wedding in Amherst
Wednesday, December 31 2003
setting: rural Hurley, Ulster County, New York
Today I suffered through yet another wedding. I'll try to be brief.
Actually, it wasn't as bad as most of the others I've been dragged to over the past few years. This was the marriage of Anna H (one of the many Oberlin alumni with whom Gretchen remains in contact) to a mysterious new blond guy whose most noteworthy attribute to date has been the complete absence of top front incisors (a consequence of a cycling accident, I later learned). The happy couple were to be married at Anna's parents' house in the rural countryside east of Amherst, Massachusetts.
As road trips go, getting there was about as painless as they come. It took us about two hours, and traffic was mostly light, except for the New York Thruway up to I-90, but that section would have been clear sailing had it not been for three or four drivers who slept through the "left lane lecture" back in drivers' ed. I love complaining about those idiots.
For most of the drive we listened to music from a Curtis Mayfield compilation because such music tends to cheer Gretchen up.
Later we listened to a hilarious CD of a Lea DeLaria standup comedy routine as performed in San Francisco (interspersed here and there with Bee-Bop Jazz, which she says she is hoping to "bring to the gay community"). DeLaria may be more than America's premiere bull dyke comic, or even more than America's premiere lesbian comic. Hell, with a possible rival being that blond flamer from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, she might be America's premiere gay comic. She's hilarious, although something about her delivery vaguely irritates me. Gretchen thought she sounded like she was all pumped up on cocaine, so maybe that was it. Anyway, she's the one who claims to have penned the joke that asks "What does a lesbian bring to a second date?" The answer is "a U-Haul."
When we got to Anna's parents' house, Anna was in the yard in her wedding dress, with a train bearer-standing behind her holding her, well, train. What made this unusual was that the train was made entirely of Christmas lights, and the thing that the train bearer was bearing was actually a large battery pack. It was typical Anna H: for her, things had to be both completely original and art at the same time. She has the Midas touch that way, turning everything around her into unusual art full of tangles and random detail.
It turned out that Gretchen and I were just a tiny bit late in our arrival. Once Anna and her assistant vanished, the wedding grounds were (aside from the caterers) completely void of people. So we went to the barn in the back, the place where the wedding was to be held. We opened the door, and inside we unexpectedly found sixty or eighty hushed, dimly-lit human souls. The ceremony had begun a minute or so before.
That barn was a spatial illusion. From the outside it looked like a smallish outbuilding, but from the inside it was like a grand Viking mead hall, complete with a massive stone fireplace. On this auspicious day it was lavishly appointed with flowers and greenery.
Presiding over the ceremony with his own brand of understated wry comicness was Johnny C, the Oberlin alum who has been at all the recent weddings. He'd gone and gotten himself a license to perform weddings in Massachusetts for the sole purpose of performing this particular marriage. As with Anna H, everything around Johnny C becomes art, but the art is just as likely to be an event as it is to be something tangible (like his current project of reissuing a 19th Century dictionary). [Insert a picture of the way he supposedly looked after running the Boston Marathon.]
Since neither the bride nor the groom were Jewish, this particular wedding carried none of the sectarian baggage of other recent weddings. It actually managed to be more secular than my own wedding (since the cantor who sang at my wedding party couldn't keep from slipping in a few references to Yaheuah). For those of us non-Jews in secular society, we may lack a few things in terms of cultural roots, but the benefit comes in the increasing number of generations removed we are from religion and all its cloying demands.
Suddenly I'm wearing the hat of wedding critic. But what else can I do? I am a critic of the walls of the tunnel of life I'm passing through. One day I'll draw on all this experience to write a book called Secular Weddings for Idiots. But in the meantime, hear me out. Where this particular ceremony seemed to founder was in its poorly-managed middle section, the part that tried to be all Quaker with its interactivity. By interactivity, I'm not talking about the rhetorical proposition sometimes advanced to the wedding crowd, "If any man can show just cause why
this union cannot be solemnized, let him speak now or forever hold his peace." No, people were asked in a non-rhetorical manner to say things about the two people being married. So people did, hesitantly at first, and then ever less-so. For a good fraction of this interactive section, the speakers only spoke about John the groom, mostly talking about what a non-conformist he was. This probably had something to do with the fact that most of the people talking during this period were people who had met John in high school. (Reflect for a moment on the folks you knew in high school. If they didn't think you were a complete lunatic, you're probably bagging groceries right now.) Eventually some speakers started talking about Anna, but by then the ceremony had gone on for entirely too long. It got to the point where I considered the people who felt the need to share their two cents jerks for keeping me from that glass of wine I'd be having the moment this ceremony concluded.
At long last, it did conclude. Johnny C resumed control with his delightful wryness, the bride and groom kissed, and then we all reconvened back in the house for wine and snacks.
The length of the preceding ceremony made the wine taste that much sweeter. For a time I hung out near the bar talking with another fellow Obie named Gawan. He was president of the Oberlin Co-operative Association during the golden age of Harkness mayhem, and in those days I was a constantly-recurring headache for him. Meeting after meeting would be held in which my name was mentioned. But it wasn't just my name. My friend A|ex Gu|dbeck was perhaps even more of a "problem" than I was. Not that Gawan was an authoritarian stick in the mud; he taught an ExCo course on anarchy. While for him anarchy was an intellectual interest, for me it was more of a visceral reaction to oppressive stuffiness, conformity, and useless tradition. I didn't think about it or talk about it, I just behaved as if there were no authorities. All these years later, though, it's all water under the bridge. Gawan and I mostly talked about the Episcopal Church in the aftermath of their decision to ordain gay priests. These days Gawan is an Episcopal Priest and is intimately familiar with the controversy. I asked him where all the Episcopalians freaked out by gay priests were fleeing. "Roman Catholicism," he answered. From our vantage-point in history, this was fascinating. I wondered what Henry VIII would have thought, having founded the Episcopal Church back in the 16th Century for purely selfish reasons. Now his Church is the liberal gay-embracing alternative to those medievalists stuck in the rut of Catholicism. I hadn't really thought about it, but Gawan insisted it was true: politically, Episcopalians are practically the same thing as Unitarians. Their church wouldn't have embraced gay ordination if their congregation wasn't already liberal.
Later I was talking to another Oberlin alum, a vaguely familiar face with a vaguely familiar name. She balanced a small child on her hip for most of our conversation. A revelation had occurred to her recently; her friends are all aging noticeably now. Gradually the supple features of immortal youth are following the well-worn path from the wacky California of childish hubris into the vast, unexciting Midwest of middle age. She said she figured this begins happening at around the age of 32. The words she used, however, were not so swollen with metaphor.
After an hour or so, we were all herded back into the barn, which had been re-outfitted with tables and tablecloths. There we enjoyed a three-course wedding meal, one that saw me growing increasingly intoxicated. I could tell Gretchen was growing concerned as I said increasingly-inappropriate things. I said them mostly as deliberate provocations, but in retrospect they seem kind of stupid and unnecessary.
At our table were a number of fun people such a Suzie the jewelry maker and Fong the furniture guy. Fong - I met him a few years back at a seder, and Gretchen talked about him a lot on the way to the wedding. Like Johnny C and Anna H, he's another fabulously creative person with a mind as sharp as an unused fœtal syringe. His creations have included homemade pens made of peppercorns, elegant birdhouses on the end of long curving wands, and a bicycle made of wood. The groovy invention he brought to today's wedding was a stereoscopic camera made of two 35mm cameras set in a wooden frame.
Later we all went outside to stand around a massive bonfire, drinking obscure 24 oz. beers whose bottles had been corked, not capped. Fong produced a bunch of fireworks, which we mostly set off by flinging them into the fire. The bonfire was in complete violation of local firecodes, and someone had to arrange with the fire marshall (who lived across the street) to look the other way. Still, Anna H's father was sort of paranoid and showed up with a hose to spray on the sparks showering down on the grass. Interestingly, though, he seemed more paranoid about the water freezing in the hose than about fire hazards. It didn't even seem particularly cold - perhaps the alcohol and the heat of the fire deluded me, but it didn't seem to be as low as the 20s.
After that, most of us went inside to drink coffee and snack on bread. At some point I went off on my own and retrieved the car from where it was parked (in front of a nearby graveyard) so Gretchen and I could get hide-a-bed mattress from the trunk and build ourselves a place to sleep in the living room. These were the first considerations of 2004.
From left: Anna H (the bride, with Christmas-light veil), John (the groom), and Johnny C (the priest).
Those heads belong to strangers.
Gretchen (left) talks with Suzie the jewelry maker.
From left: Fong, Fong's girlfriend Emily, and Suzie's boyfriend.
Under our table.
Fong with his homemade stereoscopic camera. I don't know the name of the woman on the left.
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