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PRIVATE LIVES

Football season is over, basketball and hockey push on, and baseball may be late starting. But while sportwriters busy themselves with these traditional games, another, often overlooked competition also is off to a brutal start. The Wedding Season, or at least its pre-season warmups, began at Curtis Hixon Convention Center in Tampa recently, and I, being a player this year, was there. A real rookie.

Bridal Fair 1990. I was trying to be what my folk singer sister calls a Sensitive New Age Guy (SNAG). You know, the strong yet sensitive type. The kind of guy who can fix cars and change diapers.

Strong enough to be sensitive, the sort of guy who helps to write his own wedding vows, likes going to co-ed baby showers and, yes, will attend a Bridal Fair.

I thought it would be like an auto show. Go to some big hall, wander among the splashy displays and listen to merchants lie to you.

It was more painful - much more painful.

We wait in line with thousands of others, mostly young brides, their mothers and bridesmaids, too many of whom are willing to say how cute it is that I would come to such a show (particularly on the same Sunday as the NFL league championships).

In fact there aren't many other SNAGs here and, after the true nature of this torture becomes apparent, it seems to me the few men here are reluctant to make eye contact, perhaps fearing that to do so would make it hard to keep the cheerful game faces on.

After paying $5 we enter with a rush that may have been about what it was like when they opened the Berlin Wall. In this case the horde has been waiting 40 minutes, not 40 years, but they are clearly as hungry for something material on the other side.

"Brides," a tuxedoed guide says, "must register and pick up your package."

This is where the cheating starts.

Veteran bride-show warriors know there are tickets within these packages that will give them a chance at Hope Chest prizes - cruises, dresses, cakes, silk flowers. But no one is checking too closely for engagement rings so there are some masquerading brides here pushing their way in, illegally grabbing the packages, hoping to give daughter/sister/friend a better chance of winning.

Inside there is a scramble for the best seats, the ones with a view of the runway and more waiting and more small talk with nearby brides-to-be. Women, it seems, are more approachable at these events, possibly because there is a tacit understanding that they - and you - are spoken for. (Tip for my lonely heart brethren: Crash wedding shows; let them assume you are a groom while you figure out which are lonely-heart bridesmaids. Then make your move.) Belatedly, the show begins with the introduction of a man I have never heard of, an actor on a soap opera whose toupee, it is hoped, looks better on TV. The audience seems impressed with him though as he begins with a deep, resonant voice to read from a script that must have been written in honey.

I don't remember the exact words, but he says a lot of things like: "To make your wedding day the most memorable, love-filled experience of your life" and "to create memory pictures that will stay lovely all the days of your life."

These gushing phrases - sandwiched between plugs for local wedding

merchants - seem the equivalent of those beer commercials in which the

grizzled angler leans back at his fish-filled campsite, looks out at the mountains and says "Boys, it doesn't get any better than this."

Next, they bring on a panel of experts to field questions about wedding etiquette. Shockingly, the experts are merchants and, for the most part, the answers are: "Anything you want to do is okay as long as you shop with us."

The only question of substance deals with proper methods of birth control, but even as the question is fielded, the audience is giving up on the experts and is heading for the merchant displays and prizes.

The crush is incredible. Maybe 2,000 people moving like a Howard Frankland rush hour, shoving coupons into Hope Chest boxes.

Occasionally a male face pops out of the swarm and the game face is gone. We are into survival now.

The crush is worst near those merchants giving out food samples and not because this crowd is a particularly portly one. It's a hungry one, though.

We soon-to-be-weds seem to have moved well into the pre-wedding anorexic stage, those foodless months that undoubtedly will leave us all gaunt, weak but looking real good for at least one day.

I've always thought people should pork out a bit for their wedding day. Guests will say you look good anyway, and years from now you might slip on those wedding clothes for old times' sake and not be quite so ashamed. Chubby is beautiful in Saudi Arabia, I've heard.

But this is an American dieting crowd. You can tell the way they take just one chicken wing and look a tad guilty as they down wedding cake samples.

We leave this claustrophobia behind and move back to the auditorium only to find the veterans have struck again. As we had struggled through the arcade, the other, larger, more experienced entourages had sent scouts back. Purses, programs, sweaters and jackets now stake out virtually all of the good seats, including the ones we occupied 20 minutes before.

We find two orphan seats toward the back and then the highlight of the day begins - the fashion show done to the theme of Love Boat with that same Soap Star and more gushing and plugging.

For a moment, as the women hoot at handsome men in tuxedos, it appears the fashion show might turn into a Chippendales performance.

But for the most part, this part of the day moves nearly painlessly.

Beautiful men and women wearing classicly beautiful clothes stroll out, and cameras flash.

By 3:30 p.m. we are out the door and headed for the nearest bar.

As we sit sipping drinks, we talk - my fiancee and I - in a way that reminds me of team meetings that followed tough opening game football losses in my youth.

She is angry, too, my bride-to-be. But she doesn't complain quite so much. She knows of a better vengeance. She will buy her dress from merchants in far-off New York City.

Chris Lavin is a state reporter for the Times. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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