Monday, September 11, 2006

Katie Couric's Last Wedding

On September 16th last year, I performed a wedding on the Today Show. One year later I decided to reflect on the experience...

The introduction by Al Roker defined the moment as unusual. “The wedding will be presided over by the Reverend Greg Cootsona….” Until then, I had tried to ease my jangling nerves that it was just another nuptial in my pastoral life.

You see I wasn’t immediately convinced about performing a Today Show wedding. A friend and producer on the show (whose wedding I had performed in New York City) called, with “an unusual opportunity.” Not sensing Amway in my future, and bolstered by her assessment that I “would be perfect,” I pondered. And balked. But eventually, I accepted the assignment.

Two nights before my introduction by Al Roker, a driver met me at BWI’s baggage claim with a sign and (surprise!) bearing my name. This doesn’t happen often on my way to nuptials in Chico (although I could get used to it). Two days and two cars later, at the 5:15am call for the show (2:15 California time), a stretch limo transported me. As I entered the car, the driver phoned the show saying, “The Reverend is in the car.”

Now out of the car and walking toward the stage in front of the Cheasapeake Bay, I patted the tube of Recapit Cement safely in my pocket. The pressure of such a large audience squeezed out a strange neurosis: that the recently applied veneer on my front tooth covering a discoloration (itself a wedding honorarium from my dentist) would pop out in medias homily. I’m just not sure how I would have applied the bond in front of the TV audience, but such thoughts never occur to the neurotic.

Following the introduction, I walking on the runner set on smooshy grass and recalled the previous day and worries of an impending rainstorm (as a hurricane brewed to the south with Matt Lauer sent to the scene). That day of rehearsals, I had expected diffidence and attitude from the crew. Instead it was also fun and encouragement. On the stage for Trisha Yearwood’s concert following the wedding, I spied a gorgeous drum set (their petrified wood shells unearthed from the depths of Lake Michigan), and asked if I could take it for a ride. The crew encouraged me. After a brief solo, the soundman offered his assessment: “You might have missed your calling.” Perhaps not totally encouraging the day before the Big Event. Speaking of the sound man, the show’s attention to detail astounded me: The multiple camera men, sound techs, and general assistants making everything work flawlessly. That was change for me—I’m happy in church when the mic’s on. (Why can’t we have several professionals making sure the church’s sound works and the lights are on like The Today Show? That’s right. Congregations don’t gross half a billion dollars a year.)

The night before, I was eating pizza and drinking Cokes with the mostly 20something under-producers, pages, or whatever they were, and we discussed my former church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian (which was in the midst of a scandal so it was pretty interesting). We sat out on the back porch of the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club (in Stevensville, Maryland, by the by), talking about life, about a homosexual brother, about faith, about the show the next day. Behind their words I saw the same ambitious eyes of youth that want to make a mark on the world and maybe to glimpse a bit of fame themselves.

Transported in the stretch limo, I arrived on the wedding set (that’s on odd combination of words) at 5:30 am. (Did I mention that that’s 2:30am California time?) As I walked in along a wooden ramp, I glimpsed some bright lights above the clubhouse. Katie Couric was already working with lights on and cameras rolling. Knowing that she had trained down from Manhattan the night before, it struck me as imminently tiring and a high price for fame.

But no one at the event would have ever know she was tired. Wearing her flip-flops on the set, cracking jokes with the wedding guests on commercial breaks. It was pretty charming. I finally met her for a brief moment, at the reception. Every moment she was mobbed by people, with barely a moment to herself. The price of fame, I suppose. And I asked her, “Could I do the fan-thing and take picture with you?” She was pulled away. And then a moment later, turned back to me, “I’m sorry. What did you ask me?” It was a moment of humanity. (And she hadn’t yet received my gift, a t-shirt from the church.) So I was sold.

Oh yes, how about the wedding? Once it started, the cameras disappeared. (Like a friend a produced prepped me: “Just imagine they’re video cams—you’ve seen those before.” Amazingly it worked.) Mark and Sarah were the most focused couple I’ve ever married. They had spent so many hours in front of the camera that they actually looked me in the eye as I talked of passion and commitment in the improvisations of marriage and jazz. Mark, this big, studly guy cried as he vowed his love, and Sarah serenely wiped his tears. (People, I’m told, were also crying from Times Square.)

Afterward, as I rode in the longest of four limos back to airport, I saw the moment fading fast. So I asked the driver to stop at a gas station and bought a San Pellegrino. I looked out from the convenience store and thought, “A stretch for me—that’s pretty cool.” With no more tricks up the sleeve, I begrudgingly headed toward the airport, and soon was in the United gates. I’d never waved goodbye to a limo before. Slowly I was slipping back into obscurity. Off to the plans for that weekend: Monterey Jazz Festival (the last one we attended with her mother before the latter suffered an acute stroke)—in my mind, a pretty sweet consolation prize.

My brother, during a brief sojourn with an Episcopalian church group, edited their newspaper, which he called “The Highly Parishable.” In that spirit: those three minutes and forty-five seconds of fame (and the days surrounding it) were certainly parishable fruit. One realization was, given the seven million or so who would view that day, I would preach to more in those minutes than I probably throughout my lifetime. But the fruit had been picked and was half eaten. My shelf had a few days more: two radio interviews on the Monday I returned. At one point a few weeks later, I was visiting a member in the hospital and someone in the next bed blurted out, “Weren’t you the guy on The Today Show?” It finally got to this: “I saw a little bit of your head in the picture of the wedding in US Magazine.”

Sarah and Mark have thankfully kept in touch as they entered post-TV life. Several months later would reveal that this was Katie’s last Today Show wedding. (Luckily, I grabbed a picture with her at the reception.) I’m doing hospital visitation, numerous church committee meetings, teaching and preaching, and yes, the occasional wedding without, of course, an introduction by Al Roker.

Memories of a Bleak Week in Manhattan

Here are a few notes I took on September 12, 2001. The only changes here are to make some of the fragments into full sentences and to clarify references that would be obscure to non-New Yorkers.

A group of families meeting in the Pierre Hotel to discuss 900-1000 employees missing, with nametags, “Scott Behrens looking for Jane Cananda…” A 30-year old woman found herself late for work to World Trade Center #2 coming to my church office in tears, “Everyone in my office is gone, and there’s no office. What do I do? How do I pray?” A church member on the phone in Chicago, doing business with a colleague in WTC 1, suddenly hears this: “There’s fire all around. I don’t know what’s happening. Here’s my home number, call my wife and tell her I love her.” Then the phone goes dead. I’ll never forget looking down 5th Avenue at 9:30am, in front of the Disney store, across from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, as the World Trade Center smoked in the distance. Then at 10:15, only seeing smoke…
The scale of yesterday’s terrorist attack is immense. Reverberations throughout the city.