Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Second (or Third) Time's the Charm

If there’s something about planning a wedding that has surprised me, it’s all the rules.
I knew there was a “wedding industry” that pretty much thrived on satin and tulle. For the vast majority of us, there’s only one time you get to throw an all-out formal bash with caterers and flower arrangements. Unless you’re a professional party planner or work for one of those hoity-toity companies that does this kind of thing for the holiday party, a wedding is pretty much your only shot for black tie and rose petals.
The thing is, I didn’t really plan my first wedding. I was all of twenty-two, desperately trying to finish my last semester of college and find a job before I graduated so my new husband and I would not starve. Times being what they were, I succeeded, but it was not without a herculean effort. I could not finish college, find a job, plan a cross-country move and do a wedding all in eight months.
So I handed it over to my mom. I figured they were paying for it, so they should decide what we did and how much we (they) spent. And Mom did a terrific job. She showed me stuff and I told her what I liked, she arranged everything from invitations to the cake to the band, and it was really beautiful. I’m always grateful that she took that burden off my hands, and I have no complaints.
Now I’m planning a wedding, which is something I never figured I’d do again. It was never weddings I resisted, by the way; I love weddings. I’ve been to several, of all varieties: from a casual Baptist ceremony to a formal Catholic Mass to a combination Wiccan/Jewish ceremony – they stood beneath the chuppah, closed the circle, broke the glass and jumped the broom. It was awesome.
Marriage, on the other hand, is hard. I figured I’d never tie the knot or even live with anyone, because I had grown to like my independence too much, and who would put up with me anyway? I have it on good authority that I am… challenging. Yeah, that’s it. I didn’t expect Jimmy to walk into my life. And Jimmy is definitely the marrying kind – for some reason he wants me to make an honest man out of him. Poor soul.
So this wedding’s on us, because both of us have been married before. We devised a clever plan to save the money between now and 2014, with plenty of room for error or disaster. That is, once I figure out exactly how much white roses go for these days.
A lot of people have told us to just run away. Do the courthouse thing, hop a plane to Vegas, or pick some tropical island resort that has a nifty wedding package.
Neither of us wants that.
For one thing, if we were not married before an altar, we would not feel married. Jimmy has had the courthouse wedding before, and he hated it. I’ve attended them before with honor, but it’s not for us. It’s fine for those that prefer it that way, but to me, it would feel as though I signed a legal document promising to share my tax returns for life. Marriage is more than that to us.
We believe in the sacrament of marriage, a living bond forged between two people. As my priest once told me, like any living thing, a sacrament can die. And we mourn it and go on. But to pretend it is no more than a legal contract, stamped by a judge… that goes against our shared faith.
We want to be married here, in our home parish. We want our friends and family with us, and our community of faith – our church family. See, there’s this wonderful moment in the Episcopal ceremony: after the bride and groom exchange vows, the priest turns to the congregation and asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”
And they answer, “We will.”
See? The people attending the wedding take vows as well. It acknowledges that no two people survive on their own, that the bonds we forge affect other people. The rest of the community, the church, the family, the friends, family-of-choice, they all have a part in this.
In Laos, there is an interesting method for dealing with marital strife. I read about it in a fascinating book that I’ll be talking about in future posts: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. It’s by the same woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, but don’t hold that against her. It’s half personal memoir, half cultural exploration into the various forms of marriage and the ways it has changed over the centuries.
The Laotians marry in a village-wide ceremony, of course. And when a married couple has troubles they cannot resolve between themselves, first they turn to their parents. Both families come together and work through the problems, an inter-family therapy session that I’m sure would have most American couples shuddering.
If that doesn’t work, they invite in the neighbors. Yes, the whole block gets invited in to discuss what’s going on in this couple’s marriage. Sometimes family or neighbors will take the small children for a while so the couple can focus on their marriage.
If that doesn’t work, the village elders get involved. They hear what’s going on and offer sage advice. Very few marital problems are not resolved by this point, she writes. Only then, if the problem simply cannot be resolved, does the couple then go to the nearest large city and obtain a divorce.
The private American couple shudders at the thought of so many intrusive people nosing in on their marriages. And then we post freely online about fights with our spouses, getting input from total strangers across the country about whether he had a right to eat the last packet of Oreos.
I’m not saying the Laotians are right. But I do believe that the people connected to our lives should be a part of the most important vow we take. I take marriage extremely seriously, which is one of the reasons I’ve resisted it as long as I have.
Because we’re only doing this once, you know. For both me and Jimmy, this is it. And I am glad this is a two-year engagement, because we will take that time not only to save money and get our financial house in order, but to prepare ourselves properly for that sacrament. It’s the most important day of our lives; it deserves proper preparation.
The main thing that surprised me, honestly, is the amount of pressure placed on a second wedding (or, in Jimmy’s case, third) to be small. Almost as if we’re supposed to get married without anyone noticing.
Don’t wear white.
Don’t wear a veil.
Don’t register for china.
Don’t invite too many people.
You shouldn’t have bridesmaids.
Don’t bother with printed invitations.
Your father shouldn’t give you away again.
What is all this? Am I supposed to be embarrassed that we’re getting married? It feels like all this etiquette is designed to make us ashamed that it isn’t our first wedding, that somehow we were supposed to stay locked in a box until we magically discovered each other.
As Jimmy said to me, this isn’t our first wedding, but it is our first and only wedding together. I feel as though all this so-called etiquette implies that this wedding – this marriageis somehow less important than the first.
I married at the age of twenty-two, just old enough not to know what the hell I was doing. We did our damndest for the sake of our son, but it didn’t work and five years later we split. Now he’s remarried and happy, I’m engaged and happy and our son is happy with both his stepparents. I am not ashamed of it.
More statistics from Committed: that half-of-all-marriages-fail stat is a bit misleading. If you get married before age 25, your chances of divorce are actually more like 75 percent. If you marry after age 50, your chances of staying married are staggeringly higher. We are older, wiser and more mature in our 30s and 40s than we are as the twentysomethings for which those First Wedding magazines are written.
This is not a wedding to be hidden. It is not less important than the first wedding. It is the most important moment of our lives.
So while I’d prefer to wear ivory because it looks better on my skin, I’ll wear white if the dress I like doesn’t come in ivory. And I don’t know whether I’m wearing a veil or flowers in my hair, but it’ll be because I like how it looks, not some stupid myth glorifying virginity. And we’ll register, because it’s a courtesy to our guests so they won’t have to guess – or their presence is their gift, which is far richer than any china pattern.
We will invite our friends and family and community to the limit of our budget, and we will send the invitations we can afford, with our children and closest friends in attendance, because how often do you get to make your kid wear a tux?
And I will be proud to have my father walk me down the aisle again. Even though he’ll crack the joke I can hear two years coming: “Damn, I keep trying to give her away…”
We will have a fun party, and we’ll do it for cheap, but we’d rather be surrounded by our dearest friends and family dancing to an iPod than have the finest flowers and most beautiful setting… but with only the staff of some hotel for witnesses.
Hopefully the second (or third) time’s the charm. I have a feeling it is, because I can’t imagine not being with this man for the rest of my life. He puts up with my bad puns and dutifully washes the dishes and lets me nag him about eating more vegetables and loves me even when I shove him to stop his snoring. So I’m going to marry him, and we’re going to do it the way we want.
Even though he wants a Godzilla groom’s cake.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cursed Restaurants

ME: I've got coupons for Denny's, Logan's, Caffe Avanti and the Olive Garden. Oh, and Cold Stone Creamery. Yum.
HIM: No.
ME: Sorry?
HIM: We can't go to Olive Garden.
ME: You don't like Olive Garden?
HIM: I like it fine. But every time I've taken a woman to Olive Garden we end up breaking up.
ME: *laugh* You're cursed with Olive Garden?
HIM: We are not going to Olive Garden.
ME: Hon, I'm marrying you. See, ring and everything.
HIM: I'm not taking the chance.
ME: So wait, I'm condemned to a life without Olive Garden if I marry you? I can never darken the door of Olive Garden again? This was not disclosed when you proposed.
HIM: You can go to Olive Garden all you want. I can go to Olive Garden all I want. We just can't go together.
ME: What about a large group that all wants to go to Olive Garden?
HIM: ... We can do that.
ME: What about with the kids, as if we could afford that?
HIM: That's okay. But not by ourselves, like a date.
ME: What if we're meeting a large group of people and at the last minute everyone cancels so it's just the two of us?
HIM: Then we leave.
ME: What's the worst that could happen?
HIM: We break up and don't get married!
ME: Because of Olive Garden?
HIM: Because of Olive Garden.
ME: But I like Olive Garden.
HIM: I do too. Just not with you.
ME: You are so superstitious. This is just like all those silly wedding traditions you insist we follow.*
HIM: I am taking no chances.

* Don't get me started on the whole "not seeing the bride before the wedding" thing. So exactly when are we supposed to take the pictures, I ask you...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Today I got into a fight on the internet.

Despite my fiance's amused grins, I swear I don't look for these things, because I don't enjoy them. I like debate, but I don't like name-calling and meanness. So generally I try to ignore stupidity on the interwebs, because it's one of the few truly unlimited resources in this world.

Today an acquaintance of mine posted the "bootstrap" quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he must lift himself up by his own bootstraps." There was more to it, but that's the important part. Of course, a troll appeared, and to paraphrase, he indicated that these days the poor are "wearing $500 sneakers and need to pull their pants up."

Well, that's the kind of stupidity that I will ordinarily pass by. Arguing with bigots online is like trying to empty the Atlantic with a shot glass.

But someone else picked up the gauntlet and the joust began, which I read until it began devolving into namecalling. At one point, the troll replied to this woman by saying, "I don't know what planet you're on girl, but where I'm from, I see crap like that all the time." Sic

That's when I stepped in. "It would seem to me that you have an interesting definition of 'poor,' assuming that someone with $500 shoes must be on welfare because he's sagging. And it further seems to me that [redacted] is an adult woman, not to be dismissed as 'girl.'"

I know, I know. Why nitpick? I could have let it go - it wasn't my fight. But it bugged me, perhaps because I've been reading sociological crap all day and perhaps because it is one of my little peeves when men are dismissive of women in ways they don't even consciously register as diminutive. 

For example: my fiance and I went to a local credit union to open a joint savings account for our upcoming wedding. We wanted to choose a financial institution we didn't usually use, so that the money would be difficult to access and we would not be tempted to easily transfer it for frivolous uses. When we arrived, I told the teller we wanted to open an account. She turned to my fiance and asked his name. Not mine, just his. He gave it, and we sat to wait.

"Why did she just ask my name?" he whispered to me. I merely shook my head and smiled. Sure enough, a moment later the account representative stuck his head out of his office and said, "Jimmy? Come on back." It was as though I were not there. We shared a Look - me with resignation, him with actual perturbation.

I'd like to say we walked out. Actually, we did, after a glitch in the paperwork made it apparent we wouldn't be able to open an account that day... but after a brief discussion in the car, we agreed we would not return once the glitch was worked out. It wasn't my idea, either - it was Jimmy's. He was offended by the idea that they would only consider him as their client, and I was just an appendage. Our relationship is based on an equal partnership, and he was uncomfortable with their treatment of me.

What does this have to do with the troll calling the woman debating him a "girl"? It reminded me of the tendency in decades past to call black men "boy," regardless of their ages. It's not that being a boy is a bad thing, any more than being a girl is a bad thing. But once a man is of age, calling him a boy is an insult. Calling a black adult "boy" was a way to dismiss him, to make him less of a man, less important and more easily ignored - reminding him of his place.

That is how I feel when a man calls a woman "girl," especially me. I am an adult woman, the equal of a man, and deserve at least that measure of respect. Most of the time they mean nothing by it, too. I have often made it a joke, when someone refers to a female as "girl," I'll say, "You mean the adult woman over there?" And the guy will laugh, nod and adjust. A gentle poke and he realizes what he's saying. That's because most men are decent fellas.

But naturally, the troll was delighted. "Oh, I've offended the libber too!" And he called me "Liz," because of course he had to try once again to condescend to me. I had to laugh out loud - literally - at that one. I don't think I've ever been called a libber. I thought that phrase went out with my mother's generation. Sure, there've been plenty of words thrown at me over the years - feminazi, feminista, the inevitable questioning of my sexual orientation and the usual sexually-themed insults. Libber, however, is a rarity in the 21st century. Everything old is new again.

Still, it made me evaluate my feelings on the word "girl" - and my complicated relationship with feminism. I was never comfortable with the word, as it had mostly morphed into a political designation indistinguishable from the neverending debate on abortion and seemed to have little relation to the other issues involved in gender parity. Still, I recall deciding against using an insurance agent once when he referred to his cadre of three female secretaries - every one of them over forty - as his girls. When I opened a business, I automatically discounted any service that hit me up by assuming that because I was a business owner, I must be male, and addressed the letter to "Mr. Donald." Did that make me a feminist? Did my fiance's discomfort at that bank make him one?

To this day, Jimmy and I have a little game we play at restaurants. It began as a rueful musing and turned into a game, at least. I usually carry the debit card for our joint bank account, and we usually pay for restaurant meals from that account. 

When we receive the bill, however, the server will often assume that because he is the man, he must be paying. They hand the bill to him. Even if I have the debit card out and in my hand. Reaching toward them, in one notable occasion. Surprisingly, the most frequent offenders are at higher-end restaurants. And then they lose a dollar off the tip.

Why should the server assume that he is paying? Because he is male, he must have control of the money? Heaven forfend we helpless little women pay for our own food - or ... gasp! We could pay for the whole meal! Without emasculating him! It might be a shock for the Facebook troll, but women own 40 percent of the nation's private businesses and 90 percent of women are the primary financial manager for their homes.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, and are the equal to men. Even in restaurants.

But then I must reluctantly accede the flip side of this peeve: it doesn't offend me when another woman calls me a girl. Somehow there is a difference when a man says, "I'll be right with you girls," and when a friend says, "C'mon, girl, you can do better than that." Somehow when a word is used within a defined group, it does not have the same emotional impact as when it is used by someone outside the group, particularly one with a greater level of societal privilege. (And here I thought I could get through this whole discussion without using that word.)

It goes back to the knee-jerk response of the cornered racist, who says that it can't be a bad thing to call a black person by certain ethnic slurs, because they use those words among themselves all the time. But it is, and we know it, because words hurt. Words have power. Words draw blood.

When examining this, I realize that the impact of language is controlled by its perceived intent. The intent of the cornered racist in using an ethnic slur is to insult or provoke the recipient. The intent of my friend calling me "girl" is to indicate affection. The intent of the Facebook Troll was to condescend to the woman with whom he was debating, to counter her argument with the fact that she is female, and therefore can be dismissed.

I have no suggestions or answers. I don't know if the intent is enough to make "girl" appropriate in certain situations or if it is an acknowledged hypocrisy. I don't suggest that everyone should necessarily boycott the credit union that dismissed me, or cut the tip of the server who assumes your husband is paying. And if you want to feed the trolls, go right ahead - we all need a hobby.

But for me, I will continue to think of myself as a person, as the equal to a man, as a full partner in all things to my fiance. And maybe I'll just keep trying to empty the Atlantic with a shot glass.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Marriage with the Mouse

Q: Wait, what? You ran off to Florida and got married?
A: Hell no. I have too many relatives with pointy weapons for that. No, we got engaged. Jimmy knelt down in front of Cinderella Castle, said something schmoopy and had the ring on my finger before I had the chance to say yes. He said he was hedging his bets.

Q: You didn't get married? What's with the hats? Veil, top hat… ears.
A: The hats were a present from my dad and stepmom. Not to be confused with the real thing. Cute, aren't they?

Q: So that's not a wedding band?
A: No, it's a promise ring. We're going to buy a wedding set next year after we save up some money. Jimmy may be crazy enough to marry me, but he's not crazy enough to buy a wedding set before finding out what I was gonna say.

Q: You did say yes, right?
A: Please note the changed relationship status on Facebook. I said yes. If I'd said no, my stepmother would have shoved me into the moat. Jimmy did say he considered supergluing my feet to the pavement before asking, and at least one friend suggested tying me to a chair first. But I must've said yes, because I have this ring on now.

Q: About damn time!
A: Okay, about nine of you said this. Whoa, are you guys in a hurry! We've only been together about two years! Both of us have failed marriages in our past, and were not in a gigantic rush down the aisle. Okay, so he was ready to pop the question a good bit before I was ready to answer, but that's because his insanity level is higher.

Q: That's right, didn't you say, "Better dead than wed"?
A: Yeah, well, we need a new toaster.

Q: Which was harder for Jimmy, reeling in the flounder or reeling in you?
A: Jimmy says, "Please don't make me answer that question."

Q: So now you'll be Mrs. Gillentine?
A: For the record, no, I will not be changing my name. One of the great side effects of feminism is that you get to choose your own identity, and almost nothing is as integral to identity as a name. For some women that means changing their names, for others it means hyphenating; for others keeping it. I choose to keep it. Jimmy is fine with this; in fact, he briefly discussed changing his own name. The only downside to keeping our names: Difficulty monogramming things.

Q: Ha ha! I knew all about it weeks ago!
A: You and the rest of civilization. Apparently, Jimmy had enlisted every single human I know for advice and assistance before doing this crazy thing. Including my son, who was his official wingman/co-conspirator and covered for him during ring shopping.

Q: So when's the date?
A: So glad you asked. Actually, my grandmother wins the brass ring for being the first to ask, approximately one hour after the proposal. We are planning on June 2014, tentatively.

Q: 2014! Wow, that's a long time!
A: Hey, I suggested five years, but Jimmy's head spun around and he needed two bags of popcorn, stat. You might have noticed we lead pretty busy lives, and the idea of pulling this off in a year was problematic, to say the least. We have two cars that will be paid off in late 2013, which (barring disaster) should free up quite a bit of money in 2014. Plus, I'm supposed to have two books come out in 2013, and coordinating THAT and a wedding in one year is a one-way ticket to a padded cell. As I told Jimmy, "Do you want to marry me or kill me?"

Q: So, are you happy?
A: Yes. We are very happy, and very grateful for the flood of good wishes and kindness we have received. It takes more than two people to make a marriage work, and it's good to know we have the support of so many family and friends. You all rock.