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June 12, 2008

The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest

http://www.jewishjournal.com/hollywood_jew/article/the_dress_the_ring_the_registry_and_the_rest_20080612

Teresa Strasser tries on her sister-in-law's wedding gown

Teresa Strasser tries on her sister-in-law's wedding gown

Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal's award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from "I will" to "I do." And we're sure they'll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, "If we ever get married, let's just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don't like lots of people staring at me, I don't like inconveniencing people because it's 'my special day,' and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do."

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine's Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don't love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I'm a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I'm stealing your son? I couldn't say, "I don't" to a communal "I do."

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, "Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900." Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don't drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again -- for one day -- in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that's going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, "Man, she used to be a lot thinner."

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel's sister, into our ceremony.

It's not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother's wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it's important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel's eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn't talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn's wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn't want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that's how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn't totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister's gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I've now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I'll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don't care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don't disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He's wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn't his idea and it wasn't mine, maybe it was hers. I once had to buy my friend a "culinary torch" as a wedding present. It was the only thing I could afford on her registry.

Far be it from me to suggest that a newly wedded couple doesn't need the capacity to properly caramelize crème brûlee, but it's safe to say that gone are the days when we all lived at home before marriage and had to set up a household from scratch, when we simply needed the basics to start a life together. In fact, now that we're getting married later in life, and often while already cohabitating, wedding registries can seem more like a social contract than a necessity; the couple treats you to dinner and an open bar, you send a gift from Crate & Barrel.

For many brides, this is their Special Day, and along with it comes the long-anticipated thrill of picking one's china pattern. I'm in no position to be judgmental about how commercial it's all become -- bridal registries are now a $14 billion industry -- because despite loving high heels, Oprah and lip gloss, I am missing the female wedding gene.

So, it's easy for me to get sanctimonious when visions of tiaras and name cards and veils never once danced a first dance in my head.

I don't want to set a culinary torch to any bride's dreams of crystal decanters, silverware storage boxes or ocean-themed napkin rings. Those just aren't my dreams.

On the other hand, I also don't dream of staring at "Cat on Porch," the title of a watercolor painted by my aunt Ruth, an objet d'art she was planning to send our way if we didn't register

According to my mom, people were going to have the urge to send us gifts. If we didn't register, we were liable to end up with "Cat on Porch" and other handmade delights and freestyle gift choices. She was putting the pressure on, and moms may annoy but they are rarely wrong.

The fact that we weren't throwing a traditional wedding (only 15 invitees to the actual ceremony), but instead planning two post-ceremony cocktail parties, made asking for gifts even more complicated. Still, registering for a honeymoon seemed odd and asking folks to donate to our favorite charity, while beautiful in principle, seems unsatisfying to the gift-giver.

That's how we ended up at a place I'll call the Ceramic Shack.

We entered the Shack and were trapped there for hours. For most couples, I would venture this critical pre-wedding time would be better spent discussing how to raise the kids, conduct the family finances, spend holidays. Instead, we were pondering the difference between standard and European shams.

When it was all over, we stumbled out onto the streets of Pasadena, squinting from the sunlight, like newly freed hostages. We felt like POWs, Prisoners of Wedding. I needed a Jamba Juice just to work my way up to exhausted.

Now that we've gotten our first gift, a beautiful toile quilt, I think my mom was right. One has to account for the human impulse to give in celebration of a major milestone. And to be honest, when I ran into the bride who got the culinary torch, she beamed about the tarts she'd made her husband. It warmed my heart, but not as much as an idea that sparked my brain.

I don't always get fantastic ideas at my annual girlie exam, except my speculum-warmer concept, which never caught on. This year, however, between the stirrups and checkout, I happened on an idea relevant to registries. There I was, just planning on getting my annual Pap smear (I know, great story), when the doctor asked me if we intended to start a family after getting married. When I said we were, she suggested the "Ashkenazi Jewish panel" and sent me next door where I half expected to face the Likud bloc. Instead, the panel is a series of genetic tests that detect mutations associated with 11 disorders that commonly occur in Ashkenazi Jews, including cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs.

"We're having trouble getting any more blood out of this vein," the nurse whispered. "Oh, and by the way, these tests are ... really expensive."

"How much?" I asked, waiting for more blood to trickle into her tube.

As it happens, the cash price for the full panel can run between $3,000 and $4,000, according to genetic counselor Sayeh Farivar at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Costs vary depending on the provider, and insurance companies might cover some or all of that cost; then again, given our health care system, it might not. And it's not only Jews who might consider genetic testing, Farivar said; Asian, Italian and African Americans, among other populations, have their own sets of genetic diseases.

That's when it struck me: A way to combine my aversion to the whole idea of the wedding registry with my hospital sticker shock.

Could a national chain of labs create a bridal registry for genetic testing? Someone could buy me cystic fibrosis test, for example (I learned I'm a carrier, as are one in 26 Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish Caucasians). Next to each disease could be the cost of the test and a brief description of the symptoms and prognosis.

Do I want to find out if I carry Tay-Sachs or if the Ceramic Shack carries a toaster? Wait, there's the slogan: Testing, not toasting!

This is either the most romantic or least romantic idea I have ever had. In any case, it's too late for me. I will be grateful for any gifts I get from the Ceramic Shack. Still, I'll always carry a torch for my genetic testing registry idea. I was alone, poised at my laptop, longing for the wedding photos of first daughter Jenna Bush to finally post.

I had to see what she was wearing, ogle a close-up shot of her ring. I thought Jenna looked perfect, by the way, hair a bit tousled, not too formal. Laura Bush fell a little too in love with the color turquoise, if you ask me, but the bride was flawless.

Other than my moment with Jenna, I have avoided what I think of as wedding porn: The bridal magazines that seduce you with glossy photos of $10,000 leather-embossed wedding invitations. The TV shows on basic cable that allow you to be a dazzled voyeur, leering at multitier raspberry mousse cakes adorned with cascading English roses and edible pearls. I opened a bridal magazine once, and only once, and quickly shut it like Pandora's box.

Page after page flashed giant diamond engagement rings at me. As in porn, the bridal industry and the diamond industry will both tell you: the bigger, the better.

It's hard not to be intoxicated by the large rocks on the fingers of celebrity brides. Once I mined for information, however, it was harder than a diamond itself to believe what a racket the industry has been running since 1938, when it hired an advertising agency to convince Americans that diamonds equal eternal love.

According to experts, diamonds are not scarce and they have little intrinsic value. Because the tradition of diamond engagement rings is so ubiquitous, I was shocked to find out it was such a recent phenomenon. It was, in fact, nothing but the calculated strategy of De Beers to deal with an increasing supply of diamonds, combined with an all-time-low demand after the Great Depression, according to "Not Forever," a thorough piece on the history of diamonds on Salon.com. The "A Diamond Is Forever" ad campaign established in 1947 was astonishingly effective: sales of De Beers diamonds skyrocketed.

How much should a man spend on this arguably valueless hunk of rock? Why, guess who developed the formula? De Beers!

A buying guideline still largely in effect originated from the company's marketing materials in the early 20th century, suggesting a man spend from two to three month's salary on an engagement ring.

Clever corporate persuasion aside, you don't need Leonardo DiCaprio to tell you that the diamond industry exploits workers, many of them children, fuels bloodshed and social strife, funds deadly civil wars and, on top of that, the process of mining dirties the environment and strips local ecosystems. What a romantic notion: A child working for slave wages may have pulled your very rock out of the ground before the price was artificially inflated and your man -- under more pressure than a carbon atom 100 miles below the earth's surface -- had to buy it for you to announce his monthly income to the world.

The industry is taking steps toward reducing the number of conflict diamonds. Still, many human rights groups think the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme -- a 2003 initiative designed to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds -- is of questionable efficacy. It relies on the diamond industry to police itself. Anyone can sell you a diamond with a "conflict free" tag, but it's very difficult to follow a diamond from mine to mall.

For me, even a diamond from Canada or another conflict-free zone comes with baggage.

Even if the mining of diamonds wasn't an ethical or environmental concern, the idea that starting a lifetime together with a bad investment (diamonds have a notoriously low resale value) hurts the blue-collar girl I am to my core. My dad was a mechanic. I have spent many years underemployed in my field and may do so again. All of this directs me toward one deeply felt truth: For me, diamonds are not a girl's best friend. A nest egg is a girl's best friend. A down payment is a girl's best friend.

And when it comes to bling, science may be your true BFF.

Listen, I'm not standing here on my Dr. Bronner's soapbox telling you I can wrap a string of hemp around my ring finger and go on my "marry" way. I wanted a solution that was both pretty and mindful -- which is how I discovered cultured diamonds.

For a couple of years now, small machines have been able to replicate the heat and pressure that turn carbon into diamond under the earth's surface, creating in a lab what are chemically, physically and optically diamonds. I'm not talking about cubic zirconium. These are the real deal, and a real deal at less than 25 percent the cost of a mined diamond. Cultured diamonds can be produced in colors, mainly canary, but they have become clearer in recent years.

My man sought out one of these stones, had it set and I haven't stopped staring at the vivid yellow gem since he popped the question.

To give both cultured and mined diamonds their due, they are the hardest substance known, with the highest thermal conductivity. That means they are not only tough but can withstand high heat without getting burned. These are excellent qualities for both gemstones and marriage metaphors.

The difference is this: While love can't be forged in a lab, the diamonds that can are a far more fitting symbol of human connection. When I glance down at my own ring, the cut and color are stunning, but it's the clarity that catches my eye.


Teresa Strasser can be heard on the "Adam Carolla Show" mornings on 97.1 FM KLSX. Her wedding book, "Sentimental or Cheap?" comes out this fall.


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