On Fiction vs Life, Weddings and First Days of Class, Prep and Perfection

Lessons are prepped for tomorrow, and I feel mostly ready for Semester 2. Still haven’t finished with my exams. The trouble is that I know what a night with minimal sleep will cost me. Still, they need to be done. It will happen. And in the meantime the world turns on and the cold descends and the moon rises flush in the inky sky, surrounded by a field of pinpoint stars . . . Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is getting married or is celebrating having gotten married or is saying yes to a proposal or is getting up the nerve to propose . . .

My husband likes to watch Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride II, the 1990s versions. He and my daughter insisted on watching both movies tonight. I heartily wish that I had used these films in my grade 12 College English class as examples of consumerism, the American Dream, capitalism, and sexism, but I wasn’t sure whether the students would have been into them. And I’ve been trying to remember if the trend of massively expensive weddings was happening before the first FotB or whether it helped to fuel the industry with its emphasis on the pricey wedding planner, the must-haves and can’t-do-withouts, the swans and the tent, etc. It was around the same time as Betsy’s Wedding, and Four Weddings and a Funeral — films which built up so many women’s expectations (and, perhaps, dread) of what getting married might involve. My husband always took issue with how the male perspective on getting married was shunted aside in these stories, as though he were merely a spectator in the pivotal ceremony of his adult life. And when George Banks is ashamed of the small gift he presents his daughter, Annie — a cappuccino maker — Hubby likes to mention in every viewing that in fact, George is giving Annie the wedding. The movie takes 1950s values and plunks them into 1990s materialism. I’m trying to think of examples of successful wedding movies of the last thirty years or so that don’t involve highly expensive ceremonies and receptions, and the only one that immediately comes to mind is Runaway Bride. Not entirely sure if that one counts, though, because the titular character am-scrays from three weddings of varying expense — including a low-cost affair involving a rented trampoline and a garage band — before actually making her commitment with great big fancy dress but absolutely minimal attendees in the very end.

Maybe it’s all on my mind, too, because of recent statistics which have been publicized that suggest expensive weddings are no guarantee of long, successful marriages. And Valentine’s Day is approaching, so the media responds with emphasis on romance and love and all that jazz. Or perhaps it’s my irritation that we had to watch these movies again when I wanted to put something else on as background noise. I’m in the age of weddings, though — at least four of my former students who are now my friends are getting married or have already done so, another cousin is now engaged, and advertisements are popping up for the Bridal Shows in our area, as local couples planning out their ceremonies kick their work into high gear for spring and summer.

I suspect, too, that on some level, I’m a bit jealous of the fictional wedding in Father of the Bride. When I married my partner in 1997, we weren’t able to do certain things that we’d dreamed of doing in our wedding. We wanted a wooden gazebo and had planned that we’d take it apart and store it until we had a permanent home with a backyard, but when we actually married, we only got as far as a plain wrought-iron trellis arch. I’m not even sure if it’s still in my parents’ basement. The candies we gave out as favours were the wrong colour. There were numerous little things, mostly staging, that I wanted to do differently. Weddings are, after all, very much theatre, and once the actors have reflected on the performance, they sometimes want to do it again and do it better. So Hubby and I wanted to renew our vows after 13 years, doing it “right” this time around. But jobs, and children, and life changed all of that, and we’re no closer to getting married again. In fact, I think if we were to renew our vows, I might want to skip the whole party and just fly to Vegas, or somewhere tropical. But then I remember that so many of our guests told us how they enjoyed our wedding because it was so relaxed and low-pressure. And that the fiction was, after all, Hollywood’s sanitized and Hallmark-card-ish version of real life. It wasn’t just one wedding planner and his team who did all of the staging of Annie Banks and Brian MacKenzie’s marriage ceremony — it was a veritable army of well-paid movie designers.

When it comes down to it, a wedding is a community and family theatrical event about the joining of two lives, but the spectacle shouldn’t be the end focus. It gets too hard to see what will happen beyond the show. In the regular theatre, after a performance has wrapped up, the players tend to go on their merry ways, sometimes coming back together for future shows. But the players in a wedding remain together after most of the audience has gone home. If they wait too long to depart, the happy couple might even get roped into doing some of the cleaning! (Yeah, it happened to me.) I remember being caught up in the fuss of the wedding, and loving it because that’s what I love to do — I’m an event planner, a director, a stage designer, a costumer, and an actor. Everything focused on this performance of a lifetime, which was my lifetime and the creation of it. So when the wedding day ended, and the party slowed and people began trickling away back to their homes and hotels and highways, it felt so surreal to me that the world was marching on. We’d danced on the edge of a cliff, feeling the rush of excitement and the energy of the air, but now the path back to regular life showed itself and we had to leave the excitement behind us. How often do movies show this gentle fall back to reality?

It would be nice if we could see that, in a film, but would the mundane activities of the hours and days afterward — when we see the couple actually sleeping on their wedding night instead of consummating (statistics prove that this is the case, folks), a groom hungover the next morning, or a bride unsure of what time to show up at her parents’ to open gifts — would that kill the romance of the genre? I’m reminded of a line in Romancing the Stone, when Joan Wilder asks of her publisher, “What happens the next morning when the sun comes back up?” and the publisher retorts, “There is no next morning!”

Cycle all of this back to my planning for the first day of the second semester. I used to fuss and wring my hands and hover over every little detail of that first day of class. But it’s like a wedding day. There is a tone to be set, and a list of tasks to be done, and a performance that the spectators will expect to see. If I put all of my energy and time and expense into the first day, what is left for the day after that? So I didn’t get my posters finished, or all of my handouts for the week ready, etc. I’m not a movie character. Just myself, an ordinary teacher in an ordinary high school. I shouldn’t let Hollywood fictional standards determine how I see myself, should I? Theatre, film, novels, all of these are reflections of life that enable us to see ourselves as we are and as we want to be, but the education in that is in realizing that the most perfect pictures and moments, be they in a marriage ceremony or a classroom, either come from much planning and stress and effort by great numbers of people, or by the lucky chance of converging factors. And even with an army behind you, it’s still possible to find that you’ve ruined the illusion by trying too hard to make the vision a reality. Better to work with what you have and let the energy flow, recognizing that perfection is an illusion and it’s the little moments that happen purely by accident that are the most beautiful and memorable.

We have two photographs of myself on our wedding day, my hand outstretched as I crouch down toward our niece (a toddler at the time). In one picture, my back is straight and you can’t see my double-chin as I reach toward her, but my hat is obscuring my face. In the second photo, I’m hunched and my face is visible, grinning madly from ear to ear. I like the artistry and lines of the first picture, but my husband has always said that he prefers the second because it’s honest and natural. A perfect moment caught by accident, without planning or a team or effort of any kind.

I don’t have everything ready for my classroom tomorrow. It’s my wedding all over again. The vision I’d articulated for myself isn’t going to happen. But I have what I need — my lesson plans, course outlines, and a plan for the next few days to follow. I know some of my students and can make some predictions of what they will be like in my classroom. At some point down the road, I’ll pick up on those little details that I’m missing right now, but even if I don’t, it will all still work.

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