Lounging cheetah with distant rhinos

When J and I decided to have our wedding ceremony and reception at the San Diego Wild Animal Park (recently renamed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park), we figured the venue would provide a fun, informal, one-of-a-kind experience for our guests. As it turns out, we were exactly right. The Wild Animal Park’s Lagoon Overlook and Mombasa Island Pavilion were perfect for our wedding ceremony and reception.

We did "I do"

From the moment we got engaged in January, J and I knew we wanted a small, informal wedding, and since it was a second wedding for both of us, we were comfortable with trying something nontraditional. J didn’t want to wear a tuxedo, just a dress shirt and tie; I wanted to wear a dress that was white, but not long. Although we knew we wanted a ceremony that was informal and not “stuffy,” we also wanted our wedding to be dignified: getting married in Las Vegas by an Elvis impersonator, for instance, just isn’t our style. Basically we wanted to plan an event that would be enjoyable for our guests while not attracting a huge amount of attention to ourselves: something low-key, classy, and non-bridezilla.

When we narrowed our choices to some sort of destination wedding in California, we still had a lot of possibilities to choose from. California is a big state, and its liberal marriage requirements for nonresidents makes it popular for destination weddings. After spending a seemingly interminable amount of time Googling various wedding venues in California, I stumbled upon a review that mentioned the San Diego Zoo. The moment I mentioned this to J, he was intrigued: we both love animals, so a zoo sounded like the perfect setting for our nuptials. Better yet, after we investigated the various wedding packages the Zoo and Wild Animal Park offer, we were delighted to learn we could throw the kind of fun, informal, dignified wedding we envisioned without breaking our budget.

Flamingos

Still, as perfect as a zoo wedding seemed when we picked it, neither J nor I had ever actually been to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Instead, we were “flying blind” as we planned our wedding, trusting the pictures on the Zoo website, our event planner, and our imaginations as we envisioned what the event would actually look like. As a result, one of the magical aspects of our wedding last Saturday was our actual arrival at the Park: the first time we actually saw the place we would be married. Planning an out-of-state wedding at a place you’ve never been before is a huge leap of faith: there’s always the possibility that you’ll arrive at your venue only to discover too late that it’s ugly, dirty, or otherwise disappointing. Happily, getting married at the San Diego Wild Animal Park was exactly as we had hoped it would be.

Sunning meerkats

I’m not sure exactly what our guests were expecting when they agreed to fly to San Diego for a wedding at a zoo, but their breathless responses after the wedding suggest their expectations were pleasantly exceeded. So were mine! While we were planning the wedding, I loved the idea of getting married outside in southern California’s fabled sunny weather, and I loved the idea of getting married next to a bird-thronged lagoon. When we arrived at the Wild Animal Park last Saturday morning, I was delighted to discover our ceremony site was even prettier than I’d imagined. The lagoon where we got married was filled with birds, both the exotic ones that belong to the Wild Animal Park’s collection (e.g. shoebills, pelicans, and nesting cormorants) as well as the wild birds that drop in to visit (e.g. night herons, egrets, and ducks). The reception site was an open-air pavilion right along this same lagoon, so we could bird-watch the entire time.

Lone stork

One of my goals for this, my second wedding, was to actually remember the event. The first time I got married, I was so busy doing all the things you’re “supposed to do” as a bride, I didn’t get much of a chance to actually enjoy my own wedding day. In retrospect, my first wedding felt a bit like a puppet-show where someone else was pulling the strings: my body was “there,” but “I” don’t remember much about the event.

This second time around, I wanted to actually be present at my own wedding: I wanted to enjoy the day, our guests, and the actual venue of the event. J and I wanted to plan a fun wedding because we wanted to have fun. It’s telling, then, that as I go through the hundreds of pictures I took on my own wedding day, I don’t have any pictures of the ceremony or reception, when I trusted others would be snapping photos. Instead, I have countless pictures of the animals J and I saw both before and after the wedding, just as I would if we’d gone to the Wild Animal Park on any other day. More than being just “our wedding day,” last Saturday was fun because J and I got to do the kind of sightseeing and picture-taking we enjoy…and we got to do it with our closest friends and family.

Ducks underfoot

In an attempt to remember my favorite moments from this memorable occasion, here are some verbal snapshots from our wedding day:

When we arrived at the Wild Animal Park, a member of the events staff was at the entrance to meet us. After officially checking us in, she escorted J, my sister, my niece, the friend who had chauffeured us, and me into a waiting golf cart which whisked us to our ceremony site. “We get to ride a golf cart,” I gushed, and then I chuckled. Apparently it takes very little to excite me!

When we arrived at our ceremony and reception site more than two hours ahead of time, nearly everything was already set up. Inside the Mombasa Island pavilion, our dining tables were set with mauve and maroon tablecloths, the bar was draped with festive animal-print linens, and a long reception table was arranged with our guest book, meal place-cards, and guest souvenirs: Wild Animal Park travel mugs for adults and large animal sipper-bottles for kids.

Immature coot

After we walked through the reception site, Keely, the event coordinator I’d frequently emailed but hadn’t yet met, was at the nearby ceremony site to greet us in a black-and-white animal-print dress as she commanded a small army of workers on a walkie-talkie. “We’ll dry off the chairs before the ceremony,” Keely explained, gesturing toward some dew that had condensed on the white folding chairs where our guests would sit. As Keely was talking, a zoo worker materialized out of nowhere with a push-broom to sweep away a puddle left on the sidewalk by the morning street-cleaning. Needless to say, the event staff’s attention to detail was amazing!

After we’d checked out the ceremony and reception venues, we were escorted to the official bride’s room in the Park’s administrative building, where we decided we’d prefer to walk around the park rather than sit and primp. The Wild Animal Park worker who had been assigned to escort us to particularly photogenic sites was bemused to discover, however, that J and I weren’t interested in posing for pictures of us; instead, we wanted to take pictures of the animals! Whenever our escort would point our a particularly picturesque scene, J and I would take a quick look, and if there were animals, we’d pull out our cameras and start snapping pictures. If there were no animals, we’d look around and keep walking. That escort is still probably scratching her head at our bizarrely self-effacing, non-bridezilla behavior. What kind of bridal couple doesn’t want to pose for tons of pictures?

Dik-dik

As we walked around the Wild Animal Park enjoying the quiet calm of early morning, when the animals are always most active, we could overhear on our escort’s radio Keely’s disembodied voice as she coordinated last-minute details. We heard, for instance, when the florist arrived with my bouquet and J’s boutonniere, and we heard when our officiant arrived. The best update, though, was when we heard a Park volunteer radio in to report that all our guests had been checked in at the admissions gate. With our flowers, officiant, and guests all arrived, we were ready to roll!

After our private tour of the Wild Animal Park, we returned to the administration building to meet our officiant, Rev. Powers. Just as we’d booked our wedding venue without ever visiting it, we’d hired Rev. Powers without having met him, trusting the gushing recommendations of the Wild Animal Park staff. After having planned our ceremony with Rev. Powers via email, it was a delight to meet him in the flesh just in time to sign the official papers. After my sister took few pictures of a jittery J and me signing our wedding license, J and I were whisked back into a golf cart while Rev. Powers and our entourage made their own way to the ceremony.

Shoebill in profile

On that final golf cart ride, J and I zipped past the gorilla enclosure, where lines of school-children in matching T-shirts were queued after having stayed overnight at the Wild Animal Park (a program delightfully called Roar and Snore). “You’re not really married until you’ve seen the gorillas!” our escort remarked, and at the time, as we zipped by resting primates, this somehow made sense. After we’d been dropped off at a place called the Gorilla Bridge to await our cue from Keely to walk down the aisle, J and I stood in the shade looking a mite conspicuous, with J in his dress shirt and tie and me in my white eyelet dress and bright pink sunhat. As one couple walked by, their little girl looked at us shyly, finally mustering the nerve to ask if we were getting married. When I said yes, the mother urged both the girl and her brother to say congratulations, and as the family walked away, I overheard the father say to the girl, “Maybe someday you’ll get married, too!”

From here, I think both J and I kicked into autopilot, that hazy state where your body does what it’s supposed to do without your brain exactly knowing how that happened. I remember that J and I walked together toward our ceremony site then down the aisle, hand-in-hand; in a cell-phone photo a friend snapped, J and I are smiling and walking in perfect step. I don’t specifically remember walking down the aisle, but I remember seeing our gathered family and friends looking at us, and it seemed everyone was smiling and holding up cameras or cell phones, taking pictures.

Who's looking at whom?

After the excited hours leading up to our wedding, I have a handful of vivid memories from the ceremony itself. The first was the moment when I noticed Rev. Powers’ hands as he held the booklet containing the ceremony we’d assembled, and I saw he was wearing J’s and my wedding rings on his pinkie for safekeeping. The second was the moment as I was reciting my vows that a hot-air balloon floated into view, as if on cue. But perhaps the most memorable moment during our ceremony came near the end, after J and I had said our vows and exchanged rings. Rev. Powers told us to turn toward our guests as we adjusted our rings, and once again everyone raised cameras and cell-phones for the quintessential “just married” snapshot.

Hornbills

In retrospect, I don’t remember any individual faces in the crowd; I just remember being surrounded by a warm blur of love, like the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the Bible. That blur of warm, smiling faces was a vivid reminder of how blessed both J and I are to have the love and support of our close friends and family.

It was that spontaneous expression of love and support we celebrated at our open-air reception, where our unofficial animal “guests” included a night heron who perched right next to our dessert station and a shoebill who was hand-fed a mouse which he subsequently swallowed whole. As if to keep everything in perspective, toward the end of the reception one of my new nephews approached me and solemnly admitted, “The part where we had to sit still and listen was kind of boring.” True. Compared to the wild delights of an entire park full of wild animals, the solemnity of wedding vows can seem pretty boring. Luckily, we had plenty of colorful guests, both human and animal alike, to keep things lively.

Click here for the complete photo-set of scenes from our wedding day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. You won’t find any wedding or reception pictures in my photo-set, just pictures of animals.

The post-ceremony photo of me and J was taken by our friend Fred, who used J’s camera to take pictures during the ceremony; I’ll share a link to those pictures once J has sorted through the thousands of pictures (!!!) he took during our San Diego getaway. Enjoy!

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Rev. Powers' tie

You can read all about the Reverend Dr. Richleigh Hale Powers, the officiant who performed J’s and my wedding ceremony at the San Diego Wild Animal Park last Saturday, on his website. Or, you can learn a lot about Rev. Powers by taking one look at his tie, which is covered with hearts and love letters. We met Rev. Powers about thirty minutes before our ceremony, and immediately he felt like a long-time friend. No wonder Rev. Powers is renowned as San Diego’s favorite wedding minister: a veritable Reverend Doctor of love.

Yes, we’re safely back from San Diego, and I have a half-written blog post about our wedding ceremony and reception that I plan to post sometime soon-ish. In the meantime, I’ve been unpacking, catching up with email, and doing a seemingly endless supply of laundry. Life after the honeymoon is busy, and that’s a good thing.

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Hosta in bloom

I haven’t been blogging much this month because I’ve been occupied by wedding details. J and I are having a small, simple wedding: about two dozen friends and family members who are willing to fly to San Diego to see us get married. A small wedding is definitely easier to plan than a big one, but still…with just over a month before the ceremony, I still have a healthy to-do list of things to plan, prepare, and oversee.

Variagated hosta leaves

Or perhaps I should say I had a healthy to-do list of preparations, as I’ve spent the past few weeks duly checking things off my list. In the past week or so, I’ve finalized our guest list, sorting through RSVPs and figuring out who is eating what at our reception. I’ve researched, inquired after, and selected a restaurant for our rehearsal dinner (and sent out Evites for same). I’ve assembled party favors, gone to a handful of stationery stores looking for just the right guest-book, printed place-cards for the reception, and shipped all of these to our event planner in San Diego, so we won’t have to carry them on the plane. I’ve researched and ordered wedding rings without J ever having set foot in a jewelry store (here’s hoping those online ring sizers offer a “close enough” fit). And I finally sat down and planned our wedding ceremony, picking and choosing various components from the book our officiant kindly put together: a kind of liturgical menu with enough ceremonial appetizers, entrees, and side-dishes to suit any “appetite.”

Hosta leaves

In a word, almost everything is planned, and I’m starting to get excited. I don’t remember what it felt like to get married the first time around: in retrospect, all I remember about getting married the first time is the stress I felt having to fight various family members over the specific details of a wedding I wanted to keep small and simple. When you marry young, it’s easy to get swept away by other people’s expectations of “your” wedding, especially if those other people are paying for all or part of the festivities. This time around, J and I are paying our own way, so we’re calling our own shots. Instead of fighting my future in-laws about the length of my guest-list, for this wedding J and I get to make intentional decisions about what we do and don’t want from our “special day.”

This time around, I’m looking forward to the “family and friends” aspect of our wedding. Instead of throwing a fancy, highbrow wedding, we’ve decided to throw an fun, family-friendly one: I’m really happy that a bunch of our wedding guests will be going to a ballgame together, and gathering for a bluesy dinner, and wandering around with wild animals. I think the first time I got married, I thought my wedding day was about “me”: that’s certainly the impression you get if you browse any bride’s magazine or watch any of a slew of bridal reality shows. This time around, J and I have made a conscious effort to make our wedding less about “us” and more about our guests: those two dozen friends and family members who are willing to fly to San Diego to see us get married. Knowing I’m putting all our ducks in a row for a select handful of our favorite people makes the preparation that much sweeter.

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Wedding invitations

Now that the invitations are in the mail, it really feels official: J and I are getting married in August!

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

This isn’t exactly “news” to our family and friends: J popped the question in January, and we’ve been planning the wedding since February. But for a variety of reasons, I never got around to announcing our engagement on-blog. At first, I didn’t want to blurt the happy news online until we’d told everyone in our families; after everyone in our inner-circle of family and friends had been informed, I was in the midst of a busier-than-usual semester when finding time to blog was difficult. On Facebook, all I had to do to notify my online friends was change my relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Engaged,” and that spurred the expected flurry of congratulations, like flashing an engagement ring at a social gathering. But here on-blog, I wanted to write something more substantial, and something more substantial kept getting pushed to the bottom of my to-do list as other priorities took precedent.

Over the years, I’ve spent so many blog-entries processing my first marriage, divorce, and its aftermath, I’ve wanted to write something equally thoughtful about the experience of being engaged, again. The first time I got engaged and planned a wedding, I remember how stressful the experience was. Even though my ex-husband and I had a small, simple wedding, we had ongoing disagreements with relatives about the details: one side of the family wanted a large, fancy wedding with a long guest-list, and the other side preferred our idea of keeping things small and simple. At the time, I remember remarking that there was a good reason why marriage was designed to last for life: that way, you’d have to go through the trauma of planning a wedding only once.

Mock orange, aka Philadelphus

They say that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, but I’d say that second engagements are the triumph of experience over experience. Having already planned and been in one wedding with all the expected accoutrements (church, bridal party, long white dress, etc), this time around, J and I are no longer beholden to time-honored tradition or either set of parents. Since this is a second wedding for both of us, we’re planning and paying for it ourselves, so we get to focus on what we (rather than others) want. Now that we each have had the experience of getting married one way–me in a church with a Catholic priest, J in his living room with a Jewish justice-of-the-peace–J and I see this second time around as our chance to do things differently, as we’d like it.

So, how are we doing things differently this time? Well, we aren’t getting married in a church; we’re getting married at a Wild Animal Park. Instead of flipping a coin to decide whether to get married in my hometown (Columbus, OH) or J’s (Pittsburgh, PA), we’re getting married in San Diego: a fun summer trip for ALL of us, as if we were eloping with small entourage of family and close friends. Will I wear a white dress? Yes, but it’s knee-length and informal, bought off-the-rack and on sale. Will we have a bridal party, and will my dad walk me down the aisle? No, and no: J and I will escort one another down the aisle, and it will be just the two of us standing in front of our officiant.

Half opened

And that officiant? He’s neither a Catholic priest nor a Jewish justice-of-the-peace; he’s a nondenominational Christian minister with lots of experience marrying people in unorthodox settings. How can it be, you might wonder, that a practicing Zen Buddhist manages to get married twice without ever having a Buddhist wedding? Well, as much as I respect the great vows of Buddhist practice, J’s not a Buddhist, and neither are any of our wedding guests. We’ll have a nonsectarian, moderately Christian wedding ceremony because that reflects our shared cultural background.

When I first divorced, I feared I was tainted goods: having one marriage that had failed, I was afraid that all future relationships would be similarly doomed. A second marriage is a leap of faith because it’s based on the belief that we can learn from our mistakes. Second marriages, I think, really are the triumph of experience over experience: as much as you’ve lived through the bad experience of seeing one marriage fail, you’ve gained the valuable experience of having learned things the hard way. The first time I got married, I was fresh out of college and had no idea how to live on my own in the “real world,” much less be married. Now that I’m twenty years older and that much (I hope) wiser, I have a clearer sense of what I want out of life, love, and a partner. I think this current process of planning both a wedding and a life is a great opportunity to claim these for myself.

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Seagull

It was mostly rainy in Santa Monica this weekend, so I returned to New England with many memories but not so many photos from a whirlwind weekend revolving around the wedding of friends. At the Friday night rehearsal dinner, Saturday wedding and reception, and Sunday morning brunch, J took hundreds of pictures, illustrating once again his skill at taking non-invasive candid shots that capture the at-ease personality of his subjects. I have no doubt his pictures will be as good and even better than those by the professional photographer who chronicled the wedding and reception.

As for me, I enjoyed making new friends and keeping my camera off during the festivities, my shyness about taking pictures of people giving me ample excuse to enjoy myself rather than hiding behind a camera. In the case of bold seagulls, though, I made an exception, figuring a one-legged bird that literally posed upon approach didn’t see my camera as an invasion of privacy. In Santa Monica, it seems even the seagulls are accustomed to paparazzi.

Clear skies

On Monday morning’s crack-of-dawn taxi ride to the airport, our driver asked if we’d seen any celebrities: apparently, a common topic of conversation in Santa Monica. “No,” J answered, “not a one,” even though several celebrities were in attendance at the wedding: family and friends of the happy couple. To J, a longtime friend of the groom’s parents, the folks in question aren’t celebrities; they’re family. So J and I kept our lips zipped while our cabbie described the time he saw Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez waiting for separate rides outside the same upscale hotel. When it comes to friends who happen to be famous, it doesn’t seem fair to talk and tell.

When you see the softer side of any celebrity–the groom’s famous sister tearing up as she described how happy she is that he’s finally landed with a woman who makes him happy, or a famous friend echoing the same sentiment–you realize the thinness of celebrity skin. On Friday night, I hadn’t met any of J’s LA friends; by the time the rehearsal dinner was over, they all felt like family, the congratulatory speeches and funny stories they shared demonstrating how loved and loving the happy couple truly is. I’ve been to a few non-Hollywood weddings that felt like big performances with expensive flowers, fancy finery, and gourmet meals all screaming “look at us, and be impressed.” This weekend’s wedding felt entirely different. When you are a celebrity, you don’t have to flaunt that status; when you are a friend or relative of a famous person, you know and love their unseen private side, who they really are. Equipped with that knowledge, you have no need or desire to brag.

Sweet Dreams

After Monday morning’s crack-of-dawn taxi ride to the airport, J and I arrived in Boston in time for Monday night’s rush hour; after spending most of Monday night grading papers, yesterday morning I left Newton at the crack-of-dawn in order to teach my 8:00am Expository Writing class here in Keene. Only when I came home from teaching a full day of classes yesterday afternoon did I feel like I’d finally landed, this weekend in Santa Monica coming so close on the heels of the start of classes and my weekend trip to Ohio.

The groom’s famous sister and her equally famous husband jet-set between LA and New York, having apartments on both coasts; as for me, I belong to the Subaru-set, zipping between my workaday apartment here in Keene and my weekend home at J’s place in Newton. Is being an actor, professional athlete, supermodel, or other celebrity more exciting than teaching a handful of face-to-face classes in a quiet New England town or a couple more classes in the anonymous ether of the Internet? Or do they each offer their own challenges and satisfactions?

Perched on the pier

At the wedding reception, after having met and briefly chatted with the groom’s sister on Friday night, we had a longer conversation about her in-progress English degree, something she’s interrupted every time she’s landed a movie or television role. Some might envy the lives and lifestyles of the rich and famous, but as for me, I’m grateful for the peaceful obscurity of life in a quiet New England town and the knowledge that I can take (and teach) college classes without weathering the ogling stares of passing classmates and cab drivers. After learning that I teach online, the groom’s sister peppered me with questions: could online classes give her the schedule flexibility and personal privacy she needs? I suggested they might and offered to answer any questions she might have, proof that even professors have their own hungry public if not an attendant paparazzi. Celebrity skinned or otherwise, we’re all human souls underneath.

Yummy

The third picture above shows the box of goodies, assembled by this company, the bride and groom provided for out-of-town guests. When ours arrived at our hotel, the desk clerk admired the packaging, and I have to say the contents were equally tasty.

Picture perfect...with a little help

Today was a picture-perfect day in Boston with mild temperatures, turquoise-blue skies, and a light breeze. It’s no wonder, then, that one bride and groom thought the harbor walk alongside the JFK Library would be the picture-perfect site for their wedding portrait.

Click here for several other shots of this same picture-perfect couple. Outdoor wedding photography is something I’ve captured here and here as well: enjoy!