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Photograph by Kaemmerling Photography

The Matrimonial Morass

A Santa Cruz couple recalls the wedding madness that took them by surprise.

By Paul and Daria Davis

The very first piece of advice we received when we announced our engagement was to run away together. "The only mistake my wife and I made," a friend of Paul's warned, "was not eloping." This is almost always the correct advice. Regardless of how unique and individualistic you may fancy yourself, no matter how much you think you can micromanage the planning of a wedding, you are hopelessly, fitfully wrong. There is no way that any glib warning could fully articulate what you're getting yourself into.

We got engaged in the middle of a heavy snowstorm in Chicago. It was a fairly typical awkward proposal moment, Paul at a loss for words and Daria asking "Really?" before remembering to accept. When we realized that our tears were freezing to our faces, we went inside to start dreaming up what the wedding would be like that would start us down the road of married life. Perhaps due to the inclement weather, the first location to come to mind was Yosemite in the early fall. We'd invite our closest friends and family to camp with us for a weekend of solid outdoor fun that just happened to include a wedding.

After some old-fashioned Internet sleuthing, we found a few likely contenders to the Nuptials a la Capitan idea. It was, admittedly, our intention to do things as unconventionally as possible. When we heard about the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, it seemed like the perfect combination—we could get married in the splendor of the outdoors in a location with a very low-key vibe, thankfully free of tidily ordered flower beds and gazebos. We could ask our friends to join us for a weekend in Big Sur without qualms, as it was a drive but still manageable, and we were afforded the opportunity to write "Henry Miller Memorial Library" on our invitations.

This vision of a bucolic wedding in the woods quickly lost its sheen of simplicity as we realized a wedding calls for some attempt at decoration. How do you decorate the outdoors? Daria's plan was to just enhance what was already there—lights and ribbons in the trees, maybe some branches artfully placed around the ceremony site. But where to begin and where to draw the line? Decorating an outdoor space is an ever-expanding task not unlike that in the children's story "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," and with limited funds available she began to feel completely intimidated. It was clear that things had grown from their humble origins when she found herself standing in San Francisco's Britex Fabric store measuring out crème tulle.

By this time—only a couple of months into the wedding planning—we knew we were done for, and we began to understand how prescient the advice to elope actually had been.There are plenty of reasons why we didn't heed our friend's advice to steal away, and why many others do not. Will your family forgive the choice to elope, ever? Even if they were to forgive your escape from the inevitable madness to come, do you really want to share this day with only one another, and not invite your elderly relatives or your closest childhood friends? The insanity of planning a wedding, the perniciousness of outside input and projected wants—it all seems manageable early in the process. Not for long. Take the invitation list. It was going to be a small, intimate affair, we told ourselves, with just close family and friends. But what's "close"? How many drunken nights shared at the Rush Inn warrant an invite? Just how friendly does your relationship with ex A or B remain? There is no such thing as a small wedding unless it's you and your partner, the officiant and a witness. Sooner rather than later, you're bound to find your invitation list ballooning.

And that's only the beginning of the considerations. Want a wedding that will be palatable for all generations in attendance? That both your drunken college friends and 90-year-old grandmother can enjoy?

If so, you're going to have to work with a massive industry that thrives on your familial and personal obligations. When was the last time you played host to family from far-flung continents? Invited anarchist doctoral candidates to mingle with aunts and uncles? For most, navigating these sorts of social considerations is a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime proposition. But for those in the business, these sort of concerns are their stock and trade.

The Happy Hipsters
The marriage industry is one of the few business sectors not at the mercy of the market, and those in the business know that all too well: the current valley bubble could burst, Bloomberg could jump out the window of a large building, but people are still going to have lavish weddings. For which they'll need: Stationery. Cake. Caterers. Flowers. Party rentals. Music. Tuxedos and dresses. Booze.

They've got you where it hurts, and they're going to milk you for it.

No matter how warily you view corporate America or disdain the marketing of love and affection, choosing to get married in a public way demands at least some nominal involvement with this industry. You are complicit with an industry whose marketing pitch is the unparalleled importance of having "a perfect day." And no matter what you may think going in, this machine will come at you from every angle, wearing away your defenses until whatever small voice inside you that sort of maybe would like to get your way for 24 hours begins to assert itself and demand hundreds of floating votive candles, or cabbage roses instead of the run-of-the-mill hothouse variety.

This is the thing, though: that concept of your wedding day as your one exalted moment to shine? It works. You can see through the marketing of it, but it is still a powerful trope in our culture. When you plan a wedding, you are not a unique and special snowflake. You are a demographic.

In fact, these different types of weddings and brides and grooms are narrowly—and disturbingly accurately—defined through the wonder of modern marketing to laser-pointed niche markets. We found ourselves defined, with troubling clarity, as a specific type of married couple. We are "Happy Hipsters," according to the helpful questionnaire on the popular wedding planning website The Knot. We enjoy "last-minute road trips, one-pot meals that are somehow to die for, and date nights in." So long as those date nights include marathons of Battlestar Galactica or Fawlty Towers, we're all in. This was our fate, as opposed to "All-American Dreamers" (who strive for "Americana perfection") or "True Romantics" (who enjoy a "midweek meal on fine china").

Everyone seems to be in on the blitz. On our refrigerator we continue to proudly display one of the most idiosyncratic pieces of junk mail Daria received, offering her cut-rate Lasik eye surgery. "Daria, it's your special day," the card reads. "Why not make it complete with Lasik Eye Surgery?" Why not indeed?

Babes in the Woods
Our incredulity toward many of the pitfalls of the modern engagement helped us some. We were lucky in some regards—perhaps our independent-minded cultural insularity is part of why we never had a fight about the wedding during our 10 months of planning. We were also lucky that neither of us had parents who were telling us how things were going to go. The downside was a feeling of total bewilderment in the face of the initial wave of wedding wolves as we took our first faltering planning steps. We were far from the storybook engaged couple. We warily eye gender roles and had a vegan wedding cake; two of Daria's bridesmaids were men. Daria wore a pink dress made by an idiosyncratic seamstress/astrologer. Our secular ceremony was officiated by her Sufi godfather.

Still, the pull of the semitraditional wedding is strong. Daria had never expected to want her father to walk her down the aisle. In the initial discussions of the ceremony, we envisioned walking down the aisle together, perhaps entering from separate directions to really hammer home the whole two-becoming-one concept. But after some serious thinking, the significance of the ritualized walk to the betrothed seemed indispensable. In the end we settled for a subtly different version. Daria would walk with her father halfway, say goodbye, seat him and then walk the rest of the way alone. But when the moment finally came it was Daria's father who had to disentangle himself and with a final squeeze propel her toward Paul. Ritual: 1; Paul and Daria's iconoclasm: 0.

Those rituals have an unseen power. Weddings stand alone in modern American secular culture as one of the few major life events with a thriving body of ritualized behavior. And you may scoff at these clichéd cultural tropes, as we did, but be warned.

Matching Linens
It took some adjusting to recognize that we had done this to ourselves—Daria's father suggested early in the planning process that we dispense with chairs and tables and have a picnic, which is usually more our style. But as we came to defend said outdoor furniture, we found ourselves having to get comfortable with the idea that maybe all of those culturally defined signposts of the modern wedding were important to us as well. Daria considers it a great day to find a usable piece of furniture in the alley. All the same, by the end of our planning, she found herself starting a lot of conversations by saying, "I never thought I would care about plates and tablecloths, but fuck it, I care about plates and tablecloths."

The obvious response to this madness would be to get a wedding planner. But have you seen how much they charge? For the rest of us—the ones who will be running to Home Depot to find decorative ferns while copyediting the vows two days before the wedding—you have to let a certain amount of control go and put it in the hands of a higher power—God, friends, family or the law of averages.

We're lucky to have some of the most resourceful and loyal friends to be found in the greater Bay Area and Central Coast. They all drove the harrowing road down to Big Sur the day before to help us do nearly everything. Yet if you are planning your wedding to be a group effort among friends and family, give up your expectations for the outcome so you don't go crazy and drive your friends crazy. After some trial and error we were lucky to fill in the gaps between the favors of family and friends with a group of wedding vendors who seemed to appreciate where we were coming from, and perhaps not so strangely, we heard about all of them via word of mouth. Daria was mortified by the concept of being the stereotypical Bridezilla, and came to enjoy the wedding as a communal effort. She didn't know what it was going to finally look like, but that the finished result would be a labor of love of our close friends and family, and that was the important thing.

In the end, what started out as a Santa Cruz hippie-child wedding in the woods of Big Sur became an event with nice silverware, "chocolate" tablecloths (their word, not ours), "crème" napkins and a collection of mason jars of various sizes filled with dahlias as centerpieces. Our ceremony site was flanked by tall vases of willow branches, and the dreaded tulle made an appearance, draped over the vases. We bought hundreds of small white paper lanterns in China Town and used them as covers for Christmas lights that were strung between the trees. Our aisle runner was covered in fall leaves and we lit a bonfire as soon as it got dark. It was much more than we had set out for.

Yet in what had seemed only another insane, hair-tearing moment, the immensity of our commitment came over us as we read our vows from each other in the Home Depot parking lot.  For the first time, we sat there, reading what the other had written, and remembered once again that we got ourselves into this mess because we loved each other. After 10 months of planning, being sold wedding wishes we'd never known we wanted, navigating the minefields of seating charts, the logistics of transporting an unblemished wedding cake down Highway 1 and managing invitee lists, we were actually getting married. To one another. With our friends and family present to witness our commitment, which was more precious than we ever could have understood. And that was a good thing.

They Aim To Please

My uncle is infamous in our family for having forgotten flash bulbs on the day of my parents' wedding. Since he was the designated photographer, that means the only visual record of the blessed day is of two pale faces floating in profile in my grandparents' dimly lit living room.

Don't let that happen to you!

Below are just a few of the people who can help.

Craig W. Smith Photography
Fun, well-composed wedding portraiture throughout the Central Coast. 831.713.0864 or

Crystal Clear Video & Photography
Wedding videos throughout Monterey Bay.

Frost Photography
Artful portfolios from a studio located in Santa Cruz. 831.465.9775 or

Gillett Photography
Stylish wedding shots with playful flair. 831.334.0509 or

Jane Morba Life Photography
Sophisticated wedding photography in the Monterey Bay area. 831.402.4811 or

Kaemmerling Photography
Elegant wedding portraiture throughout the Monterey Bay region. 831.477.9077 or

Kyer Wiltshire
Candid but artfully composed wedding shots. 831.395.5937 or

Mike Danen
Photojournalistic wedding and engagement photography on the Central Coast. 800.392.9939 or

Susan Helgeson
Playful, professional wedding portraiture from a Santa Cruz studio. 831.425.5424 or

Terry Way Photography
Lively, candid wedding and event photography. 831.464.0939 or

Traci Hukill

Only the Tough Survive

How to plan a wedding while remaining in love

  • Remember that your relationship is about more than just the wedding.

  • Plan a weekly wedding meeting to air all concerns and grievances, so that you can talk about other things for the rest of the week.

  • Recognize that as you get closer and closer to the wedding, the wedding will consume all your days and nights, and there's nothing you can do about it.

  • Adopt a unified "us against the world" stance. This way, in any disagreement with vendors, planners, family or friends, you can present a united front.

  • Make sure the scope and size of your wedding is clear to you both before planning it, and realize that it takes an iron will to keep the event from metastasizing.

  • Accept that once you get to the week of the wedding, all bets are off.

  • Remember that the wedding day is the beginning and not the ending, and that planning the honeymoon is the fun part.

  • Don't believe the marketing and the hype—be resourceful, ask your talented friends and family for help, and be adaptable to what might come your way.

    Paul and Daria Davis

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