Sunday, March 19, 2006

Affairs to Remember

My season of four weddings is over. Actually, it was more than a season. I think it started about a year and a half ago when I mused that it would be fun to go to a wedding, that I hadn’t been to one in a few years. Be careful what you wish for, right? Before I knew it, I had plans for August 13th, October 1st, December 31st, and February 25th. That’s a lot of weddings, in my book.

Now, I like weddings. I like the pomp and pageantry. I like the costumes... I mean, outfits. The thought has crossed my mind that the reason so many gay men are in theater is because we have historically been denied the fun of planning our own weddings. Hey, I loved planning my own straight wedding – nearly nine years ago, now. When the marriage is between well-matched mates who are clearly in love, I like that, too. I’m a big fan of love.

One of the neat thing about going to these four weddings is that they were really quite dissimilar. I went solo to all four. The first, between a former student and her high school sweetheart, was a working class affair at a small lake and lodge. It was a hot but beautiful summer day. The ceremony was short, secular, and smart. I cried with joy; I think most people did. The photography took forever. The families prepared their own buffet. There was a DJ and the younger folks danced. It was informal and delightful.

The second wedding was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was the wedding of a second cousin and was an upper-middle class event done in high style. The ceremony was a full Catholic mass at an elaborately-appointed Polish-American church. It was a reunion of sorts for me, as ten years had passed since seeing many of my relatives, so the time elapsed for photography was absorbed in visiting and in getting the cocktail hour started. The band was outstanding and we danced like maniacs; even our septuagenarian relations made several trips to the dance floor.

The new year’s eve wedding was thoroughly alternative. The groom is a friend and the art teacher at my school, and his wife is now a good friend, as well. It was so unique that it would take a whole essay just to describe it completely. It started with a procession into the park behind the Vermont statehouse. The ceremony took place at the foot of the neo-gothic stone tower that overlooks the surrounding hills and valleys. It was short and secular; the groom cried and I smiled with joy. After the ceremony, guests were invited to go sledding in another section of the park. The reception was at an old town hall in a nearby town. The bride’s family catered, a family friend provided excellent dance music, and friends of the couple made a thousand and one paper cranes, strung them, and hung them from the lights. I danced like a fiend again, and we younger friends of the couple stayed til midnight to ring in the new year.

The fourth and most recent wedding, that of a friend and work colleague, was center of the road middle class with some lovely touches. The ceremony was Catholic but did not include a communion service. It snowed beautifully. The photography was quick and gave the guests time to have a drink or two and socialize. The food was excellent, and the first dance and cake cutting were seamlessly integrated into the reception–it was the most natural flow. There wasn’t much dancing, but the couple had cleverly labeled each table with a location from their time together and included a card with enjoyable stories from their time in that place. They also displayed photographs of the weddings of relatives before them–a wonderful touch.

So, four weddings and a couple hundred in presents later, I’m tempted to give a quick analysis. First, all of the weddings, across the financial spectrum, worked because the couple and families put their time, money, and effort into some aspect of the wedding that would be memorable and fun. My former student chose a great location and had a sweet ceremony. My cousin seated us in groups of people we cared about and then provided fantastic music. My artsy friends created a Vermont event that took advantage of the park, an old town hall, and the snow, and also emphasized the contributions of most of the guests in decorating and preparing. The last used a traditional format with a number of little twists and surprises that made it fresh and fun.

One principal difference came from whether the ceremony was religious. When couples write their own vows, it sounds like they’re marrying each other. In the Catholic ceremony, it sounds a little like the couple is marrying God. Another difference is in the time taken for photography. It was most comfortable when the photography was efficient and there was access to a bar or social activities (like sledding).

Some aspects of weddings depend on the circumstances. While I liked being seated at a table better than sitting nearly alone, being seated is great only when assigned to sit with people one knows and likes – as happened both times I was seated. There was no easy pattern to whether the music worked or not. One professional music person was great, as was the band. The others were just good. Two crowds were big on dancing while two weren’t. Sometimes it was fun to watch the couple dance with their relatives, sometimes it was unremarkable.

My final word must remain equivocal. I’m ambivalent on the thought of getting married again. While I wish to have a committed relationship, I’m not sure I feel the need to get married. I did it once; it was a lot of work. It was fairly stressful for the friends I saw creating their own weddings, but weddings are clearly memorable. While they’re hardly necessary anymore, as everyone I can think of either lives together or at least has sex before marriage, ceremonies can mark a turning point or simply be a celebration of love and the joy of having found one’s mate. As weddings are ways of marking the progression of our lives, I like them. And as we as a society partake less in social institutions, it is important to continue to find ways of marking the major changes and transitions of our lives.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Everything Grows Together, because You Are One Piece

I’ve been thinking lately about what it’s valuable for my students to know. My sophomores have been studying global warming, and I’ve been wondering what kind of minds they’ll need as the world changes in rapid, unprecedented ways. The business world claims to want graduates who think flexibly, yet they also desire individuals who don’t thinktoo radically, who don’t question the underpinnings of the situations to which they must adapt, who aren’t too radical to take orders. But that isn’t good enough for me, and it won’t ultimately get our civilization out of its greatest dilemmas. For instance, while scientists agree that climate change is already happening, some scientists suspect that the earth’s climate will reach a tipping point that precipitates sudden, radical changes. Such changes may come to pass in the span of a decade, rather than over the course of a century or more.

It’s this scenario of rapid change that fascinates me. Maybe it’s because I’m impatient. I’m also very curious and like to witness change. I’m hoping that more radical things will happen in my lifetime. I hope to see radical reforms sweep away capitalism as we know it in the United States. I’d like to witness radical action of any sort, actually, especially if it includes a sudden global reckoning with the exploitation of our planet and fellow humanity—the aggregate of behaviors that define much of what we call civilization. Ordinarily, civilizations move slowly. Geologic time is yet infinitely more ponderous. Yet human population is expanding exponentially, and with it comes the extinction of other species and alteration of ecological communities at increasing rates. Our expansion is marked by speed. Perhaps the consequences will come with unprecedented swiftness, as well.

I wonder about these possibilities when I teach. One of my courses is a team-taught class called Living Systems. I work with two colleagues to create a course that incorporates sophomore English, world history, and life science. We teach skills, for sure, in our traditional disciplines. Indeed, I have never taught analytical essays or research with as much focus and enthusiasm as I do when helping students to craft papers about the questions of history, society, and science. It is as we work across the boundaries of traditional departments, however, that we emphasize our most important lesson, that everything is connected. Each species affects other species. Each society affects other societies. People affect the earth, and the earth shapes societies. Ideas shape culture and behavior. How we communicate affects ideas. Connection is unending. The kids know it, and beyond yelling out “everything is connected” on cue, they’re also getting good at spontaneously identifying connection.

Of course, I think teaching connectedness is a good idea. When young people see connections between disciplines, they may also begin to see connections between societies, ecosystems, nations, and races. If they work at it, they may begin to see that seemingly unfair, inexplicable events trace their origins to human behavior and motivations that are as frequently calculated as they are accidental. They may begin to see their own behavior as connected to outcomes that are both individual and societal. They may someday work at forging the sorts of connections that allow for the creation of societal change. And being able to make connections, to analyze and synthesize information, may allow them to think critically, to respond flexibly to unanticipated changes in their surroundings, and to engage in the sort of thinking that makes them distinct as individuals. They may be more sensitive to their surroundings and perhaps more creative in finding ways to make meaning of the absurdities they encounter as they grow.

These are enormous hopes upon which to found a three-credit course for sophomores, but those hopes give purpose to my teaching. And rather than requiring my students to wait years to discover why I take their time teaching the rigors or reading and writing, I hope that they discover, sooner than later, the purpose of their learning: that these skills are connected with the sort of critical thinking and participation that may someday further ecological sustainability and social justice in our world.