Chairs are not the first thing that most newly engaged couples think about when they decide to get married. But anyone who plans a wedding of any significant scale will eventually have to think about what the guests will sit on. For some, it’s a necessity solved by a visit to a website like The Knot, which offers 57 different examples of ways to decorate seating.
For Meg Keene, the sudden urgency of the chair question—including whether to spring for pricey Chiavari chairs—was among the unexpected absurdities that prompted her to start blogging in righteous indignation before her 2009 wedding, after bursting into tears for the umpteenth time over the expense and complication trying to get married. “I plan to rock the chuppah in a white dress,” she wrote in the first post on her site, A Practical Wedding. “But I seem to have next to nothing in common with the wedding industry, and I hate that it’s trying to tell me what to do.”
We all know what the wedding industry sells: the idea that making the day a marriage begins perfect will somehow set a pattern for everything that follows. And for anyone too cynical to believe that, there’s an even more instrumental logic available: the idea that deciding to get married entitles, and even obligates, two people to throw the biggest, most complicated party of their lives, so that even if things don’t work out, well, at least there’s one amazing event to show for it. The result is that the various popular guides and websites devoted to wedding planning or the state of contemporary marriage tend toward the decidedly trivial. Consider the weekly sideshow of the New York Times’ Modern Love columns. Or look at The Knot’s list of top 10 wedding fights: how to rein in the groom’s guest list when his parents aren’t paying, how to deal with a groom who doesn’t care about the color of the table linens, and whether it’s fair for the bride to claim a chunk of the budget for a fancy dress when her intended wants to splurge on a honeymoon in Bora Bora. “The wedding bookshelf tends to veer toward reinforcing the cultural idea that being a bride is all about being the most demanding, awful human being on the face of the planet, because you deserve it,” Keene told me when we spoke recently. “But it’s an actual rite of passage, where you are actually forming a new family.”
By contrast, Keene’s site offers almost-engaged girlfriends, brides-to-be, and new wives something like what Sassy magazine, in its early-’90s heyday, offered pre-teen girls terrified by Seventeen: a space where messy reality is normalized and confronted. Most of the site is devoted to real-world wedding stories, with budget advice and how-to’s included, submitted by readers who are cutely dubbed “wedding graduates”—everything from navigating bilingual weddings to sign-language weddings. But the most striking posts delve into complicated and touchy issues like coping with toxic family relationships, planning second weddings, dealing with infertility—all things that are routinely airbrushed out of the glossier wedding media. A post Keene wrote on the question of name-changing generated 624 comments, many by women who felt torn between their feminism and their desire for marriage to signal the establishment of a new family. A follow-up, by a reader wrestling with how whatever name she chose to use would affect her future children, elicited relief from a commenter who said she had no one in her offline world to discuss the issue with: “It’s exhausting. The only thing we’ve learned so far is to stop talking about it with our friends, because someone has something negative to say about each choice, no matter what.”
A former off-Broadway theater producer who took a job at an investment bank in San Francisco to help support her fiancé through law school at Berkeley, Keene says she started the blog with the notion that it could turn into a business. The site now attracts advertisements from wedding photographers, independent jewelers, and wedding-dress consignment services, and while Keene remains the guiding voice of the site, she also employs a team of editors who write regular features and solicit posts from readers, all written in an engagingly wry fashion and often illustrated with gorgeously hip photographs.
Last month, Keene published a spinoff book, also titled A Practical Wedding, which organizes the accumulated wisdom of the site into a planning guide, complete with personal essays from the site’s readers. She spends a chapter of her book deconstructing the history of elaborate ballroom weddings and arguing for a return to the bygone simplicity of parlor-room ceremonies. “There is a multibillion-dollar industry devoted to telling us that things have always been exactly the way the are this second, and we need to buy everything on offer because this is the way it’s always been done,” she writes. “It turns out that actual wedding etiquette is remarkably uninterested in your spending boatloads of money.”
But Keene says even she’s surprised by the degree to which the site has moved away from the nuts and bolts of wedding planning into deep questions about feminism, family loyalty, and the terms of modern marriage. “The site acts like it’s about wedding planning, but it’s about growing up,” Keene, who is 31, told me. “There’s nothing like deciding to spend your life with someone to make you think about other decisions in your life.” The discussions on the site are highly ecumenical and welcoming of anyone who puts thought into what a wedding means—and of those who decide weddings aren’t for them. “If there is anything I like, it’s devil’s advocate arguments,” Keene wrote in her introduction for a recent post by a couple who eloped. “So when we decided to explore the ‘Why Wedding?’ question, you knew we were going to have to talk about not having a wedding.”
That willingness to play with the possibilities of “tradition” have made A Practical Wedding a home for earnest confessionals about designing Jewish ceremonies, or about bringing other faith elements into Jewish weddings. A recent “wedding graduate” post detailed how one woman, an atheist whose Mexican Catholic mother had converted to marry her unobservant but Jewishly identified father, chose to have her maternal grandfather drape her and her groom with the family’s lazo rosary beads, complete with a golden crucifix, under the chuppah. Another reader wrote about banning wedding talk on Shabbat with her fiancé in the midst of debating the text of their ketubah.
Nevertheless, it was a post Keene—who grew up in an church-going Protestant household but told me she converted so that she and her husband, David, could raise their children in a single faith—wrote about what her chuppah meant to her that provoked what she says has been the site’s most contentious debate. “ ‘The chuppah does not promise that love or hope or pledges will keep out weather or catastrophe, but its few lines are a sketch for what that might be,’ ” Keene wrote, quoting her wedding program. “Married life is wonderful, but complicated, and in the midst of those twists and turns, I need that moment in the sun to look back on, to have those public sketches of hope, that moment of choosing.” In response, non-Jewish readers said they were inspired to include chuppahs in their own wedding ceremonies—prompting Keene to respond, fiercely, that it was “borderline offensive” for non-Jews to adopt some cultural and religious symbols for their own weddings. “We had people saying there are elements of our religion that are not open to appropriation, and there was a reaction of people saying, ‘How can you tell me no?’ ” Keene said. “But this is what happens in the wedding industry—people start to say, ‘Aren’t these all cute things to do at a wedding?’ ”
It’s precisely the blunt nature of the discussions that draws a loyal audience to the site: about 120,000 visitors a month, almost exclusively women, including many who have no immediate plans to get married and women whose weddings have long since passed. It is not a place where anything gets sugarcoated. So, there are heartbreaking posts from people who have called off weddings at the last minute—including one by a woman who discovered she had a brain tumor immediately after telling her fiancé she was having doubts—and there are emotional horror stories, like one from a reader who wrote in for advice about dealing with her fiancé’s nightmarish twin sister: “She stormed out of the room and then later declared that if she wanted to she could sabotage the wedding and make our lives a living hell.”
Other stories are less dramatic but nevertheless resonate with readers stressed about their own banal wedding stress—people who can’t believe they’re worrying about such little things. Last year, a woman named Morgan wrote about trying to contain her narcissistic mother. “So there I am, all dressed up, tiara and veil on, feeling pretty and bridal, waiting for some maternal approval,” Morgan wrote. “Her only comment? ‘Your elbows are too brown, you should moisturize more.’ ” Someone named Claire responded, “As I’ve been prowling blogs and message boards for ideas and information about planning my wedding, I’ve felt like all the ‘normal’ people have had a smooth, easy time with this, and all those who have difficulty with family are somehow low class or trashy. I’m so relieved.”