Fool’s Paradise


Copyright 1995 by Kathy Biehl. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for electronic replication of this article only if you include the copyright notice.

Excerpted from "A coupla days in the Life," Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology, Too Darn Hot '95, Vol. VIII, No. 2.

April 1. Leave town for a change of scenery and a wedding. The destination is a meadow outside Austin. It's home to a co-op of mystic Catholics (one of whom is the bride, and most of whom have built houses on the land), a horse, some cows, and a pair of free-range llamas that will remain visible during the entire proceedings. The two-footed witness contingent is heavily weighted towards the traditional music communities of Houston and Austin, altogether too many people who know far too much about each other. Both of Houston's squads (more correctly, "sides") of Morris Dancers* are present in full regalia. I propose setting up a betting pool on how many of the groom's exes will show up. Everyone laughs and looks about cautiously. Unfortunately, no one ponies up. John-the-Not-so-Terminally-Weird & I are sure at least three will surface, and exactly that many do.

* Devotees of British fertility dances that involve wearing white clothing, colored ribbons across the chest, straw hats festooned with flowers (for each virgin plucked) and jingle bells strapped to the calves, and leaping about waving white handkerchiefs or wielding large, long sticks. The term "Fool" applies, at least technically, to only one position, usually designating the side's best dancer. Traditionalists restrict this frolicsome activity to men (women, so I'm told, have their own flavor of fertile footwork), while progressives allow the genders to share this pasttime. The Men of Houston embrace the first approach; Shambles takes the latter.

We sit in folding chairs arranged in concentric circles atop a gently sloping hill. The groom joins Shambles in a rousing stick dance, then disappears behind a cluster of trees while his colleagues engage in a song and dance about what fools he and his bride are being. When he emerges, Shambles and the Men of Houston form an archway with their sticks for his procession. He has overlaid his dress whites with a purple paisley ankle-length toga; a wreath has appeared on his head. He moves to ground zero and sings "The Lord of the Dance," including the verse containing the line "and they laid me on the cross," as his bride approaches, accompanied by her three prepubescent children. She is wearing a wreath and a long gown made of the same purple paisley material.

The minister praises the singing and dancing and asks for the vows. The groom sighs audibly, repeatedly. The woman in front of me, who has sung in a band with me and the groom, gets up and moves out of eye and earshot, for which I will thank her profusely at the end of the ceremony. "As sure as my name is {x}, I choose you, {y}, to be my life partner," he begins. Her version is much the same, minus the stage sighs, only her laundry list of what she chooses him as kicks off with "sweetheart." The exchanging ring vows are more fervent, comparing the intertwining of the rings' metals with that of their souls, so different and yet unified in a common purpose.

A cow moos. "Editorial comment," says the Men of Houston's Fool.

After the groom makes vows and hands a token confirming the same to each of the children, the minister proclaims them husband and wife "by the authority granted me by...the entire universe!" The family holds hands and sings "The Lobster Quadrille," which sets Lewis Carroll's verses to a traditional British melody. I fix my gaze on the oldest child, a nine-year-old boy, and wonder how long it will take for him to realize how far outside the norm, even for outside the norm, this ceremony has flown. The family ambles out of the circle; the Morris Dancers, hankies waving, jump into the fray; the guests stand up and disperse. I thank the woman who moved out of my line of sight. "We were very well-behaved," I say. "We were very well- behaved," she says. We repeat the sentence as the entirety of our commentary on the ceremony, to all who ask.

The reception is at a dance hall on private land inside a state park, a location as out of the way and hard to reach as the wedding site. On the way, swift braking reflexes narrowly prevent John's and my becoming one with the bumper and trunk of preceding car when an enormous flock of low-flying geese spellbind driver and passenger. Inside the hall, someone has hung a posterboard with the schedule of activities written in Magic Marker. The list begins "The Sorting of the Line," appended by a couple of names, one of which is disconcertingly familiar from law school days, and ends "The Presentation of the Strawberries,"* in between are sets of songs for contradancing and singing.

* a baffler to this veteran wedding guest, for whom the mystery remains, due to the evening careening dramatically behind schedule before Morpheus issues a call that demands obedience

Outside, under the pines, the contradancers and singers reveal a basic dissonance in life philosophy immediately after dinner. The first faction and those friendly to it cooperate when a man* and a woman bark out instructions to form two lines, then rearrange themselves according to a series of seemingly irrelevant criteria, such as birthdays and number of years married. The rest of us move out of earshot, behind the building, to nurture emerging bad attitudes and sing British folk songs in multi-part harmony.

* who turns out to be exactly the person I'd suspected, a lawyer who'd stayed on, after graduation, as a resident in the University of Texas' German Haus co-op, which he showed me around when I briefly (a length of time that expired before the end of my tour) considered moving in -- I recall we sat on the roof at one point during his pitch -- and who stands out in my memory as the folkdancer who set himself apart most dramatically from the legions of guys who dated my friend Nancy by wrapping a dinner salad in a large lettuce leaf and eating it like a taco

The lines, once properly sorted in every unimaginable way, file back into the hall and leave us to our grumbling, but not before someone recommends bombing the building to prevent the menace of contradancing. When the songs turn to religious and the smokers too incessantly to their cigarettes, I decide to form my own judgment about the activity indoors. Contradancing is a line-dance cousin to square dancing, but far more prolonged and complicated than anything grade school phys. ed. classes ever put me through.* Making it through one dance leaves me questioning the deservability of its reputation as reprehensible, but also disinclined to pursue further research, at least at the moment. John voices the desire to ask the groom to be his partner for the next dance. When he later confesses this to the bride, she says he should have. Instead, he kisses the groom on the lips. The dancing switches to two-stepping and waltzing. The bride takes a seat on the sidelines and breast-feeds her two-year-old daughter.

* which introduced third-graders to such noble themes as "Mademoiselle from Parmentiers (inky dinky parlez-vous)" and, my favorite even at such a tender age, "Pistol Packin' Mama"

During my only unchaperoned conversation with her, I grapple for a topic guaranteed not to offend. The weather! How lucky they are that the skies have been so clear and blue and the temperature so lovely. "Yes," she gushes, "It's a love vortex."

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