Vowing To Be Different

When my son and his wife were married five years ago, there was a moment in the planning stages where I realized their wedding day would be anything but “traditional”. Credit their beautiful outdoor venue (no church), the “mixed-up” wedding party (ladies aside the groom; men aside the bride), their Keds canvas sneakers (no formal shoes beneath the tuxes and dresses) or the trays of truffles after dinner (no wedding cake) – they found dozens of details to make their day unique and memorable. But given the most recent wedding trends, perhaps my son and his wife were more old-school than I thought.

Hindsight being what it is, my own wedding to my wife thirty-two years ago now seems downright formulaic.  We were married in a church, accompanied by an organist and harpist.  We exchanged rings and vows before a priest.  We lit a “unity candle” at the altar.  Our reception was in a hotel ballroom, with an open bar and live band.  Dinner was served, wedding cake was cut, and the only time the dancing stopped was to toss the bouquet and garter.  Our one and only off-script detail? We included a contemporary John Denver song in the ceremony (much to our priest’s dismay).  Otherwise ours was a carbon copy of just about every other wedding of the 1980’s.

I’m sure you have examples of just what makes weddings different these days.  Let me guess.  They’re no longer just outdoors; they’re now in backyards or in barns or at faraway “destinations”.  The ceremony is facilitated by an officiant (“basic online ordination package” – $29.99!)  The bride grooves down the aisle to something more like Metallica than Mendelssohn.  The vows – far removed from the dusty “to have and to hold” – could double as songs or poems.  The receptions take place in twinkly-lit tents.  The food is more likely “finger” than “buffet”.  The wedding cake has been replaced by a cupcake tower.

“Non-traditional” should be a non-surprise when it comes to modern-day weddings.  After all, the average age of today’s marrying couples is 29, which typically follows years of living together or even a purchased home.  Four of five couples who marry are millennials, and millennials are all about personalization.  Thus, 44% write their own vows, and only one in four have their ceremony in a religious institution.

Fido bears the rings?

Let’s dig deeper, shall we?  If you’re not convinced the traditional wedding has gone completely off the altar, check out the Chapel of the Flowers website (“Voted Best Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas!”), particularly their article, “New Wedding Traditions to Trade In for the Classics”.  Perhaps you and your future spouse will consider the following from their list of suggestions (not that I would):

  1. Rings – Skip the jewelry store and head for the tattoo parlor.  Your wedding band tat will never fall off and the ink will remain… “until death do you part”!  For that matter, your tattooist might also be an officiant, so you can have the whole shebang right there in the parlor.  I’m sure the biker dude in the next chair will be happy to witness the signing of your marriage certificate.
  2. Wedding Dress – Skip the white in favor of pastel hues or bright, tropical colors.  After all, the “innocence, purity, and light” of white may not be – ahem – the appropriate statement.
  3. Pocket the Phones – As in, ask guests to refrain from taking their own photos.  Really?  Is the Force with you or something?  Unless you hand out physical restraints as your guests walk through the doors, those phones will keep on a-clickin’.  Moving on…
  4. Smaller Wedding Parties – 1-3 family/friends at most.  This suggestion is either overlooked, ignored, or most likely mocked.  If anything, wedding parties seem to be getting bigger these days.  Moving on again…
  5. Gifts – Out with the wedding registry and in with “donations to a good cause”.  Say what?  I get that modern-day couples live together and already have most everything they need, but what about cash?  Clearly, money dances have fallen by the wayside.  Donations to good causes works for funerals but not for weddings.  Hard pass.
  6. Delayed Honeymoons – Don’t delay… I repeat, don’t delay.  I know several couples who never had a honeymoon because, well, “more important” things got in the way (i.e. real life).  I also know a couple who divorced before they even made it to their honeymoon.  Don’t delay.  Have some fun while you’re still carefree and unconditionally happy.

No matter how you feel about “new traditions” at weddings these days, there’s an underlying positive to be gleanedAt least we still have weddings.  The vows may raise your eyebrows.  The food and festivities may not be your particular glass of champagne.  But those details don’t really matter, do they?  At the end of the day, you still have two “I do’s” and one “I now pronounce you…”, sealed with a kiss.  You still have a marriage.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “They Solemnly Swear Their Wedding Will Ditch Tradition”. (8/6/19)

Teacher of Note(s)

In church last Sunday, early in the service, the congregation was treated to a beautiful rendition of the hymn, “My God and I”.  The young female soloist, introduced with aspirations of the Broadway stage, stood poised behind the microphone, beaming through pitch-perfect singing.  As captivating as she might have been, my attention was drawn to her much older accompanist; a bespectacled white-haired woman at the piano, carefully dividing attention between sheet music and protege.  Wordless communication was exchanged; subtle nods of encouragement; cursory, confident smiles.  And just like that I was no longer in church, but back in second grade, toiling away at the keyboard in anticipation of my weekly piano lesson.

Josephine Siple [Sahy-puhl] – a name and face I’ll remember until my dying day – was my piano teacher from age eight until well into high school.  Why I remember her first name is a mystery (she was always “Mrs. Siple” to me) – perhaps adults said it often enough.  Josephine was the perfect embodiment of a grandmother – the white silvery hair, the abundance of wrinkles, the old-fashioned glasses, the matronly clothes, the wry smiles, and the soothing demeanor to make you feel more like a family member than a piano student.  But make no mistake; Josephine was first and foremost a teacher, educating her students as much about life’s lessons as she did the notes on the page.

To add to my Norman Rockwell painting (or take away from it), Josephine lived in an unusual house just a few doors up from my own, which I traveled to by bike.  It looked and felt much more like a fortress than a residence.  You passed through an imposing wooden doorway into a stone-floored foyer.  All I remember was the vast living room to the left (the piano lesson room, with a grand and an upright side-by-side), and the rustic kitchen to the right.  A front-and-center staircase disappeared to the second level (where, for all I knew, Mr. Siple dwelled).

Bless you, Google Earth, for I confirmed – fifty years later – Josephine’s house still stands (photo above).  Her place may have been uninviting, but Josephine found a way to make it feel warm and welcoming, even to a timid child.  She would host recitals for parents in the big living room, allowing her students the luxury of a performance at the grand piano.  I can still picture Josephine in the kitchen afterwards, happily serving and chatting behind a big glass punch bowl loaded up with a concoction of 7-Up and lime sherbet, boiling and fizzing like witch’s brew.

     

A good friend confided in me recently about his granddaughter’s impatience.  He said she’d begun piano lessons – about the same age I was – but simply refused to practice.  Her parents, with utter resignation (and delusions), allowed their daughter to move on to the violin instead.  Why on earth would they endorse an infinitely-more difficult instrument when mere piano practice was already too high a hurdle?

Piano practice was never a problem for me, and I give Josephine all the credit.  She instilled a sense of responsibility which I know translated to a stick-with-it attitude in other aspects of life.  I remember one lesson where I knew I hadn’t practiced enough the week prior.  Josephine sensed it immediately, and though the exact wording escapes me, her comment had just enough, um, wisdom and sting to reevaluate my priorities.  I never showed up unprepared again.

As things are wont to do in childhood, my piano practice and lessons eventually fell by the wayside, in favor of other activities which pale by comparison.  Thanks to Josephine, I entered a few piano competitions. (I was no Van Cliburn contestant but I certainly learned how to perform under pressure.)  Thanks to Josephine, I explored outside of my comfort zone: lessons on the church organ; percussion instruments in the school orchestra; dabbles with flute in college.  None of those instruments consumed me like the piano. Then again, none of those teachers were Josephine.

My piano teacher extraordinaire is long gone, but the memories and lessons she gave me are life-long companions.  I can resurrect Josephine in a heartbeat, as through an accompanist in church.  I can also bring her back in other seemingly-random moments, reminding me her teachings went well beyond the piano.

Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

Good Times and Laughter Too

My wife and I will attend two weddings this summer; one for friends and one for family.  This week I noticed one of the brides-to-be on Facebook, requesting “songs you want to hear/dance-to at the reception”.  Clever girl, making sure her guests have a say in the music.  My guess is – whether requested or not – the deejay will find room for Kool & The Gang’s enduring party anthem, “Celebration”.  It’s as timeless now as it was when we first heard it in 1980.  And ce–lah–brate-ing good times is as timeless at weddings as it is for the passing of a loved one.

Plucked from another section of the significant-life-events portfolio, my wife and I attended a Celebration of Life this past weekend, for my uncle (my dad’s twin brother).  I label two aspects of my uncle’s passing as “merciful”: 1) He was weakened by a heart condition over the last three years of his life; and 2) One or two of his family members were not available for an immediate memorial.  Because of the first aspect, the extended family had plenty of time to make peace with my uncle’s eventual passing.  Because of the second aspect, what may have been a funeral became a celebration of life instead.

No need to vote on this topic.  Whenever circumstances permit, choose Celebration of Life over Funeral.  Funerals lean to the shock and mourning of a life lost – somber affairs are they.  Celebrations of Life revel in the happy memories of one life, and the joy brought to countless others.  Such was the case with my uncle.  His celebration included a church service, hymns, and a homily (given by the “celebrant”, of course), but what moved me to my core – and what I couldn’t get enough of – were the stories shared by my cousins (my uncle’s children) and my father (his brother).  Those memories included things I never knew about my uncle, such as his talent as a cartoonist and his childlike demeanor with his grandchildren.  I’m even more inspired by the man than I already was.

My uncle’s celebration moved on from the church to a beautiful setting by the San Francisco Bay, where drinks, lunch, photos and memories were shared for several hours.  It was as much a family reunion as a celebration, and my uncle wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Before he passed, he let it be known we should make merry instead of mourn.  And so, …There was a party goin’ on right there; a celebration to last throughout the years.

Whether we celebrate births or birthdays, weddings or wedding anniversaries, Sunday Mass or Christ-mas, we get a healthy dose of festive occasions in our lifetimes.  Perhaps that’s why we’ve come up with so many words to describe them.  Merriam-Webster published one such list here, including Bash (America’s melding of “bang” and “smash”, somehow maturing into “party”); Blast (surely inspired by loud musical instruments and champagne bottles); Rave (actually inspired by a Middle-Ages term for “acts of madness”); Blowout (once defined as a “one-off indulgence”; somehow morphed into “major festive occasion”), and finally my favorite – Wingding (once “feigned seizures”, now “wild partying”).

But enough digression.  Well, almost enough.  My nod to all things “celebration” wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the town in Florida by the same name.  Developed by Disney as a utopian master-planned unincorporated community “created from scratch”, and “a town worthy of its brand and legacy”, Celebration was/is Disney’s nod to New Urbanism: development based on the small towns of early America, with compact downtowns, “walkable” streets, diverse housing stock, and plentiful public spaces. Celebration doesn’t even consider itself a town, preferring instead the label of community, as in “strong spirit, and desire for friendship with neighbors”.  Sounds like a festive gathering to me!

There will be many more celebrations of life before the one that has my own name on it.  I’m okay with that.  Celebrations of life are a unique blend of revel and revere, partying and paying respects – the dual reasons we raise our glasses to someone’s name.  Just be sure it’s a party.  As Kool & The Gang puts it: We’re gonna have a good time tonight… Let’s celebrate… It’s all right.

Personal Space

We’re in the midst of Holy Week (for us Christians), which for some means spending more than the usual amount of time in church. Starting with this past Sunday, most Christian denominations conduct a total of five church services unique to this week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Our Methodist church here in Colorado devotes an hour to each of these services (short by Catholic standards); some during the day, others at night. No matter how you slice it, Holy Week means a lot of time in the sanctuary.

The church sanctuary wasn’t always a welcoming place.  Growing up in Los Angeles, my family and I belonged to a formal Methodist church, with a sanctuary I can only describe as intimidating (at least from a kid’s point of view).  You entered the building from the back, where the doorway greeters beckoned you to a narrow narthex.  So far, so good.  But the imposing sanctuary lay just beyond, through a wall of soundproof windows and closed doors, with stern-faced ushers protecting its every entrance.  The pews were hardwood and upright with thin cushions, thirty deep on either side of the main aisle, marching in perfect unison towards the steps of an even-more-intimidating white marble altar.  The booming organ drowned out any conversation (which was always at a whisper anyway), and the soaring structure of the ceiling made a kid wonder when it would all come a tumblin’ down like Jericho’s walls.

The congregation of worshipers was a lot of “old folks”; the kind of people who thought kids belonged in “Sunday School” instead of the sanctuary (that is, neither seen nor heard).  Hence as teenagers, my friends and I sat up in the balcony (at the back of the space, kind of like the last seat on the bus).  You couldn’t always hear the pastor, but at least we didn’t feel the eyes of the disapproving adults down below watching our every move.  From our vantage point they were just a bunch of suits and dresses, topped by a whole lot of gray hair.

“Sanctuary” took on new meanings as I grew older.  The San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the “Safari Park”) opened its gates in the 1970’s and put a completely new spin on the concept of a zoo.  Animals lived in wide open spaces instead of enclosures; broad, beautiful environments designed to mimic their natural habitats.  Instead of pressing noses against cages or glass, visitors saw the animals from a distance, confined to the seats of a quiet tram circling the park.  If I ever come back as a member of an endangered species (like the northern white rhino I mentioned last week), put me in the San Diego Safari Park.  That’s what I call an animal sanctuary.

Also in the ’70’s, Hollywood produced “Logan’s Run”.  The movie depicted a utopian society of the future, offering a wealth of pleasures and resources and good living… at least until you turn thirty.  At thirty you reported to the “Carousel”, where you were assured a place in “Sanctuary” – the supposedly better hereafter.  Logan and his friends decide to find Sanctuary before they turn thirty, and that’s where the curtain of the ugly truth is drawn back.  I can still hear Logan fighting the controlling supercomputer as he moans “THERE IS NO SANCTUARY!”  Logan’s world was seductive for sure, but it was the mystery of sanctuary that had me watching to the end.

Recently, sanctuary has taken on more puzzling associations.  In the 1980’s, American thrash metal produced the band Sanctuary (but nothing in my research explains the name).  Sanctuary Clothing is a line described as “…capturing the Los Angeles lifestyle… vintage styling with a handcrafted focus on detail…”  Again, nothing about the name.  The SyFy Channel’s Sanctuary ran for four seasons and explored gene therapy and cloning, and the “strange and sometimes terrifying beings” that emerged within the human population.  Finally, today’s sanctuary cities appear to be anything but, as the political feud between the Fed and the state overshadows any sense of actual security.

My definition of sanctuary will always be that primary space for worship in a church; or to put it in broader terms, “a place of refuge or safety”.  Whether that’s somewhere inside, worshiping in the pews as I’ll do tonight; or somewhere outside; say, walking on a quiet path in the forest, it’s more about a feeling than a location.  Sanctuary is all about personal space.

Music of the Night

Last weekend we went to Saturday night church to hear our daughter-in-law sing. Or more accurately – as I discovered the next day – we went to Evensong.

42 - evensong

I was raised as a Methodist, with little exposure to the customs of other faiths.  It was only later in life that I came to appreciate the different spins on “church”.  Our Methodist church had three services on Sunday mornings – that was about it for formal worship.  But my years at a Catholic university taught me that “church” can happen on Saturday nights, or Friday nights, or every morning, afternoon and evening of the week if you simply can’t get your fill.  “Church” also has different names, like Vespers, Eucharist, or Matins.  Or Evensong.

Saturday night’s service with my daughter-in-law didn’t seem so unusual.  We were sitting in pews in a sanctuary; a healthy congregation of worshipers around us.  The service began with singing and music.  But fifteen minutes into the hour it was still singing and music.  The stubborn Methodist in me wondered when we’d get to the sermon and the Bible verses and the prayers (they came eventually).

Evensong wouldn’t “even” (ha) have become this week’s blog topic if it wasn’t for Jeffrey Archer.  I was reading the British author’s latest novel last Sunday and he made reference to Evensong.  The word stuck with me – a beautiful term – so I had to learn more.  Evensong has its roots in the Church of England: an evening prayer service delivered through singing and music.

Today, Evensong in its purest form is still more common in the U.K. than in the U.S.  You can attend the service every day in most cathedrals in the Church of England, but you’ll only find a handful of options in the States.  And you’ll have to search even harder to find Choral Evensong; the original version of the service sung “a capella” (without instruments).

One of my neighbors down the street here in rural Colorado saw fit to name her “relaxing forest getaway rental” Evensong Place (made the top ten in my Google search!).  That’s a little eerie considering I chose this topic at random just this week.  Maybe I should wander down and have a look.

A popular Methodist hymn – from the early nineteen century but still sung at Christmas – is “There’s a Song in the Air”.  It doesn’t rate as high as “Silent Night” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” but the melody and the words captivate me.  In the final verse we sing “…and we echo the song that comes down through the night…”.  Well what do you know?  Even us Methodists had a sense of Evensong well before it became “Saturday night church”.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

wistful

The church we belong to has an interesting element in its design; something I have not seen since my childhood.  It’s called a “cry room”.  A cry room is a small, enclosed, soundproofed space adjacent to a more public space – like a church sanctuary – with a few chairs (or pews) behind a large pane of glass.  Parents can take their unhappy infants into the cry room and still see and hear the church service without disturbing the congregation.  Parents can enter from the sanctuary or they can enter from the church foyer; in fact, you hardly notice them.

16 - wistful

Our pastor enjoys telling new visitors the cry room is actually for adults as well – the ones who are upset with what he has to say in his sermons.

I was first introduced to cry rooms at a movie theater of my youth.  It was a small seaside venue with only one or two screens.  The cry room was situated at the back of the theater, soundproofed and elevated.  They put a few theater-style seats behind the glass, with speakers so you could still hear the movie.  As a teenager, my friends and I thought the cry room was the cool place to watch the movie from, as if we had our very own private theater.  In hindsight, it would have been a great place for a first date.

Cry rooms are clearly a throwback to times gone by, like those big velvet curtains that would pull aside before the movie began.  They bring back memories of the simpler, more refined eras that I sometimes yearn for.  They make me wistful.  I did a little research and learned that cry rooms were always included in early theater design.  The nicer ones included electric bottle warmers, complimentary formula, and often a nurse on duty.  Different times, no?

A hotel in Japan takes a different spin on the concept of a cry room.  They’ve set aside several rooms specifically for women to de-stress from the apparently demanding lifestyle of the Japanese culture.  Check into a cry room, select from one of several Hollywood tear-jerker DVD’s, and let the tears flow and the stress melt away.  They supply you with a healthy stock of tissues and a warm eye mask, so you can emerge a few hours later with no evidence on your face.  Would you pay $85 for that?

The recent trend in church design is to remove the cry room from the sanctuary.  I think that’s a shame, as infants are showing up in the pews in greater numbers these days.  Speaking of infants, a few months ago I watched a woman video the pastor’s sermon on her iPhone with no regard for the people sitting around her.  She was in the pew directly in front of me.  Try concentrating on the message as you look past an iPhone held up high.  Forget the wailing babies; I’ve found an even better reason to bring back cry rooms.