Editor’s Note: It’s nearly summer and with its arrival comes wedding season, when a new flock of brides and grooms head down the aisle hoping that love will conquer all. In five days, our commentator Michael Jonathan Grinfeld will perform the timeworn duties of a father of the bride for the first time. He’s going to share that experience in a series of columns, promising with as much insight and humor as he can muster to help those Columbia residents who may be about to experience the same challenge. If you’ve got your own ideas and suggestions, he says he’d love to hear them. “They may not help, but they couldn’t hurt.”
The gate agent takes my coveted “A” boarding pass, and I’m able to choose an aisle seat on a jet plane to New York City. Sitting here, waiting for the unfortunates with “Bs” and “Cs” who are now struggling to find space, I begin to take stock of my life, listing the things I’ve done that have made me mostly unflappable.
I have held the hand of a dying woman I did not know; convinced a suicidal man to give me the pills with which he intended to kill himself; fished for piranha in the Peruvian Amazon; defended against a hostile corporate takeover with billions of dollars in play; reported from war zones where people believe killing is an obvious way to get what they want; and on and on. So, if I’m so brave, why am I cowering here, now 35,000 feet above the ground, because on Sunday my daughter will get married and I will play the role of father of the bride for the first time?
I’ve learned over the past year that weddings are complicated for a lot of different reasons. The melding of families generates a complex array of emotions that are impossible to control and difficult to manage. Innocuous comments escalate and a host of conflicts must be negotiated and resolved.
It’s not that I’m alone in noticing this. The people with whom I’ve shared my observations smile knowingly when I tell them about my travails and how anxious I am that I could really mess things up. I give myself pep talks and devise mantras to buttress my resolve. My latest: The goal is to get through this without having to apologize to anyone.
My daughter Julie will marry David at the Boathouse in Central Park in an elaborate ceremony that will include 14 attendants, a maid of honor (her identical twin sister) and her mom and dad who will escort her down the aisle into what we hope will be long-term matrimonial bliss. She has already upended the venue’s sense of decorum by insisting that the wedding cake be served before the luncheon in order to make certain no one misses the slicing ritual. Julie, from the moment of her birth, marched to the beat of the drummer that different drummers march to.
It’s important to me that I not behave like a male chauvinist, but I recognize that sometimes my sensitivities aren’t sufficiently honed. So I’m fortunate to have women friends in my life who allow me to test whether I’m behaving like a boor, and they’ve assured me that wedding planning is without question transformative, a phenomenon capable of turning otherwise level-headed, liberated females into a coven of obsessed strategists.
The men, meanwhile, are shoved to the margins — in essence treated the way women often are in other aspects of life. During the last year, I’ve learned obeisance by consistently and reliably deferring to the will of Julie and her mother and avoidance by staying aloof from their head butting over arcane details that seemed to matter a great deal to them but were meaningless to me.
I think this is what fathers of the bride are supposed to do. One of the women I know confirmed I was on the right track, smiling and nodding as I expressed my reservations about getting too involved in all the decision making.
It’s that uncertainty that is driving my anxiety, the sense that my performance must match perfection lest any misstep indelibly tarnish Julie’s memory of her special day, the one she spent more than a year conjuring. Despite having tried lawsuits, interviewed terrorists, spoken to hundreds in vast auditoriums and stepped into classrooms full of cynical students, I’ve never banished the self-perception that I am socially inept. But in those situations, all that’s at stake is me. In this marital minuet, there are all these other people I’m expected to host with a James Bond-level of grace and charm, and that makes me feel both shaken and stirred.
The plane is now descending, the lights of a giant city growing larger and brighter as we get closer. I have a tendency to overthink things, to ponder and agonize over them until some meaning emerges that has a proper level of profundity. Gravity is important to me. But for now, I’m going to go along just to get along. The only thing to fear, it seems to me, is fear itself, and that’s more than enough.
Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.