#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}

#10 Dents

Sanders Family

We know that rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper. Did you know that spoon beats gold?

We learned that during rehearsals for Smoke on the Mountain. She was playing the sister who didn’t sing but signed. And played the percussion instruments – which for that musical style meant things like the washboard, triangle, and slapstick. And the spoons.

Turns out if you beat some spoons between your knee and the fingers of your left hand, your knee does alright, as do the spoons. The wedding band on your left hand? Not so much. You can still see the dents in her ring – even though she stopped wearing it to any rehearsals that involved spoons.

The rings, for those who’ve never attended a wedding, are a symbol of the marriage. The circle for never ending; the gold for value. The dents – well, most officiants don’t mention the dents.

They stand for the rough patches – the misdirected anger, the grouchiness, the miscommunications blown out of proportion. The frustration at the world taken out on the ones closest by; the loneliness of one partner growing faster than another; the jealousies that defy explanation.

While the wedding officiants may not talk about the dents, our pre-marital counselor did (thank you Van), so we weren’t taken by surprise when the years weren’t all honeymoon and roses. We also realized, in the long view, that the dents are part of the ring – not an aberration, or a mistake to pretend isn’t there. (As a current musical comedy TV show recently reminded us – true love is work).

We wear our rings with the pride of what they represent. The value; the eternal; and the dents. The dents show that the ring is real. They show that while the ring may be marked, it is not broken. They show that the buffets of life come to us both, together, and belong to the two-become-one.

And they remind us of the music that surrounds the dents; it is in the process of growing together, of traveling the road together, that the dents occur. Without making the music, there would be no dents.

And the music is always grander than the scars.

In fact, the dents are kind of beautiful in and of themselves.

She played the spoons a quarter of a century ago, and she still proudly carries those dents. How could I not love her all the more for it?

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

#11 First Read

I’m a writer, and a teacher of writing. I firmly believe the old chestnut – writing is rewriting. Old doesn’t mean outdated, and this one is just as current as they come. Our first drafts are not the thing; the thing is that beginning draft crafted and reworked into something worthwhile.

I tell my students that the first draft they turn in to a producer, or a reader, or even your writer’s group should never actually be a “first” draft. You write several drafts, getting it from the one you first vomited onto the page to one that is readable – then you label it “first draft” and send it on. We all agree to the pretense.

Sending it on is a difficult process. Every writer lives under two delusions: the first is that everything they write is revolutionary, perfect, awe-inspiring. The second delusion, equally as strong, is that everything we write is pure drivel, utter trash, absolute nonsense.

Sending off our writing is setting up the proof that one of those voices is right – and it almost always seems to be the latter.

Which is why it is critical to find your critics – those that look at your script with the dual traits of honesty and love. If your early readers don’t love you, it is easy to see the joy of the work destroyed. I once quit a writer’s group because there seemed to be too much joy in tearing down one another’s work – and by extension, one another.

Honesty is also needed, however. A spoonful of sugar is good to help the medicine go down, but without the medicine, the spoonful is really just setting one up for weight gain. Critique without a critical eye is short term nice, long term damaging. I once quit a writer’s group because they had a rule: only positive things can be said about each other’s work.

She is my first reader for much of what I write; at least the stuff I write for me, the stuff that comes straight from my heart. (Present essays excluded, of course.) I don’t give her my vomit draft, I rework it first. After all, I want to impress her.

I admit that when she doesn’t like it, or isn’t impressed, or asks, “Is this your vomit draft?” the sting is pretty strong. I don’t always take it well. Sometimes I mope. Or I look at want ads for jobs in retail or the fast-food industry.

Yet I wouldn’t trade this first reader for any other. Face it, she’s good. She’s an actress and sees scripts from the inside out in ways that I miss. And she’s experienced, she knows story from well more than her 10,000 hours of mastery – as an artist, as an audience, as an accomplice to so many other storytellers.

And she loves me, and loves my craft, and loves my heart for story. She’s tough, and she’s love. The perfect combination.

Another piece of advice I give my students: find that right reader, and if you can, marry her.

“A man’s greatest treasure is his wife – she is a gift from the Lord.” Proverbs 18:22

{Originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#12 Cards

I come from a card playing family. So when we had a vacation coming up with my parents, I thought it best that she learn how to play pinochle.

She grumbled – so many rules, melds to try and add up, plus keeping track of every card played- too hard. And getting used to my family, which means understanding that talking across the board is against the rules; but mentioning that novel your book group is reading, or about Uncle Harry’s triple bypass, or that James Bond movie with Blofeld in Las Vegas, or how that guy starring in Joe Dirt just isn’t as funny as people think is in no way talking across the board.

She did well on the trip – in fact, remarkably so, winning just about every time. This is known as “beginner’s luck.”

She has been continuing beginner’s luck at cards for a couple of decades now. She wins all the time.

So I mix up the games, teaching her a new one so I have a chance. Until she gets it, and starts trouncing me again.

We played 13 with Gil and BJ across England. Gil and I soon learned the law of 13: us menfolk never get to win.

Crazy Eights, gin, Uno, single deck pinochle. Losing to her in a variety of ways seems to be my lot in life.

But then again, every night at dinner I get to sit across the table from her and complain about getting a hand full of nines…

So who’s the real winner here?

I think Gil will back me up in this: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the view across the table during the game.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#13 Lights

Her and her ocean

She grew up in the San Francisco area, so she thinks any mention of “city” or “bay” automatically refers to SF. Sorry Packers.

Of course, having been raised better, I know that if you refer to “The city” to anyone other than locals, you mean The Big Apple; aka the city. Not just a city. You know, a city like LA, or Chi-town, or San Fran.

So when I told her that the theme to my junior prom was that song that starts, “When the lights go down in the city,” she expressed surprise. When I told her that we therefore decorated our gym to look like a New York City skyline, she looked at me in horror.

She insisted that the song was about San Francisco.

I don’t think so, I said, with a bemused smirk. “It says right in the lyric,” I clarified. “When the lights go down in THE city. Not a city, THE city. New York. Case closed.”

She says the next line is “And the sun shines on the bay.”

Pfft. New York has Hudson Bay. Duh. Not every bay means San Francisco. (Right, Packers?)

She still insists that the song is about San Francisco, against all reason.

I mean, sure, Journey was founded in San Francisco.

Sure they were a big hit there before moving on.

Sure the San Francisco Giants play the song at their home games – but then again, aren’t they really the New York Giants, just transplanted? I mean, if I were the SF Giants, I would pine away for the days when they played in the Subway series too.

Sure, the co-writer Neal Schon grew up in San Mateo. Coincidence.

And sure, Steve Perry claims that the song is about San Francisco, and walking the Golden Gate as the sun comes up and the SF lights go down. But what would he know?

Sometimes you just can’t reason with her. So I let her go on pretending her crazy Lights theory has merit.

Compromise, that’s the key to a successful relationship.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}

#14 Vernon My Love, Come in from the Barn

A few years ago, she did a musical playing a woman with Alzheimer’s. Her character was mostly comic relief – gags about forgetting and misreading situations. She had one solo; one moment where we go into the character’s head, as she pleads for her mind to not fail her now. She calls to her husband, who she has been saying has gone out to the barn, to come on in – she needs her husband now, her rock to steady her failing mind.

As you can probably guess, her husband died years ago. But to her, he’s just gone out to the barn, and will be back to save her any moment now.

She killed me, playing that character. Every time, that song absolutely ruined me. Even though I knew it was coming; even though I knew the clichés it was playing off of -the way she performed it. Earnest, vulnerable, yearning, desperate – and just a little bit knowing that her husband wasn’t going to answer her call.

“Vernon, my love, come in from the barn.”

I can’t even type the words without hearing her voice; wishing I could stop the play to answer her myself. That I could save her. That I could come in from the barn.

This woman still moves me to my core.

{originally posted as a countdown to our silver anniversary}