I met Selina Boxer from Vancouver, Canada when we were counselors at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California (she also taught the aerobics classes there.) We were 18 years old. When I first met her, I said to myself (and thankfully NOT to her) "She is the one!" I will admit for a hormone-laden teenage male to have such insight is rare, almost an oxymoron. It would be like Judge Reinhold's character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High having an epiphany that his desire for Phoebe Cates' character was for holy matrimony, not otherwise (gotta love that pool-bathroom scene, "Doesn't anyone knock anymore!")
Sadly for me during our camp time, Selina did not reciprocate my feelings. I did try to show my affection one embarrassing time when I was giving her a back massage in the counselor "hangout" building as we both were waiting for our laundry as it rolled around in the dryer. When I was younger with thick black glasses, I looked like a young Clark Kent -- not exactly a look high on the attractive scale. I did figure out that girls loved back massages so that offer was always met with enthusiasm. Selina was no different. There I was sitting on her buttocks, rubbing her back -- my heart was racing. I thought, "Should I make a move to show her how I feel?" To overcome being shy with girls in college I developed a mantra at the end of a date before attempting to go in for the kiss, "One life to live!" It got me off the fence. So with the girl who I knew was "the one" right there, I said my mantra (to myself of course!) and leaned in and gently kissed the nape of her neck. Motionless. That was her reaction. I realized my advance was not welcome and I pretended like it never happened. Years later she would reveal to me that she was shocked, almost revolted, and pretended to be asleep. Thankfully we remained friends for the rest of the summer.
After camp I knew that I needed to keep in touch with her. When I went back to college at UCLA I wrote her a letter (no email back then). My first was creating blank UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics letterhead that I reconstructed from a UCLA Crew team letter that eventually led to me to the team. In my mock letter I pretended that I was college recruiter and dangled a full scholarship for her to be on the fictitious UCLA Aerobics team. I sweetened the offer with her own workout apparel line with the backing of UCLA's marketing machine and signed the letter "Brian Wachler". That prompted a long, enjoyable phone call proving an age-old tenet that humor and relationships are powerful partners.
For five years we wrote to each other about once a year or so. As I went through college and dated at times, even had a girlfriend for a bit, in the back of my mind I knew "Selina was the one." My college friends just could not understand how I knew. I really could not explain it -- I simply knew. This would be the first of many times in my life where my gut feeling correctly directed me.
After college I spent a year in Edinburgh University on a Rotary Scholarship as an "Ambassador of Goodwill". I developed great new friendships with people from all over the world who studied there. I even rowed on the crew team and traveled the continent. I was probably the only student at Edinburgh University who was a "one-year virgin" for the senior year. I met many wonderful college women there, many of whom became good friends, but none of which I had romantic feelings. I already felt beyond hooking up just for the sake of it.
I had a girlfriend during the first two years of medical school at Dartmouth, but broke it off as I foresaw that it was not meant to be in the long run. Then one day in the deep freeze of New Hampshire winter I was reading my mail during a pharmacology class and pulled out a holiday card from Selina. It was a three-frame cartoon of a polar bear imitating a melting snowman with the last frame showing the bear falling flat on his belly. I laughed out loud. Selina and I had not spoken since college so I rang her up which developed into speaking more and more frequently. Soon we were on the phone every night.
As summer approached I had to find out if that "je ne sais quoi" was still there. I invited her to Los Angeles, but she had been there and, in turn, she invited me to Vancouver. I had to make the trip despite being underwater in student loans. I accumulated frequent flyer miles like a child collects bits of cookie batter. Then there was the agony of being wait listed for what seemed like an eternity. To me, this visit was crucial -- everything hinged on seeing it I still had that feeling and insight about Selina when I met her five years earlier at camp. Would she be that amazing person who I remembered or would she have transformed into something else? It is one thing to talk a lot on the phone - it can quite another to see someone in person. I just had to know. Finally I was cleared from the waitlist and had my ticket.
Before the flight she said, "It's been five years since I saw you. How will I recognize you?" I replied, "There are a lot of farmers in New Hampshire and the students kinda adopt local customs. I think you'll recognize me." As the plane drew closer to Seattle I developed this nervous energy. Once I got on the connector flight from Seattle to Vancouver, I did not have much time. I took my bag into the bathroom and after about 10 minutes emerged wearing old baggy jeans, a black and white plaid shirt, rope suspenders, a straw hat and a corncob pipe. It was like a Superman-style country transformation in an airline bathroom instead of the phone booth. As I walked up the aisle to my seat, I rather enjoyed the curious looks of passengers. I explained the gag to a lady sitting next to me. She offered her mascara and put freckles on my cheeks.
The Canadian customs officer looked up and saw something he likely never saw standing before him. There were some tense moments. I had to explain why I was dressed like this and he smiled and wished that everything would work out. I came through the big glass doors after baggage claim and Selina immediately recognized me with a big hug, laughing away. I instantly knew "it" was still there. Had she found my humor unsavory or embarrassing, I would have known "it" was gone. I spent a glorious week in Vancouver and she finally realized (with the catalyst help of her sister Melissa) that I was more than a good friend.....
We long distance dated 3,000 miles for the following year with occasional visits. The next summer I was in Vancouver for a medical elective for a month and proposed to her. I carefully inserted the engagement ring in a fortune cookie. After I cooked Chinese food one evening, I brought out the cookies. I opened mine acting with feigned disinterest. She opened her cookie to find a cotton ball inside. Then she pulled the ring out. Initially there was a look of confusion and then it clicked. She began crying and I got on one knee and proposed. We were engaged. To this day she still does not know how I got the ring in the fortune cookie despite much pleading -- I'm not giving up my secret!
Our wedding was one year later in Vancouver after I finished medical school. Selina felt very strongly about her family name and was not comfortable giving it up and taking my last name. I respected that and knew my ego needed to be secondary to the union we were going to make. I came up with the idea to combine both of our last names to make a new last name. She liked how a new last name reflected the new union between us; after all you marry each other. Some of my family members initially did not appreciate our creativity. Most importantly I said, "Selina and I are a new family and out of love for her and visa versa we are making a new last name for each of us." I added, "there is some precedent for men changing their last names -- they commonly do that in Latin American countries." I got the look, "You definitely are not a Latin male." It took a few years, but happily they all finally accepted it.
There are not many of us men in the United States with a maiden name. We are a rare breed. We are so rare that you will not find that demographic tick box on many applications. In the exam room, sometimes a married female patient will ask me about the origin of my last name. After I explain it, she will set her gaze on her husband who is also sitting in the room. He squirms and says, "Oh, hun, I would have done that too if we'd discussed it back then." She gives him that cynical look that says, "Yeah, right."
I think changing my name reflects one of the keys behind our 21-year marriage. Marriage is a long love affair, and it also a team where you work together to solve problems. To be long term, each has to have the utmost respect for each other. There are always going to be challenges along the way, just like in life, and having an amazing partner is key to moving through them and keeping perspective. I have been asked, "What have you both done to be married for so many years?" Distilled from advice from my Grandpa and from a family friend Evelyn Williams, I have two simple responses:
1) "Do whatever is necessary to keep peace and happiness under the roof" and
2) "Within your family (parents, siblings, etc.), always know your spouse is the most important family member in your life and keep him/her on a pedestal above others, which includes siding with your spouse in family disputes".
Most people do not end up marrying their camp sweetheart, but I think there are common elements for an enduring relationship no matter where two people meet.