Not Your Romeo & Juliet Day One

Shooting has begun on the feature I wrote and am producing at Asbury University: Not Your Romeo & Juliet! Day one wrapped – on to day two.

#1 Staten Island Ferry

The romantic part is the ferry ride. I spent a whopping fifty cents – each – to get us on the ferry (New York’s cheapest/best date). While we headed away from Manhattan, we stood on the back of the boat, in the freezing New Year’s Eve Eve (yes, two eves) cold.

Me with my arms around her, both facing the twinkling city lights. Me babbling on about how I left this city that I loved behind to go meet her; her slowly figuring out that I was babbling for a reason. Me starting to ask a question, her blurting out “yes”; me reminding her that it is customary to hear the question before answering.

You know, the romantic stuff.

The rest is the part that is edited out of the movies because it doesn’t fit the swell of violins and cello (my imaginary soundtrack for the proposal is classy classical).

Me kneeling inside on the return trip to make it official – my jeans sticking to the floor to whatever the tens of thousands of commuters had deposited there. Her trying to rip the ring out of the card that I had over-secured with wire and duct tape for fear it would fall out of the envelope at some point along the journey.

Me calling her Dad from a payphone to ask for permission (or is that forgiveness, since it was after the fact?), and him gruffly saying, “It’s about time.”

Us waiting on the cold platform for the infrequent, now past-midnight, subway. The ride from Battery Park to 181st Street on the local. Her showing off how the ring twinkles in the lights of the passing train cars. Me pointing out that when (not if) the fellow late-night riders take the ring, they are likely to take the whole finger. Her deciding that a gloved hand with a hidden ring is better than an ungloved hand showing off a modest diamond.

Us finding out that we were locked out of Joe and Connie’s apartment (us not knowing Connie’s sister didn’t realize we were already in for the night). Us finding a payphone at 2am; us calling several times after deciding that sleeping on a park bench on the now New Year’s Eve (just one eve) would be detrimental to the start of our engagement. Us trying to reassure our hosts that us finally getting them out of bed at that hour should not make them feel bad; our hosts trying to reassure us that us getting them out of bed at that hour should not make us feel bad.

Us seeing that Connie decorated the living room with flowers and candles.

Us overly tired, overly not able to sleep.

Her on the couch, staring at the ceiling.

Me on the sleeping bag on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

Us holding hands, one newly adorned with a ring.

Me saying, Happy New Year’s Eve.

Her smiling, and saying, Happy New Year’s Eve.

Yeah.

I take it back; the whole ride is the romantic part.

Happy anniversary, Catherine.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#2 Back to School

It was a harder move for her than for me. We both left our communities behind; still, I would have an instant colleague group with my new job. Her clusters of friends and peers would be 3,000 miles away – along with her industry contacts, her theater connections, her recording partners.

For a while we toddled along, slowly rebuilding our people group. My work was keeping me busy. Her work… not so much. So, she decided to take a leap or two. That included going back to school.

And, man, did she come alive. She found her people in a gaggle of teachers and a cohort of classmates– becoming her lifeblood as she became mama bear/friend/ally/mentor/mentee. After a career spanning a decade or two (being polite here – no need to count), she found studying her instructors to see how the craft was taught to be compelling. The constructs behind what worked fascinated her; she became a scholar extraordinaire.

She also grew in her craft – much by setting aside what she knew, working to forget the tricks that worked in order to discover fresh techniques – giving the “new” time to work (or not). She embraced failure, knowing one can never surpass their limits if they aren’t willing to fall. Every such fall was treated as a victory, a step closer to reaching full potential.

She embraced humility. One month before classes began, she costarred in a play with the people who would become her faculty. And she moved from standing at their side to sitting at their feet. She also focused on her peers, her cohort – taking each scene, class and role as a chance to learn from the young bloods. Why be at school if learning isn’t on the table? Why bother living with eleven other disciples if you aren’t learning as much from them as from the teachers?

And she thrived outside of the academy. She found her theater community, she found her film community, and she found her voice-over community. She did the VO conferences, connecting with her peers across the country. She got that lucrative ongoing ad contract that paid for tuition. She taught a class. She joined an Improv company.

She came alive.

She eventually walked across the stage to accept her diploma. A week after earning her M.F.A., she celebrated her 50th birthday. (So much for being discrete about age…)

And she showed me that we never stop learning. I once wrote a book with the lesson: when you stop learning, you stop growing. She never stops growing.

Thus, we never stop growing. And despite knowing her for almost half her life, we’ve yet to stop learning about each other.

She’s not the same person I married; nor (thankfully) am I the same man she married. This phrasing is often used to cite breakups – which I think misses an important part of unions: if after a quarter of a century, y’all are still the same people – y’all have become stunted. The trick is to grow together.

Which ain’t easy; all my mush should never give you the sense of ease in transit. The likelihood of growing at the same rate is incredibly small. So there are times where she gets it, and I’m clueless. Times when I’m racing ahead – or at least crawling so – while she lags behind. Growth often comes after ground is fallow for a bit; which means every move forward reflects a time devoid of much other than tumbleweeds and faint harmonica echoes. Not easy times by any stretch.

Which I guess is where learning comes in – and becomes the key to growing together. Finding each other a fascinating topic of study; realizing that the deep waters have yet to be charted; allowing that the other may be new again, despite the all-so-human instinct to freeze each other in time. This is how “you aren’t the person I married” can become a revelation of joy, rather than a lament.

She’s not the person I married; she has two-bits of years added to that intriguing, beguiling, artistic, attractive, talented, brilliant, insightful, compassionate, generous, witty, compelling woman who came down the altar. And all she has done is deepen those traits, finding original ways to add to the kaleidoscope of character that makes up her being.

She constantly sends me back to school; and I gotta admit, she is my favorite topic.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#3 First Date

There is a dispute over our first date.

Not what movie we saw (The Secret of Roan Inish), or where (the two-dollar theater). Nor what movie came next (Crimson Tide, although she will always answer The Hunt for the Red October, and then concede that “Oh, yeah, it was that other submarine one”) or the flick after that (While You Were Sleeping). There is also no question that if she hadn’t said yes, I would have married Sandra Bullock. But I digress.

The controversy doesn’t come from those details, but from the very question – were we dating? I thought I was doing pretty well – three dates in a row, each including a stop at Dairy Queen so we could share a basket of coupon-discount chicken fingers for dinner.

At the same time, she didn’t realize we were dating.

When pushed by Karen – who kept telling me that she was a babe – I’d push back. “I’ve taken her out three times in the past week. What more do you want from me?”

When pushed by Karen – who kept telling her that I was a babe – she’d push back, “We haven’t gone on any dates. He’s just new in town and doesn’t have any other friends.”

Man, I sound pathetic in this story. Let’s skip ahead.

Eventually she figured out we were in fact dating – and by her choice, I might add. Mostly because I gave up when I realized that our communication skills were so low that couldn’t agree on whether we had a relationship. We settled into friendship enough for her to confide in me about her last boyfriend hurt. I made it clear that he was an idiot for not seeing what he had.

I have been friend-zoned enough to know that giving boyfriend advice is a clear sign, so I backed off. She suddenly saw how I saw her – and stepped up.

And that was that.

Splitting a basket of chicken fingers and a two-dollar movie – I’m clearly a big spender. We’ve since gotten to a point where such cheap dates aren’t a fiscal requirement. But we’ve never outgrown our love of the cheap date.

Don’t get me wrong, the Ruth Chris steak dinner was a great birthday treat; and any time I get to see her in a fancy dress is guaranteed to get a waiter an extra tip. But the dates we talk about most weren’t about being fancy.

Walk throughs of the big box office supply store – not a joke, those were dates. What can I say, color coded post-its and pens with just the right amount of heft turn us on. Choosing the flavors to go into our concrete mixers, as if we were perusing the wine menu (what pairs best with cheese curds?). Her 40th buying the kids Birthday Party Pack at the mini-golf/arcade place (skeeball always means a great date). The picnic lunch brought to listen to the concert. Puppy chow, folding chairs, and fireworks. (Looking at you, Nancy). Following up a theater show with breakfast for dinner at a diner.

Okay, the show makes it more of a splurge than the two-dollar presentation, but discussing the plot over eggs and bacon puts the emphasis on the company, not the ambience. Or makes the company the ambience – am I right?

So much is elevated by going out with the right ambience at your side.

Squeezed into a pub two tables over from the booth the band took over for the improvised concert beats a Michelin rating any day (right, Wayne?). The nosebleed seats to hear the Phil play along to Looney Tunes (and watch the Bowl crumble around Bugs and the tenor while at the Bowl); the anniversary spent in line for the ten dollar lottery tickets to Wicked – and the chicken and waffle dinner once we won the lottery; the missed opportunity to get the groundling spots at the Globe (I was wrong about the show time!), so instead the self-guided tour of the National; the community theater production of that Agatha Christie play where the lack of raked seating or raised stage meant we could only see the actors from their hairline up (I’m looking at you Timothy and Elizabeth); pizza and a dollar movie rental before Netflix taught us how to chill.

I’ve got twenty-five years of ‘em.

Man, I love typing those words.

I’ve got twenty-five years of ‘em.

Hold on while I scrounge up four bucks and a Dairy Queen coupon – let’s start the next twenty-five years more!

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#4 Food Glorious Food

It’s not a surprise that much of our shared life revolves around food. The essentials of life for any person becomes the essentials of the life together. And everybody eats and sleeps.

Side note: the only thing more wonderful than an afternoon nap is a shared afternoon nap. Chandler and Joey can back me up on that one.

So food.

The Cake: Our wedding cake was a revelation; I didn’t know wedding cakes were allowed to be anything other than sheet white or sheet chocolate with that pink-flavored frosting. Pam set our marriage on the right track with our three layered (every layer a different flavor) cake decorated with fresh flower petals.

The cake was a symbol of Van’s pre-marital advice, telling us that the traditions/expectations of the typical Western wedding were not Biblical mandates; just traditions. How we arrange the ceremony was between us and God; and as long as we had God looped in, right and wrong were misapplied labels. That is handy to carry in many situations, where tradition/expectation ruled over actual best practice.

Pumpkin Pie: She came into the marriage with a common love of pumpkin pie, but a woefully poor education about pumpkin pie. For example, she didn’t know how many slices are in a pumpkin pie. She even was silly enough to say that it depended on the size of the pie. As all Gaffneys know, that is an irrelevant piece of data. Every pumpkin pie has four slices.

Costco Sizes: Our first real “you aren’t hearing what I’m saying” drag-down fight was over food. It started with me being proud of how much money I saved by buying the cargo ship container size box of ice cream treats from the club store. You know the box, where it is too big to fit in the freezer, so you have to take all the individual items out and pack them around the frozen ground beef and bags of green beans to get them all in.

She wasn’t happy, in part because we wouldn’t save anything if we ate the entire big box in the same amount of time we would normally take to eat a small box. So I said, with the authority of “duh! It’s logic!” that we just shouldn’t eat them all at once and show a little self-control. She said self-control is a lot easier when temptation hasn’t taken up residence in your freezer. And I said be strong, oh weak-willed one. And she said it isn’t about weak or strong, but healthy or unhealthy. And I said it is healthy to be strong. And she said you aren’t hearing me. And I said that I’m proud of my purchase and if she isn’t strong enough to deal with it than too bad, she’ll just have to grow up someday!

And I was so mad that I stressed ate the entire box. So, you know, I won that argument. But for her sake – hers, not mine, of course – I stopped buying the cargo ship container size box of ice cream treats. Mostly.

Kitchen Cupboard Nachos: Sometimes the mistakes in life turn out to be the best things in life. Joel has a treat called “Mistake Cake” – called so because he messed up while baking a cake; an error worthy of being named because the mistake version came out so much better than the recipe version.

For us it wasn’t a mistake as much as poor planning. Dinner time, forgot to get supplies for a meal. Had a bag of corn chips – usually a snack. But if you rummage through the cupboards for what else is left behind, dump it all on top of the chips on a baking sheet, cover with cheese – you get a meal that was then replicated for over a decade in our house.

Seems like every family has a version of this – having a problem, taking what was there and making something better of it. When Mary hosted the family reunion and the pool wasn’t done yet, they turned the large hole in the backyard from a swimming pool to a Reohr-style dodge ball pit. The kids that returned to the house any time after were disappointed that they filled the arena with boring water.

Our house is no different – our memories sparkling with make-do moments that turned out golden. Our cardboard anniversary was celebrated on a table made out of cardboard boxes. Our Christmas tree has been forever replaced by a silver chain stretched along our walls, displaying our decades of collected ornaments. No money birthdays celebrated by hiding dozens of notes around the house – some not found for weeks after. Maybe even a significant anniversary where the big trip is cancelled, so one has to resort to the cheaper (but not without price) series of essays as the big gesture of love.

Mistake cake is often the better cake.

Lots More Food: Turning a Wisconsin trip to see Arianne in Peter Pan into a hunt for Kringle (how better to understand Dave and Debi than finding the treat in the motherland). Hiking miles of English coastline because we know that at the end of the hike there is sure to be a scone with clotted cream (thanks Gil and BJ). Discovering together what animal style is, along with the entire concept of secret menus. Dieting together. Cheating on diets together. Her trying to convince me that spaghetti squash tastes just like pasta (it doesn’t) or that cauliflower pizza crust is the same as dough (it isn’t) or that grapes are just like candy (I’m coming around). Trading pies for haircuts when the price of a haircut made a difference (thank you Ann!). Getting sick on an early date because I didn’t want to admit to this cute chick that the smell of Parmesan cheese makes me nauseous. Calling her favorite cheese dish “Smack baloney and sneeze,” and her expert level eye rolling in response.

Think about how many times food enters into our day. Think about how many opportunities for recalling memories or creating memories that provides. Think about the one that shares your fries, takes a bite of your dessert, makes that one dish maybe not the best, but certainly the most “right.”

Please, sir, I want some more.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#5 My Knees Buckled

She was the one to give me the news. I had been flying in from Montana, so away from phones for much of the day. She met me inside the airport, which was the first oddity – we are cheap. We don’t pay for airport parking when she can just meet me out front.

But as I crossed past the line separating the secure area from baggage claim, there she was.

Maybe she was just too excited to see me, I thought for a brief second. Can’t be mad at a parking fee for that level of your girl missing you. The fact that she was struggling to find her voice – any voice, really – to tell me why she was there set off my alarms.

My brother Greg had called. Chris was dead.

I immediately felt relief – it was bad news, but bad for my brother Greg; I racked my brain trying to think of one of his friends named Chris that he would think I needed to know passed. And I really wanted to reassure her that she didn’t need to be so distraught. It’s not like I was close friends with…

Close friends with…

Close with…

That’s when my knees buckled. I can point to the exact part of the Burbank airport wall that caught my body, that kept me from sinking to the floor. I’ve walked past it many times since, my legs instinctively wobbling at the memory.

You see, I didn’t know any friend of Greg’s named Chris that would warrant a trip inside the airport to tell me. I only knew one Chris that would need such a personal touch. One whose death announcement couldn’t be left on an answering machine, or in an e-mail, or wait until I got home.

Not a friend, but one born to share adversity.

She rushed to catch me as I tried to make sense of it. It wasn’t possible. It was unfathomable.

And it was now our reality.

That wasn’t the first, nor the last of the tragedies we weathered together. Those too young to go, too soon taken, too late to love up some more before they’re gone. Or the pains of those we love enduring loss – the lost child, the sick relative, the broken marriage. The lost house, the crushed career, the broken dream. The lost pet, the vanished job, the broken relationship.

“My God, my God…”

“A voice cries out in Ramah…”

“On the willows there…”

As one musical tells us, there’s a grief that can’t be spoken. She can’t bear my grief for me. And I, as much as I try, can’t bear hers for her. We can, and do, sit in it together. We ask the questions of God together. We listen for the answers together.

God never promises a life without hardship, or mourning, or tragedy. He does promise that we don’t have to be alone in the dark. And that’s what this partnership we have does – it reflects that part of the image of God, carrying light when the other’s arms are too tired to hold the lantern, guiding along the path when the other’s eyes are too damp to see.

To walk alongside; to bear one another; to wait upon the Lord together.

Just to be there.

To find the voice for the message.

And to rush to catch each other when our knees buckle.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#6 Binge Watching

The couple that prays together, stays together. The couple that views together, never runs out of things to talk about? Fights less over the remote?

She doesn’t like screen violence; I’m not a fan of screen sap. To this day, she has not nor will not see Book of Eli; to this day I have not nor will not see The Notebook. Yet we do seem to find common ground, things to watch together. Some obvious, but some because one of us gave in (see “Yes, and…”).

She agreed to watch the talking racoon movie on our anniversary and fell in love with The Guardians of the Galaxy. I got suckered into the first season of Poldark, enough to be excited to see the tin mines on our England trip. WandaVision would not have been the same without her; and I wouldn’t have discovered the fantastic About Time if we weren’t looking for a romance for her. She finally gave my obsession with Dr. Who a shot, and her crushing on David Tennant brought us several seasons of joy. (And it is hard for a fella to be too jealous of her crushing on Tennant when I share the sentiment.)

Not to say exploring together hasn’t led to some duds – we will never get back the time we wasted on the final season of The Good Wife. I mean, come on! But the treasures outweigh the dross. Ted Lasso, Bunheads (hello Sutton Foster!), The Great British Baking Show (do not watch while on a diet!), Sherlock (most of Sherlock), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Downton Abbey, The Mandalorian, Schitt’s Creek, The Chosen… Each more the suggestion of one than the other.

Even the mediocre or not great was worthwhile with the right couch mate. Even the awful can be better with someone that can reassure you that you aren’t crazy, the critics and/or audiences are, and that massively talked about show is a massive waste of airwaves.

There are two traps that come with mutual watching that you have to be careful of. The first, anyone who has tried to stay up on a show with a partner knows all about: what do you do when one viewer is not available? Do you watch without him/her?

The answer for those young and foolish enough to not know better is: NO YOU DO NOT!

Running off to Scotland with David Tennant to live a life of romantic readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets while leaving me to tend to the cats is much less of a betrayal. To have the spoilers at your fingertips, while the other one doesn’t know that Anna Bates has been arrested, or of Sybil’s childbirth woes – how does a marriage survive such secrets?

The second, less obvious problem is when you realize that the shows just aren’t as sweet without her along for the ride. I got hooked on season one of Virgin River while visiting my parents (thanks to my mom and my sister). I frequently turned to make the eye roll at the outrageous plot twist, or reached out to squeeze her hand at the grand romantic gesture, or whispered, “What does she think she’s doing” knowing I’ll get the “Right?!” response. But didn’t.

She wasn’t with me on the trip. Watching without her is, well, like a great looking cake with a soggy bottom. Kinda ruins the experience.

So binge away; try her suggestions as she tries yours; find yourself lost in plots together; think of the wait for both of you to be read as delicious anticipation.

But more than anything else, travel into those stories with the right couch mate.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#7 Yes And…

A rule of improv is “Yes, and…”

It’s a simple idea; any prompt or direction given by your scene partners is to be affirmed (“Yes) while being built upon (“and…”). Partner says, “Thanks for taking me to the playground, mom.” You say, “I know you love it out here son” (yes). “Why don’t we try the swings?” (and).

The rule is a good one, because it forces sharing a scene, requires building together, and prevents scene squabbling from undercutting the other person (no “no” allowed; as in “You aren’t my son!”). This always makes for a better show for the audience.

Sounds simple, difficult in practice. Because of ego. We get a prompt from the audience: “Park.” I think of a hilarious (I mean Hi-Larious!) idea of trying to parallel park on a city street. I turn to my partner and she says, “Thanks for taking me to the playground, mom.” Everything in me says that my idea is better than some stupid mother/son playground bit. I should correct her with my better idea! Wouldn’t the world be better if we always used my idea?

Then the rules and the training kick in, and I say, “I know you love it here, son.”

And the history of improv smiles upon us saying, “we know that the world would not be better if we always used your idea; in fact, the world is better with ‘yes, and…’”

I think it was David Storrs that first pointed out that this is a truism in many areas of life – most obviously in faith. I have my plans. God says, “I have an idea…” My life is better if I don’t correct God; rather if I say, “Yes, and…”

Since both my girl and I are improv trained, we realized long ago that “Yes, and…” is also a good rule in marriage. Always been driven crazy by people who say, “Our marriage is a partnership,” and then brag, “Of course, I’m the head of the household, which means I make the decisions, and if she knows what’s good for her, she obeys!”

Makes me want to find a paper version of a dictionary, rip out the page covering “parameters” to “Pax Romana” and staple it to somebody’s nose. Which wouldn’t be very nice of me.

Our marriage strives for “Yes, and…” Active listening to each other as part of decision making. Hearing each other’s dreams, desires, and flights of fancy. Mutually sacrificing our ideas to theirs (key on mutual). Taking turns – for example, we would alternate who is responsible for the steady income/health insurance while the other can pursue their God-given talent.

Not just “yessing” the other person, mind you. “Yes, and…”ing. Taking their lead and actively adding to it. Making it ours, not hers or mine. Letting go and building something new together.

We don’t also make it of course. You know, because of ego. Me refusing to let go of my idea even after claiming to let her lead; her being reluctant in the “and” as she doesn’t quite buy in fully. And sometimes, in retrospect, we may both agree that a scene about parallel parking would have worked better than that one about the playground.

Yet we’ve found that the history of improv has smiled upon us, as we know our lives together have been more… together… because of our attempts to play by this rule. Our marriage has survived downturns and detours because of our attempts to play by this rule. We both are better scene partners, and thus make better scenes because of our attempts to play by this rule.

Nearly twenty-five years and seven months ago, I asked her a question.

She said, “Yes, and…”

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

#8 Beau Jest

We met in person right at the start of rehearsals for Beau Jest. She was playing the lead; I was just the new Managing Director. I had misgivings about the show – I worked admin on the New York production, had seen it a gazillion times, and my standards were pretty high. To be honest, I was worried that my first show with this new company might send me packing back to the east coast.

I needn’t worry. The director really knew what she was doing, and found comedy beats and real heart where the fancy New York folk hadn’t.

And that lead actress – well, watching her work her magic on stage worked on me. Nothing is as sexy as laughter, and she made me laugh.

Still does.

And yes, that does mean she’s still just as sexy.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}

Her, Shawn and Curt in Beau Jest

#9 Improv

When we started our journey together, she was the better actor without question. My training was further in the past, my craft rustier, and, well, I was too lazy to really compete. Except in one area: improvisation.

I joined Taproot’s Improv company and did pretty well for myself. She didn’t do improv at all – it scared her, to be honest. No script, no rehearsal – how could the perfectionist in her know that her choices would always be right?

Fast forward a decade or two, and she decides to go back to school for her MFA. Approaching fifty is the time to re-affirm that one should never stop learning, never stop growing. One of the things she decided to tackle in her own growth was embracing fear, embracing failure, embracing the part of her that said “jump” instead of the part of her that said, “be safe.”

And one step in that direction meant diving into the unscripted world of improv comedy. We both tried out for the improv team. I didn’t make it. She did.

Of course, she wasn’t as good as I was.

By that I mean she was better. A lot better. Spontaneous. Witty. Fearless.

Oh, she failed at times. A lot. Jokes that didn’t work. Choices that didn’t connect. If you know anything about improv, that is how it is done: the only way to get to the golden moments, when everything clicks and you have the audience eating out of your hands – the only way to get there is by trying to go further than you can go. Trying things out, flying without a net, not caring if you fall – because you know that that the gold is in the trying, not in the waiting for it.

And she spent more time in the golden moments than not; which meant the audience spent more time in the golden moments than not. Which means I (her proudest audience member, if I may so claim) spent more time in the golden moments than most.

Dang, she is fun to watch. And an inspiration to follow.

So, if I am ever fearless, not caring if I fall, going further than I can go – well, chances are I’m just trying to emulate her a little.

Gotta say, it’s a good place to be.

{originally posted as part of the countdown to our silver anniversary}