Monthly Archives: September 2006

Rome is an impossible city

Rome is an impossible city to see in a day. We got off the ship at the port of Civitavecchia(means “old city”), a place growing so quickly that our tour guide told us there was an exit for busses that hadn’t even been there the previous week. The number of cruise ships that dock here for Rome has increased from 100 a year ten years ago to a thousand ships a year today. Someone finally figured out that the port needed to be expanded.

From Civitavecchia we were bussed into Rome — probably a little over an hour, and then a half hour through Rome to St. Peter’s Square, where we were dropped off with a map and told to try to walk to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps, and a number of other sites, and then return to St. Peter’s to meet the guide, who would take us to the Basilica. This was called the “Taste of Rome” tour.

Our first taste of Rome was the restroom of the Hotel Columbus, just off St. Peter’s Square and one of the most beautiful old hotels I have ever seen. All dark wood and marble, rich with tradition and complete with Wi-fi for guests only.

Bummed out, we staggered into the Internet cafe for a fix, because the system on the ship had been down for a day (hardware problems) and a half.

And then we began to walk. I was quickly overwhelmed by the sense of history in Rome, from the acqueducts to the Tiber to the Vatican. We started walking toward the Fontana de Trevi, crossed the Tiber, and immediately took a fortuitous wrong turn. A fascinating hour of small shops, art galleries, alleys, churches, and cafes later, we figured out that we’d never make it to our destination on foot because we had no idea where we were going and had fallen in love with the town.

So we grabbed a cab and instructed him to drive us around to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps, and then back to the square, where we met the group for the tour of St. Peter’s.

Fruitless to talk about the beauty of this cathedral, the largest in the world. Amazing to think it ever got built, especially so long ago. It took 125 years from groundbreaking to the first Mass, and a succession of architects died working on it. I know you have seen pictures, but the baroque details can’t be represented in a photograph — and certainly not in words.

The Colosseum was next, and I passed on it. By this time I was still enamored of Rome, but tired of the forced march aspect of touring, so I opted to sit in a cafe and have some gelato. Turned out this cafe was right near a polytechnic institute, so when I went into the Librairie near the cafe to try to buy myself a book I found the entire O’Reilley series, and shelves of programming, Linux, and VOIP books. Roman techies!

By the time we got back to Civitavecchia, ten hours later, we were pretty exhausted. We decided we would come back and stay a week, in the Hotel Columbus, so we could be eligible to use it’s wi-fi 🙂

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The worst tragedy has befallen

The worst tragedy has befallen us. The Internet is down on the ship. So here I am, in the shadow of St. Peters Basilica, sitting in an Internet cafe for my fix. At least there is broadband here. And my daughter seems to be recovering. Of course, every time the boat docks, we recover, because we are so happy to be seeing something besides jewelry sales and martini bars (not offensive in and of themselves, but a bit tiresome as every day fare).

Yesterday we walked around Corsica, which is a lovely little French island, the birthplace of Napoleon. We really liked it’s ambience.

And in the evening, we celebrated the birthdays of two of our friends, the ones we came on this cruise for. So for all of you who have been writing to me asking why an independent spirit like me would go on a cruise, here is the answer: I am actually with about forty fantastic friends and former neighbors who all decided to celebrate the 40th birthdays of Bobby Barnes and Karen Greenberg by going on a Mediterranean cruise together. Although we all made this decision in a fit of conviviality two summers ago in Carmel, a surprising number of us made good on our promise to accompany Bobby and Karen to their birthday bash. That takes a certain amount of commitment.

So there are two sides to this experience: first, my writer’s eye for the details of cruising, an eye that can often be cynical and ironic; second, my friend’s desire to be with friends. My father used to tell me “it’s not where you are; it’s who you are with,” and that is the truth.

Another thing on the good side of the ledger is the Stateroom Attendant, who is like a butler or maid, getting us everything we want. Our room key is a magnetized card, and every time I put it in my pocket with my cell phone, it de-magnetizes and I have to ask her for another one. She never complains, perhaps because our entire group tipped in advance.

The staff on the ship is from all over the world; I had a manicure from a girl from South Africa who thought the cruise ship job was brought to her by God. At home, she said, she slept on the floor and her entire family lived in one room. Now, with the money she makes on the ship she sends enough home to allow her mother to build another rooom on their house.

Others are not as grateful. It must be awful to be young, separated from family in Romania or Indonesia or India or Africa, and watch Americans and Europeans who are by comparison awash in money look so unhappy. But they gracefully serve us, and I love to engage them in conversation to find out about their backgrounds.

Off to see Rome. I would like at least to get a little beyond the Basilica before the bus comes to take us back to the ship 🙂

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Life at Sea on the

Life at Sea on the Floating Wal-Mart

OMG, we are spending the entire day at sea. I get up and go to the gym, and things are great. But it’s all downhill from there.

I go to this treatment called Ionathermie, which I am trying because it’s supposed to detox and lose inches, and remove cellulite and…everything but ensure financial security. I know it won’t work, but I will try anything once. A Japanese woman mixes a potion of herbs in a metallic bowl, like a cake mixing bowl. Then she folds the gelid herbs into a clay powder. She then uses a spatula-like device to spread the clay mixture on a mat atop a massage table. Before she makes me lie down on the table, she measures my waist, hips, and thighs. Down I go on the table.

Then she connects electrodes to my body in about eight different places. I try to resist the urge to giggle, thinking I am in a sci-fi movie with bad special effects. She tells me this is a popular treatment in France and Japan, where people understand both herbs and unusual drug delivery systems. She tells me she has been doing it for twelve years. She asks me if I am serious and committed. I already know that this is code for “will you buy the products at the end of the treatment.” Having already answered in the affirmative to the personal trainer, to the tune of about $250, I assure her that if this produces results, I will do anything she tells me.

I relax on the clay potion, and she covers me with a blanket and turns on the current. I feel a tingling in my body, not unlike what the physical therapist gives me after my hip treatments. It’s electrical stimulation. In this case, it is supposed to open blockages in the lymphatic system and deliver the herbs through the skin to the body.

A half hour later, she commands that I arise, and then measures me again. Damn, I’ve lost 6.75 inches. She tells me I will continue losing as I continue to detox. She tells me to expect greater elimination. She tells me she will write me a prescription. The prescription, if filled, costs about $750.00. I eliminate some things, and bring the cost down to an “affordable” $500. She tells me I should come back for a repeat treatment, and I assure her I will see her later in the cruise. I know, hoewever, that I can’t afford to darken her doorstep again.

I leave and go to a spartan lunch in the Spa cafe. On the way there, I pass one of the people in my cruising group. He walks right by me, apologizing profusely that he is seasick and on the way to Client Relations for some pills. Then I attempt to go out by the pool. I see that the boat is rocking, and the water is coming ten feet out of the pool like a fountain and spraying all over the deck. People are scattering. I go back inside the gym to use the bathroom. I see that half the staff is barfing in the bathrooms.

I’m no fool. I stagger back to our stateroom, where my daughter is also sick. Hmm…do people PAY TO DO THIS?

I hunker down in bed for three hours. When I think it’s safe to get up, I put on my formal wear for the Captain’s Welcome dinner. My daughter will not be joining me. When I arrive at the dining room, I see that they have drawn the blinds so we can no longer see the waves out the windows. Now we see phony Italian still lives, and landscapes. Half the dining room is empty, and the others are eating with forced enthusiasm.

I escape with a bowl of ice cream for my daughter, who is –thank heavens–feeling better.

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Over the past few days,

Over the past few days, I�ve seen the best and the worst of cruising, a sport at which I am fabulously unsuccessful. Make no mistake, I love to travel. But this is like having a series of one-night stands in which you don�t remember the different partners.

Yesterday I went to sleep in Barcelona, and this morning we were in Cartagena, a sunny port city in Spain with picturesque cobblestone streets and Eurotrash clothing stores ( I love them). Got off the boat, took a walk, spent some money, felt good about the world.

At the gym, I met a wonderful trainer named Willie from New Zealand, who is desperate to help anyone who shows up. I showed up for a Pilates class at 8 AM, little knowing that no one else would, nor would they show for Spinning at 9, either. That gave him quite a bit of time to teach me new exercises. I think the gym is largely ornamental, as is the jogging track and the Spa Caf� with its miniscule portions of poached salmon supported by two lone pieces of asparagus. At any given time, about 6 out of 2200 passengers are on the equipment. One of the men in our party said that this was a cruise for senior citizens and their parents.

But I love all gyms, and when I caught my breath again after paying $250 for 500 Internet minutes, I loved the Internet caf�. I love how technology can accompany me everywhere. Even at sea, I am accompanied by my companion, the Internet. Often we even have cellular phone reception. Some parts of a cruise � the ones that are like being at home � are wonderful.

But everything else is like a floating Wal-Mart without the everyday low prices.. A bottle of water costs $2.50, as does a Diet Coke. $5.50 to have a pair of pants washed. To go anywhere, you pass through entire streets of shops, where they try to sell you jewelry, art, clothing, anything to make certain the base cost of the cruise to the cruiser is doubled by the time he gets home. And your fellow passengers do not look like anyone you really know, but a lot like the people to whom you try to be polite at church. We say greet each other heartily as we pass each other in the corridors.

In the restaurants and cafes (too numerous to mention), they ply you with buffet choices mercilessly, until you�re in a constant food coma. In case you miss a meal or a snack, they also bring food to your stateroom, where you don�t want it because you don�t even have a place to put it down. If there�s a plate on the desk, there�s no room for the shampoo, hand lotion, and hairbrushes you are keeping there because there�s no room for them in the bathroom. The ends of the beds are rounded, so you can pass between them and the rest of the furniture to get to the balcony.

The corridors are full of dueling canes and the elevators bursting with mobility carts and wheel chairs In the afternoon, the swimming pool may be empty, but the deck chairs are full of elderly women in bikinis, protruding everywhere. They occupy those chairs like chickens on a spit, slowly roasting and reading, Their husbands are in the three hot tubs at one end of the pool. The Below Average White Band plays Bar Mitzvah music in the background (no, it�s the foreground), trying to create a with-it ambience. It ain�t working.

Many passengers pass the time of day being massaged with hot rocks or having their faces exfoliated, just waiting for it to be time to drink. Then they will overrun the Martini bar until it�s time for the five course dinner, and perhaps the straight-to-cruise-ships movie or the casino.

Our recently renovated ship is a big, big boat. Where do they all come from, all these doddering party animals who have paid for every single room on the Centennial? This is not the Love Boat. They all say they are here to decompress. Well, I�m not compressed! Who needs to sit around the pool, eating buffet-fuls of ice cream for two weeks?

Tonight during dinner we abandoned Cartagena, a town I saw about half a mile of, for Corsica, an island I have to keep reminding myself is in France. I didn�t see us leave, because I was too busy drinking and eating. No doubt I won�t see us arrive, either.

Tomorrow we spend the day at sea. I can�t afford to hang out on the Internet all day, so what to do? Perhaps I will pass the time by going to a lecture on �The Serious Side of Stealing,� or I could also enter the �Spot the Fake Amber� competition, or play �Scattergories.� Or Texas Hold �Em in the Casino.

No, I�m not making it up. I am one of them for the next ten days.

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Baby’s First Cruise I’m on

Baby’s First Cruise

I’m on a boat in the middle of the ocean. How did I get here? Who am I? If you keep reading, you may witness my adjustment to the first cruise of my life. Some of it isn’t pretty. No one tells you about the minor details of cruises. It’s like the minor details of recovery after surgery. People who do this have selective amnesia after it’s over. They may remember the ports, but I bet they try to forget the boat.

I’ve travelled the world, but never in a structured situation where they tell you to dress for dinner, sit you down at an assigned time that is past your bed time, and prohibit you from wearing jeans to the dining room for fear you will spoil the ambience (of people wearing rented formal wear and dresses from Ross). Coming on top of the trip to Barcelona, the cruise was a real shocker.

Street life in Barcelona is wonderful. Last night we ate outdoors at a tapas bar and watched the performance artists, the musicians and the other tourists. Every cruise seems to dock at Barcelona, and it’s a big corporate destination, so it is always crowded. This morning, we woke up and took a taxi to Starbucks, of course (I try to find the Starbucks everywhere I go, to see how well the culture transfers. Unbelievably, it usually does. From Rotorua, New Zealand to Shanghai to Barcelona, I get the same coffee frappacino, sit in the same chair, and watch the same people go through the coffee line.

Then took another taxi all the way across Barcelona to Tibidabo, an amusement park on top of a mountain that reveals a magnificent view of all of the city. Barcelona is BIG. It’s the second largest city in Spain, soon to become the first. I found it impressive. It also convinced us that although we’d gone all around the city the day before on a bus, we really hadn’t seen a thing. I was ready to make a list.

But we had to leave. Full of anticipation, we set off for the pier. From the moment I looked at the boat, it didn’t look friendly. Lifeboats, portholes, small windows –eeeeek! My daughter was equally (if not more) anxious. When we boarded, it got worse. We found ourselves in a room the size of the bathroom I’m redoing at my California house (not a big room), with two twin beds covered with Euro shams. Euro shams are the square pillows they put on beds that are too narrow for real pillows. I’ve been on trains in India that were more commodious. And we’re in Concierge Class.

Quickly we realized that if my daughter wanted to get to the bathroom, I would have to stand on the bed to give her room on the floor to pass. We contemplated getting off. Was it worth $5000 to leave the cruise right here and now? We thought it probably was. But because we were with a group of friends, we were chicken to do it.

We collapsed on the bed in gales of laughter, imagining ourselves abandoning the cruise before it sailed, or perhaps after the first night. Then the lifeboat drill began. My daughter opted for unconsciousness, telling me not to wake her for anything. I skipped the drill. I’m a big risk taker. Face it, if we get into a lifeboat, either my seat cushion will be a flotation device, or it will not.

I was all alone in the universe. And then the sucker started to MOVE. Our boat pass ed another boat, and all the passengers on our boat screamed at the strangers on the other one. Who were these people, and were they adults?

I walked out into the corridor. Thank God I ran into a friend immediately. She invited me to the room of another friend, where about ten of the people I paid to spent this week with were drinking champagne. I began to feel better. Sort of. This sucker is still moving. And the Internet is $.75 a minute. At that rate, it’s more expensive than the spa treatments.

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Barcelona: Flying sure has gotten

Barcelona:
Flying sure has gotten interesting. In the airport, I was one of the lucky ones who were searched. They opened my backpack and threw out two old Ultra lipsticks, worth about $4.00 and just as dangerous. They missed $200 worth of Obagi face creams I forgetfully threw in there, and a nail file (metal, pointed) that had been there from the summer when I used the backpack as a purse. And a jar of Burt�s Bees lemon cuticle cream, and…you get it –security is sporadic.

On the planes themselves, things have sure gotten lean and mean. I haven�t flown an American carrier on a long haul in years, and I don�t think I will do it again soon. UsAirways sold me food on the flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia and gave me the worst food I�ve ever had on a plane from Philly to Barcelona. For dinner, a combination of starches. For breakfast, a donut bar. And they charged me for wine, which has never happened on a transcontinental flight before. No little slippers, no eye masks, no nuthin. Not even music. I brought two iPODs with me and went through the batteries on both.

Barcelona rocks. We landed at 7 AM Sunday morning, and our room wasn�t ready, so we got on the Bus Turistic, a doubledecker that drives all through the city on two different routes. For 18 euros, you can ride all day, getting off and on as many times as you want.

The architecture is unbelievably diverse –everything from the surreal, Art Nouveau Gaudi buildings to public sculpture by Joan Miro, to one futuristic all glass office building that has several floors cantilevered out over nothing. And then there are the beautiful restorations of old Mediterranean-looking buildings, with lovely wrought iron balconies off every window and floor to ceiling shuttered windows.

Found the Starbucks. Lines at 9 AM Sunday morning just like everywhere else, except these are fancy Euro-looking fashionistas with cropped pants and high heels and bizarre-shaped sweaters.

Tomorrow, the cruise.

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TechCrunch’s guru Michael Arrington has

TechCrunch’s guru Michael Arrington has admitted this week that he is an investor in Dogster (www.dogster.com). Now, he may be a brilliant man who has taken over Silicon Valley with his blogs and parties, but I must admit I think he’s going to get a quick Web2.0 lesson from this investment. The lesson will be in humility, because Dogster sucks. You can mash up many things, but I’m not sure you can mash up dogs and humans (yet).

Lest everybody who reads this because it has Tech Crunch as a tag, let me assure all you strangers that am an early adopter of just about everything. So when I heard that Dogster launched last year, I spent hours on the site signing up my own dogs and checking out the dogs of others. But after a few weeks of exchanging emails with other chow owners and other golden owners who wanted play dates or just wanted to give my dog a “rosette,” I got tired of politely returning the emails of other people who had a lot more time on their hands than I do and decided I could put that time to better use by playing with my dogs instead of writing about them.

In the immortal words of web design, http://www.dogster.com was not “sticky.” I had no reason to come back.

When I went to the Tech Crunch party in August, I met one of the founders of Dogster, and he told me the site would soon launch many new features. Tactlessly, I told him it needed them and recounted my experience. I wonder what the $1m he just received in funding from people like Arrington will produce.

What would Dogster need to become the portal of choice for dog enthusiasts? (Read: sickos who sleep with their dogs). Well, for one thing, it could aggregate information about canine health,saving me countless trips to the vet’s office to ask questions like “What’s the best food for a golden retriever “? or “do I really have to brush his teeth every night”? I also occasionally want to know how much exercise my dog needs, or how much chocolate will kill him. I love being able to look these things up on the Internet, and I use Google to do that.

Even more interesting to the committed dog owner are the dog behavior problems. How do I stop this goofball from raking my arm every morning when I want to stay in bed and he wants to be fed? How do I stop him from running up to other dogs barking like an idiot while wagging his tail wildly, and then stopping at the last minute in a downward slide like a cartoon pup?

And oh, by the way, the site could always sell pet products. I buy rubber balls by the case from Dog.com, and I get my dog food dropped at my house by Goober Express. A one-stop shop would be nice.

Other sites have this information, but no one place has it all. A place like Dogster should have it all.

One other comment: the site’ s so busy it’ s hard to find out what it DOES have. A couple of weeks I had to put one of the dogs I listed on Dogster to sleep, and I wanted to transfer him to a part of the site for memorials, or to take him off completely. However, I couldn’t easily find out how to do this, or how to write his obit. I suspect that capability is on the site, but I just couldn’t find it. So for the owners of Dogster I recommend a simpler interface.

I’ve made a note in my calendar to go back to Dogster in six months to see if there’s anything new. When I went back yesterday to do my research for this blog, I saw that there’s now something called “Catster,” too. Actually, I also have a cat. But when was the last time YOU arranged a play date for your cat?

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The rehearsal dinner for my daughter’s wedding was a grape crush, in which teams of guests got into barrels of grapes and tried to produce the most wine in the allotted time. I figured if I got into a barrel, I’d never get out, so I opted to watch and root for all of the teams equally. As night fell in Sonoma, the temperature dropped precipitously. If I were a grape, I’d ripen, but I happen to be a human being, so I just froze.

Fortunately, they brought out bathrobes for us spectators, and we were able to bundle up sylishly. The bathrobes, ironically, were made by a former client of mine, an entrepreneur who appears to control the spa and hotel bathrobe industry.

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Every year when I have

Every year when I have a physical, I have a fasting blood cholesterol. For this, I race down to the lab at dawn, so I can have it over with and go on to Starbucks. Dawn this year for the lab was 7 AM, and there I was this morning, thinking I’d be first.

Nope. Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the nation, and it has the mother of all health care accessibility problems. At 7 AM, there were already fifteen people ahead of me in the waiting room. Between the crowds and the sparse amount of reading material in English, I felt like I was in a clinic in Africa, not the U.S. I’m old enough to remember when every medical office had at least a bunch of old National Geographic magazines. In this lab, all they had were pamphlets in Spanish about why to have your cholesterol tested or what diabetes is.

The day before I had made my quarterly pilgrimage to my family physician, and had a wait of almost an hour, which I filled by sitting on the floor and doing various yoga poses while reading a dog-eared copy of Smart Money. Now, I contemplated another equal wait, and I thought about going down on the floor again, but decided I was already hyperflexible; and besides, the people in this office don’t know me.

When I finally sat down in the phlebotomist’s cubicle, I asked her if I could get a copy of my own test results. Her answer? No. Very interesting. I pointed out to her that under HIPAA, my records were mine, and not the doctor’s. She agreed, but said it was the lab’s policy to release results only to physicians.

Why did this bother me?

Because I had this same test about six months ago at an orthopedist’s office as part of another routine workup. But the lab, the orthopedist, and the family physician apparently didn’t share the information, and the last lipid profile in my doctor’s folder was in 2004. I was ready to take personal responsibility for my health by personally carrying the test results to the physician’s office, but I’m not allowed to do so. Instead, I’m to wait 5-7 business days, which is code for two weeks, and then call my physician’s office for my results. Trust me, he’s a nice man, but he’s way too busy to call me.

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I am the mother of

I am the mother of the bride. For the past year I’ve been a victim of the requirements of TheKnot.com, a web site that rules the life of every modern bride.

The wedding is Saturday. The preparations are at a fever pitch. A lot has already happened: the bride has gotten a preliminary spray tan, and will get another. The fiance has arrived from Amsterdam.

One of our four family dogs (we don’t have the DNA match back yet, so we don’t know which dog , as they were all in a fight together over a dog biscuit when it happened) has bitten the maid of honor and caused her to take a trip to the Coastside urgent care, get a dozen stitches, and endure a week of Vicodin and keyboard withdrawal. This maid of honor is my daughter. The bride is my other daughter.

The future in-laws are in town from Canada. All is progressing as it should. They are a family I wish we could emulate.

I took them out to a family dinner on their first night in the States. When I got home, I discovered that my golden retriever had eaten at least ten bags of chocolate meant for guest favors while we were enjoying linguini pescadoro. He ate the candies and the tinfoil wrappings, leaving over over the gum and the plastic bags. Somehow he opened the bedroom door and all the Ziploc bags, extracted the candy and left the gum in each bag. He deposited the empty Ziploc bags in every room of the house, and on the back lawn.

When I called the emergency vet, she said he would need to eat a pound of chocolate for every pound he weighed to be really poisoned. So I guess I don’t drive him to San Mateo to have his stomach pumped this evening. I will wait it out and call someone to clean up the yard.

I have had my blood pressure medicines changed once already. I might have to have it done again before the weekend, just in case. I also have to have my toenails polished, because I just found out part of the fun of the rehearsal dinner involves getting barefoot. I was counting on keeping those toes covered.

I’m writing this while the dog is having an episode of hyperactivity from all the sugar and caffeine. When he comes down from his high, I can regroup and analyze the big “Meet the Fockers” dinner. I thought it went well. My Fockers happen to be missionaries — better people than I will ever be. They speak several languages, which always makes me feel responsible for the failures of the entire American education system, which hardly taught me enough French to greet them. They have travelled the world trying to be of service. I have travelled the world amassing tattoos, art work, and Flickr albums.

I am hoping to get through the wedding without them noticing my shortcomings. I’m thinking of hiding the part about the dog. If I’m a bad mother of a dog, what will they think of their son marrying my daughter?

I have discarded the dress I bought for the wedding without even wearing it. I have hated it since I ordered it, and my daughter the bride confirmed it when I brought it home from the bridal place. My daughter the maid of honor will wear her dress once and burn it.

The bride, however, will be beautiful. She was born to wear a wedding dress. It’s astonishing how good she looks in these lace and taffeta concoctions that make the average girl look like the cake.

I never wear dresses. Even the dog looks better in them than I do.

I’m stunned at the amount of preparation that goes into getting married nowadays. My own marriages were not so complicated. When I married the father of my children, we drove to Las Vegas in the middle of the night, went to a wedding chapel the name of which we never even remembered, got married by three total strangers and drove back to Phoenix. It was the seventies, and we were living in geodesic domes.

The last marriage took place in my future husband’s backyard, attended by whichever of our children could carve time out of their schedules to attend.

But all this was before the bridal industry emerged, turning middle class families into Martha Stewart. The Dark Ages of the industry were a magazine called �Modern Bride,� and they evolved into bridal expos, wedding coordinators, and finally the automation of the wedding experience by TheKnot.com. TheKnot.com aggregates everything you need, and a lot of things you don�t — like tips on what guests will like least about the wedding. The pressure on the bride and groom to provide a perfect destination experience on their wedding day is intense.

I’m not sure this makes weddings more or less successful occasions, but I know it introduces another level of stress. Who was disintermediated by TheKnot.com? Emily Post? Miss Manners? Who made up all these requirements? We will meet them all, the wedding will be beautiful, but we will all need a honeymoon after it’s over.

Ironically, the wedding will be at a winery, and only the photographer and videographer will remember it.

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