Friday, October 29, 2010

Celebrating Family and Ancestry

Last autumn, Alison and I celebrated Samhain (the druidic holiday of family, ancestry, autumn, and so on) with my kids. I put together a bunch of pictures from that time into a little video with some of my favorite music, "The Maids of Michelstown" by the Bothy Band. What could be better than love, fallen leaves, and pumpkins?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wedding Planning Panic: The Files

I have a confession to make. I think I'm experiencing just a wee bit of Wedding Planning Panic over here. For the past week and a half or so, my mind has drifted back to this blog, as well as the three-month checklist of tasks for September through November that Jeff and I sat down and worked out with my parents (all right, I should say, that I sat down and made into a collection of dazzling PowerPoint slides full of lists and charts and pretty graphics, which I then presented to my parents over a couple of bottles of Guinness and which seemed to go over surprisingly well)... and a little ball of I-Don't-Want-To-Deal-With-This-Right-Now wells up inside of me.

This morning, Jeff got up and got on the road early for his quarterly weeklong business retreat — I've nicknamed it "Geek Camp," but I don't think his coworkers know that. After his car pulled away into the predawn gloom, I lay in bed, my mind dancing through a tiny bit of Panic, trying to remember what exactly we had meant to accomplish in October and if it wasn't too late to just call the whole silly thing off and elope. Really, who needs thousands of dollars spent on a single day? The more money you spend, the more reasons you have to get upset if when things go wrong. The caterer served a main entrĂ©e that was a little dry? Ah well, c'est la vie, right? Wait, what? You mean that meal cost as much as a down payment on a house? WTF, caterer? For that much money, my mouth better be drooling and dripping with savory salaciousness. ...Er. No, wait, I don't think that was the word I wanted.

I have a week to myself while Jeff's away, and by the end of that week, it will be the end of October and time to start thinking about the holidays and, in the midst of that, nailing down some Big Decisions about major vendors, while sending out our official Save the Date announcement (if I ever get around to ordering Save the Date cards... which maybe I won't, because maybe I don't feel like it... whatever, if you show up, you show up). Ack!

So what did I do today? I spent the entire day backing up and transferring files on my computer. Procrastinate much? Me?

Am I the only one whose computer is like one of those weird Russian dolls? I swear, one more round of back-ups and the holographic micro-universe that is my computer's hard drive is going to go through a big bang of its own and start producing proto-sentient life-forms. Usually when I go through the process of backing up my files, it's because my ancient, sluggish machine is just about to have its own private little emotional meltdown — and since the idea of losing files brings on a bit of the emo-juices for me, too, I usually don't have the stamina to sort through what I'm transferring. The tides of panic rise. So in everything goes, into one huge Back This Up Now folder that gets spread across a number of burned disks and then, eventually, onto my next computer. Today, I finally cleared the last few files off of my old dinosaur of a desktop (almost six years old — can you believe how ancient!). Of course, what seemed to take up so much space on that old clunker is now sitting on my laptop with so much elbow room you can hear it echo. The last ten years of my life, condensed into one tiny folder.

The problem is, hard drives keep getting bigger, and old files keep seeming smaller and smaller. Inside the folder on my laptop that now reads "Old Desktop Back Up Files" is a folder of my files from graduate school, and inside that is a folder of all my files from the last two years of college. Inside that folder is a folder of files from my first two years of college, those that made the journey from one laptop to the other at the end of my sophomore year.... and of course, inside that folder is a folder containing all the files from my high school home computer. Someday, this laptop will start to go and it'll be time for an upgrade, at which point all the work I've done in the past several years will get swept up — along with that "Old Desktop Back Up Files" folder — and plunked into a new folder. And that doll fits down inside another doll, and another, and another, on and on....

It's an incredibly inefficient and probably very silly process. But whenever I do it, I get all nostalgic. My past in shrinking file sizes, kept alive from one hard drive to another. Slowly, unimportant things get whittled away, but there are still some files I can't bring myself to delete. A few stray mp3 files are left from a CD my best friend made me in high school of all the coolest "punk" music. Journal entries from a creaky old word processor my parents got me in middle school, the files now corrupted most probably beyond any readability. Random pictures of myself — most of them of me squinting past a camera flash into a smudgy mirror or reflective window somewhere — as my hair got longer and longer over the past four years. Family movies and fifty-second clips of people singing birthday songs or playing charades, or seven minutes of nothing but rain pattering on the roof of the garage outside my old apartment. All squeezed into one little folder now: "Old Desktop Back Up Files."

I wonder what it will be like to be married. Life, sometimes, seems like a series of back-ups, where you stop and reevaluate what you're carrying with you, and what you're leaving behind. Not to get all metaphorical or anything. But how many of those songs will I ever really listen to? How many of those old journal entries or half-finished poems will I go back to and read over? The files are so densely packed, thick with redundancy, overlap and abandon — I couldn't ever expect Jeff to go back through it all, for instance, and even if he could, the picture he would get wouldn't be any kind of coherent glimpse into my past, it wouldn't enlighten him about who I am today. The past itself is dense, impenetrable in some ways, like those Russian dolls that get smaller and smaller, one inside the next. All the details of my present life are filled in by the sketchings and half-starts of those old days. But as they say, you can't get here from there.

The wedding will likely be like that, too, someday down the road. Just a jumble of half-remembered images, computer files of pictures and favorite songs and budget checklists and unfinished ceremony scripts, stashed away on a hard drive somewhere. A few lucky pieces might make their way onto archive quality paper, printed and bound and stuffed away to collect dust on a bookshelf, to be pulled out by grandkids or old friends long after we've completely gone out of style.

Yet what the day accomplishes — the promises we make to each other, and how we begin that life — will work its way into the center of things and stay there, rooted. Whatever else happens later, we will carry that along, incorporating it into every shift and move, every time we turn over another year. There is magic in a vow and a ceremony that cannot be reduced to Save-As in a drop-down menu. Those things don't get left behind, even if they're filed away somewhere in the back of your memory, in the darkness of the past where you can't remember the lyrics to that song you played over and over for a year, or the color of the flowers that used to grow in your backyard, or the smell of the laundry room in the college dormitory basement.

That's what I think magic is, in the end. When all the details of the past get lost or corrupted with age, and you sit in the present and know who you are today, know that you are full of history and memory and blood and bone and the smells that, yes, will come flying back to you in a moment of startled breath even when you think you're long past remembering... That is magic, in the here and now, when you can feel the oaths and the promises and the big decisions echoing and jostling for elbow room in your ever-growing heart. Magic is the stuff that stays.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Our word marriage goes back to the Romans, who used the word maritus (of unknown origin) to refer to a married man. Marriage was very different in ancient Roman society. In earliest times, a Roman woman had very few rights; she was under complete control of her father or her husband her entire life. She could only marry with her father's legal consent. Marriage was thought of as a legal institution created for the purpose of having children. There were two types of marriage: cum manu, in which the wife was basically enslaved to the husband, and sine manu, in which the wife remained basically enslaved to her father. Under cum manu, a wife could hold no property, and had essentially the same rights as a daughter of the family (except that her husband could not kill her or sell her, as he could his daughters). Divorce was not difficult, and required little special legal or religious recognition, although it was rare, since the woman would have been left destitute. I am not making this up.

This kind of incredible misogynism is rare among ancient societies, and tended only to exist when one tribe militarily destroyed another (also extremely rare), and enslaved its women. There is no evidence that this is actually how the customs arose in ancient Rome, but the historical record is spotty enough that such an event could have easily been forgotten. In any event it is not beyond the realm of possibility that maritus is derived from the name of Mars, the Roman god of war.

Over time the Romans relaxed their ideas of marriage. By 100 BC, the rights of a woman in marriage were much greater — she could own her own property, and could enter into legal agreements without her husband or father's explicit consent. In fact, by the time of Augustus and Jesus, the institution of marriage had weakened considerably in pagan Rome — divorce, remarriage, adultery, and children outside of wedlock had become quite common, especially among the upper classes, and the emperor Augustus felt it necessary to impose harsh penalties on those who broke their marriage vows. By this time maritus had given rise to the verb maritare, "to marry".

The Germanic tribes who invaded southern Europe, toppled the Roman Empire, and borrowed many words from Latin (including maritare, taken into Old French as marier, and then into English as marry) had a view of marriage similar to many conservative people today: they were strictly monogamous (remarriage and divorce were unknown), avoided sexual activity before marriage, punished adultery and promiscuity severely (particularly the females), and so on. It's extremely interesting to me that these ancient Germanic attitudes, planted in western civilization almost two thousand years ago, have persisted so long, and are now so closely associated with conservative Christianity, despite their pagan origin.

In modern western society, the concept of marriage is undergoing the most profound change it's ever seen. A marriage between a man and a woman who considered themselves equals would have been difficult for a Roman or ancient German to conceive of; and marriage between two men or two women would have been beyond belief. (Homosexual relationships were indeed permitted socially, but never considered 'marriage'.) Western culture often congratulates itself on its technological prowess, its medical advances, and its political freedom, but to my mind, this shift in attitude — this expansion of the idea of marriage to one of equal partnership between any two people — is one of the greatest contributions of modern society to human life and love.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Filling the Seas

It's already Friday again, and I know you lovely readers out there (all three of you) are just dying to know how our Fall Wedding Tour 2010 trip went this past week. The full story and pictures are on their way, but for now I thought it'd be fun to give you a glimpse or two of some of the sights both wonderful and strange that Jeff and I saw during our journeying.

For instance, this odd event that we were privileged to witness from the deck of a ferry crossing between islands....

Apparently, the military sends a boat out on the second-to-last Thursday of every month to refill the oceans and maintain the sea level so that it conforms precisely to their official maps of the coastline and the relative altitudes of surrounding mountain ranges. On the third Tuesday of every month, they send a different boat out to suck up any water that has melted from the glaciers or been dumped by heavy rainstorms (this is especially important during hurricane season). On some months, this means they send a boat out on a Tuesday to suck up the water, and then two days later send another one out to put the water back.

True story.