Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proms, Weddings, and Other Catastrophes

My cousin Durrie got married when he was in his late thirties, so he’d been to a lot of weddings by then. Late in the reception, my wife and I came up with an axiom: every wedding is, in part, a referendum on every other wedding the bride and/or groom has attended.

Specifically, Durrie had been to a number of weddings, probably mine included, where the buffet was closed well before he was ready. So, at Durrie’s wedding the buffet remained open after the cake was cut, after the dancing had begun in may still be open fifteen years later for all I know. Whatever this little statement on other people's weddings cost him in dollars, the chance to say this to all of us was worth it to him.

Once you start to see this kind of thing, you can’t miss it: weddings where the flowers on the table match the ribbons in the bridesmaids' hair, which match the color of the minister’s eyes; weddings where they give out favors like iPods, instead of those nasty little almonds; weddings where they give out candied almonds, rather than those pedestrian Hershey Kisses; weddings where the bar is: open the whole time/open only during dinner/open only before dinner/open only after dinner/only available by crashing the wedding next door—each serving as an unequivocal statement on an aspect of every wedding in existence up to that point.

This referendum factor is especially prevalent at weddings, but also noticeable at other Big Events, including proms, showers, sweet-sixteen parties, and district chorus festivals. Especially district chorus festivals--sooner or later, we're going to show up to find a swan carved from ice at one of those things, and no one will ever sign up to host again.

I’m more comfortable talking about weddings because I have much more recent memories of those than of proms, but if I recall correctly a number of these issues regarding weddings are even worse at proms. Issues begin with the:
  1. Proposal. The first step in these events is often a mini-event in itself: the proposal. Previously, this was limited to weddings, but prom date requests are apparently also getting in on the action. If there really never is a second chance to make a first impression, there really is no do-over for this special moment. Asking a person to prom, or to marry you, always had fairly high stakes, and this has only intensified now that there are huge casts, complex sub-plots, and elaborate scenery involved. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the:
  2. Tension. As with all once-in-a-lifetime events (even if they aren't always so once-in-a-lifetime), weddings come with a pretty crushing level of pressure for everyone involved. Some of this tension begins before the event itself with:
  3. Seating arrangements. In Harry Potter, they play a version of chess in which the pieces move themselves, resulting in a lot of dead pawns and broken equipment laying around the board at the end. On Star Trek they play a version of chess in three dimensions. Neither version of this game is nearly as complicated or dangerous as the prospect of arranging tables at weddings and proms. For weddings, the inevitable outcome is that someone, maybe your college roommate, has to sit with your weird Aunt Sally. At prom, you're fine as long as the number of friends you have is exactly the same as the number of seats at each table, and all of these people are properly coupled with each other. Otherwise you're screwed. You will try to recover from this conundrum with:
  4. Over-preparation. My wife informs me that she rather enjoys having formal events to prepare for, because it’s a rare treat to have your clothes, hair, skin tone, makeup, fitness level, and teeth-whitening all come together at the same time. Though, as a guy, I agree that having a clean shirt and a clean car on the same day is rather nice, the truth is I’ve rarely seen my beautiful wife content with all of the aforementioned aspects all at once. One way to achieve all of this is:
  5. Overspending. The once-in-a-lifetime-event tension, Durrie's referendum axiom, and fact that everything for weddings (and proms) costs double what it would on the normal open market combine to make the whole thing nauseatingly expensive. Riding in a limo may be very cool, but high school students, and recent college graduates for that matter, can have some real difficulty coughing up hundreds of dollars for a twenty minute car ride and some flowers to take along. I don’t know about proms, but if I remember correctly, brides are even expected to be decked out in special wedding-day knickers that cost lots more than normal fancy white underwear. This probably seems especially necessary because of:
  6. Sex. The fact that the bride and groom are more-or-less required to have sex the night of the wedding puts some bit of pressure on all of the other couples there too. The fact that prom is supposed to be a great night for losing your virginity does the same. Though teenagers seem uniquely qualified to bow to this kind of pressure, I do know one married couple who, after attending a friend's wedding, welcomed the birth of an unplanned second child, brought on by the sex pressure and:
  7. Alcohol. This year my school will have an additional expensive little accessory at prom—a breathalyzer. After all of the overspending, and before the planned- or unplanned-sex, often comes lots of alcohol. The occasional aforementioned unprotected marital sex or ill-advised dates with bartenders (another friend, and another story for another time) aside, drinking usually turns out mostly fine for adults. For teenagers, though, it's compounded by the fact that it’s illegal. This further complicates matters through the efforts undertaken to keep it secret (e.g. drinking a whole lot beforehand, since you can't drink at the event itself). It's also especially unhealthy, due to their lousy tolerance, limited experience, and bad risk-assessment skills--made worse when under the influence.
A larger, much larger, question is whether weddings and proms are good for relationships. To borrow a turn-of-phrase from my wife: I think they are, provided the person you’re going with is good for you. If getting married, going to prom, or taking a date to a wedding launches a relationship of two people who are together more than the sum of their parts, then it does. If this incentive for coupling is an end unto itself, probably not.

I must confess that for the proms I went to, I was just as likely to be a bad date as to have chosen a bad date. I never took a date to a wedding, except for my wife, so while I have a better track record there, my experience is very limited.

A problem, or advantage—depending on your point of view—with both proms and weddings is that they are sign posts in your life’s journey. One observation: proms make students believe that the year is pretty much over, which is a significant problem if the only date the country club has available is in late April. More generally though, if you’ve made it to prom with your virginity intact, you’re likely to take notice. If you attend a friend’s wedding and you’re not yourself engaged, you’re likely to take notice--especially if the happy couple has been together for a shorter period of time than you and your not-yet-betrothed. If you are married when you attend a wedding, you may take notice of all of your contemporaries who have already had children.

Whether the identification of these things presents a problem or not probably provides a good barometer of how you feel about where you’ve ended up in life. Couples who are just friends often have a better time at prom than those who are in a serious relationship, provided that both sides of the couple are on board with the idea of remaining just friends. Similarly, watching your best friend marry a complete tool may make you feel better about your place as an unattached single.

Enjoying these events can so often come down to putting things into perspective. My once-in-a-lifetime prom experience actually happened four times in high school, and was repeated half-a-dozen more times through college formals, chaperoning, and other people's weddings. If you're not actually getting a marriage certificate out of the whole thing, maybe thinking of it as a nice dinner and a nice out with friends is better than bowing to the pressures and inflated expectations of Big Events.

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