Friday
Aug222014

The Big Book of What She Really Thinks

I have loved Roz Chast’s cartoons since one of my college friends introduced me back in the 1980s to Chast’s quietly twisted portrayals of ordinary neuroses and domestic absurdities. Chast specializes in boring people, living room couches, potted plants—yet somehow she cuts life on the bias and makes thought-provoking curlicues out of the clippings. A typical cartoon: a glum-looking guy standing in a room, with the caption: “Never the experiment. Always the control.” Or a series of frames under the heading “Lifetime Achievement Awards,” containing figures with captions like “Recognized for never missing a 6-month dental checkup since 1948.”  

Chast has established a long and successful career on the foundation of the standalone cartoon format—a remarkable achievement. Publishing her cartoons mainly in The New Yorker since 1978, her odometer for that publication alone reads over 1200 cartoons. All those years spent reducing—as she might put it—“human fads and foibles” down to their cartoonish essence prepared her perhaps better than most prose authors for that most difficult of challenges: the memoir.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a graphic memoir about a topic highly resistant to humor: the decline and death of elderly parents. Chast details the last difficult chapters of her parents’ lives, a period during which she had to grapple not only with the bewildering challenges of elder care but also with a deep love for her parents streaked to the core with exasperation and hurt. Her story reads at once as entirely particular and startlingly universal.

The main narrative begins in 2001, when her parents are already 89 years old and can no longer make the trip to visit Chast and her family in Connecticut. So the daughter returns for the first time in over a decade to her parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, the same apartment where she grew up and which she hated even as a child. We follow in detail the parents’ decline in their home, Chast’s difficulties moving them to assisted living, and their last illnesses and deaths.

I flew through this book, not only because one can read pretty fast with all those pictures, or because I have reached the daughter-caregiver stage myself and thus can “relate,” but mostly because I was amazed anew at the deeply affecting power of the graphic narrative medium: to convey character concisely, to arrange materials effectively, and to modulate tone.

Chast spares nothing in her truthful depiction of her parents, both born in 1912 to Russian immigrants whose cups of suffering overflowed. Her father taught high school French and Spanish and her mother was an elementary school assistant principal, and both displayed the typical frugality and hoarding instincts of their generation. With just a few panels, some characteristic phrases, and several page-long episodes (as when Chast unearths a disgusting, forty-year-old oven mitt, and Mom comments: “Why waste your money? That one still works.”), we are quickly immersed in this world and we know these people. Dad, with his food neuroses, chronic anxiety, and gentle demeanor. Mom, who bosses everyone around, is always right, and, when crossed, delivers a “blast from Chast!” These two entirely dependent on each other: “Codependent? Of course we’re codependent!” “Thank God!”

As Chast portrays situations that anyone with older parents can recognize—a fall that leads to hospitalization, arguments over moving out of the home, agonizing decisions about facilities—she deftly interweaves the main narrative events with other material, timing the interludes to create emotional contour. We learn early on about her grandparents’ stories, for example, but Chast saves the bitterest truths about her own childhood until much later in the book. We only read about a series of terrible nannies and the depth of Chast’s childhood fear of her mother once her father has died and Chast is left to work through her anger and hurt as her mother’s life ebbs away.

During this sequence, as she recalls how she learned to cope with her mother’s dominating personality and angry outbursts, Chast draws a picture of herself as a child: “I learned to keep my head down…” the caption reads. In the next frame, the caption continues: “…and my thoughts to myself.” Beneath is a drawing of a book called “The Big Book of What I Really Think.” Behold the birth of the writer.   

That Chast was able, all these years, to keep hold of what she really thinks is exactly what readers appreciate—because she’s able to say what we’re thinking, too. Most bracingly affecting to me in this memoir are Chast’s frank portrayals of her own inner turmoils. Early on, she depicts herself in total denial, cheerfully imagining that her parents would die in their sleep and she’d “never have to deal.” Much later, she admits that her beloved father, brought to stay at her house while her mother was in the hospital, drove her to the limit with his “chatterbox” tendencies, a result of his senile dementia. In several places, Chast puts real numbers on elder care costs, laments how her parents’ lifetime “scrimpings” are gushing away in “a Niagara Falls of expense at the end,” confesses to thinking about how this will mean less money left to her—and then hates herself for thinking that.

After a hospital stay, when Chast has at last reunited her parents back at their apartment, she inserts a self-depiction in which her own crazed face is surrounded by thought bubbles linked with arrows in a circle—to depict how she was going round and round with guilt and self-justification for leaving them alone and returning to her own family. No prose account could depict the hopeless guilt and desperate self-preservation of a caregiving daughter as simply and immediately as this cartoon.Another in the "Am I a bad daughter" series.

This all sounds very grim, but in fact the book is often funny, sometimes hilarious, as Chast uses cartoon techniques to zip momentarily into absurdity or to follow a silly scenario to its end. Neatly summing up her parents’ hypochondria and paranoia, for example, is a single page entitled “The Wheel of Doom.” At the center are hazardous activities, such as sitting too close to the TV, and these are surrounded by a wheel of dire results, such as gangrene or choking, which are then surrounded by doom-ridden ends, mostly death, all surrounded by microtales of woe: “A lump, then dead.”

Chast manages to be use humor frequently while neither trivializing anyone’s pain nor lapsing into dark brooding. Instead, she masterfully deploys all her expressive tools to create the fitting tone for the moment. I felt a familiar sinking feeling when I turned the page to the chapter entitled “The Old Apartment” and realized that we had reached the point where Chast would—shudder—have to clean out the apartment where her parents had lived for forty-eight years. After a few pages of narrative with drawings, Chast switches to actual photos of junk-filled rooms and puzzling ancient artifacts. One photo is captioned “Why was there a drawer of jar lids?” Anyone who has been in Chast’s position will nod with recognition.

Chast handles the most difficult moments in this story with a lovely gentleness. She follows the moment of her father’s death with a page containing only a sweet photograph of herself as a child with him. The following two pages contain no drawings at all, only her characteristic hand lettering as she describes the next harrowing twenty-four hours with her just-widowed mother. The final pages of the book contain a dozen simple crosshatch drawings of her mother in her last hours, Chast’s familiar cartoon style set aside for the sake of a more somber artistic study.

Good memoirs should be honest, revealing, and full of engaging particulars. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant fully delivers, but gains even greater power from Chast’s signature cartoon style, skillfully adapted to tell this story. Readers who love Chast’s eye for the absurd and her preoccupation with anxieties will find that meeting her parents in these pages explains a great deal. We get a detailed portrait of crazy, but an equally compelling story of love. Perhaps that’s what her fans have adored about Chast all along: beneath the wit and wackiness there has always been, at heart, a clear-eyed understanding of human weakness, met with an abiding compassion.

 

Saturday
Aug092014

The American Road Trip: A Retrospective*

*Any resemblances to real persons or events, past or present, are strictly coincidental.

Circa 1978

She: Honey, I think we were supposed to take that exit.

He: Are you sure?

She: Well, I’m looking at the atlas here and … boy, this is right on the edge of this page … here, I’ll look at the detail map on the next page.

He: Let me see that!

She: You drive! I’m navigating!

He: Are you sure you’re reading that right?

She: Gives him a dirty look. I’m telling you, it’s exit 174. Stabs atlas with finger. I can see it right here.

2014

She: Which exit am I supposed to take?

He: Look at my phone mounted on the dash. It shows you. Just follow the arrows.

She: I can’t see your phone. It’s too small and there’s a glare.

He: Here, I’ll set up my tablet instead. Several minutes pass. Oh shoot. My tablet is out of power. Let me find my charge cable. Rummages through large tote bag containing a tangled knot of chargers, cables, plugs, devices of all sorts. OK, here it is. Flurry of plugging and unplugging.

She: So which exit am I supposed to take?

He: Just a minute! Minutes tick by. OK, well, Google maps has us using a different route from Apple maps. Pinches the image in. Agh! Too small! Stop that, you dumb thing! Pinches the image out again. OK, let’s see… Well, I think we should take exit 174.

She: Yeah, that was miles ago.

* * * 

Circa 1978

Dad: All right, I’ve been around the dial three times now. There is nothing on the radio out here in the boonies.

Mom: Let’s sing!

Small kid: Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-nine bottles of beeeeeer!

Teenager: Shut up, dork!

Mom: Or we could play a game! How about the alphabet game? Or twenty questions?

Big kid: Look, it’s a “Watch for ice on bridge” sign! ABCEFGHI! Ha ha!

Small kid: No fair!

Big kid: Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…

2014

Dad: All right! We’re on the highway now. What would we like to listen to together? I’ve got 27 audio books, 314 music playlists, and 67 podcasts on my phone. Or I could project YouTube videos on the car ceiling if I can rig up my laptop with the projector ap on the tablet, and then I could get audio by…, let’s see, …

Mom: (Driving.) Honey. Just stop. Kids, what would you like to listen to?

Kids: Barely perceptible twips and chutters of earbud noise, as each kid zones out in a private world created by a separate headphone/ipod set.

***

Circa 1978

She: I’m hungry. Is it time for lunch yet? Where shall we go?

He: Say, there’s a billboard advertising a truck stop with Marge’s Diner. Shall we take a chance and stop there?

She: Well, it’s hard to say when we’ll come across another restaurant on this lonely stretch. We had better do it.

2014

She: I’m hungry. Is it time for lunch yet? Where shall we go?

He: Let’s see. Tappita tappita tappita. Ok, Google maps says that in thirty miles there’s an exit with fifteen restaurants, including a Denny’s, an Applebee’s, a Noodles, and here’s an Italian restaurant.

She: Italian! That sounds good.

He: I’ll just look it up on TripAdvisor. Tappita tappita. Scroll scroll scroll. Yeah, no, never mind.

She: Where’s the nearest Chinese place?

He: Tappita tappita. Looks like forty-five miles, just off the interstate. Scroll scroll scroll. Gets good reviews, too. And they have free wireless!

She: Let’s do it.

***

Circa 1978

Parked on an exit ramp, Dad is peering under the hood, looking determined.

Dad: I think it’s the carburetor.

Mom: Are you sure? Shouldn’t we call Triple AAA?

Dad: Of course not! I can do this! Son, I think there’s a socket wrench in the trunk. Go get it and then crawl under the car with me to watch what I’m doing. Every man has to know how to fix a car!

2014

Parked on an exit ramp, Dad is peering under the hood while teen stands there with a tablet.

Dad: So what does the KIA website say?

Teenager: I went through FAQs, and that took me to the diagnostic page, which says we need part #24015-15A. And it has a link to the nearest place where we can get one.

Later, in the parking lot of the ginormous auto parts store in big-box world off the interstate.

Teenager: OK, I’ve got the instructional YouTube video up.

Dad: You sure that’s the one for replacing a running light on the 2011 Kia? That doesn’t look right.

Teenager: Oh yeah, that’s the 2010. Sorry. Hang on. Tap tap tap. Here you go.

Dad: That’s better. OK, hold it up so I can see.

***

Circa 1978

Kid: For the twentieth time. Are we there yet?

Parents: No!

2014

Parents: Sweetie! We’re here! Time to get out of the car!

Kid: Are we there already? I’ve still got twenty minutes left in this episode! I’ll just stay in the car and finish.

***

Circa 1978

Some place far from home in a distant state, at the end of many many miles of highway, the travelers at last arrive.

Travelers: We’re here!

Dear friends or family: Welcome! We’re so glad you’ve come!

2014

Some place far from home in a distant state, at the end of many many miles of highway, the travelers at last arrive.

Travelers: We’re here!

Dear friends or family: Welcome! We’re so glad you’ve come!

Thankfully, some things stay the same…

Friday
Jul252014

Civilization

Last night I sat on the steps of the United States Capitol and enjoyed my tax dollars at work in the form of the U. S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” It turns out that this elite army band is actually a collection of nine ensembles, including string players and vocalists, who combine in a variety of ways to perform thousands of concerts a year. Last night, as part of their free outdoor concert series on the National Mall, a small orchestra and some mighty fine singers performed a lively, one-hour program of favorite orchestral overtures and opera arias. For free! Opera! In uniform!

They sounded great—so if you are also a U.S. tax payer, be assured that a portion of the money that funds our military actually supports the arts. Before the concert, the conductor and two of the musicians—all of them charming and charismatic—gave a friendly talk on their role in the army, carefully explaining that they are one-hundred-percent professional musicians but also real-live soldiers, having earned advanced degrees in music, and then, after joining up, survived basic training and learned their way around an M-16 rifle. No kidding. The conductor referred to their concert performance as a “mission.”

My visit to the Capitol came after a week spent at the Center for Hellenic Studies, an elegant little enclave in a wooded glen just off Embassy Row. I have been studying Homer’s Odyssey with a group of twenty professors from small colleges and two expert classical scholars. At our meals together, talk among the professors often lingers on the topic of the humanities, and how our various institutions are attempting to preserve and revitalize them. How do we justify—to our students, their parents, and our administrators—spending time and resources to study the past, to read novels, to ponder philosophical quandaries? Here we are, spending an entire week studying in depth one long, old poem—a great and fascinating one, but can we even explain why?

This program—which I’ve been calling “Homer Camp”—is funded by the Mellon Foundation through the Council of Independent Colleges. I’ve been thinking this week about the enormous resources required to support this beautiful center and its project of making classical texts, along with endless volumes of scholarship and research tools, freely available to the public. I’ve been thinking about the years of dedication required to master any field of study, and the hours we put into teaching young people, and the years of their lives they spend in college.

It requires enormous resources to support things that are extremely valuable but whose value is difficult—actually impossible—to quantify. Yet unquantifiable goods are perhaps the most distinctive markers of the beautiful civilization. Or at least it seems so after a week in which my "mission" was to study epic poetry, and after a warm summer night, sitting on the steps of a magnificent neo-classical building alongside a diverse gathering of people, listening to an army sergeant sing an aria.

Friday
Jul112014

Deep Practice

Through random book serendipity, I came across the 2009 book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and I’ve been reading about “talent hotbeds.” Coyle wanted to know why a certain Russian tennis academy produces a slew of champions, or the Dominican Republic a steady stream of baseball pros, or 1590s Elizabethan England an outpouring of great poets. He discovered that the answer is neither genetic mutations, nor climate, nor—I know this will come as a disappointment—aliens. The answer is practice.

Naturally, we are talking about a certain kind of practice in certain kinds of circumstances. The book is a pleasantly breathless study of what creates motivation, what constitutes great coaching or teaching, and how we learn complex skills most efficiently. If you can put together the right elements, you might just set off a bloom of talent. I found this book intriguing as a teacher, a musician, and an occasionally nagging parent (“Practice your horn!”)—and I’m sure that athletes, too, would find it useful and even inspiring.

What interested me most, though, was the idea of “deep practice” at the heart of the book. Efficient learning, the kind that results in exceptional talent, requires not just any practice, but deep practice. This is a focused, exacting form of skill-building, a kind of fierce meditation in action. Anyone can do it; you just have to learn how and then keep it up.

The reason deep practice is so effective, Coyle explains, is myelin. Myelin is a sheathing that your brain uses to coat and secure a neural pathway when you repeat a skill. The more you repeat something, the more myelin your brain creates and the greater “bandwidth” you develop for that skill. When you practice well, you build myelin quickly, and you retain and improve the skill you’re working on. So don’t practice something wrong! Then you’re just building myelin for the wrong pathway!

As Coyle breaks down deep practice into its constituent parts (yes, of course this has all been studied scientifically!), he describes these steps: 

Pick a target.

Reach for it.

Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.

Return to step one. (92)

That third step implies that a necessary part of deep practice is making errors, lots of them, but always noting and correcting those errors immediately—that’s what takes enormous patience and concentration. Coyle observes, then, that failure is indispensible to the path forward, but only if responded to with focused attention.

That brings me to another book I’m reading, also through the workings of book serendipity: Richard Rohr’s 2011 Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr is a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. In this book, he draws upon his decades of experience with spiritual direction in various cultures and contexts, as well as his scholarly, cross-cultural study of spiritual development.

He proposes that human spiritual development seems to be divided roughly into two halves. In the first half of life, we are building an identity, learning the rules, being formed by structures. He calls it “creating a container.” The container is important and necessary, and healthy religious institutions help us build it. But in the second half of life, our mature purpose is to experience a deeper transformation—to put into that container the mystery of God. We don’t discard the container; instead, we “transcend and include” it.

However, it is quite common to get stuck in that first stage, so that life remains about the container and we spend our energy protecting and defending the forms rather than the mystery:   

Early-stage religion is largely preparing you for the immense gift of this burning, this inner experience of God, as though creating a proper stable into which the Christ can be born. Unfortunately, most people get so preoccupied with their stable, and whether their stable is better than your stable, or whether their stable is the only ‘one, holy, catholic, apostolic’ stable, that they never get to the birth of God in the soul. (13)

So how might we move from the first stage to the second stage? Failure. “Necessary suffering,” as Rohr terms it. No one is happy about this, but it seems to be the way of things.

No use trying to approach this second-half task as a project, either, trying to engineer your own spiritual advancement. The shift has to happen to you—and it will, says Rohr. You will “fall.” “Spiritually speaking,” Rohr writes, “you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources” (65). That’s when God can get down to the real work of transformation: when the ego you’ve built finally gets out of the way. When you have no choice but to trust.

So it turns out that not only while practicing the clarinet, but also in the deepest spiritual realms, failure is indispensible to the path forward—but only if responded to with focused attention.

As I read Rohr’s book together with The Talent Code, I’m pondering the possible connections. For example, I wonder about this idea of “deep practice.” Could what Coyle has discovered about learning tennis and violin somehow be applied to the faith life? Could it be that as we engage in worship and prayer, community and service, study and rest, we are building a kind of spiritual myelin?

Perhaps this is what we mean by spiritual formation. Reading these two books together has made me deeply grateful all over again for my own religious upbringing and for a life rich with worship and other faith practices, shared in community. I have built a lot of myelin—or a strong container—and I’m glad! I’m also grateful for the current work in faith formation happening in Reformed denominations. We’re doing the right thing, clearly: trying to work on the habits with focused attention so as to strengthen the right pathways.

But here’s a question: I wonder if we are building into our spiritual practices a way to prepare for second-stage faith. How can we emphasize that the forms and rules—the do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs—are not for their own sake, but so that we might become friends of God? And, while we talk about sin plenty, how can we take seriously the idea that failures and wounds in life are an inevitable and necessary aspect of deep spiritual transformation? What practices would help us build myelin so that we are prepared, when we find ourselves falling, to “fall upward” and receive “the gift of this burning”?

 

Friday
Jun272014

Pious Petunia Braves the Wedding Season

Today, guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia offers hard-earned wisdom for brides, grooms, friends, and other victims of the summer wedding frenzy.

Dear Miss Petunia: My girlfriend and I have talked about getting married, and I’m ready to propose to her. But I don’t know how to do it! Her friend’s husband proposed by organizing a flash mob which performed a dance number to her favorite song, and then he parachuted in with the ring attached to the collar of an adorable Pomeranian puppy. How am I supposed to compete with that?

PP: Oh dear. I don’t think you can compete with that, nor should you. As much as Miss P enjoys spectacular dance numbers and Pomeranians, she also believes that a marriage proposal is a private moment. It is not a performance you stage for YouTube viewers. All due credit to those proposers who wish to move beyond the old stand-by plan of a restaurant dinner with the ring presented before dessert—but honestly. There’s no need for a marching band.

“Surprise” is simply not a wise policy when it comes to proposals. After all, you want freely given, full-hearted assent. You do not want a flustered “yes” delivered under compulsion because forty relatives and friends are waiting, perhaps panting for breath after their exertions, or because twenty thousand baseball fans are roaring for the ritual smooch on the jumbotron screen.

You have already taken the essential step of discussing marriage seriously with your beloved before making any official, ring-enhanced overtures. Good for you. Now go ahead and give your magic moment a little thought and planning, and do something meaningful to you both. But for goodness’ sake, allow you and your beloved the dignity of rejoicing in this moment privately. If by some chance she has a few lingering worries or doubts, you can discuss them quietly and—one hopes—lay them gently to rest before dealing with excitable friends and relatives.

Once you are both aglow with happiness, if you want to announce the good news to your friends with a musical-fountain/tap-dance number, well then, knock yourselves out.   

Dear Miss Petunia: As a pastor, I do about a dozen weddings per year. You would not believe what even good, church-going people ask for at their wedding ceremonies. How can I find a way to tell them no without driving them away from the church?

PP: Oh, Miss P has been around the block a time or two. I doubt you could shock me with the kinds of requests you receive from families suffering from wedding-induced delusions.

For instance, here are some violations I’ve witnessed at Christian weddings merely in the category of “meditations gone very wrong”:

  • A meditation based on a poem by Khalil Gibran rather than the Scriptures. Gibran is all very well, but ought to be confined to the reception or the rehearsal dinner. If the couple wants something hip for a wedding text, use Song of Songs and allegorize like mad.
  • A five-minute meditation consisting of cute jokes and cliché advice, evidently kept short in order to save room in the twenty-minute “service” for cousin Tiffany to warble Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” with recorded accompaniment.
  • A sermon on the virtues of abstinence, delivered by the bride’s pastor-father, making pointed reference to the sexual experience (i.e., lack thereof) of the bridal couple. More than we need to know, even if, as was suggested, there are teenagers among the guests who need to be “inspired.”

The point is, people have wacky ideas about weddings, and this can easily lead to pastoral malpractice. I do sympathize with your delicate role in this situation. Even faithful families can sometimes regard the pastor as a sort of character actor, hired to play a role according to their script. But please remember that you are the professional here and they are not. It’s your job to safeguard the guests—captive and helpless—against the idiosyncrasies of the dazzled couple and their frazzled families.

So draw your line in the sand. If the family gets huffy and threatens to leave the church, calmly remind them of the $1200 fee charged to nonmembers for use of the church facility. Tell them you take VISA.

Dear Miss Petunia: My daughter is getting married and, frankly, my wife and I are worried about the expense. I’ve been hearing about “potluck weddings.” Is this too tacky, or could I suggest it?

PP: Charming of you to imagine that the father of the bride would be allowed to suggest anything, but we’ll let that pass for now. Since potlucks are practically a sacrament in some churches, I wouldn’t rule it out. For a small, modest wedding in the right community, it could be great fun and charmingly old-fashioned. Remember the days when wedding receptions meant punch and cake in the church basement served by a bevy of skilled church ladies? One can be allowed some nostalgia for those days, especially if one is in charge of underwriting a modern wedding.

I suppose the potluck reception could be considered a way of honoring simpler times, a countercultural, hipster-oriented salvo against the consumerist extremes and class aspirations of some weddings. On the other hand, one must examine one’s motivations: are you just being cheap?  

The rule, as always, is what would be most gracious to your guests, and this all depends on the customs of your tribe. If your family is full of eager cooks who live nearby and would rather whip up a lasagna than mail-order from a gift registry, then perhaps this is a way to go. If your guests are flying in from out of town, can’t tell a casserole from a jello salad, and expect a choice of filet mignon or salmon, then perhaps you are engaged in wishful thinking.  

Dear Miss Petunia: I have been a bridesmaid for several friends now, and in every case it was an awful experience for me. My dear friends turned into petulant, bossy, unreasonably demanding divas. I put up with it because I love them, but now I’m getting married and I’m worried. How can I avoid becoming a bridezilla?

PP: Well, my dear, congratulations on your upcoming nuptials as well as on your quest for preventive medicine.

Bridal narcissism is a common malady, highly contagious. The wedding industry tells brides that this is the one day in their lives when they can spend obscene fortunes, get their way on every point, and dress like a princess. This is what six-year-old girls generally long for, so no wonder some women revert to pouting and tantrums in the run-up to the wedding: they are finally indulging impulses they have been forced to repress in the name of civilization since early elementary school.  

Unfortunately, the only antidote to this is a metaphorical slap in the face and a stern word: It’s NOT all about you, honey. Sorry, but no.

A wedding is the uniting of two people (remember the beloved?) and—this is the tougher part—two families. Meanwhile, the guests are present not as extras on the set of the extravaganza you’re directing, nor as judges for your entry in the wedding competition sweepstakes, nor as the suppliers of home goods in exchange for a meal. They are guests; you are the hosts. If you want to get theological about it, they are there to represent the body of Christ that enfolds your marriage, and—I speak from experience here—you need them. So think of their needs and treat them graciously.

Thus, my primary word of advice is this: Remember that this may be your Very Special Day, but for all but your innermost circle, it’s kind of a nuisance. Your guests have to clear their calendar, arrange travel, figure out what to wear, get you a gift, and spend hours acting polite and charming. In short, they are doing you a big favor by going along with your Very Special Day. They sincerely want to wish you well, but at the same time, they would like to be home mowing their lawn or watching the game. Instead they are patiently waiting for their chicken breast, hoping to manage a quick, personal word with you and enjoy some decent cake before 10 p.m.

By the way, Miss P’s hair stylist assures her that mothers-of-the-bride are far worse than brides, for reasons that might be pondered philosophically from shampoo to blow-dry.

Here are a few ideas for avoiding the currently most prevalent bridezilla symptoms:

  • Avoid Pinterest obsession. Miss P has heard about young women who have been pinning wedding ideas to Pinterest for years, long before there was any POI (person of interest) in their lives who might serve as an excuse to wear a white, beaded dress. These young women have accumulated hundreds of clever ideas for everything from table centerpieces to bridal headpieces, all of them crafty and labor intensive. When the day finally comes to plan an actual wedding, no one else’s stake in the occasion matters, because who can compete with the bride’s years of research and expertise with tulle?
  • Avoid labor-intensive crafts. It seems that brides experience an excess of nervous energy in the weeks before the big day, resulting in hare-brained ideas that require hundreds of hours of intricate labor (See Pinterest, above). When the bride inevitably collapses in nervous exhaustion three days before the wedding, this leaves various set-upon family members and attendants to finish the project at hand: hand-tied bows on wedding programs, table favors of tiny jars of jam made from hand-picked strawberries, hundreds of foil stars dangling from the dance floor ceiling, etc. No one cares about these things. They are neurotic coping mechanisms. Just let them go.
  • Avoid guest “down time.” Please do not leave your guests stranded for hours between ceremony and reception while you take pictures on a quaint bridge across town. Do not give them a “things to do” sheet with map, send them back to their hotel, or—worst of all—send them to the reception hall with an open bar and no appetizers. Arrange the day so that your guests can move briskly from ceremony to reception, feed them a nice meal with due promptness, and then send them back home to mow their lawns or watch the game. If you and the wedding party and some close friends want to party all day and night, by all means go ahead, but do so after giving Aunt June and cousin Phil the opportunity for a graceful exit. 

Finally: Say no to as many ridiculous frills and overly eager wedding-related vendors as you can bear. Simple can be beautiful, and a joyful spirit is far more important than coordinated table accents. However, if you hire live musicians—and of course you should—pay them well and thank them heartily.