Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Featured Blog Entry on Shine

An updated version of "The Lie of Wedding 'Averages'" (the 01/07/10 entry) was chosen as an "Editor's Pick" on the Shine Love & Sex page yesterday.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Celebrity Planner, a TV Show, and a Conflict of Interest?

My family has the "extended basic" cable package. We TV is not one of the channels we get, so I don't see We TV's wedding shows unless they become available on On Demand. One show I'd never seen before last week was My Fair Wedding, starring celebrity wedding planner David Tutera.

The basic premise is this: Some hapless bride with questionable taste needs help pulling her wedding together. Three weeks before the wedding, Mr. Tutera is given carte blanche to plan a wedding that will reflect the spirit of the bride's deepest wedding desires. The wedding the bride ends up with is far more beautiful and lavish than anything she could have designed or afforded, and she and her groom are thrilled with it.

I have to admit, David Tutera does gorgeous work. And he seems really nice to the brides he works with.

I think his wedding philosophy, however, is a bit misguided. Well, more than a bit; I think it's unhealthy and unkind.

David Tutera hates fake flowers (though he's not above having faux landscapes painted to mimic a vineyard window view), and even fresh flowers are unacceptable if purchased from a grocery store. The idea of a medieval joust, thrown out in jest by a bride, made him shudder.

Now, my problem is not with his taste (I've already implied that it's excellent), but with his seemingly narrow vision of what weddings should have and be. The colors (not too bright, by the way) and the centerpieces can vary from one couple to the next, but his weddings follow the same template: closely (if not exactly) matching bridesmaids glide down the aisle followed by a glamorous bride. Dinner and dancing in a lavishly decorated space follow.

It's fine for David Tutera to prefer what he prefers. It's quite another matter entirely for him to label something wrong simply because it is not what he prefers. He has quite a public platform and quite a bit of influence, after all. Many people believe whatever he tells them to believe. (Don't believe me? Check out Yahoo! Answers Weddings and read the responses to almost any question about nontraditional wedding elements.) Therein lies the problem: just because David Tutera calls certain ideas and products tacky doesn't make them so.

Why are fireworks displays acceptable, but jousting tournaments unacceptable? Are they not both simply forms of entertainment? Does Mr. Tutera really believe we should mold our entertainment preferences to his? And don't think his choices are concerned with guests' comfort; more than once he's told a bride the wedding day was about her.

Most couples will never be able to afford the kind of wedding David Tutera plans. Fine linens, professionally designed floral arrangements, and stunning cakes cost a lot of money, more money than many couples have. Certainly more money than most couples should be spending; how many times have we heard about the financial stress of couples planning their weddings, stress which becomes generalized and diminishes the joy the partners take in each other? The wedding trappings a couple can afford are not tacky simply because they are not the wedding trappings David Tutera likes.

Should Tutera really continue to convince couples that their best efforts aren't good enough? That their very interests mark them as inferior? Does he need to encourage the spread of these ideas through society, thereby encouraging wedding guests to mentally grade the expressions of love and commitment to which they've been invited?

No. Of course not. So why is David Tutera so comfortable with perpetuating the unhealthy societal attitudes so many hold about weddings?

Well, I cannot speak to Mr. Tutera's deepest thoughts. But I can say that the adage follow the money has served many in good stead throughout the years when they've needed to assign weight to the opinions of others.

David Tutera's own website reveals that he is a paid speaker. And although the website no longer says he has been hired by wedding magazine publishers, his talent bio on the All American Talent and Celebrity Network website does. Wedding magazines make a great deal of money from the sale of advertisements. The companies that advertise in wedding magazines tend to be bridal wear designers and retailers, floral designers, jewelers, and the like. To direct people away from their services by suggesting that it's perfectly acceptable for couples to engage in budget shopping and do-it-yourself projects might make them unhappy; unhappy advertisers sometimes decide to spend their advertising dollars elsewhere.

Tutera's professional interests go beyond keeping publishers happy, however. He himself owns Stem, a floral and gift company with locations in the Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal. He and the fashion house Faviana also produce a line of wedding dresses, David Tutera by Faviana.

I don't know about you, but I refuse to let the face of an industry trying to take my money grade the purchases I make.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Alcohol Issues

Spend a significant amount of time reading wedding-planning forums and you'll soon see that the two biggest wedding-related alcohol questions appear to be, "Do we have to serve alcohol?" and "Can we have a cash bar?"

The answer to the first question is a resounding "No!" Alcohol-free receptions are actually quite common in certain parts of the United States. For instance, many couples still hold their receptions in church fellowship halls, and because many religious organizations frown on imbibing, alcohol is often not even allowed at such receptions. But what if alcohol is commonly served at receptions in your culture? Simply put, so what? If you don't want alcohol at your wedding reception, you don't have to have it. Maybe there are some guests or members of the wedding party who are alcoholics, or maybe you just can't afford to spring for alcohol. Your reasons don't really matter. You are inviting your loved ones to share your joy, and you are providing them food, (nonalcoholic) drink, and good company, at the very least. Anyone who is going to judge you because you're unwilling to provide alcohol is not worth your worry. And anyone who can't go a few hours without a drink has a problem.

The answer to the second question is far more complicated. Traditional etiquette - and by etiquette I mean societal standards of basic politeness, not ideas about what weddings are supposed to entail - says that you do not invite a guest to a party and then make that guest pay for the refreshment offered. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

However, many argue that as long as sodas, water, punch, or other drink options are available, the hosts have done their duty to provide liquid refreshment. I see the logic in this argument, but the practice of having a cash bar continues to make me uncomfortable. I'd really prefer to pay for anything my guests might consume at my party.

The crux of the whole dilemma is that in some cases, guests might prefer a cash bar to no bar at all. If this is the situation you're faced with, are you shortchanging your guests if you don't offer a cash bar? When my husband and I were planning our reception, we considered taking all of our guests out to a restaurant after our ceremony. However, I felt obligated to pay for their drinks if we did so, and I was fearful that the final bill would be more than we could afford. I could not commit to a restaurant reception for this reason, and wondered if we should simply have an alcohol-free reception. My husband was certain that our guests would be happy to pick up their own drink tabs if it meant they could decide for themselves whether or not to indulge. In the end, we simply compromised by having a nice meal with punch and cake in the park and inviting everyone back to our home for drinks that we provided.

Some couples compromise by offering a limited open bar that becomes a cash bar after a certain period of time, and other couples offer a limited number of drink tickets, or vouchers for free drinks, to guests. Neither of these compromises really answers the question of the appropriateness of a cash bar, however, because in both cases a cash bar still exists.

Other couples offer a limited open bar that simply closes after an hour or two. Some couples serve wine and beer only, or signature cocktails only, or some combination, and do not provide a full bar at all. Both of these solutions do completely address the issue, and for larger weddings, they work well. However, for a small, restaurant reception like the one my husband and I considered, they would be impractical. How can you tell a guest that you will pay for a glass of wine but not a whiskey sour? How can you tactfully say that you will pay for only two drinks when you don't have those cute little drink ticket envelopes at preset place settings?

So, can you have a cash bar? I'd love to be able to give you a definitive answer, but I can't. If you want to serve alcohol, the right answer is the one that is right for you and right for your guests. I firmly believe that you should always avoid doing what is rude, but what is rude is often a matter of perspective. How cash bars are viewed is often a matter of family tradition, regional tradition, and cultural tradition.

I can almost guarantee that even if the majority of your guests are happy with your decisions concerning alcohol at your wedding, not every guest will be. That's okay; you can only do the best you can to be thoughtful and kind. Hopefully, you are able to invite only those who love you and support you to your wedding, and they will also be thoughtful and kind - too thoughtful and kind to let a difference of perspective color their opinion of you or your wedding.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some Notes on Pennsylvania Marriage Law

There are two main questions I'm going to address in this blog entry. The first is, can ministers ordained online solemnize legal marriages in Pennsylvania, and the second is, can you get legally get married with a self-uniting license in Pennsylvania if you are not of the Quaker or Baha'i faith?

Can ministers ordained online solemnize legal marriages?

They can and they have in the state of Pennsylvania, although there is disagreement among the county courts concerning the legality of such marriages; no cases have gone before the state supreme court, and the state itself has not taken a clear stand on the issue. A woman in York County wanted to have her marriage annulled on the grounds that she and her husband were married by a Universal Life Church Monastery minister; the judge presiding over the case agreed that her marriage was invalid because Pennsylvania state law requires ministers to be "of any regularly established church or congregation," and he did not think a minister who did not conduct or attend services at a physical church and did not have a congregation met this requirement.

However, a couple in Bucks County, realizing this could set dangerous precedent for thousands of couples across the state, requested that the Bucks County court legally recognize the validity of their marriage, which had also been solemnized by a Universal Life Church Monastery member. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued their case before the court, and the Bucks County judge declared the marriage valid.

The crux of the ACLU's argument was that the court does not have the right to determine what legitimizes a minister; only the church with which a minister is affiliated can do that. Furthermore, the Universal Life Church Monastery is indeed a real church; it has a belief system and has tax-exempt status. The ACLU also made the point that limiting the definition of "church" to mean only a religious structure would bar all itinerant ministers from performing wedding ceremonies; Jesuit priests teaching at universities, retired ministers, and other itinerant pastors who now commonly solemnize marriages would not be allowed to do so.

The ACLU also sought to have a marriage that had been solemnized by an itinerant Universal Life Church Monastery minister in Montgomery County and a marriage that had been solemnized by an itinerant Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church minister in Philadelphia County validated. It was successful in both cases.

Unfortunately, since there is no definitive declaration on the matter by the state legislature or, as yet, the state supreme court, each county is allowed to decide the matter.

Can you get married with a self-uniting license if you are not a member of the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker) or of the Baha'i faith (or other faith without traditional established clergy)?

Yes, you absolutely can. However, some counties will not issue this license and others will ask for proof of membership in one of the above faith-based organizations before issuing this license. In 2007, a federal judge issued a restraining order preventing the Allegheny County register of wills from denying such a license to a couple unconnected with such a faith-based organization, and many counties have always granted the license with no questions asked. Although there has been no official ruling on the matter, precedent would seem to be in your favor should you choose to legally challenge counties engaging in discriminatory practices, but it is probably easier to pick your license up in a county that does not care about your religious affiliation. If you want to get this kind of license, be sure to ask for it at the very beginning of the application process; I don't know why, but that seems to be a common requirement.


The ACLU complaint filings -


An ACLU newsletter article (page 12) confirming the legal victories -

An article about the Bucks County case -

An article about the self-uniting license questioning challenge -

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Lie of Wedding "Averages"

Quite often we'll hear quotes for the average wedding cost. The figures usually seem to fall somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, and they get thrown into the public forum by all manner of newspaper and magazine journalists and television fluff-news reporters. Why is it that I've never seen any of these commentators challenge the truth of these figures?

Occasionally, as in this article on CNN Money, the source of the average will be given. However, this is rare.

Those crazy "averages" aren't averages at all. They're based on wedding-industry figures - which means the data used is based on traditional wedding purchases and vendor sales figures. In the article linked above, the figure was provided by the Conde Nast Bridal Infobank; Conde Nast publishes Bride, Modern Bride, and Elegant Bride, and owns Brides.com.

Industry wedding averages won't reflect brides and grooms who do a lot of the work themselves, use nontraditional items or use items in nontraditional ways, and use vendors who aren't members of industry associations.

They also average in the costs of a whole lot of junk with which most couples don't even bother. This ridiculous website averages in [edit 07/18/10: The website changed its content, so I altered this paragraph and added the paragraph following it to bring my content up to date and to address what I believe is a fallacy of logic on the part of Cost of Wedding] "facial hair service," "massage," and "travel for guests." Now, some people do opt for professional grooming services before their weddings, but enough to justify including the costs in a wedding average? And it's the rare couple who can afford to spring for their guests' transportation. [Edit 09/17/11: Wow. The site has changed its language once again. Now it no longer refers to "facial hair service," "massage," and "travel for guests." It does however (and I've no idea if this was factored in originally) average in pedicure costs and the costs of a DJ and a band. That's right, a DJ and a band, not a DJ or a band.]

Although Cost of Wedding does make a point of saying it uses the figures of "other brides and grooms" and "not wedding vendor prices," this implication of research integrity is misleading. So this company isn't creating imaginary couples, so what? Unless someone alleged that it was, this is a classic straw man argument. Unless it is averaging in nontraditional purchases and purchases made at non-industry-related outlets, it isn't using figures that can truly reflect average wedding spending.

The bottom of the "About Wedding Cost" page of the preceding website says, "Cost of wedding is owned and operated by The Wedding Report, Inc. a provider of wedding statistics and wedding market research for the wedding industry. For more information about The Wedding Report, Inc. visit www.theweddingreport.com." Big shocker there, huh?

[Edit 07/18/10: The following three paragraphs are also new material.] Read about the Cost of Wedding/Wedding Report methodology, and you'll find that Cost of Wedding, at least, does not use a mean (discussed in the below update of 05/11/10). However, it collects data on "over 100 products and services" and uses a "proprietary formula to calculate estimates and growth rates for each item, for each market." It then uses a "weighted demand average" in determining average cost. The concept of weighted demand is a good one, but we have no idea how this company assigns weight. The Wedding Report goes on to say that its methodology "takes into account all items that a market may purchase."

How is this an improvement on a standard mean? In fact, "all items a market may purchase" doesn't even conceptually resemble "all items a market is likely to purchase." Furthermore, as alluded to above, there is much room for debate concerning what products and services should be defined as wedding expenses. Should an indulgence like a massage, popular though it may be, be considered a wedding expense? If a stressed-out employee splurges on such a service, he or she is unlikely to be able to call it a business expense.

When a business makes its methodology public, the immediate impression we're left with is certainly that of the company's transparency. But it isn't possible to use an undisclosed "proprietary formula" and have true transparency. That's like giving someone a recipe with "secret sauce" listed as an ingredient. Without knowing what goes into the secret sauce, the cook doesn't really know what goes into the dish.

Update 05/11/10:
I have recently come across another criticism, pointed out by more than one writer before me, of the mythical wedding average. That is, that a wedding average is often a mean - the total after the costs of multiple weddings are added together and then divided by the number of weddings. The figure you're left with isn't representative of what most people spend on their weddings at all (that would be the median), because even one really expensive wedding will skew the total upward. And if you're thinking that an inexpensive wedding could skew the figure downward as well, thus nullifying the effect of an expensive wedding, remember how unlikely it is that the items used in a low-budget wedding conform to the neat industry categories reflected or are purchased at standard industry outlets. In other words, really low-budget weddings are unlikely to be reflected in such averages, while really high-budget weddings are. Therefore, the figure skewing will naturally trend upward.

Update 07/20/10: A more streamlined version of this entry was chosen as a Shine "Editor's Pick" for the Love & Sex page.