Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Throw a Surprise Wedding, Part 2: Engagement

Being that I had a specific time window in which to propose, I was thinking about how I was going to propose for months, but struggled to come up with anything.
I had asked several people, mostly female, for ideas. I was frustrated to discover that almost none of them had given any thought as to how they’d like to be proposed to. The answer I received more than once was, “oh, I would just let him do his thing, I guess. That’s his job.”
They were right, I suppose. Girls really shouldn’t spend time imagining their perfect engagement, because it’s the one part of the affair that they don’t have control over.

You should know that Makenzie is a very organized person, especially in the way she plans her time. When we were dating, we realized that it was beneficial to create a shared calendar on our phones. Any time one of us made plans, it would end up on the calendar. Even if there were events we were “maybe” going to, they would be written down so we could adjust as needed.
Now imagine trying to plan a romantic, thoughtful and surprising engagement given those criteria. Makenzie had already picked out her own engagement band and wedding ring; she was planning the wedding almost entirely by herself (since we couldn’t tell other people beyond our parents, and I wasn't very helpful beyond making some aesthetic decisions). Furthermore, during our first few weeks dating, she told me her two requirements for an engagement. I thought they were very sweet and not at all crazy, and I’m not being sarcastic. I always feared whoever I married would have a long list of requirements for both the wedding and the proposal, and thankfully, Makenzie only had two:

1). It’s not in a public place (with friends or strangers, just us)
2). There is a photographer hidden somewhere nearby to capture the moment.

I thought it was reasonable and more importantly, doable.

Because the engagement party/wedding was planned for January 16, we had to get engaged at a specific time, so the timing of the party would make since. My window of time was the first two weeks of December. This means that Makenzie was fully aware that I would be popping the question somewhere in there, and you can understand the kind of pressure I felt.

I’ll tell you what, I hate lying. I’ve never had to lie as much as I lied this past year. I’ve lied about the wedding date, the engagement party, the proposal… and finally, during the first part of December, I had to lie to the woman I love.

For a month beforehand, she kept asking me about it. “How are you going to do it?” she would ask. “Do you really want to know?” I would reply. She would look at me for a moment with excitement in her eyes, then say, “no, no. I want to be surprised!”
As much as possible, I tried to give the impression that I had the whole thing planned out. In reality, I had no clue what I was going to do. As soon as December rolled around, I settled into a mild panic. It’s amazing what a deadline can do for productivity.

In a moment of desperation, I gathered all of the ladies who were planning Makenzie’s bachelorette party into a group message on Facebook and explained my plight. I asked for any ideas they might have. I had been fishing for proposal ideas since we had first started dating.

One of our good friends (Hailey) had a great idea: She would leverage an existing conversation she had been having with Makenzie: Hailey works for a local historical museum that doubles as a wedding venue. She and Makenzie had been talking for months about doing a small photo shoot that Hailey could use for promotional photo.

She explained that she would ask Makenzie to set some time aside the following week for the photos, then Makenzie would ask me if I was available. I would “grumble” and say yes, thus throwing her off the scent of my plan.

And so the game was afoot. The plan was in motion, and no force in Heaven nor Hell could stop me.

For the next week, Makenzie continued to pester me with questions about the proposal, always curious but never really wanting to know. I was typically mysterious, but she was able to get little bits of information out of me here and there.

As the date approached, she became more frantic. “My calendar is full!” she would say. “If you’re going to propose, you better set aside time now, because I won’t be able to reschedule this stuff!”
I would nod sagely and try to chuckle to myself. “Everything will work out,” I kept saying, “don’t worry about it.”
This answer only served to flabbergast her. She had no idea that I was sweating bullets.

Fortunately, a few things happened that I could never have planned on, but worked so well in my favor that I can only chalk it up to divine providence.

First, our wedding photographer Patrick Ang posted to Facebook that he was going to be in Bakersfield over the weekend for a proposal shoot. In his post, he included a picture of two telephoto lenses set up on a cliff. They reminded me of sniper rifles. Makenzie assumed that this was part of my elaborate plan.

Not so.

The second one happened a bit later, but we had planned to attend her brother’s high school choir concert on Tuesday, but it was moved the Thursday at the last minute. I had never seen a high school event like that be rescheduled, and neither had she. She assumed that I had arranged a “fake” high school event so the time would appear to be booked, when in fact it wasn’t. I wish I was that clever.

Not so.

So the weekend comes around, and she’s convinced I’m going to propose on Saturday or Sunday. She keeps saying things like, “should I do my nails today?” to which I would reply, “yes,” every time. She would give me a long, serious glance and say, “because you know, I have to do my nails if you’re proposing today.”
It was tough.

Saturday comes and goes, so now she’s convinced I’m proposing on Sunday. She proceeds to tell all of her female friends this assumption, which made me feel like a bad guy.

I went to her apartment to pick her up for church, and I find her fully made-up and dressed, an uncommon occurrence to say the least. This is the same person who is usually half-asleep in bed when I go pick her up. Her nails and hair are done. Her outfit might be the cutest thing I’ve seen her wear, and that’s saying a mouthful; her style is my favorite.

So we go to church.
And we talk to our friends after church.
“What do you want to do today?” one of my friends asked.
“I don’t know,” I reply, “wanna come hang out at the apartment?”
I catch Makenzie’s eye and see one of the worst things ever; I see the first glimmer of lost hope. There is no fancy lunch. There is no private date time.
In the same kind of sad, quiet voice that a five-year-old might use to ask her father, “so we’re not going to Disneyland?” Makenzie asks me, “we don’t have any plans this afternoon?” My soul died a little.

“No,” I replied. “I don’t have any plans.”

I don’t know which was worse; the moment before, or this one. She nodded in an understanding way. However, I saw that she was stilling clinging to the distant hope that maybe I was doing this to throw her off. Maybe I had something planned for later that night. I could see the gears spinning in her head.

We go to the apartment. We play games and hang out almost all day with our friends. Some time that afternoon, everyone leaves. “Are we going anywhere tonight?” she asks, desperately clinging to hope.
“Nope,” I reply. Finally, I see total defeat on her face. She takes off her makeup and changes into more comfortable clothes. I see that she’s crying.

“Why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t today?” she said, her eyes thick with tears.
“You wouldn’t have believed me,” I said, pulling her into a hug.
“I got all dressed up for the photos today,” she sobbed into my ear, “because I thought Patrick was doing them.”
I didn’t know what to say for a moment. “That was just a coincidence,” I said, “I never talked to Patrick about this.”

So to make a long story short, she was very sad. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she just randomly threw out that she wanted to play this old PC game called Pharaoh, a city-management game in the vein of Sim City, only based in ancient Egypt. It’s her favorite video game that she used to play when she was in Junior High. I bought the game online and downloaded it. She then played the game for a solid six hours. I had never seen her play a videogame that long, but she was extremely happy by the end of the night.

Then Monday came and went.

Tuesday comes and it's time for our "photo shoot" at the museum. Up until this point, I had been cool as a cucumber, but suddenly I felt terribly nervous. Hailey was a trooper and stayed calm. We drove around in a golf cart to the location of the gazebo, the location where Makenzie's parents were married in 1988. We take a few pictures before Hailey asks Makenzie to go up into the gazebo. I stay on the grass below, the ring carefully held in my back pocket.

On cue, Hailey says the magic phrase for me to propose. "Makenzie, go up a step," at which point I pull out the ring and get on one knee. Makenzie turns around and see me, and for a moment thinks that I'm kidding. I had fake-proposed a number of times over the past few weeks to throw her off the trail.

I had planned a proposal speech, but it went out the window when I tried to say it. I forgot it completely and just said something like, "I love you, will you marry me?" She of course said yes and we hugged and cried. The rest of the photo shoot was very relaxed and nice. I highly recommend proposing in a cool way, because there's nothing quite like it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

How to Throw a Surprise Wedding, Part 1

As everybody reading this already knows, my wife Makenzie and I got married by way of a surprise wedding in early 2016. We threw an engagement party that was actually a wedding. I thought I’d write down my thoughts while they’re still fresh, so you can understand just how difficult this non-traditional plan can be.

For the record, I started writing this blog in early December 2015, so some of my memories are already a little faded, since we began this journey around August 2015.

I first met Makenzie at my best friend’s wedding in March of 2015. We didn’t date until May, but after only a few days of dating, we knew we had found something special. We started casually talking about wedding plans probably two weeks in, and seriously discussing it after the first month.

Because of her line of work as a wedding photographer, Makenzie has been to more weddings than I will ever be in my life. Between her long list of wedding industry professionals, and the supposed expectation that she (a prestigious wedding photographer) would have a huge wedding of her own, we determined that we were actually quite sick of traditional weddings. Like a song that has been overplayed on the radio, we were sick of the same old thing. We wanted to do something special, and more importantly, we wanted it to happen quickly.

We talked about eloping quite a bit. Fortunately, over the summer we had a completely unrelated conversation with our pastor and the effect that eloping had had on his family when his brother did it. He explained that his family would have loved to show their support of his brother’s marriage, but they never got the chance; they were left out. That one conversation was the primary reason we didn’t end up saying “I do” alone on a beach in Santa Barbara.

A few weeks after that conversation, Jennifer Anniston had a surprise wedding. From what I understand, this is becoming a common practice for celebrities: They don’t want the paparazzi stalking them and photographing their wedding. The trick is that they throw lots of fancy parties, and one of them turns out to be the wedding. It’s a good technique if you’re famous, I guess.

However, I am not Jennifer Anniston. A family friend told Makenzie one day that a surprise wedding would be a fun idea. Everything clicked together, and the idea was born. This was around August, so we had been dating for a solid three months, and frankly we almost just went to the courthouse and got married during that time, because when you know, you know. You know?

The very first thing we did was pick a date.

Originally, Makenzie wanted to get married in November (!) which gave me a great deal of anxiety. We had this idea in August, so I freaked out about getting married in three months. For one thing, neither of us would have the money we needed. It would mean cutting the honeymoon or most of the wedding. I was able to talk her into pushing it back to January.

Makenzie is very successfully self-employed; she runs her own photography business. The only time during the year that she’s not working six or seven days a week is December and January. We figured that December was already stressful enough without planning a wedding, so the date had to be January. We worked out everything so that we could have a 10-day-long honeymoon before coming back and working like crazy in early February. This was really the start of a months-long planning process that was really exhausting and exciting at the same time, especially once we figured out what we wanted to do with the honeymoon, but that’s for later (Hint: Disney World).

The next thing we did was figure out exactly where we could have such a wedding party that wouldn’t be immediately suspicious. We determined that we could do it at her parent’s house, because they had a big backyard and they were planning on doing renovations anyway. It was a perfect cover.

Next was the timeline. We knew that in order for the timing to work out, we needed to be engaged by a certain date (the second week of December) so that the timing of the “party” in January would seem natural. That made it hard for me because it became much harder to plan, but, again, I’ll get to that later..

Perhaps the worst part is that very few people could help us. Normally (I’m just guessing here), when people get married, they have all kinds of friends and relatives who can help out with various wedding duties. You might have a friend who does flower arrangements, and another who knows a guy who rents table settings, and so on. I think that for most people, the kind of wedding we pulled off would be virtually impossible, or certainly about a hundred times more difficult.

Fortunately for us, Makenzie knows almost every wedding vendor in Southern California, or knows someone who knows them. It was only by leveraging these connections she was able to get everything we needed, on time and for cheap. I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

Once the big strokes were in place, everything else was just details, details. Eventually my brother and his wife got involved, which was cool because the situation effectively mended a bridge between us. It was a completely unexpected bonus to all of this, and getting my relationship back with my brother and his family was something I didn’t know I wanted, but it turned out to be one of the best wedding gifts I could have received.

There were also quite a few changes in my own family’s life that really brought Makenzie and I closer at the time and really motivated us to get this wedding stuff done.

We started marriage counseling the same month we decided to go through with the plan, which I believe was late August. We explained the situation to our pastor, and he graciously agreed to meet with us in secret. Normally marriage counseling is a class offered by individuals from our church, but took it all upon himself to help us. He really stepped up when we needed him, and we’re extremely grateful.

The whole situation was very odd; we weren’t even engaged and yet we were being counseled! We had a meeting about twice a month right up until late December. Just in time to put a ring on and call it good.

I really recommend that couples do marriage counseling together. It really opened up some interesting conversations for Makenzie and I. It helped us understand each other, and set our expectations accordingly. People and relationships can be really messy. In the words of one of our marriage councilors, Brent Van Elswyk, “marriage is the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life. But it’s worth it.” Marriage already has enough stress. Why wouldn't you give yourself and your spouse a head start?

In fact, I think that people who aren’t getting married could benefit from this kind of counseling. It’s not like therapy to resolve a problem; it’s just a way of changing your thinking and understanding the other person. I’ve been able to bring a lot of the information and wisdom I gleaned from those sessions into my normal life and relationships.

So there’s the genesis of this whole idea. Check back on Monday and I’ll tell you how hard it is to plan a proposal for someone who knows it's coming. It's one of my favorite stories

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Big, Empty Castle

The main difference between video games and tabletop games (such as Dungeons and Dragons) is the concept of player freedom. Even the most open-world video games have constraints somewhere in them. Grand Theft Auto V's map has to end eventually, right? Whereas D&D can conceivably go on forever, assuming the Dungeon Master has enough brain and willpower to do so.

A few years ago, I thought this automatically meant that Dungeons and Dragons was better, at least from a conceptual standpoint. After all, what's better than infinite freedom? Nothing! When I first discovered tabletop RPGs, that fact impressed me to no end. I believed that if I were stuck on a desert island, I would only need my imagination and a few people to share it, and I'd be happy. Since then, my thinking has changed a bit, and probably not for the reasons you're thinking.

Player freedom is one thing, but I've really learned the importance of constraints. Here are two contrasting examples:

Example 1:
Players in D&D are rewarded a vast castle. Inside, they can possibly hire servants, craftsmen and hundreds of other cool things. Despite this, the players never really use it. They move on, uninterested. This is simply another huge asset, like a pile of gold, that they have collected.

Example 2:
Players in a video game (let's say Skyrim) are given a house as a quest reward. They can hire a servant, upgrade various stations in the house (like a blacksmith or alchemy table) and decorate the inside. The player returns to this house frequently to take advantage of its services.

So what's the difference here? After some careful consideration, I've thought of a few things.

Difference 1: Explicit Definition of Value
In Skyrim, the value of a player's house is made evident immediately. The game tells you "here is a single location for every crafting table in the game, and a place to store your stuff." In D&D, you're given a large chunk of undefined space to play in.
To put it in practical terms, if I gave you a big empty warehouse and said "do whatever you want," you probably would, at least initially, struggle to think of what to do. Conversely, if I gave you a small room with a trampoline in it, you'd immediately know what to do. It's not that the trampoline is better than a 20,000 square foot warehouse, it's that its function is immediately clear.

Nice and empty.
Difference 2: Player Creativity
In this world of video games, smart phones and tablets, people are very comfortable with constraints. Most people don't want infinite experiences, they wants Angry Birds. Give them something that's easy to understand and quick to play. The exception would be building games like Minecraft, where players really can do practically anything they want. But even Minecraft has constraints; you can't build infinitely high, or dig infinitely low. The experience is defined from the moment you punch your first tree.

People who have never played Dungeons and Dragons might struggled to create in the same way they might create in Minecraft. You're not building a castle one block at a time, you're creating vast concepts in just a few sentences. D&D is a game mainly about talking, and although neither Minecraft nor D&D has tactile feedback for a player, you can see what you're doing in Minecraft, whereas you have to imagine things in D&D.

If I said "build me a castle" in Minecraft, I know many people who could and would immediately build something very impressive, down to the smallest detail.

If the same thing was asked of D&D, people wouldn't start by describing exact length, width and height (well, maybe some people would). They would describe the surrounding lands, the Kingdom, and then hone in on how the castle looked in terms of a mood or tone.

"My castle shines like a beacon on the hill overlooking Barton Cliff. It's made of white stone, and the people inside are suffering under the reign of King Odin."

Difference 3: Explanation of Constraints
Unless you're a writer, it's difficult for Dungeon Masters to give high detail all the time. It doesn't matter how beautiful the opening paragraph is; as soon as a player asks to find a tavern, the GM has to quickly make up something. "It's called the Singing Shrew, and it stinks like old beer," is about as much description as you're gonna get.

It's a sketch more than anything.
Very quickly, a world in D&D can feel paper-thin as you travel into buildings that don't exist, talk to people who weren't defined a minute ago, and finding bonkers solutions to problems you created for yourself.
In many ways, the lack of constraints can be detrimental.

Let's look at Skyrim again. You know that if you travel into a building, there will be walls that you can't climb. There will be people there who you probably shouldn't kill, and objects you can steal. Everything is clearly and explicitly defined. It's a system of constraints that's immediately understandable and functional.

For a time, I was interested in adapting the Fallout universe into a tabletop RPG. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I like about the Fallout games isn't remotely the same as what I like to do in TTRPGs. For me, Fallout is all about being alone in a vast world, exploring the unknown and methodically sifting through piles of trash for small prizes.

It's probably not very enjoyable for other people to watch.

When I play D&D, what I enjoy most is making a character with a compelling story, interacting with the other players both in and out of the game, and solving problems in creative ways. I adore the discovery of the unknown, but not in the same way as Fallout. I know that in Fallout, every object was intentionally placed by a designer. In D&D, many, many encounters and rewards are randomized in some way, simply because it's really, really hard for a GM to both run a coherent game and track all of the minutiae behind the scenes.

Is this fixable?
I think that depending on the kind of game you want to run, the GM needs to be more intentional and explicit with the information given. You really shouldn't say, "here's a huge castle, have fun." You should say, here's a castle, and here's a sheet of paper describing how you can use it and what you can get from it. It doesn't have to be a detailed simulation of castle economics from the middle ages, but the GM should do something to make the world seem more understandable and clear. Otherwise it's just a sandbox with toys strewn hither and thither.

It call comes back to human psychology and whether or not a person feels creative in the moment. I've played games of D&D with people who would jump on that castle and start using it in ways that I never imagined. In this case, a list of constraints would limit that person and their creativity. It really all comes down to the group and the individual.