Wednesday, August 13, 2003

On August 13, 1988, the temperature in Watertown, Massachusetts reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Green-winged dog day cicadas screamed from the trees. At 11 AM, a wedding took place in a Methodist church on Mount Auburn Street, the main thoroughfare of Watertown. At about the same time, in an Italian restaurant in nearby Newton, the air conditioning system fizzled and failed.

The Watertown wedding was neither large nor especially formal. As the guests assembled, a jazz-flavored King Crimson instrumental played on a boom box at the back of the church. The bride's father, 76 years old, was in the midst of chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's disease; despite the heat and his diminished energy, he pressed on through the service, managing to not wilt too badly in the morning suit he'd somehow agreed to wear. Though not known for his optimism, he had unforeseen reasons to smile. He would beat his disease and live another eight years, something no one else really expected that morning.

The bride and groom had chosen to marry in the town where they now lived. She was actually from Connecticut, the only child of a blue-collar couple; she felt no particular attachment to the home town she'd left in 1974, although several dozen of her relatives had driven to the Boston suburbs for the wedding. The groom was the older of two children of a white-collar family in Indiana. His parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and a few other Midwestern relatives and friends had made the trip to Watertown. Many of the bride's and groom's co-workers were there as well, since the couple had met at work.

On the marriage license, the groom's occupation was listed as "physician", and the bride's as "technical writer". They still joke about that document, which listed different ages for the two of them. He had already turned 32; she was only seven weeks younger, but her birthday fell three weeks after the wedding. Single for so long, they both felt set in their ways. They were determined to go ahead with the wedding, but though few of their friends and relatives realized it, they were terrified. Both of them felt they might be too young to get married.

The matron of honor had been the bride's closest friend as both coped with a stressful and unrewarding workplace several years earlier. The best man had been through postgraduate medical training with the groom, and knew even more about stress. The genial minister who officiated at the wedding addressed the bride and groom during the service. Relax, he told them, relax and learn to have a good time and enjoy each other. Their relatives, who like most families were not privy to their children's secrets, were undoubtedly a bit confused. The friends of the bride and groom, however, understood perfectly, and suppressed giggles as they sat in the pews. The bride wore a beaded butterfly on her veil. It had been an afterthought, but she really liked butterflies. The fact that it was there made her calmer, somehow.

After the service, the groom drove his own gray Colt -- not air-conditioned -- to the reception, with the bride sitting beside him. When they arrived at the Italian restaurant in Newton, the manager apologized profusely about the heat. The bride was taken aback for about ten seconds, and then patted the manager on the arm. Don't worry about it, she said, it's only a little thing. In the larger picture, it really was. The bride and groom were terrified. They felt too young to get married. They went on in anyway, though, and ate pasta and and drank wine while a classical guitarist strummed away in the banquet room, and everyone else loosened their ties and fanned themselves and drank wine or sparkling grape juice while some poor repairman climbed up on the roof and kicked the air-conditioning system back to life before the reception ended.

Now, fifteen years later, the groom is a political activist and budding videographer, long removed from his life in medicine and medical education. The bride is no longer a technical writer; she followed her butterflies to graduate school and became a biologist, an effort that took up half each of her thirties and forties. They still have the gray Colt, which took them from Massachusetts to Michigan three years after the wedding, an action that made them realize they really were not only old enough to get married, but a pretty good team. They don't have children -- the wisest possible decision for them in many ways -- although they're surprisingly good at being an uncle and aunt, something that has brought both of them, as well as the bride's mother, very much closer to the groom's family.

They celebrated their fifteenth anniversary with a strenuous four-hour paddle down a western Michigan river, followed by a lavish dinner in one of their favorite Kalamazoo restaurants. When they went to dinner, he wore an aloha shirt that he bought on their Hawaiian honeymoon. (The bride is still awestruck over the groom's ability to fit into 15-year-old clothes without so much as a strained button.) They're probably going somewhere else soon, but they don't know where or when. They have only occasional contact with the matron of honor, the best man, and the officiating minister -- but they are learning, very slowly, how to relax, and they both have every reason to believe that someday they'll get it right.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Sometimes I think the entire human species is desperately in need of adult supervision.

Take, for instance, Fox News's suit against Al Franken for using the term "fair and balanced" in his book title. Hello? What idiots allowed a corporation to trademark -- if in fact they ever did trademark it -- an expression that's been in common use for decades? This brings up some interesting questions. If I'm taking a photo of a friend in a fast-food restaurant that isn't McDonald's, and I tell him to "smile", can I get sued? (The Todd Beamer Foundation's attempt to trademark "Let's roll" made me go ballistic enough. The poor fellow, and others with him, exhibited extreme bravery in a life-and-death situation. That's not disputed. Neither is the fact that his family, like several thousand others, experienced a terrible loss. But what if the last clear words heard from any of the people who overpowered the hijackers had been "Oh, shit!"? Would someone try to trademark that?)

I would also like to take some of the folks who are currently shrilling about the "threat" posed by same-sex marriage to organized religion and put them in the corner for some quiet time. The last time I checked, religious denominations have every right to decide who can get married by their clergy or in their places of worship -- but can't force their regulations onto civil authorities, nor onto other denominations. At the same time, the government can't meddle in a denomination's theologically based definition of marriage. Roman Catholics can, and do, place restrictions on the remarriage of divorced persons. Conversely, the local Roman Catholic diocese has no say in whether a divorced parishioner remarries in a Protestant church, or at City Hall, or at a restaurant banquet facility in a service performed by a Reform rabbi and blessed by a Buddhist nun. Or, more precisely, the Catholic authorities have considerable say in said parishioner's future standing in the Church -- but the marriage is still completely legal.

I wish the Great Adult Supervisor would intervene in matters like these. In the first, it would be very clear. Sorry, it doesn't matter whether you're a mega-corporation out to crush its competitors, or a charitable foundation misguidedly trying to mythologize a principled person's spontaneous act of bravery. You can't buy up big chunks of the language and then try to sell them back at a huge markup to the people who speak it -- or prevent them from using the words at all.

In the second case, the G.A.S. would walk us through the problem step by step and point out the obvious. If you chase down tonight's cheeseburger with a beer, you've just enjoyed products that are forbidden to, respectively, orthodox Jews and observant Mormons but are completely legal to consume (provided you're of legal age to drink alcohol). If gay or lesbian partners are permitted to marry in a civil ceremony, or in a liberal religious fellowship, the marriage can be made legally binding whether or not other religious denominations approve of it. Analogously, the same-sex ceremonies of union now performed by some denominations are not legally binding, but are considered ethically binding by everyone I know who has either been through such a ceremony or performed one.

In fact, the Great Adult Supervisor's biggest and most difficult problem would be pointing out the subtleties of human society while trying to give everyone a fair deal. Most of the time, though, it would be awfully bogged down in keeping track of all of the people to which it had to assign time-outs.