Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The State of Marriage: Part 2

There’s a perception out there that the institution of marriage is in pretty poor shape these days, and probably has been since the liberalization of divorce laws back in the 60s and 70s. That definitely seems to be the perception of Chris Jones, who, as I mentioned last week, had a few things to say about my post Parting with “Til Death do Us Part” from February 14th.

He ended his response to my post with the following statement:

The last thing we need now is any further damage to the institution of marriage.

So before I go on, I want to talk a little about the autism explosion of the 1980s and 90s.

In a 2015 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air about his book NeuroTribes, author Steve Silberman talked about how the expansion, in the 1980s, of the medical definition of autism to match Dr Hans Asperger’s original work in Austria and not the later work of Leo Kanner in America (who never credited Asperger), led to more frequent diagnoses of it…enabling more families to get the services they deserved. But he also mentioned that because this change wasn’t explained to the public, it led to the perception that there was an “autism explosion”, leading people to look for “causes”, which, in turn, led to the bad science of the “vaccine connection.”

Basically, there were always more autistic people, and now we were counting them correctly.

What does this have to do with the state of marriage today? In her book Marriage: A History…, author Stephanie Coontz mentions how the liberalization of divorce laws in the 60s and 70s led to a drop in the number of murders. Hmm…seems like some people took that thing about “til death do us part” a little too seriously. It seems that back then, one of the only ways out of a bad marriage…and there were many of them…was for one person to kill the other.

So what’s going on here? It seems that the same thing happened with marriage that happened with autism. Marriage didn’t suddenly find itself in trouble after the liberalization of divorce laws, instead, the liberalization of divorce laws recognized that marriage had always “been in trouble”, and that there had always been people trapped in bad marriages, in unfulfilling marriages, in loveless marriages, in cruel marriages, and in virtual prisons of marriages, because our definition was marriage was wrong…or at least antiquated. We were still defining it as something to be endured for the sake of the institution, rather than something to enjoyed by both parties.

As I write this, I’m currently reading the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and she starts by telling how she started to become physically ill at the idea of remaining in her current marriage, and the expectations that the institution placed on her. And as I read that, I wondered how anyone could say, “Suck it up, sweetheart, you signed up for life!” for the sake of the institution. There are no alliances at stake here, just the lives of two people, who would be made miserable if they were forced to live up to the vow of “til death do us part.”

In any event, my point is that the institution of marriage is not in any kind of trouble at all. People still think that getting married is a good idea. We’re just finally recognizing that we’ve been forcing people to remain in the rotting shells of dead marriages, and giving them a merciful way out…that doesn’t involve either homicide or suicide. We’ve started putting the people before the institution.

And that seems like a pretty good thing to me!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The State of Marriage: Part 1

A few weeks ago, when I posted Parting With “Til Death Do Us Part, I got an interesting response from Chris Jones that I wanted to reply to immediately, but thought that since others might have the same issues, it might better be done here, in the same venue where I brought up the issue in the first place.

He writes:

Why do we still say [“til death do us part”]?

Because it’s important to have a right understanding of what marriage essentially is, and a right intention to be faithful not only to one’s spouse, but also to that essential nature of marriage -- even though we know that it is all too possible that the marriage will fail, and the vow will be broken. If the marriage does fail, then that is what it is: a failure. The vow has been broken. But that does not mean that there was something wrong with the vow. It means that one or both of the spouses were unable to keep the vow. A vow is a statement of the intent of the heart, not an enforceable contract. To dilute the vows because some will not be able to keep them is to cheapen the institution of marriage itself and to rob it of its meaning and power.

Of course, there is a difference here between civil marriage and Christian marriage. No one, I think, expects marriage as defined by the State to be a permanent bond. I don’t know that a civil marriage ceremony even includes “til death do us part.” But marriage as defined by Christ is different. The vow “til death do us part” is entirely consistent with His words “let no man put asunder.”

The last thing we need now is any further damage to the institution of marriage.

Now, rather than reinventing the wheel, and taking up precious space in the process, I’m going to refer you to a from four years ago, called Life in an Institution. That post also references a sermon of mine from 12 years ago titled (with apologies to CS Lewis) The Great Divorce. Read those first, and then I’ll continue.

OK, so in his first paragraph, Chris says that a vow is a statement of the intent of the heart, and not an enforceable contract. I don’t know…an awful lot of people seem to take it as being an enforceable contract. I guess I’d feel a little better, Yoda notwithstanding, if we could have the vows say that we will try to do X, Y, and Z; knowing that sometimes it’s just not realistically possible. I guess I’m looking for vows that are realistic, and not idealistic.

In his second paragraph, Chris states that there’s a difference between a civil marriage and a Christian marriage.  I would also assume that there are differences between those and Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim marriages, as well as the marriages of other religions and cultures. Using Christian marriage as the de facto standard seems a little disingenuous.

But then he says something that I’d never even considered when he said that he didn’t know if a civil marriage even included those words “til death do us part.”

Whoa! What a concept! I’ve been to many weddings over the past 42 years, and only one of them was a civil ceremony. And quite frankly, I don’t remember what their vows were. However, I took the time to do a little research, and there’s a wide variety of civil vows out there. Some avoid the issue altogether, and others say something along the lines of “now and forevermore.”

So it seems that this “death do us part” thing is pretty ingrained in our culture.

Finally, I want to address what Chris has to say about not needing any more damage to the institution of marriage; but since I’ve run out of room here, that will just have to wait until next week.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


One of my biggest fears in life is, and has been, what I’ll call “leakage.”

No. I’m not talking about the bladder kind, the reason why products like Depends are so popular among people of a certain age…although now that I’m of that certain age, I might be seeing them in my future. I’m talking about emotional leakage…the fear that what’s in my heart might leak out, and that I might be found out...with disastrous results.

Let me explain.

Friends who have known me since first grade will tell you that I’ve always been an incurable romantic, and that I’ve liked girls ever since I first discovered what they were. But people who knew me in the years from about 5 to 22, will tell you that there was also a dark, or at least an inept, side to this. I didn’t know how to give girls the proper amount or kind of attention. I was lacking in the social skills department to the point where I often annoyed the very girls I liked. In fact, there were a few that I actually scared away. There was one poor girl, Carmen, a year behind me in grade school, who I was such a pest to when I was in second grade, that for the next six years, whenever she saw me in the hallway, she’d run the other way.

But eventually the social skills fairy visited me, and I got a clue. I understood what I was doing wrong…but then I overcompensated by pretty much not doing anything at all, so afraid was I of creating another Carmen.

And this is where leakage comes in. This is what leakage is all about. All my life I’ve mostly been around women. Most of my working life has been spent in places where it’s been mostly women. And in these places, I’ve met a lot of women that I’ve really liked. Now, don’t feel that you have to go tell Cheryl on me. She knows all about this, and not only do we both say that “we’re married, not dead”, but she’s often suggesting to me women who she thinks I might like. In fact, she’s got a little list of women she thinks would be good for me should anything happen to her.

But back to the leakage. In the places I’ve worked, I’ve met a number of women that I’ve really liked, and that has made things complicated for me. Because even though most of my friends are women anyway, with these women, I’m afraid of leakage. I’m afraid of them somehow figuring out that I like them. That I like like them. And with this, I’m afraid of either creating another Carmen or coming across as “that guy at work.”

And so I withdraw…or try to. The problem is that I overthink things enough to figure that my withdrawal to prevent leakage is unfair to the poor woman I’m distancing myself from. A person who is now trying to figure out what she did to cause me to act so distant to her. And so, overthinking this again, I force myself to engage with this person despite my fear of her being on to me.

And yet, I have to say that despite my fears, despite my efforts to prevent leakage, two of my dearest friends saw right through me, “outed me”, and said it was OK. Really. They each pulled me aside one day and said, “You like me, don’t you?”

And the world didn’t end.

In fact, the world became a better place for each of us.

So maybe a little innocent leakage isn’t so bad after all...as long as I'm not drowning the poor person with 100 gallons of emotion at once.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Notches on the Heart

A number of years ago, a young friend of mine, who was then a college student, was pouring her heart out to me about hew newly-former boyfriend, who had been her first boyfriend…ever. She had never dated in high school. She had never been kissed…or anything else…before this guy. And because of this, she was now going through all the breakup angst for the first time at an age when most people have already gone through it two or three times already, and sort of knew how to deal with it. And because this boyfriend was so “late in life”, she had a lot pinned on this relationship.

Then they broke up.

And shortly after that, she heard that he was now sleeping with someone else.

She was both heartbroken and livid. She told me that he was only trying to collect “notches on his bedpost” (the first time I’d ever heard that term) by sleeping with this girl. I diplomatically suggested that maybe that wasn’t quite the case. I suggested that maybe she was looking at him…and by extension, all guys…way too narrowly, and seeing us as much more shallow than we really are. I suggested that what she saw as him trying to collect notches on his bedpost might really be a case of him trying to collect notches on his heart.

Let me explain. Contrary to what many women think, I believe that most guys really aren’t all about how much sex they can get. But rather, whether they know it or not, sex is very tied up in emotion. We just don’t [want to] show it the way that women do. I suspected that after the breakup, the guy needed to feel loved by someone, anyone, and so he slept with this new girl…not to simply get into her pants and add a notch to his bedpost, but to feel loved, to give love, and to put a notch on his heart.

No matter how misguided that attempt might ultimately have been.

Now this “notches on the heart” thing may or may not make sense to you, depending on your religious upbringing (or how much of a previous religious upbringing you’ve escaped from), but it makes perfect sense to me. And, that being said, I think it’s a wonderful thing to have as many notches on your heart as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a wonderful thing to have had sex with as many people as possible, but rather, that it’s a wonderful thing to have loved and been loved by as many people as possible…even if it didn’t work out in the end. Sometimes the best expression of that notch is from “naked playtime” and sometimes it’s just from just being able to hold each other close once or twice.

Sometimes it’s something as incredibly simple as just being able to let the other person know that it would’ve been nice, hearing it back, and having nothing else ever happen after that.

Am I making any sense here?

Sometimes you look back at a relationship and realize that it didn’t put a notch on your heart at all; and sometimes you look back at friends you had of the opposite (usually) sex and wistfully say, “Damn, I wish I’d had a chance to love them just once, so I could have that notch on my heart.”

Contrary to what my friend thought about what she saw as meaningless, casual sex, her former boyfriend’s horizontal foray with this new girl didn’t necessarily cheapen what they had previously done together, nor did it mean that he didn’t “properly value” sex. Quite likely, it meant that he valued it more than she could possibly imagine through her hurt.

He was trying to gather…and give…love.

To be certain, there indeed are quite a few guys out there who are only about seeing how many notches they can carve on their bedpost (and lets face it, there are women out there who are the same). But we’re not all that shallow. But I also maintain that there are an awful lot of guys who are concerned about notches on their hearts.

As we all should be.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Parting with "Til Death Do Us Part"

I remember when Rhoda got married. Rhoda who? Rhoda Morgenstern, best friend of Mary Richards. Mary who? Oh my…is my age showing? Rhoda Morgenstern was the best friend of Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore show back in the 70s, and when she got spun off into her own series, Rhoda, she got married…on the show.

I don’t remember much about the wedding, but one thing I do remember is how the vows ended. They didn’t say “Til death do us part”, or even the variant of “as long as we both shall live.” Instead, they said something that was new to me, and that this then 18-year-old really liked.

If my memory serves me correctly, they said, “As long as we both shall love.

I was reminded of that as I read the essay The Sacrament of Divorce in Ann Patchett’s book Thisis the Story of a Happy Marriage. She mentioned that as she was getting married for the first time, a marriage that she had her doubts about, but was too na├»ve to know not to go into, she thought to herself that if this marriage didn’t work, the only way out was to die.

To die.

No matter how miserable they made each other. No matter how much one abused the other. No matter if at some point they both realized that the kindest and most loving thing they could do for each other was to dissolve the marriage, the only way out was for one of them to die.

Fortunately, she realized that, despite what she had been taught, she didn’t have to die in order to get out of a bad marriage. But let’s talk about that. Why do we still say that?

I haven’t been able to find out just when we started using that phrase in the English speaking world, but I suspect that it goes back to the days when love had absolutely nothing to do with marriage, and when it was often a way of cementing alliances, and the two people getting married were expected to put up with each other out of a sense of duty to something larger than themselves…and if they ended up liking each other, that was a bonus.

But times have changed, and we marry for love and not the to join families or empires. Our expectations of people are different. Our expectations of what people should have to put up with are different. So why are we still saying this?

Um…maybe because it sounds nice? Let’s face it, at a certain level it appeals to the idealism of those who get married…who can’t imagine how horribly bad things could actually get. We can’t imagine what things will be like for us 30 years from now, and we definitely can’t imagine the drinking or gambling problem that was successfully hidden from us until a week after we promised to put up with it until one of us died.

“As long as we both shall love.”

I like the sound of that, and yet, I realize that there are some people who think that that puts too much importance on a feeling that could be fleeting, and that it comes down to building a house on a foundation of sand that could shift at any time. There are also those who think that anything but “til death do us part” is tantamount to looking for an escape clause before the marriage has even begun. But do we really want to lock to people in a marriage that is miserable, abusive, and unfulfilling until one of them dies?

I don’t.

So I say we should part with “til death do us part.” What do I propose as its replacement? What do we say that speaks to the idealism of the couple getting married, while recognizing the reality that shit happens?

I’m not quite sure. I just know that “til death do us part” has to go.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


I’m back. I’ve been gone for a while. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have anything to say. Far from it...I’ve had lots to say. I’ve had many things I wanted to say that just took to many words to say well. There were things I wanted to say that would be too easily misunderstood by people, resulting in great wars of words that I really had no intention of causing and little desire to continue to fight in. Heck, there were things I wanted to say that I knew would almost willfully be misinterpreted or twisted into something else, just so that person could angrily make their own point in response; and I had no desire to deal with that. There was also the issue of time…there were so many good things to write about, but not enough time in which to write them all.

But this month is special. It’s February…the month of love. So for a month of Tuesdays, I’m going to talk about love in one way or another.

And now that I’ve said all that, I’d better get to work!

There are a lot of things I know now about love that I wish I’d known when I was younger. These are things that I think that young people should know now, so that they can love wisely, well, and…as much as possible. That last one may seem a little odd, but I think that in time you’ll understand what I’m saying.

To begin with, there are lots of ways to love someone. And here I’m not even talking about the three ways that I learned about in church (fillia, eros, and agape). I’m talking about the many ways to love someone romantically. There are the loves that last for decades. There are the loves that last a few years, months, or even weeks…whether we intend them to be or not. There are the loves that are spoken of, but not acted on…for any of a number of reasons. And with all these ways of loving someone, perhaps aiming for that “one undying love” misses the point, misses many opportunities to love and be loved, and misses the opportunity to have your life enriched by those loves.

I realized many years too late that I missed a chance to love someone who had a boyfriend back home. This person probably loved me too, but I was too dense to pick up the hint because in my simplistic, binary, yes or no way of thinking at the time, I figured that if she had a boyfriend there, she couldn’t possibly be interested in me. I didn’t understand until years later that we could still love each other as people who weren’t that “one undying love.” I didn’t realize that we could still be something to each other for just a short while at school, until she eventually graduated and married the guy back home.

In our youthful idealism, we tend to think that love conquers all, or that love should be able to conquer all. But it doesn’t. And maybe it shouldn’t. Perhaps love…real love…knows when it’s time to bow out and call it quits…for the sake of the beloved. We think that if it didn’t last “forever”, maybe it wasn’t real love…or a waste of everyone’s time. But perhaps the greatest love is that of the person who says, “I’m not right for you, there’s someone out there better for you than me, and I’m preventing the two of you from finding each other.” Perhaps this kind of love does go on forever, but just in a different form…as a deep and abiding friendship. And sometimes fighting to keep that romantic relationship alive can kill the friendship that sparked the romance to begin with.

And with this, let me say that perhaps the best breakups are where the one doing the breakup leaves the person feeling good about themselves…and the relationship…in the end.

And let’s talk about all those “temporary” relationships…those short term “flings” of even as short as a week…or a weekend. Let’s not devalue those simply because they didn’t go the distance. Was there love and caring there? Was there a sense of “this is the only time we’ll have to be with each other, so let’s take it so that we can say we always had Paris”? I’ve had Paris…or at least Petaluma…and I’d take those three weeks again. On the other hand, I may have missed Ostrom because I didn’t want to “waste the time” of someone who I knew wasn’t ultimately right for me…even though I loved her. Who knows…maybe she would’ve been happy to say that at least we had that for a few months. And perhaps those few months of what we both knew would just be a temporary relationship would’ve enriched us both.

Oh…there is so much more I could say here, but I think I’ve gone on too long already. But tune in next week for some more of my thoughts on love.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Winter Concerts

A number of years ago, letters went back and forth on the pages of the local paper about this relatively new thing (since we were kids) in our schools called the “Winter Concert,” which, in an attempt to not offend anyone, seemed to pointedly ignore the Christmas elephant in the room. People weighed in on this from all sides. Some people expressed themselves well, and others didn’t. Some made us think a little bit, while others made us cringe. I hope that what I have to say here is one of those things that makes you think.

What I miss, from my high school years back in the early 70s, are the annual mixed-program Christmas concerts, and the key here is that they were mixed-program. Sure, they included a lot of religious Christmas music, much of which even I, as an Episcopal Church choirboy from 5th grade, had never heard before, but they also included a lot of secular seasonal stuff. Yes, there was the opening procession of all the choirs on the old French carol At Solemn Midnight and the coveted senior solo on Oh Holy Night, but there was also Sleigh Ride, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, and other secular seasonal favorites.

Unfortunately, a mixed program like this probably wouldn’t work in a public school anymore because some people would say that the proper place for the religious music is in a church. However, the secular music wouldn’t be welcome as part of a church program either. I don’t just want a church hymn-sing and I don’t just want to hear songs like Jingle Bells, that don’t even mention Christmas at all, in an attempt to offend no one. I want both sacred and secular holiday season music, and it seems that the only solution is for someone to form a “community chorus” that would allow us to hear our young people do a mixed-program Christmas concert at a “neutral” venue.

The obvious exception here is college choirs. For six years I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University, and despite our being the Chapel choir, which sang at the regular Sunday chapel services, we were also a traveling and performing choir for SU, which meant that we also learned secular works to round out our concert program. I’m sure that many other college choirs do this same mix with no concerns. But I guess things are different by the time you get to college.

And what of those people who aren’t Christians and don’t celebrate Christmas? Recent surveys have shown that despite our increasing diversity, a huge majority of people celebrate Christmas in one form or another. Things may look a little different in DeWitt than in Fabius or in Brooklyn than in Rice Lake WI, but the fact is that it’s the holiday that most people are talking about at that time of year, and it seems a little odd to pointedly ignore it when our schools give concerts around that time of year. Perhaps, that’s why so many schools have moved their winter concerts from December to January so that the whole Christmas thing is a total non-issue.

But I still miss the mixed-music programs.