working on some complicated calculus problem or something of meaning. We (the single people) looked at each other in dismay and later, as we rode onto our “single party” (where the married people were the minority, heh) we each pledged that if marriage meant that sort of party, and the attendant tour of the newly-being-redone bedroom and bathroom (oh yes, that happened too), that we would remain forever single.

So what spurred this reflection? Some jolt of “hey, I’m going to be 30 soon”? No, rather it was a nearly two-hour conversation with a really good friend from Southern California. Running our own businesses in different time zones, our friendship has not been the close, talking-everyday one it once was, but we picked up right where we left off and after talking about work and vacation, the conversation inevitably turned towards the chief concern of young single men: the opposite sex.

“So, any new dealbreakers?” I asked. Dealbreakers were things that you were supposed to accrue as you got older, providing the necessary counterbalance to the fact that universally, as you get older, things are just not as a big of a deal as they ever once were in your mind. If you were now more easygoing about things, this had to be counterbalanced by the fact that you would now not countenance certain things.

“No, not really.” “Well, haven’t you been snowboarding exponentially more lately?” I asked innocently, hoping for the “oh, yeah, well…” His answer was the spark that lit this journal entry. “No bro, when I tell a girl I love snowboarding, I’m just hoping that in her reaction to that that she is active, meaning that she doesn’t laze around and just watch TV all the time. She might work out, she might bike, or hike, or walk, or swim, or whatever, but she appreciates an active lifestyle.” So then “activism” is a dealbreaker, I queried. “Well, um…well, yeah, I guess so,” he said tentatively. And in that tentative tone lay the rub.

Despite how well he (and when I say he, I mean me too) knew himself, my friend was unwilling to quickly and irrevocably cross someone out. And that’s because of the contradiction we observe in our own current milieu of too much choice. We think of easy things – things that cement our family and friends with us – similar interests, passion, DNA, and try to relate that to a relationship that will be severely unlike any familial tie or friendship in our life. One that requires day-to-day cohabitation, negotiation, love, nurturing, patience, and at some point, possibly, other little people who don’t know any of the rules of the universe you and your spouse have created in your castle.

I often boast about the fact that my parents have been married for over 30 years and were 12 years apart in age, of different races and family types, and at the time, different religions (my mother converted from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism in the 3rd year of her marriage). According to those who preach compatibility, my parents were stark rebukes – they didn’t share tastes in food, music, movies, or recreation. But they made it work, and what’s more, they were happy! So I grew up thinking my parents were the rule, rather than the exception. Yet, as I’ve encountered the real world, I have come to believe in the compatibility model as the surest guide in the shifting sands of gender expectations and roles vis-à-vis an ever-uncertain new global economy.

Yet, if that is the case, I should be able to (and have) date(d) all sorts. What else is to be done with a tea-drinking, coffee-appreciating, museum going, art-loving, college-football fanatic, who reads more than one book in a given week and runs several businesses while working on a graduate degree, who can cook well but loves fine dining, who insists on buying from Whole Foods but lives for a ballpark hotdog, who loves travel to far-flung locations but who enjoys walking at the park near his house, who has season tickets to the Symphony but who will go see Norah Jones in concert, or the Wizards or Royals, or Chris Rock when he comes to town, who’s chief trade is with 16-18 year-olds but mingles with a fellow member of his Rotary Club that averages 59 in age?

The answer? Lots of dating. Lots. Asking out and being asked out in every possible situation you can imagine. The gym, the post office, the grocery store, the book store, being set up by family, being set up by friends, being set up by clergy, working with online services, hiring a matchmaker, joining “singles” activities, going to bars and clubs with your friends, being auctioned off for charity as an “eligible bachelor” (that was particularly harrowing, I must tell you), et c e t e r a. Being single in today’s day and age, and especially at a time when all of your other friends (and/or your younger sisters) are moving on from marriage to that first child requires not just equanimity of spirit but at the end of the day, a deep and lasting sense of humor. There have been laugh-out-loud recaps with friends. There have also been tearful recriminations with those same friends doing all they can to simply put their hands on your shoulder to let you know that they’ve been there too.

Where does all this leave us? What did my friend spark, and what is the good of these apostolic 12 years of dating? Two things.

One, I have a deep and abiding sense of who I am and what I will NOT put up with in a future spouse – from the simple and superficial – like smoking cigarettes – to the more epistemological – like being an atheist.

Two, that sense of what I do NOT want does not, and continues to not, translate into a clear vision of what I want. Okay, she has to be a good kisser. But beyond that…oh and she has to love learning and culture. Okay, but SERIOUSLY, beyond the definite of what I don’t want, the inchoate “what I want” is a present indictment. It sounds like a whiny friend: “well, what do you want, Stephen?” The answer, after all these words and thoughts, can perhaps best be summarized by my friend John, who at 30 and was newly wed only this last May, responded thusly to my question of “what was that final thing that made you ‘know’ she was the one?”

“For me, buddy, she’s just got to be absolutely crazy about you. Be your biggest fan, your biggest supporter and cheerleader, and be in your corner. When I knew that I knew she would be my wife.”

I would concede that while I find that answer deeply satisfying as a man – because we really are simple creatures at the end of the day, it may not satisfy a woman – our much more complicated counterparts. Ladies, look to your own sex for answers. :-)

And, as my assistant was wont to point out when I mentally sketched the idea for this journal entry to her – all of this is theory, when you fall in love all of it goes out the window. Perhaps. To an extent. But in the inbetweens of love, the heart needs food which my mind is only too ready to supply.

So here’s a raised glass. To love. To hope. To all other worthy sentiments that still live within my dreams. Even after 12 years of jaded cynicism, I can still smile at the hope of finding that person to finally settle down with – not just the person you can live with, but the person you can’t live without.


Petrus said...

As I am five days to my own wedding, I would offer the advice that my Mom gave me. She described a man who tried to woo her away from my Dad by promising that he would 'do anything' for her. What she wanted, though, was someone that she would do anything for. It's not about what you get but what you give.

Anonymous said...

And that right there is the key, Stephen. My newest, greatest friend shared that piece of wisdom with me one freezing day in December, the day of our newly formed friendship. When I confessed to him that I truly felt naive (instead of spiteful)after continuing this relationship for the length of time that I decided to keep it alive, that I shouldn't have embarked on and thus had ended it over months of "talks", he told me what I wanted to hear. "Sarah, if you can't live without him, then that's that, but since you're telling me what you learned from this, I think you made your decision a long time ago" Pretty much. Yes. In a nutshell I guess. He answered the question I avoided explicitly asking myself. That summer, I knew I could live without him and thus became a stronger, adaptable woman. If you can't live without her, put a ring on that finger.