When I was a kid, my dad wanted me to be a stand-up comedian. Among the many corny jokes he told at the dinner table to inspire me towards this career path was this one, which for some reason stuck with me:
A man was in his home when a hurricane blew into town bringing with it high winds and torrential rain. A pair of cops came by in waders and asked him to evacuate.
“No thanks, officers,” he said. “My life is in God’s hands.”
So the police left and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later and the water was up above the first floor of the man’s house, so the man went upstairs. At that point, a woman came by in a rowboat.
“Let’s go!” she shouted in the man’s window.
“No thank you, ma’m,” he replied. “My life is in God’s hands.”
So the woman floated off in her boat and the rain continued to fall. A few hours later, the water had filled up the second floor of the man’s house, so he climbed onto the roof. Finally, a helicopter flew over and lowered a rope.
“Grab the rope; we’ll rescue you!” said the medic in the helicopter, speaking into a megaphone.
“No thank you!” screamed the man through the howling wind, “My life is in God’s hands!”
So the water continued to rise and, eventually, the man was swept away and drowned.
Up in heaven, the man came before God.
“Why did you forsake me, God?” the man implored. “My life was in your hands!”
“What do you want from me?” God replied. “I sent you a police escort, a rowboat, a helicopter…”
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, what I take from this is that we shouldn’t expect things to be done for us. No one will save us if we won’t save ourselves — not our family, our boss, the government, a religious institution, or just the world in general.
The best we can expect is a chance to do things for ourselves. If we’re lucky, we’ll encounter many windows of opportunity in our lives and it is up to us to go through them, to make something of them… Or to not make anything of them and then complain about it.
Sometimes that sidetrack turns out to be the key to something big. Sometimes that person you meet, that letter you write, the event you attend makes all the difference. But only if you let it. Only if you act.
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll get an opportunity to become a stand-up comedian, just like pop always wanted.
December 15, 2012 – My aunt Carol sits next to my grandpa Frank at the long, burnished wood dining table in the private dining room of the assisted living center in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Carafes of water and iced tea are arranged up and down the table. Out the picture window on the far wall, the town’s eponymous geyser-like fountain erupts to mark the hour, a 560-foot-tall, wind-blown feather pluming in the arid winter air.
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” My grandpa, 92, turns his head a few degrees, an indication that his attention has shifted from inner space to his youngest daughter, now grown with three kids of her own. He looks ready to say something. The room — containing my grandparents, my mother, my aunt and two of her children, and my wife and I — pauses to listen.
My grandpa, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, for as long as I can remember has been a quiet man, pleasantly reserved, slim, straight-backed, clean-shaven, early to rise — his military training even now remains tightly woven into the nooks of his personality. He often wears a paper boy cap, harkening maybe to his Scottish roots, and a wool cardigan over a collared shirt. Were he 70 years younger, his wardrobe would let him blend easily with a certain type of hipster crowd.
When I was growing up, almost every time I called my grandparents, my grandpa and I played out the same, brief conversation:
“Hi Justin! How’s Justin?” he’d say. I’d tell him a little bit about my life, and because I lived in Manhattan through most of my twenties, he’d remind me that he once worked there. He used to get up early and take the train in from New Jersey, riding an elevator up to some high floor with a view of the city. I could tell that feeling really stuck with him, of being up above the dozing metropolis at first light, like having a whole world to himself. After about two minutes, there’d be a pause, then he’d say, “Well that’s fine! You’re fine and we’re fine; we’re all fine!” Short and sweet.
He didn’t talk so much, and I, on the other hand, talked too much. Still, as I grow older, I start to look at myself and at my grandpa and think about the role his genes play in me. I also love the city in the early morning. I also love to be up above the world, looking down.
I remember a story my grandpa told me once about landing his P-47 Thunderbolt speckled with bullet holes. I don’t even know what country he was over at the time, but the cool required to fly straight into a dogfight two miles above the earth is something I can hardly imagine. Then again, maybe it’s similar to the way people see the climber — a human speck on the face of a huge cliff, suspended by gossamer thread. Maybe it’s a similar arrangement of neurons and blend of bio-chemicals that lets a person find strange peace and fulfillment at great heights, while skirting the margins between life and death.
* * *
“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” And my grandpa’s gaze shifts, as if he had been looking down on us all from great a height. He’s here again, on the ground with us, or almost. He processes my aunt’s comment and makes a simple statement so Zen that the three generations of family in the room can’t help but laugh.
“Well,” he replies with a light smile, “things change.” Then he returns to his grilled cheese and tater tots.
That’s all he’ll say for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, I help wheel my grandmother back to their apartment down the hall. My grandfather follows behind with his walker. The family stands around and chats in the apartment for a while, my grandmother lively despite having weathered several strokes that make it difficult for her to express herself through language.
Grandpa looks a little tired, so my mom goes over and says, “It’s OK, dad, you can take a nap.” He shifts his attention towards her and says, “Oh, OK. Thank you,” and then leans to one side on the sofa and quickly drifts to sleep, a smile on his face. It could be a symptom of his particular brand of dementia, but I’d swear he’s made some sort of peace with the changes that are slowly but surely whelming over him and his wife and everything he’s known in his long life on this tiny blue speck.
I was raised without any particular religious belief. Around the winter holiday season when I was young, we read Bible stories and Zen stories alike. We had a Christmas tree and also a menorah. More than anything, my parents and I used the time as an excuse to just be together, to take a break from the chronic business that afflicts most working people in the modern world and remember the more profound pillars of a human life — love, honesty, sharing, togetherness, thankfulness … the simple, if not a little sappy, stuff at the heart of most Christmas movies. My wife and I are partaking in this fine holiday tradition as I write this.
Our visit to see my grandparents, though not on Christmas proper, was in keeping with this theme. Just a sharing of time and place, a simple show of love and appreciation that’s all too easy to put off when schedules are full and family scattered across time zones. Regardless of how many words are exchanged, this is the most valuable thing any of us can give each other. All the more because things change.
I recently shared, with my 800-odd Facebook “friends,” a link to a New York Times article called “Friends of a Certain Age,” by Alex Williams. I found the piece to be honest and insightful, and I had recently been considering the phenomenon it identifies, namely that we tend to form fewer close friendships as we enter our 30s and 40s. (For context, I’m 33, married, of the middlish class, with a desk job and no kids.)
As we approach this fateful period in our lives, the article posits, “it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions … considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Throughout the piece, Williams offers a collection of quotes from psychologists and sociologists, as well as regular folks ranging in years from 32 to 46, all in support of the idea that the soil for friendship is most fertile during a person’s younger years.
When I posted the link on Facebook, I got some strong responses. My friends didn’t seem to agree. “Dude. This article is seriously bleak. I’m completely unwilling to accept such a dim view of socializing as an adult.” Said one I’ve known since elementary school. “You have to leave the rocking chair on your front porch to make friends,” said another I met after grad school. I think it’s natural to balk at the idea that friend-making tapers off at some pre-determined point — in fact, I have made several great friends from my late 20s through today — but the truth is, friendships do change from one period of life to the next. And as Stuart Smalley used to say, that’s OK.
In our younger years — elementary school through college, say — we tend to have a lot in common with the folks we befriend. They are usually from a similar socio-economic situation, the same geographical context, approximately our age (and thus, dealing with similar periods of physical, psychological, and emotional development), and so on. Most importantly, we’re thrown together with them, via schools, on a daily basis. Our classmates share with us more than half of our waking hours throughout the most formative years of our lives. We often become friends with people who live in our neighborhoods, and after spending hours with them in school, we spend hours more with them after school. Sometimes we spend the wee hours together, too, talking wide-eyed in the dark, sharing our fears, hopes, and half-formed adolescent philosophies during sleepovers.
As we grow, we see our friends come into their own, see them win glory on the playground or the sports field, see them embarrassed before rooms full of peers. Vulnerable, confused, elated, we see them as they meet their first romantic interests. When I was in high school, I dated a girl for little other reason than the fact that my best friend was dating someone from the same group of kids and I felt left out. In my freshman year of college, when the girl for whom I harbored a crush told me that she liked me, too, I called that same friend first to share the news. At that time of life, friendship meant something visceral. My parents were always there for me, but a parent’s response was not what I needed, then. Only a friend, at a similar point in life and who knew my back story from the ground level could offer the understanding and the validation I needed at that moment.
In those early years, a friend was more than just someone to talk to — a friend was the person who made you feel less odd, less alone. I can’t speak for all adolescents, but for me, from the time I was 12 all the way through my college years, my life was in constant flux, unbearably sweet one moment and unbearably sad, frustrating, or boring the next. My friends were my saviors. When I was feeling anxious in junior year of college, I’d go to crash on my friend’s tiny dorm couch as an escape from the torment of my own mind (not to mention my strange roommate, who lived entirely off of frozen cheese steaks, Tasty Cakes, and masturbated frequently and without sufficient discretion). In college, my friends’ very proximity normalized my atmosphere. I did not only appreciate my friends — I needed them.
Maybe my experience was unusual. I am an only child, after all. Maybe, in the absence of siblings, I turned to friends to fill a familial connection that others had. I can’t say for sure, but now, as I think about the friends I made in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, I wonder if it would be possible to form the same type of friendships now. I don’t need friendships in the same way any more, which I take as a good thing. I hope that most people in their mid-30s don’t require the validation and constant support of friends as I did a decade or two ago.
Today, my wife ably fills the role of confident and best friend. We go to dinner and watch movies together, go for runs and hikes, and talk through our issues (which seem much less dire than they did during my dramatic younger years). My newer friends, ones made in graduate school and on, number fewer and know me a little less deeply than my old ones. We exist at more of a distance from each other, as we were more fully formed, so to speak, when first we met. That is not to say that these newer friends aren’t of great value (one of my grad-school friends officiated my wedding, for example), or that we won’t come to know each other better over time (I read somewhere that five years are required for people to form that deeper sort of friendship bond), but I think it really is hard to create bonds as intimate as those formed in the tumultuous smithy of adolescence.
There are, no doubt, a million reasons why a person might disagree with the premise laid out above. A person still single in their 30s or 40s, or a recently divorced person, or just a very deeply social person — all might maintain that their friendships are the same in number and in kind as always they were. And who am I to argue? I have only my own experiences and observations. But from what I have seen and felt, the nature of friendship is destined to change as we grow older, as is our understanding of time and our hierarchy of priorities.
Friendships are an important factor in a complete and satisfying life at every stage. But to shake your fist at the changing geometry of friendship is as futile as Ahab’s rage against the white whale, which ultimately was his own fate, ineluctable.
I’ve been to a few weddings in my day. Long weddings and short weddings. Jewish weddings and Catholic weddings. Simple weddings and opulent ones. Of the two most unique weddings I’ve attended, one was secular, between two lawyers — it was full of cerebral legal metaphors and took place on the beautiful, grassy lawn of the Oakland Museum of California. The other, and I think the most unusual, was a Zen wedding, performed in a back yard in Ohio. The Roshi, or teacher, who officiated the wedding began by explaining that in Zen, there is no formal recognition of marriage. “Still,” said the robed man, “Thomas is such a great student and a great guy, I couldn’t say, ‘No.'” Looking back, there was something so very Zen about the whole scenario.
To mark the beginning of the Zen ceremony, the Roshi rang a bell, meant to rouse the attendees from the illusion of their everyday perception. Then he lead us through a lengthy series of chants. The syllables, which had no literal meaning, filled more than a full page of the little paper programs and were nearly impossible to follow. All around me, the crowd of mostly Caucasian non-Buddhists chanted away in earnest. The act was at once strange, humorous, touching, and enlightening, which I think is a wonderful blend. I knew then that I wanted my own wedding, if ever I had one, to be likewise unique, to be representative of my passions and philosophies, as well as those of my wife. Years later, I would finally have the chance to carry out this plan.
On June 15th, 2012, Kristin Marine and I were married atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado. From the time we were engaged, our shared understanding of marriage has been that it is a vow between two people to spend a lifetime together — nothing more, nothing less. With that in mind, we decided that our wedding ceremony should be small and simple, informal, secular, in a natural setting, and that the officiant should be someone we know and who knows us. If I were to pick a word to describe my ideal wedding, it would be “honest.” In fact, our desire for a minimal wedding more than once had us ready to hang it all and head for the courthouse with a witness, the way my parents did nearly 40 years ago. But, after some discussion, we decided we wanted to do a little something after all. It just seemed right.
There were 16 people at our wedding, including Kristin and me. Of those, six were immediate family and eight were close friends. There was, as one might expect, some vague pressure to invite more people, to make the wedding something grander, but we resisted. In the end, we decided to exclude many people we love, not because we didn’t want them there, but because we didn’t want that kind of wedding.
For a venue, we picked the Sunrise Amphitheater atop Flagstaff Mountain, a little peak just north of the Flatirons that we used to frequent when we lived in Boulder. We made the decision quickly and without much hemming and hawing. As you follow the switchbacking, two-lane road up the minor mountain, you rise rapidly above the city and your view opens out onto the plains of the east. Along the way, you’ll likely pass a few crazed cyclists standing up on their pedals, tilting ambitiously towards the summit (on the way down, they coast as fast as the cars). There, too, hikers gambol along the winding trails, climbers dance up the towering sandstone boulders, and deer graze amongst the brittle grasses. Sunrise Amphitheater, at around 7,000 feet elevation, is a popular wedding venue. It features a classical amphitheater layout, with curving, stone bench seats in a three-quarters circle, all looking down on a central stage. Though the amphitheater is large enough to seat 150 people, we had everyone gather at the edge of the stage, to better hear Tim Erickson, the officiant, over the perpetual hiss of the high wind in the fragrant pines.
Like the venue, our choice of officiant required little deliberation. Tim is my sole friend from graduate school and a hell of a poet. He’s also a heart-on-sleeve romantic, the keeper of a bountiful sense of humor, and an English teacher unafraid to speak before an audience. When we asked him to lead our little ceremony, he agreed without hesitation and went about getting his official credentials from the Universal Life Church. He crafted an entirely custom, secular ceremony, including a beautiful “cento,” which is a poem composed of lines from other poems. His artful words, informed by many years of marriage, were wise and honest and touching, and he delivered them with a grace that belied the fact that ours was the first wedding he’d officiated.
We approached our wedding the same way we approach life in general — we took what we liked from the old ways, left what we didn’t, and made up the rest. One of the traditions that we decided to stick with was the “best man” / “best woman” speeches, though we didn’t identify them as such. We simply each asked one of our friends to say something, if they wanted. Kristin’s friend Rachel donned a guitar and sang Willie Nelson’s “Everywhere I Go”, which left not a dry eye in the house. My friend of more than 20 years, Michael, pulled astutely from our many shared experiences to illustrate why Kristin would be a sure cure for my numerous, if not understandable, flaws.
Of all the things we did at our wedding, I think writing our own vows was among the most important. As I labored over mine, fearful of falling short in my role as a “wordsmith,” I came to realize that the old “in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse” line is, in fact, a very good one. It is hard not to come back to that type of promise. Still, I wanted my vows to be a little more personal. At first glance, the task seemed so simple — “Just say what you mean!” I implored myself while hunched over the keyboard. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. It is only when we try to make what we mean concrete, put it down in words, that we realize how unclear our meaning really is. It was hard work, mentally and emotionally, to convert love, a promise of a lifetime, into a few short paragraphs. It was a worthwhile exercise though, and one that added something of immeasurable value to the ceremony, at least for me.
From what I have observed, a lot of people get married with the assumption that some great event is required. I read recently that the average cost of a wedding in the United States is now $25,000. I can only imagine that romantic movies, the burden of tradition, and the flourishing commercial wedding industry’s marketing engine have conspired to convince us that cost = value. (Which is, of course, not necessarily the case.) In the end, our wedding was, for us, as close to perfect as a wedding could be — a moment set aside for a dame and a fella to say some important things to each other before a small collection of loved ones. I cannot think of anything more there should be to a wedding.
I am grateful and a little surprised that it all worked out as well as it did. I like to think it was a testament to our decision to do things our own way, and not be swayed too much by tradition or the expectations of others. But realistically I think it was good old-fashioned preparation, some help from our friends and family, and also luck. (For example, had the wedding been a week later, our venue would have likely been smoked out by raging wildfires.)
If, after reading this, even one couple is emboldened to create the wedding they want — rather than the wedding they think they should want or the wedding their family would prefer — I will consider this post a success. If the wedding you want is no wedding at all, more power to you. Same goes for those who genuinely want a big, sassy, opulent wedding. You cannot lose for following your heart. After all, what responsibility do we have in life but to make a world of the sort we want to live in. In every decision and every moment, we have a new chance to do just that.
Special thanks to Kristin Marine Roth, Herb and Kathy Marine, Aaron and Brock Marine, Richard and Susan Roth, Tim and Camille Erickson, Ted Chubb and Rachel Ryll, Nick Greenwell and Robin Maslowski, Michael Driskill and Rebecca Resnick Driskill, and to all the friends and family who weren’t present in body but who were there in our heart. We love you all!