Physics professor Michael Zeller hasn’t been single since 1960, when the most important dating accessory was a car. Zeller laughs when he recalls how often his car radio would run down his battery while he was “parked,” leaving him (and his date) stranded.
“I really shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s my one great dating story,” Zeller says. Apparently, his family’s black Labrador used to sleep on top of his parents’ Chevy convertible at night. One morning, they discovered he had fallen into the car, tearing the roof. Still, Zeller decided that the car was in good enough shape for his date that night. Unfortunately, it started to rain while he and his date were in a movie. The torn roof proved an insufficient shelter on the drive home, and soon he and his date found themselves soaked. Zeller smiles, remembering the night. “We laughed and laughed and laughed. And then my date lost control of her bodily functions, and so she was wetter than I was!” He pauses, flashing a mischievous grin, and delivers the punch line. “We were both so embarrassed, and we didn’t know what to do, so I married her.”
Zeller thinks that automotive snafus are just one of the many things that have changed about dating since he was a young man. Marriage has “gotten a lot more iffy now,” Zeller tells me. In December, The New York Times published a list of questions that modern couples should be asking themselves before tying the knot, ranging from “#12: What does my family do that annoys you?” to “#2: Do we have a clear idea of each other’s financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?” Zeller seems to think that questions like these weren’t really an issue when he and his wife were engaged. “Most of these were things that we just understood about each other.”
We are often skeptical when our elders tell us that they grew up in simpler times, when politicians were honest and movies only cost a nickel, but the dynamics of raising a family and maintaining a marriage have changed considerably in Zeller’s lifetime. “I was there at the dinner table, but mostly my children were raised by my wife. My job was to go to work, and I don’t think that when there are two people working you can take that cavalier of an attitude anymore.”
Over the years, his wife has worked on and off, but his career always came first. He acknowledges that his experience has been somewhat unusual — “I’m a college professor, so you know right away I’m weird,” — but still recognizes a significant change in attitude between the younger generation of academics and his own. When he was making plans to spend a year in Switzerland on sabbatical, his wife was working as a technician at a physician’s office; she quit her job to go with him (“#14: If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other’s family, are we prepared to move?”). Likewise, Zeller says, the Physics department recently offered a position to a young woman that would take her overseas, forcing her husband to choose between quitting his job and being separated from his wife. “They’ve got what we call a ‘two-body problem.’” Zeller chuckles, asking me to excuse his physics humor.
But his forehead wrinkles as he contemplates the complications of dating in the modern world. He starts to read out one question (“#9: Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?”) but stops short, shaking his head. “We were much more casual about it, you know. We fell in love and got married and that was the end of it.” Zeller seems relieved to be reminded of his own marriage.
“After forty-six years, she’s become like a leg. I know everything about my leg and I enjoy having it and I wouldn’t want to live without it.”