Beyond the bended knee

At any time, across the country, legions of clandestine operations of a particular sort are afoot.

They are assignments of utmost importance that usually require lies, covert maneuvers and the highest order of secrecy. Success is crucial. Fail, and your bungled mission will be recounted for decades to come.

Perhaps, even generations.

It's the Big Wedding Proposal, a phenomenon that has become an essential pitstop in the journey between first date and happily ever after.

Guys are jetting their girlfriends to Paris for surprise romantic trips, filling hotel rooms with dozens of red roses, organizing labyrinthine treasure hunts that lead to diamond rings. Recently, Baltimorean Mary Cook received her own high-profile proposal when her Army beau Capt. Ciro Stephano popped the question from Afghanistan on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Once upon a time, a guy thought he was doing his part as long as he bought a ring and got down on one knee. These days, however, simple is out and elaborate is in.

Thanks to a combination of changes in societal expectations and the prevalence of super-romantic proposals in movies and the media, popping the question now looms as large in the love story as the petal-strewn walk down the aisle.

"I always tell guys," said Fred Cuellar, author of The World's Greatest Proposals'(Casablanca Press, $9.95), "This is the story that is going to be repeated over and over. You're either going to be the hero in this story or you're going to be the mule. The choice is yours.'"

Elaborate proposals have become especially popular in the last five years, wedding industry observers say, due to pop culture's increasing emphasis on romance and marriage.

Proposals have become much more significant in movies like last year's Sweet Home Alabama, where Reese Witherspoon was led into a darkened Tiffany & Co. so her boyfriend could pop the question - and invite her to pick any ring in the room. The media, too, have been flooded with many things wedding-related - from the splashy celebrity wedding specials on television that dwell on each saccharine detail to magazine covers like Us Weekly's recent "Hollywood's 25 Most Romantic Proposals." (We learn that actor Brendan Fraser, for example, took a self-timed Polaroid of himself and actress Afton Smith on a bridge in Paris. As the picture appeared, she realized he had opened his jacket to display a note that said, "Marry Me.")

And then there are the many girlfriends who enjoy breathlessly sharing stories of swoon-worthy askings and the plethora of Web sites that catalog big-deal proposals.

"Women expect a lot now," said Brian Boteler, a 26-year-old Eldersburg mortgage broker who recently popped the question during a surprise hot-air balloon ride over bucolic Carroll County.

"It's society, movies, friends," he added. "Everyone wants to one-up everyone else. I was trying to think of something different than just going to dinner and getting on one knee. I just didn't want to be typical."

'Expectations are high'

Antonia van der Meer, editor-in-chief of Modern Bride, said the trend of big proposals is due in part to the fact that many couples now tend to date longer before getting married.

"Most couples who are at the point where he's about to propose, she knows it's coming, often because they've already been ring shopping, they've had some discussions, so it's not a total shock," she said.

"The reality is that expectations are high because there's no surprise," added Carley Roney, co-founder of Theknot.com. "So you have to manufacture a different kind of surprise, something that is above and beyond the norm. You've waited so long for it, and everyone's hearing all the big stories, and it feels like a cop-out if he's the guy who just gets down on bended knee."

And so you have guys focusing their efforts on Operation Cinderellas that won't put them to shame.

In fact, the process can be so stressful there's even a company out there that specializes in planning proposals. After Paul F. Alden pulled off a complicated proposal - which involved borrowing a vintage car, dressing up in period clothing and being part of a parade - he decided to help other nervous men and women thinking of popping the question in a grand fashion.

Five years ago, he founded 2propose.com, a company that has registered about 7,500 men and women so far, most of whom pay $14.99 to surf his site for ideas. Some have signed up for custom-designed proposals, which cost $180 for a three-hour consultation.

"We ask very basic questions, like, where did you meet? How did you meet? Where did you go on your first date? Where were you when you had your first kiss?" said Alden, whose company is based in Hingham, Mass.

"A lot of times, we'll get people who are very creative, but they're too close to their own situation and put too much pressure on themselves and have something like a writers' block."

Cuellar, who also is a diamond expert and author of How to Buy a Diamond (Casablanca Press, $16.95), said his favorite proposal story involves a man who had an X-ray taken of his chest while he was holding a ring in front of his heart. He had the X-ray framed and put on display at a friend's art gallery, then casually took his girlfriend to check out the latest exhibit there.

When they came upon his piece, she read the engraving beneath it: "Title: I love you endlessly

Subtitle: Kelly, will you marry me?

Artist: Charlie."

Jokes can backfire

Then, Cuellar said, there was the guy who decided to play a practical joke on his girlfriend during the proposal. After he asked, he pretended he'd dropped the ring over the side of her father's yacht.

"The woman goes, 'My ring! My ring!' and dives in after it and, next thing, the dad says, 'My daughter can't swim!' and he dives in after her," Cuellar recalled. "They're all in the water and everyone's trying to save each other. I'm surprised she didn't slug him. A proposal is no time for a practical joke."

There are other drawbacks to planning elaborate proposals.

"You have to keep it manageable," Theknot.com's Roney said. "Don't be like, 'Oh, I got you this tiny little ring because I had to go rent a blimp to pull this message across the city.' And don't make it something that's far-fetched, where if she's not looking out the window at that particular time, she may miss the elephant walking by with the big sign on it."

But even fairly straightforward plans may be thrown off due to unforeseen circumstances. H.K. Park, associate vice president of the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm, had planned to whisk his girlfriend away to Bermuda because they hadn't had a vacation in a while.

However, a few days before they were to leave last July, nine coal miners were trapped in a Pennsylvania mine and his girlfriend, Sarah C. Lee, a correspondent for the Washington bureau of NBC and MSNBC, was dispatched to the scene.

Park grew more nervous as each day passed, but finally, the miners were rescued the day before they were to leave for Bermuda. When Lee said she planned to stay a little longer, however, Park immediately drove to Pennsylvania, telling her he wanted to take pictures of the site. There, he secretly told Lee's producers of his plan and they persuaded her to return to Washington.

The next morning, Park pulled off his plan without a hitch - he told her he was going away on business and asked her to drop him off at the airport. Then, he persuaded her to come in to "meet his colleagues." Once inside, he handed her a ticket and passport and they were off to Bermuda, where he proposed at a lighthouse as the sun began to set.

The only minor glitch was, Lee thought she was dropping him off at the airport, so she wore flip-flops and pajamas.

"When we were leaving the house, I asked her, 'Is that what you're wearing?'" said Park, 32. "And she got mad at me."

Park noted the most difficult thing about the proposal was something surprisingly small.

"The hardest part was finding the clothes to pack for her," he said. "What kind of shoes go with the beige dress? I had no idea."

The bar is set high

And if done well, proposers can reap the spoils of success for a long time after. Atlanta music teacher James Williams went to great lengths when planning his August proposal to Jarrettsville native Kimberly Feindt. While Feindt, 23, was working in Chicago last summer, he had his mother tell her she was flying in for a weekend and make a dinner-date with Feindt. Williams then surreptitiously flew to Chicago, met Feindt at the hotel, began singing "Stand By Me" and pulled out a ring.

"We had heard a lot of proposal stories from our friends," said Williams, 24. "Every other week, it was like, 'Guess who did this ... ' We were surrounded by it. ... I didn't feel like I had to top them but I was stressed out."

Since then, however, their story has been retold many times to friends and relatives.

"If you have a great story, it makes the guy feel good," Williams said. "My friends are like, 'You've set the bar pretty high.' They know our story and they know they're going to have to do something to top that."

While such stories are sweet - and much repeated - some feel the trend of huge proposals isn't necessarily a good thing.

"You get to a certain point in your life where everyone around you is getting engaged and it sort of becomes about who has the bigger story, and I don't think that's what it should be about," said Jodi Schulz, 27, assistant county attorney for Montgomery County, whose husband proposed during a horse-drawn carriage ride at the Washington mall. "It should be special for you guys."

And, sometimes, the best things about proposals lie in the simplest details.

Schulz said she was touched that her husband had put so much thought into the type of proposal that she would love - sweet and not too public. And Cuellar recalled another story in his book where a man told his girlfriend while they were taking a walk that he had a gift for her. She immediately became suspicious, so he quickly told her the gift wasn't a ring.

Instead, he handed her a list promising everything he would give her - his heart, unconditional love ... if she would be his wife. When he pulled out a ring, she said, "I thought it wasn't a ring?"

He simply said: "Your present wasn't the ring. It was the promises."

  • Be sure you are both ready. If you're going to ask someone to marry you - especially if you're going to do it in public - you had better be sure the answer will be "Yes." If not, you may just scare off your significant other.

  • Think of what your partner really wants. Propose the way your partner would like to be proposed to, not the way you'd like to be proposed to. If you are outgoing but your partner is introverted, she's not going to enjoy a Jumbotron proposal, even if you would.

  • Timing is key. Be sure to ask when your partner is comfortable. "One of the worst proposals I've heard, the guy goes out and buys a ring and keeps it in his pocket wrapped in tissue," said Fred Cuellar, author of The World's Greatest Proposals. "He's like, 'I'll know when the moment is right.' Finally, he's in his apartment and he's like, 'I can't take it any more. Right now, wherever she is, I'll pop the question.' He starts hollering for her and she's in the restroom. Right there when she's on the throne, he pulls out the ring."

  • Keep it simple. The more complicated the proposal, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.

  • Don't be too obvious. "You always hear about proposals where the woman's like, 'Well, he picked me up in front of my house in a limousine ... '" said Paul Alden, founder of 2propose.com. "If you don't do that on a regular basis, don't start your proposal out that way because she's going to know immediately." If you want to surprise her with something out of the ordinary anyway, make up a story to throw her off. For example, tell her you won a drawing for a free limo ride.

  • Don't hide the ring in food. "You cannot believe the amount of times people have swallowed a ring or chipped a tooth on a ring," Alden said.

  • Don't forget to ask. Many people get so nervous or excited they fumble or forget to ask the actual question. "Sometimes, somebody will have rented out a movie theater to propose and he's done all this stuff and she's like, 'Aren't you going to get down on your knee?'" said Carley Roney, cofounder of Theknot.com. "They've gone to all this trouble and what she really wants is the Prince Charming picture in her head of him down on one knee."

  • Relax and enjoy the moment. Don't get so stressed and caught up with the details that you don't have fun.

  • Bring a cell phone. Both of you are going to want to call friends and family after the proposal.

    -Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

    A 2002 Conde Nast Bridal Group survey of 2000 readers found these results about favorite times to propose:

  • 13 percent became engaged on or around Christmas

  • 11 percent became engaged on their anniversary

  • 9 percent became engaged on or around his or her birthday

  • 8 percent became engaged on or around Valentine's Day

    -Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

  • The Bachelor - Commitment-phobe Jimmie Shannon (Chris O'Donnell) starts off well by taking his girlfriend (played by Renee Zellweger) to Harry Denton's Starlight Room, known in the movie as the place to propose. But she ends up storming out after he pushes the ring across the table and says, "You win."

  • Friends - At the end of two episodes of misunderstandings and other typical Friends shenanigans, Monica (Courtney Cox) fills her apartment with lighted candles and gets down on one knee to propose to Chandler (Matthew Perry) when he walks in. But she is crying so hard she can't get the words out, so he ends up proposing to her.

  • Sweet Home Alabama - Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) thinks she's on her way to an event with boyfriend Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey). When the lights come on in the pitch-black room, she realizes she's in New York's Tiffany & Co., with the entire staff standing at attention, waiting to serve her. The best part? She gets to pick any ring in the room.

  • When Harry Met Sally - After Sally (Meg Ryan) refuses to speak to him for weeks, Harry (Billy Crystal) suddenly realizes on New Year's Eve that he's in love with her and wants to marry her. He runs several blocks to catch her just as she's leaving a party and gives his famous "I love that you take an hour to order a sandwich" speech.

    - Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
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