This is the Story of the Wedding that Wasn’t

Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.

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Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.

While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.

Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.

That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.

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AP & Karl

I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.

All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.

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Of weddings, cell phones, manners, and privacy

I just read this article, which reported on an emergent trend in which couples ask guests to put away their cell phones during wedding ceremonies: http://www.metro.us/newyork/lifestyle/2013/07/28/for-some-couples-tweeting-wedding-pics-is-an-idont/.

Where do I stand? I am WAY in favor of this from a manners point of view. Firstly, if you are texting or tweeting during someone’s wedding, stop immediately. I share a sentiment along these lines with my students: in my class, as at a wedding, you are in an environment where you don’t need to engage with a virtual world because you should be paying attention to what is going on IN THE REAL WORLD SURROUNDING YOU. And I know people have the ability to multi-task, and I multi-task all the time, blah, blah, blah. But just because you can do two things at once doesn’t always mean you should, and it doesn’t mean that one of the things you’re doing doesn’t suffer for the attention you’re directing elsewhere. And if one of your regularly undertaken secondary tasks is texting, then generally speaking, you are being rude. Furthermore, if you expect that you’ll find yourself bored at someone’s wedding and thus *need* your phone, I suggest you a) learn how to entertain yourself with thoughts; or b) make the grown-up decision not to attend this particular wedding.

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Sidenote: if you are so bored at your OWN wedding that you must text, you have bigger problems than I’m either equipped or willing to advise you with.

If you were planning on taking pictures with your phone, that’s nice, I guess, but I’m still okay with bride & groom telling you to put your phone away. Are those pictures really going to be that good? And, really, what are you going to do with them? And does the couple not have someone else to do this for them? Full disclosure: I’m sort of a picture grinch. I operate on a less is more perspective in the world of immediate visual documentation, so I would never defend the point of view that one must have one’s phone because one must be able to take a picture. I digress.

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Will this guy’s pic be a must-have? Doubtful. (No offense, well-meaning attendee.)

I’m also in favor of this from the point of view of the bride and groom wanting to protect some measure of their privacy as well as some measure of their agency as the central figures celebrating the wedding. People have complicated relationships to social media, and individuals should respect the varying degrees to which others may engage with the virtual world. On the one hand, I suppose there are people who measure the success of their lives’ milestones by the numbers of pictures friends post of them and the number of comments or likes those pictures receive. As the “IDon’t” article suggests, some celebrants go so far as to create hashtags for guests to use so that their physical community can also get together virtually. That’s fine. But I respect the desire to enjoy the moment of the wedding in its actual moment as well as the effort to have guests do the same. From my point of view, the time taken to chronicle the great time you’re having can take away from the greater fun you could actually be having were you to focus on fun rather than documentation of said fun (that makes sense, yes?). There are those who are part of the social media world without being enmeshed in it. They may maintain profiles or presences without a desire to document every moment (or have every moment documented for them by [admittedly well-meaning] others). And it may be, for those social media dabblers rather than full-time residents, that the wedding community of their own creation, carefully selected from the competing and often contradictory worlds of family and coworkers and close friends (and the sub-worlds of childhood friends and college friends and adulthood friends and so on) is the community they want as primary witness to their wedding day. The neighbor from two apartment complexes ago or the yoga instructor from the last gym or the bartender from the college waitressing job – all people who’ve made their way to someone’s weird Facebook world – maybe don’t need to know about the wedding in real time. I know there are those who would say “Then don’t be FB friends with those people,” but I think a person preserves the right to see as separate the life s/he is actually living and the one s/he maintains online. Maybe there are those who would say I’m imagining a false dichotomy in seeing the two as separate, but I don’t think that has to be the case, and I think we maintain the right to understand those worlds as we wish.

The Perfect Storm of Celebrity and Celebration

Last week, I posted my thoughts on Michael Wilbon’s view of the wedding registry as the purview of the bride-to-be. I moved fairly quickly past the story that inspired his declaration: fans’ purchase of all of the items on Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s Bed, Bath, and Beyond wedding registry, and RGIII’s subsequent decision to keep the gifts. Some of the feedback I’ve received suggested the need for a more in-depth discussion of what, exactly, is going on with average people going to a millionaire sports celebrity’s registry and thinking it’s appropriate to send that person bath mats, cake pans, and flatware. Fair enough.

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Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post connects Redskins fans’ impulse to a very specific view of modern American sports culture: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dc-sports-bog/wp/2013/05/24/rgiii-cake-pans-wedding-registries-and-fandom/. Steinberg, admitting that purchasing a gift for RGIII makes no logical sense, argues that this is the nature of the emotion fans invest in their sports heroes. RGIII, who has meant so much to fans of a struggling franchise, has inspired hope and passion, and the gifts both connect fans to the star and allow them to express their thanks. While I personally think fans’ willingness to purchase high-priced NFL tickets and gear (not to mention RGIII’s $21 million, 4-year contract and numerous lucrative endorsements) communicate “thanks” fairly effectively, Steinberg’s point about the desire to find connection with an admired figure is not wrong.

For me, there are larger points about celebrity and celebration to be made. First of all, in contemporary American culture, especially with the 24-hour news cycle, fast-paced world of internet updates, and pervasiveness of social media (as of this morning, RGIII has 918,897 Twitter followers), the public has near constant access to the actions and even the inner-thoughts of their favorite celebrities (sports-related or otherwise). And RGIII has played the fame game brilliantly. So even though it is unlikely that fans sending gifts might ever meet RGIII, they can feel as though they know him. And this sentiment crosses lines by which people achieve fame (fans “like” or know they’d be “best friends” with certain public figures – based on the images presented by those figures and often reinforced by media treatment).

Secondly, if we “know” figures like RGIII, to some degree, there is never a time when we better know what they’re going through than when they celebrate rituals or milestones that are common across the culture. Can many of us know the pressure of being a star quarterback in the NFL? No. Do many of us know what it’s like to plan a wedding? We do. Right or wrong, many people feel greater intimacy and often even the legitimacy of their unsolicited participation or advice when their contemporaries undergo the shared experiences of a broader national culture. While there is a wedding public couples choose when they select their wedding parties and narrow their guest lists, there is also the broader wedding public that looks in from the outside. This is true even of regular citizens who face well-meaning inquiries or become subjects of gossip for decisions made (regarding color scheme, money spent, etc., etc., etc.) and subsequently discussed. For RGIII and other celebrities, that broader wedding public is far, far broader and can produce any number of responses, from unsolicited and clearly welcome gift-giving to public censure, as evidenced by another view of RGIII published in the Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/in-tornados-wake-the-financial-burden-is-also-devastating/2013/05/23/30c09a28-c31d-11e2-8c3b-0b5e9247e8ca_story_1.html