Tag Archives: tradition

The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.


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All’s Fair

The California State Fair is going on right now.  Since it’s here in town, I go every year.  And every year I marvel at the strange juxtaposition of time that it offers.

State fairs (and county fairs) are, to a great extent, a remnant of a different, earlier time.  It was an opportunity for people to come together in a largely agrarian society where such opportunities were rare.  People would exhibit prize livestock and produce, and artisans would get a chance to show their skill.  There were competitions of quilting, cooking, canning and manufacturing.  Winemakers would share their bounty.

In addition, vendors would exhibit and demonstrate their products to people who otherwise had little chance to even be aware of them.  Carnival rides gave an opportunity for fun, and ultimately the extended community would come together for celebration and camaraderie, with musicians and performers.  It was the highpoint of the agricultural social calendar.

All that has changed.  The internet has put us in contact with each other, and allowed us to purchase whatever we want from the far corners of the world.  Music is readily available in multiple media forms, and few of us really live agrarian lives.  Somehow, a jam-making contest seems quaint.

Fairs are struggling, trying to keep up with the times in the face of dwindling attendance.  High tech exhibits are increasingly common, along with celebrations of pop culture.  Where the county fair circuit was once a valid musical path, now it’s the place for washed-up bands and tribute acts.  One must ask if fairs even serve any purpose any more.

To answer that, I can examine a recent remarkable coincidence.  In my composition class just one day before I visited the fair, we found ourselves discussing the use of media and technology in education.  I confess I am one who has not been quick to embrace the computer age.  Call it a function of my advancing age, but I’m not convinced that something that has worked for years without computers suddenly needs them to succeed.

It’s a common assumption: our students are computer-savvy, and very tied in to media, so in order to reach them, we teachers much come to their level, and embrace their media.  So we must use social networking, and the internet, and on-line communication, and laptop computers, and all the other things they take for granted.  Those of us who are reluctant to do so are stuck in old ways and must get current to survive.

But why?

Unexamined in the scramble to embrace technology is the question of whether doing so is needed or appropriate.  I, for one, tend to be a late adopter.  Despite being in a classroom equipped with a “smart board,” I rarely use it.  Nor do I often use the computer.  I don’t have a course website, and still read essays on paper.  Hopelessly out-of-date, right?  Time to retire?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing, but I believe that my emphasis on old-fashioned discussion has benefits that cannot be gained by the latest tech programs.  Discussion worked when I went to school, and I have yet to see a single cogent argument as to why something that used to work somehow stopped working simply because some other method with more bells and whistles came along.

This perspective is not new for me.  I began my teaching career at a time when the teaching of English was undergoing an enormous transformation.  The perspective was that we must abandon inadequate old methods, and my reluctance to do so did not sit well with my fellow teachers and supervisors.  What I could not bring myself to say to these people was, “The old methods produced all of you, so how bad can they really be?”  But it’s what I was thinking.

But, as I said, perhaps that’s rationalization.  Maybe I’m making excuses for being too old to learn new tricks, or maybe just too lazy.  I put that to my students.  The response was intriguing.

While there was agreement that I would benefit from some of the smart technology to demonstrate, for example, the process of editing an essay, for the most part they said I should not change my methods.  They have seen many cases of teachers who use technology and yet do not improve the classroom experience by doing so.  Some do, but, from my students’ perspective, that means it’s a good teacher, not that the technology is what makes it good.

This parallels my experience of animation in film, where traditional cel animation has been replaced by CGI.  This was largely because the groundbreaking films from Pixar changed everything.  The assumption was that, because Pixar uses CG and their movies are great, using CG must make movies great.  But other studios’ uneven output has shown that CG does not make a movie great.  Indeed, even recent offerings from Pixar have shown this.  The fact is, their earlier movies were great because they were well made, and not simply because of the technology used.  They would have been just as great if animated traditionally.

This is true in education.  A good teacher is good regardless of technology, and a bad teacher won’t get better by using a computer.  My students went on to say that my emphasis on discussing ideas is a rare thing in their college experience, where they mostly sit silent while a professor drones on in the lecture.  Being able to explore their own views and learn about each other’s is something they value, and they urged me not to stop doing it.  In other words, be open to new approaches, but don’t abandon what works.

And this takes me back to the fair.  I find something very comforting about those jam contests and quilting shows and the vendors with their booths.  It hearkens back to an earlier time, yes, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t things of value in that time.  The fair is, among many other things, a community-building opportunity.  Just because we now build communities other ways doesn’t change that.  It is a rich pageant of traditions, ones that can, and should, be handed down for generation to generation.  It reminds us where we come from, and who we are.

Sure, let us always keep an eye toward the future.  But let us not forget the past, nor abandon those things that still have value.  That’s too easy to do in a disposable age of planned obsolescence, where last year’s model is considered hopelessly out of date.

Continuity.  Traditions.  That’s what makes societies strong.  Learn from the past to build the best possible future.  But you can’t have one without the other.

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