SOME PHILOSOPHERS POINT TO marriage as the act that separates man from other animals. Others say the same of torture. I don't see a contradiction there.

Weddings are fun in the planning and romantic in the reminiscence. In between lies madness. (Those whom the gods would make mad, they first make marry.) Terror will remain an integral part of weddings until the Neiman-Marcus catalogue offers marriage by credit card. With an 800 number.

In the meantime, all you can do is talk to the veterans. Who else will tell you that lace underwear is a mistake? Or that your feet will be numb for 72 hours? Remember the following rules -- a baker's dozen -- and you may escape with some remnant of sanity and sentiment intact. There are eight million stories in the Nuptial City, and you're next. RULE 1: The longer you can keep your engagement a secret, the better. (This advice does not apply if you are marrying the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the father of your child, in which case you should hire a skywriter to get the news out.) Delaying a formal announcement gives the two of you your only chance at real romance, because the minute the word is out, your private affair is public property, and every woman in your office will start comparing carats.

To stall the inevitable, you might consider picking out a diamond-faced watch instead of an engagement ring. Or affecting gloves. In any case, do not place a legal notice in the newspaper advertising your premarital contract. And never, ever engage "cute."

I thought it would be romantic, and reasonably subtle, to dispatch a courier with a bouquet of balloons to accept my love's proposal. But the young woman who answered the phone gasped when I dictated the message "Yes." "It's a proposal!" she gushed, and in an excess of good feeling, she double-timed one of the delivery men -- dressed in full gorilla suit -- up to my fiance''s consulting firm, where he made a triumphant entrance into the open office playing "Here Comes the Bride" on a kazoo. I fled home to Nashville on the next plane. RULE 2: You cannot control who gossips about your engagement. Your home town considers itself to be in loco parentis, and nobody ever had more eccentric relations. Whether you want it to or not, the local newspaper will insist on publishing an announcement, which has replaced the traditional doctor's examination as proof of public virginity. Almost immediately, you will begin to receive notes from unlamented high school boyfriends (and their relieved mothers). Unfortunately, you will discover that the one woman you'd really like to stick it to reads only the New York Times engagements. RULE 3: Learn to love Wedgwood, and start writing those thank-you notes now. Whatever else he may have been thinking of, Thomas Wolfe was dead wrong about engagements.

No matter how long you have been living away from home, or how far, or with whom, it is conventionally assumed that you have not yet acquired the 12 "places" of china, silver and crystal an honest homemaker needs. You are about to. This is not a matter of choice. "Places" is what family friends do. This is partly so your parents can recoup at least some of the continued on page 40 continued from page 25 hundreds of wedding gifts they've given their friends' daughters, and partly to prove, however belatedly, that you have not turned out too badly.

Therefore, even if you have collected the usual mishmash of Bloomie's stainless and Mikasa floral -- even if, like me, you don't own a dining table, much less chairs that match -- you will be forced to choose a formal china setting. And to list it at all the major home-town department stores, so that even the most perfunctory of participants in your wedding can phone in their order.

There is only one consolation: Nobody says you have to keep the stuff. I wanted black -- black orchid china, black-handled flatware and opaque black crystal. But I registered a plain white Wedgwood, and then traded in the credits on the other pattern. Just arrange for the store to send you little gift cards, with the buyer's name and however many pieces, instead of the actual china. Then write your thank-yous from the gift cards. Everybody will be happy. RULE 4: Never let your parents out of your sight. Exhausted by the china crisis, you may be tempted to surrender some of the arrangements to your parents. Don't do it. Out of sight, out of control. My father and I had several detailed conversations about the invitations. I wanted a nice, sophisticated, grown-up art deco look. Gray paper. Dark red ink. He had it all written down. But once in the clutches of the engravers, my father ordered virtuous white cards with southern-debutante-green ink. The napkins, which he couldn't resist either, were canary yellow with my fiance''s and my names in silver gilt. RULE 5: Submit gracefully to the shower, and watch that spinach between your teeth. You probably cannot avoid it, unless every one of your friends is already married and therefore no longer sentimental. Despite their purportedly festive nature, bridal showers are actually torture tests designed to tone you up for the wedding reception. Everyone smiles starkly for three hours, right through the lime-colored sugar mints and canned asparagus, while the bride-to-be pierces a paper plate with the pastel bows and ribbons from the gifts to make a "bouquet" for the wedding rehearsal.

The most you can do, faced with a shower, is tell the host that your new medication prevents you from eating anything green. And practice smiling by the hour. RULE 6: Never underestimate the backwardness of the bureaucracy. The most impersonal reminder of your predestination as a "bride" comes at the marriage-license bureau, where no equality of education or professional remuneration will keep you from being listed under his last initial. I was prepared for that.

I was not prepared for the "bride's starter gift" delivered to me by the pear-shaped clerk with the grade-school cursive, in proxy for the clerk of court in Nashville -- a bag of sample-size laundry soap, dishwashing detergent (the wash-by-hand variety, of course) and mouthwash. And Midol. I have since been told by a gentleman of my acquaintance that he began receiving condom solicitations in the mail within a fortnight of having licensed up. At least they asked him if he needed anything. RULE 7: When searching for a preacher, remember: This is the one time you have to talk about politics, sex and religion. In this era of mixed (religious, professional or political) marriages, what is often needed is someone who won't insist on praying too often, or addressing any specific deity; and who won't enroll you in any time-consuming, baby-booming marriage-management seminars. Who will change venue where necessary, and will charge only what's reasonable. And who prefers the graceful King James to his own vernacular.

There are couples who have compromised on two-sect ceremonies, but the rabbi did all the talking. High-mass marriages are lovely to look at, but you have to confess in advance. No wonder more and more couples slink off to the courthouse. I myself was all for submitting to a secular authority, but my father pronounced that judges are only good for elopements and embarrassments. So we fell back on the most experienced of ecumenicals -- my old university chaplain, himself on his second marriage and the veteran of two previous mixed marriages in my immediate family.

He was, obviously, extremely liberal. He was so liberal he insisted that we write our own wedding. (Whaddya mean we?) RULE 8: Write short, drink deep. The customized ceremony is a unique and thrilling experience, with special emotional resonance and all that. I recommend it. But only if you follow the lead of G.B. Shaw and Oscar Wilde -- Shaw, who said that brevity is the soul of wit, and Wilde, who never went anywhere in high society without a drink in hand.

Remember that you're going to be standing up most of the time. Even if you try kneeling at the altar, you've got a whole reception to look forward to. Also, unless he's a trained actor, your fiance' will be unable to memorize any vow that runs longer than one paragraph. So remember those killer heels, and write short. Our entire ceremony, including a Richard Howard poem (the chaplain's contribution) and a wine toast (mine), ended up lasting less than nine minutes -- just enough time for my feet to go numb. RULE 9: Never buy a wedding outfit that can't be altered on short notice. The wine is not just sacramental, it's a medical necessity. Getting married may be the only crash diet that works. I stopped being able to eat six days before the wedding, about the time I headed south for the opening salvo. (One thing about southern weddings; they're so liquid you can sort of float right through the affair. Brunches, cocktails, dinners, afters . . . Southern brides are born to be Wilde.)

Altogether, I lost 15 pounds in the last month of premarital blitz and had the ring cut down so many times that the jeweler thought I was pawning the diamonds chip by chip. You'll lose weight, too. Guaranteed. This is a wonderful thing, except for the photographs. Every tendon in your body will stand out, as opposed to your cheeks, which will sink in. Rictus uxorius. RULE 10: Don't expect anyone to let you reign on your own parade. Marriage is altogether a jolting and surreal return to childish dependency. Parents, after all, have been waiting all these years to run somebody else's. Consequently, you may as well give up any plans you may have made with your fiance', because your folks have about 30 years' lead time on you.

I swore I'd never have a wedding cake or serve frivolous finger food. June was out of the question, of course. "Brides" get married in June, with wedding dinners and posies and processions down the aisle. And huge receptions of blurry faces. I wanted a small May or October wedding, outdoors in my parents' gazebo.

But there is an even higher authority when it comes to the reception: the cook. And the cook is always on your parents' side. So I was one for four -- I got the gazebo. In June. And a six-hour reception of 450 of my parents' closest friends. We served country ham on biscuits, turkey on white and open-faced cucumber sandwiches. Mints and nuts. And the Cake From Hell.

Laurine, the woman who helped raise me, had been waiting most of my adult life to cater this event. (I announced my engagement to her by calling long-distance and saying, "Start cookin'." She answered, "I'm ready.") RULE 11: Whatever you do, don't have a cake. It was almost the only thing my father and I were agreed on. Wedding cakes are insufferably cute and generally inedible. But Laurine not only refused to have me go without such a basic ingredient, she was determined to bake it herself.

The cake, when it finally appeared, was beautiful -- three layers and festooned with live violets set into special extra-strong frosting out of a professional pastry cookbook. Extra extra strong. Like marble. The groom and I, both leaning on the knife with all the strength and aplomb we could muster, couldn't make a dent in it. The entire top layer was eventually transferred intact to the freezer, where it remained for many months as a fossilized curiosity. RULE 12: Never let your fiance' out of your sight. Convention be hanged; park him in the next bedroom. In my case, an hour before the wedding, the groom presumptive showed up at my parents' house, ready to don his $750 white three-piece Italian suit, having just shaved with a blade that dated back to the Battle of Nashville. He had half a dozen nicks, still oozing through the Kleenex, and a rash across his neck that looked like terminal acne. If he'd had the blade in his pocket, I'd have put us both out of our misery.

In addition to which, he had forgotten the only piece of clothing he was personally responsible for: boxer shorts. Fortunately, the Italians also appear to favor elastic briefs: The coat was continentally long. RULE 13: Practice saying "my husband" before you have to introduce him to the reception guests. Otherwise, you may choke. Or forget his name. And even that's a snap compared with being "my wife" the first time. (My husband, who is a sensitive and resilient gentleman, and who hates seeing me turn pale, tries to get around it as often as possible even now.)

Okay, so getting married is not a total loss. Some of it is even fun, in a hallucinatory way. Marriage is an institution, as they say; it's just a question of being committed.

Praise the Lord and pass the Midol. ::