Sunday, November 20, 2005

Where Does the DI Go?

I've been feeling nostalgic for Dean Wareham bands:

Galaxie 500 -- The Peel Session

Luna -- Lunapark

And I got peer pressured into reading this:

Hitchens -- Why Orwell Matters

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Letter To A Friend Describing My Engaged Encounter Weekend

Dear ****,

You may recall that last spring, [my wife and I] had to spend a weekend attending a "Catholic Engaged Encounter" at the [major metropolitan area airport] Hilton. I meant to blog about it, but it would require hours upon hours to really fully encapsulate the absurdity of the whole exercise. After reading your most recent post, I thought I would give you a peek at the underside of the iceberg you discussed on your blog about the CFC. Maybe I'll post this on mine.

Engaged Encounter is a pre-marital counseling program (also referred to as a "ministry" by those in the know) which couples who wish to be married in a Catholic church are often required to attend. The format is thus: one or two married couples (typically an older couple with experience running the program and a younger couple with less experience) lead the weekend-long program by giving a series of presentations. I've heard that the value of the program depends heavily on the couple involved, although the materials are uniform for all Engaged Encounter programs (and uniform in their lack of all but comedic value). The couples leading our Engaged Encounter were cringe-inducing.

Anyway, each couple takes turns giving a presentation on a pre-ordained topic, reading prepared remarks on the given topic in order to avoid rambling (without much success). The prepared remarks describe lessons learned in the couple's married life. After sitting through the alternately boring or awkward presentation, each couple would be separated, and all the men or all the women (it alternated with each presentation) would leave the room and go to a pre-assigned hotel room. There, they would hand-write answers to questions contained in their Engaged Encounter workbook. (I've scanned and attached just a few pages from my workbook). After 15 minutes or so, the person left behind in the conference room would go the hotel room, where you and your partner were supposed to read each other's answers and discuss accordingly. In practice, [my wife] and I would watch TV in the room, go to the hotel bar or discuss how unhelpful the questions were.

The topics of each presentation ranged from (and I quote from my EE workbook): "Becoming A Family," "Decisions in Marriage," "Openness in Communication," and "Forgiveness in Marriage." These were the recognizable topics that one might expect in a pre-marriage counseling session. But there were other topics that were and would remain vague and unknowable -- hodgepodges of cliche-ridden, Christian new-ageyness such as (quoting again here): "Encounter With Me/Encounter With We," "Called To Be One," "Two By Two" (<--doesn't that suggest wife-swapping to you?), "Sharing the Vision," and "Marriage Morality." And let's not forget the really galling, awkward, comedic gold-mine, "Sexual Intimacy in Marriage."

The topics of each presentation were not the only terrible cliches. Within each presentation, we were invited to dwell on:

whether I believe that "God doesn't make junk,"

"specific characteristics [that] I see in myself that make it more difficult for others to know and love me,"

when and whether "I set aside my feelings and made a conscious decision to love [my partner],"

"areas of our relationship [that] I realize loving [my partner] takes a decision,"

"what marriage as a vocation mean[s] to me,"

"How I feel about using sex as a means of getting my way?" [<-- this question seemed oddly out of place],

and "what areas do I wish that we would be more open in discussing intimacy in our relationship (e.g. sexual relations, couple prayer, family)."

Over the course of the weekend, I wrote snide remarks, doodled and generally tried not to laugh out loud. [my wife] and I had to sneak outside to our car at the end of each day's program in order to drive back to our apartment in [major city], because the hotel rooms were doled on a single-sex, roommate basis for purposes of chastity and morality. Each day's session lasted a good 12 hours, and it was a bitch to drive from the [major metropolitan area airport] Hilton to [major city] and back again the next morning. But we felt that it was as much a matter of principle as anything else. We'd been together for almost three years, and slept in the same bed for the vast majority of that time. Why change now, just to make a few strangers happy?

By far the creepiest part of the weekend was the Saturday night prayer service. Late at night on Saturday, before the day's program ended, there was a prayer service. Keep in mind that this was your average, beige-carpeted hotel conference room. We had just returned from a break to find that the neat rows of chairs had been rearranged into a large rectangle with a small table at the center. On the table were 50 or so large, unlit candles. A boombox had materialized from somewhere and the wife from one of the presenter couples put on a Josh Grobin CD. We were invited (ordered) to take a seat and write out a "Betrothal Pledge" to our fiancees. Then someone dimmed the lights. I thought to myself that ordinarily, the dim lights and loud, shitty music would distract me from writing out a solemn and heartfelt ode to my future wife. But since I was, in fact, simply writing "all work and no play makes Michael a dull boy" over and over, it didn't really matter. Then, after about 20 excruciating minutes, Betrothal Pledges written and tucked away, the presenting couples turned off the lights completely. They walked to the center of the rectangle holding large, lit white candles and explained that they would walk around the room to each couple and pray with them before giving them their own white candle. Sure enough, both presenter couples, working from different sides of the room, started to go from engaged couple to engaged couple, giving out candles and huddling with each couple in prayer -- a sustained, creepy four-way hug -- before lighting the engaged couple's new candle and moving on.

Fortunately, [we] were positioned so that we were the last couple that either of the presenter couples would reach. So we had the entire prayer service to plot our move in panicked, emphatic whispers:

"There is no fucking way I am hugging any of those fucking people and I am sure as SHIT not praying with them," I hissed.

"I know, Sweetie, I don't want to, either," [my wife] nervously replied.

"This is so fucked up. I have a STAR on my name-tag for fuck's sake!" I said, looking down at the plastic name tag pinned to my sweater, with a five-pointed star next to my name that I had not seen on any other name tags, and which I vaguely suspected was supposed to mark me out as the non-Christian (I turned out to be way off -- the star had something to do with my room assignment and nothing at all with my religion).

"The star doesn't mean anything." said [my wife].

"Sweetie, a) Jews don't take well to wearing stars on their breast, and b) when you do make a Jew wear a name tag with a star on it, you don't close the doors and turn off the lights!"

"Well, I'm freaked out, too!"

"Well, then we'll just tell them that we're not comfortable with whatever it is they're doing," I said.

"Can we do that?" [my wife] asked.

"Well, it's not the Middle Ages anymore! They can't torture us. Can they?"

Anyway, when our turn came to hug 'n pray, I stood up and looked down into the guy's eye and said in a loud voice, "I'm sorry, but we're not comfortable doing this." He smiled, and graciously said in his best, unerring Ned Flanders voice, "Sure! No problem at all! You can still have a candle if you want one, though." And that was that. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like maybe Monty Python bursting into the room dressed as cardinals, screaming "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" But I was met with a friendly smile and a hands-off "no problem" attitude. Even so, we left immediately.

*** In the interest of fairness, let me hasten to add that I don't intend this as a comment about or a critique of the Catholic faith. I'm not trying to make fun of it, nor to insult its adherents. My wife and in-laws are Catholic, and through them, I've developed a real appreciation for the religion. But the Catholicism practiced by my wife and her family is not same thing as the stupidity unleashed in that airport hotel conference room last spring. Last time I went to mass with my in-laws, I wasn't told that "God doesn't make junk." I'm after the faux, canned religion that sounds like it came out of a Deepak Chopra book or "Chicken Soup for the Soul."