Seven things learned from seven years of marriage

Mickey and Minnie pancakes

A week ago I celebrated my seventh anniversary of life as a married man.  Truthfully, if you’d approached me around the time George W. Bush was accepting his re-nomination for a second term and said that ten years hence I’d be happily settled with a wife and a teenage son, I’d have inquired, pointedly, as to the quality of the copious reams of narcotics you were obviously inhaling.  Yet here we are in 2014 with seven years of the formalized partnership at our backs and by all indications prospects for many decades more – in an age where divorce is increasingly common and societally accepted, tipping from “end of the world, what will the neighbors think” into “no big deal, plenty of fish out there.”

What makes a marriage work?  Hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest have been whacked to print books and articles by experts, both credentialed and self-proclaimed, identifying specific strategies by which every marriage should endeavor to function – in effect, taking the complex, evolving narrative that is the relationship of one human being to another and putting it in the more digestible language of business; boiling it down to key messages primed for PowerPoints and pie charts.  “Do these five things every day and your marriage will always be happy,” and the like.  Rather than rehash the bromides of Cosmo articles past, like “communication is the most important thing” or “make time for intimacy,” instead I’m going to share what I’ve observed these past seven annums, and you, dear reader, may take or leave as you will.  Nor will I dare to suggest that I get these right all the time, or try to hold myself up as exemplar of the ideal husband.  As always, they’re just my thoughts for your consideration, and maybe somewhere amid the flotsam and jetsam of our mutual experiences we’ll locate the truth of things.

1.  There is no such thing as a successful marriage.  Why?  Because “success” implies something you’ve finished.  The goal of a marriage should be like that of the U.S. Constitution:  forming a more perfect union – but – you need to know from moment one that you’ll never actually get to “perfect.”  And why would you want to?  There would be nothing left to do; nothing left to learn from one another, nothing left to share.  You’d be ready to move on to the next one.  Accepting that you’ll never achieve “success” is not an excuse to throw up your hands and stop trying, it’s a reminder to get up each day and keep working on it, keep thinking of ways you could improve your relationship, keep doing the little things that make yours a true partnership.  Marriage is not a destination where once arrived you can kick up your feet, crack open a brewski and watch the game.  It’s more like acquiring the world’s most awesome traveling companion for the road ahead, and she knows all the best places to see along the way.

2.  Write things down.  When you’re first with someone you document everything; souvenirs from every restaurant or movie or concert or stroll along the beach you experience together, chronological photo albums with the story of your courtship captured to the very minute.  The longer you go on, the more settled you become, you find it less necessary to take the camera when you pop out for a drink after work on a warm summer night, and she looks amazing, and you share a belly-aching laugh over something trivial, both little realizing that in a month, that precious slice of life will be lost in the background noise of daily drudgery.  You will come to regret not being able to remember so much of what reminds you how much you love her.  I know exactly where we went for dinner on our first anniversary:  TAO Nightclub in Las Vegas.  I ordered grilled ahi tuna.  But I’m pained to recall what we did for our second, third, fourth.  I know we didn’t sit around doing nothing, but because I didn’t write it down, I have no trigger with which to activate those memories.  There’s a balance to be found before you start needing terabyte-capacity external hard drives to store all your selfies, but even a few spare details jotted in an easily accessible notebook will be enough to activate your recall and let conversation provide the rest.

3.  Always get out of bed first on weekends.  It’s the smallest gesture, but it shows that you respect your partner’s time, are aware of what needs to be done around the marital residence and are taking initiative on getting to it instead of giving in to the temptation to be lazy.  We all love curling up underneath the covers as the sun pours in on a Saturday morning, especially after a long, cold work week, but getting up first is giving the gift of rest to another and proving that you’re taking charge of the day and not expecting to be waited on.  It’s simple math, really – an extra half hour of sleep or a happier spouse for the whole day?

4.  Don’t take the day for granted.  It is far too easy to get lulled into the repetition and sameness that can plague domestic married life.  Get up, go to work, come home, eat a dull dinner, pay bills, clean bathroom, watch a few hours of TV, go to bed.  Repeat ad nauseum.  And yet you should still pull yourself out of the complacency for a few moments each day and remind yourself of the fortune that has favored you with health, stability, security, and an irreplaceable partner.  Because on the morrow something may happen that will upend everything and you’ll find yourself longing for the predictability of routine.  Even a boring day is a day that you are alive and safe and free to choose.  And it’s one more day spent in the company of the greatest person you’ve ever met.  Not bad at all, really.

5.  You don’t have to have the same taste.  When my wife and I are having trouble figuring out a movie to watch, I find myself envying those couples who have found each other through a shared love of geek culture, particular sports franchises, Mesopotamian basket weaving, what have you.  There are times, in fact, when it seems like we have very little, if anything, in terms of common interests.  But in many ways it’s been a blessing, as it’s given us the chance to discover the other’s passions, and find commonality we might not otherwise have noticed had we just stuck with the same interests we brought to the relationship.  I spoke a bit back in my A-to-Z series about how meeting my wife deepened a love of jazz and the Great American Songbook – would I have had this were she just a Beatles and U2 fan like myself?  Though on much of the cultural zeitgeist we still do not agree (after nine years together she remains unconvinced of the merits of the Lord of the Rings franchise and spectacularly indifferent toward James Bond) our connection remains solid and strong.  Common interests answer the question of what to do on a Saturday night, but they’ll never be the foundation of a lifelong relationship.  A genuine caring and admiration for each other is what’s needed.

6.  Spontaneous musical numbers are always in fashion.  We aren’t the first to joke that the world would be a much happier place if people on the street and in the malls would break out in impromptu singing and dancing more often.  Short of the arrival of that demon from that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode a few years back, I’m afraid it’s left to us to bring the Sondheim, and most folks would rather guest lecture on macroeconomic theory at Yale in their birthday suits instead.  It’s truly a shame that this potent arrow in the human mirthmaking quiver doesn’t get strung and loosed more often, as few moments of melancholy can’t be improved by even an off-key rendition of the perfect chorus.  Whether it’s in the proscenium of the kitchen as the pasta boils or the grander scale of the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, pull your sweetie in for a rumba or a cha-cha whenever you get the chance.  And if you can throw in a few half-recalled verses of a Tony-award winner or even Weird Al’s latest – onwards, musical soldier.

7.  Never underestimate your spouse’s ability to surprise you.  As I mentioned earlier, routine and complacency are two of the greatest adversaries of marriage, inasmuch as they dampen the spark that is needed to maintain a human being’s interest in anything over a long period of time.  But if you’re with the right person, those nemeses won’t even get to step onto the field.  There have been many moments when I’ve found my spirit beaten down by the unfairness of things, by reversals of fortune and bleak prospects for progressive change (both in my own life and in the world at large), and my wife will go and do something utterly unexpected, reminding me of the innate wonder and capacity for good that lies at the heart of humanity.  It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly grandiose – it can be as little as a smile found amidst heartbreak.  There is one moment in particular that I will share.  One cold January night I found myself, after a brutal phone call, jobless, rudderless and not sure how to get through the next hour, let alone commence the next phase of my life.  My wife offered some words of comfort, but I wasn’t in the mood to have it, brushing her aside with a half-hearted “yeah.”  I stepped outside for a few minutes to take the trash to the curb.  When I turned back to our front door, she was standing in our foyer looking out at me.

Dressed as Minnie Mouse.

She was wearing the ears with the red and white bow, waving with the oversized white gloves and doing a better than average impression of Minnie’s giggle.  I don’t know how she’d managed to gather those up and don them so quickly, but in an instant the storm within me broke, I laughed, and I knew that things would be okay, because she was with me.  It’s a gift I’ve never forgotten; a memory that I can dig out of the box and hold whenever I need it.  And tomorrow she’ll come up with something even more spectacular.  It’s who she is.  An inexhaustible reservoir of strength, kindness and generosity, with a heart as big as the moon, a singing voice to shatter the stoniest facade, and a positively contagious laugh that makes the corners of my mouth inch up even to think about it in passing.

There you have it, for whatever it’s worth.  Nothing earth-shattering or life-changing, just a few simple truths that help me find my way on the long road.  Above all else, seven years of marriage have taught me to be excited about what I’ll learn over the next seventy years, and to be grateful for the journey I chose to take and for the amazing woman who agreed to come with me.

Au revoir, Robin Williams

geniefree

Blessed are the mirthmakers.  Watching my Twitter feed yesterday and today run over with warm anecdotes about Robin Williams, shared by both his celebrity friends and everyday people whose circle he might have wandered into one happenstance moment, was a testament to the inimitable imprint he will leave upon a troubled planet hungering for the levity that lets it aspire to a brighter day.  He was a treasure we didn’t often stop to realize we had; star power having waned somewhat in recent years, movies no longer top box office draws, forays back into television cancelled after a solitary season.  Now that he is gone, we recall only the highlights, the best of a legacy burned into collective memory and visceral lines of brilliant, often improvised dialogue we’ll appropriate for our own.  Williams’ unique rapid-fire, free-associating comedic patter was like a brain overloaded with all the world’s data, obsessed with identifying the connections in pursuit of a grand design just one perfectly-timed quip out of reach.  “Genius” was not hyperbole for describing his talent.

The outpouring of good feeling seen across all forms of media is reassurance, one hopes, that Williams will be remembered for the man he was and not only by how he died.  Hundreds of articles and blog posts have already appeared attempting to reconcile the contradiction of a man who could quite legitimately be labeled the funniest person on the planet being consumed by depression.  It seems that so many of our jesters are.  They understand on an analytical level why the joke is funny, they can see other people expressing the expected reaction, but they can’t join in the feeling, because an illness bars the way like the world’s cruelest bouncer behind a spiked red velvet rope – this far and no farther shall ye come.  The clown who does not know laughter himself is one of our greatest tragedies; so too it seems would Robin Williams become perhaps the most literal example of this archetype, struggling with the dual demons of mental illness and substance abuse throughout the decades of a career dedicated to lifting the spirits of millions.

When my family bought our first Betamax VCR, for what seemed like a good year, we had a mere two movies, on the same cassette:  Caddyshack and Popeye.  The former I could take or leave, but I loved Popeye, as silly and as ill-conceived as a grownup’s eyes can see that it is.  The opening scene where the titular squinty-eyed sailor rows into the seaside town of Sweethaven, inquires at the Oyl residence about a “room fer rink” and tucks himself into bed while looking fondly at a picture of his father (which is an empty frame with the words “ME POPPA” scrawled on it) was by turns funny, weird, and ultimately endearing, somewhat emblematic of Robin Williams’ work.  Rolling on the floor at the zaniness and the audacity and moved to gut-wrenching sobs in the next.  Ironically, for someone who made his name in comedic mugging, Williams always knew when to pull back and let someone else have the spotlight.  In Awakenings, he dialed back his charisma to let Robert De Niro drive the movie with a touching portrayal of a recovered catatonia patient experiencing a new world.  He let Matt Damon become a movie star in Good Will Hunting and won an Oscar in the process, crafting a gripping performance with subtlety and rigid control of that inexhaustible manic energy.  Williams himself might have admitted that some of his movies over the last few years have been less than stellar, but you’ve never gotten the sense that it was because of a lack of trying on his part.  In his acting roles, no matter the genre, he left it all out on the field.  Perhaps it was this incredible commitment to put out so much energy for everyone else’s benefit that there wasn’t enough left for himself.

His passing brings into light as well our ongoing inability to equate the frequently invisible illnesses of the mind with the obvious illnesses of the body, in how we treat them and even how we think of them.  As Alistair Campbell illuminates so well in his HuffPost piece, we regularly laud cancer patients for their courage while in the same breath telling people with depression to suck it up – or express incredulity that someone who appears to “have it all” could ever find anything to be depressed about.  I’m beginning to wonder if it’s simply a question of etymology, where depression the illness is negatively impacted by the non-medical concept of feeling depressed.  Maybe if it were assigned some elaborate sciency-sounding moniker like “Fleckstein-Johner reductive cerebral neural syndrome,” individuals suffering from it might receive more empathy from those who don’t have it.  And yet so many do – one in five, according to recent statistics.  (According to WordPress, as of my writing this there are 3,357 people following this blog, so 672 of you likely suffer from some kind of mental illness.  That is enormous, and saddening at the same time, and evidence that there is so much work to do to alleviate the stigma.)

The lexicon around the ending of one’s own life is similarly tinged with judgments.  “Committing” suicide draws the implied comparison to perpetrating a crime; as does referring to someone as a “victim” of suicide.  Thinking of suicide as “giving up,” or that the person “just couldn’t fight anymore,” and that they made a conscious choice to die.  In no other example of an illness do you hear offensive phraseology that assigns blame to someone who has suffered.  When Amy Winehouse died a few years ago there was no shortage of people claiming with clucking tongues that “well, she was clearly headed that way.”  Try saying that about someone who dies of leukemia (and then duck).  Yes, depression can be a fatal disease, and as much as we might enjoy comforting ourselves with fantasies of last-minute interventions (insisting over and over again that “it’s not your fault,” as in a famous example from Williams’ own work) the plain ugly truth is that those triumphant hug-filled finales are for the movies.  Just as some cancers can’t be cured, many cases of depression aren’t either.  Robin Williams tried his best, working through treatment throughout his life, but in the end, he died from an illness, just as if he’d had a particularly virulent physical tumor.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Those who knew him and the millions more of us who merely admired him from afar and relied on him to make us smile when we were down should simply celebrate who he was, and be grateful that we were able to share in his gifts for a short time.

Apparently there are three Robin Williams movies in post-production awaiting release, but it’s strange to think that after they have come and gone, we will not see any more.  His is a legacy of goodwill, of being a force for hope, kindness, and charity; of giving to his fellow human beings far, far more than he ever took.  As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put it yesterday, the Genie is free now.  We will miss him, but we’ll always have the laughs.  So instead of black armbands, let’s don red clown noses, jump up on our desks and recite a few lines of “O Captain!  My Captain!”  That’s probably just how he’d want it.