For Two Frequent Fliers, a Trip Down the Matrimonial Runway

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Her life revolved around research institutes and fellowships. His moved along the edges of business and government. He traveled a lot. She moved often. There were planes to catch, seminars, grant proposals, a book to write, classes to teach, a whirlwind that rarely stopped. Rebecca MacKinnon and Bennett Freeman had known each other professionally for years, had sat in the same room for meetings, but cannot recall having a single conversation outside of work.

Everything changed when their paths crossed one day in Washington.

She was starting a fellowship with Open Society Foundations, a group dedicated to civil rights, democracy and government accountability. He walked into the group’s office building on his way to a meeting. They spotted each other, said hello and agreed to have a drink a few days later at Hank’s Oyster Bar.
It was supposed to be a business drink — short and sweet and to the point. The Global Network Initiative, a group dedicated to human rights, freedom of expression and privacy, which they both had a hand in starting, was up and running, and they wanted to compare notes.
At the time, his marriage was ending and the divorce settlement had just been determined. He had not even begun to think about dating.

“I had no intention of this becoming a date, let alone a relationship, let alone a marriage,” Mr. Freeman, 58, said. She was only going to be in town for six weeks. He lived in the capital but was getting ready to fly to the Persian Gulf.

“We were enjoying the conversation enough we decided to continue, order dinner at the bar,” Ms. MacKinnon, 46, said, “and at some point during the dinner it started to feel a little bit datey, and then as we were leaving he asked me out.”

The National Symphony Orchestra was playing Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra the following weekend, he said to her.

“Without skipping a beat, she began to hum the melody,” said Mr. Freeman, who was amazed Ms. MacKinnon, who played violin in high school, was so familiar with one of his favorite classical pieces, especially from a composer not frequently hummed outside a bar, or anywhere for that matter.

That was early in 2009. They kept in touch as Ms. MacKinnon traveled for work at a frantic pace. She can tick off the countries, though she is not sure if they are in the right order.

“After that six weeks in D.C., I went back to China for a while,” she said. “And then I came back to D.C., and then I went back to Hong Kong. And then I went to Australia, and I went to Egypt, and I went to London. Or some sequence. I forget.”

They met in London that summer. She went to the Bahamas for her brother’s wedding. They spent some time near San Francisco, where Mr. Freeman grew up. By Thanksgiving, they were in London again.

“I was really kind of circumnavigating the earth a couple of times,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “He likes to say I was an international bag lady, you know, kind of living out of suitcases.”

Mr. Freeman’s sister, Rachel Freeman, who was living in Africa, visited her brother in Washington shortly after the couple started seeing each other. She was supposed to meet her brother for lunch. He didn’t show up.
“I said, ‘Where are you?’” she said. “He said, ‘Rebecca, Rebecca.’ That was the beginning. It was clear, this was important.”

For Ms. MacKinnon, the same feelings were emerging. “He’s deeply enthusiastic about kind of everything, and just has a love for life and a love for people,” she said.

Mr. Freeman’s friends say that in high school, when everyone else talked about sports, he was interested in apartheid in South Africa. He has been known to talk about Chinese nationalism in the middle of a baseball game.

Larry Baer, a longtime friend of Mr. Freeman’s and now the president and chief executive of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, described the couple as “two whirling dervishes.”

“They say that opposites attract,” Mr. Baer said. “But in that world, whirling dervishes attract.”

Mr. Freeman studied history at the University of California in Berkeley, where he graduated with honors, and went on to study at Oxford. He campaigned for Walter F. Mondale’s presidential run, sleeping in Mr. Baer’s dorm room at Harvard and canvassing by day when the campaign swung through Massachusetts. He worked with the State Department during the Clinton administration and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. His work eventually led to a position with Calvert Investments, which he left in April 2015. He served on boards and committees that championed corporate responsibility and continues to do so.

Ms. MacKinnon grew up in India, Hong Kong, China and Tempe, Ariz. Her father was a professor of Chinese history at Arizona State University, her mother a writer and businesswoman. She went to Harvard and was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. She worked at CNN’s bureau in Beijing, eventually becoming bureau chief, and later Tokyo bureau chief.

She left CNN in 2004 and started to research Internet censorship and surveillance with fellowships at Harvard and Princeton, centers and foundations devoted to a free press in a rapidly changing world. She was a founder of Global Voices, and taught at the University of Hong Kong. She started writing a book, “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom,” which led to a fellowship, a trip to Washington, the drink at Hank’s Oyster Bar and what would become a long-distance relationship.

“We’re two people who have struggled our entire adult lives with being hard driving, ambitious,” Mr. Freeman said. “Working day and night, nights, weekends. Neither of us has had a healthy balance between our professional and personal lives.”

They were both “high octane,” he said, together “combustible,” a perfect match, perhaps, but they lived in different cities.

Ms. MacKinnon kept writing, traveling and looking for grants and fellowships. She spoke before House and Senate subcommittees on human rights, and they saw each other while she was in Washington. She found a research organization, some funding and a place around the corner from Mr. Freeman. Other opportunities came, from Boston, the West Coast, Asia. She passed on them.
“What’s sort of amazing is that they were able to stay in one place long enough to fall in love,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a longtime friend of the couple.

The couple were ready for a singular cloud-to-ground moment in their lives.

“Lightning struck, and there we were,” Mr. Freeman said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

They took vacations, hiking in places where the pace of life is slower, the cell service weak and spotty. Iceland. Death Valley. The Canadian Rockies. Glacier National Park. The Swiss Alps.

The miles stacked up, and when Mr. Freeman became a member of United Airlines’ MileagePlus Million Miler program in the fall 2014, he asked her to share his designated Premier status. They were spending some time on the West Coast when he proposed, outside a Cowgirl Creamery near Point Reyes, Calif.

“He said something like, ‘Well, someday when we get married we can get a house out here,’” she said. He had made such comments before, but “this time for whatever reason I said, ‘You know, you never asked me.’”

So he did, and she said yes.

Their wedding celebration spilled across four cities in the course of a month: a party for 100 in Washington, the ceremony in Phoenix on Valentine’s Day, a gathering for about 50 in San Francisco the following weekend and another party for about 65 in London the weekend after that.

As they said their vows, standing before Rabbi Dean Shapiro and about 50 guests at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, quail chattered and choir music drifted in from another event at the outdoor space. After the ceremony, guests sipped craft beer and wine, and the classical guitarist Domingo DeGrazia played as evening came to the desert. One wedding. Four cities.

Before their party in San Francisco, their time on the West Coast was not spent sightseeing. Instead they were consumed with speaking engagements, meetings and phone calls, because the whirlwind rarely stops.

“We’re going to be busier than ever,” Mr. Freeman said, “but our pledge is to make more time for each other along the way.”

By RON DUNGAN

Source New York Times

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