Sunday, November 21, 2010

Party Pooper

I didn’t exactly grow up at Tara, but I think that the Southern sensibility had a bigger influence on me than I sometimes realize. I’ve noticed this in a number of matters, including willingness to talk to strangers and tendency to wear too much perfume, but chiefly in the area of entertaining. I wasn’t invited to the Black and White Ball (it being a schoolnight and all), but I did grow up with a basic understanding of how to attend, and how to host, a party.

How to attend a party: If you said you were coming, come. Talk to a couple strangers. Compliment something the hostess has done, even if it’s to say, “I’ve never seen cocktail wieners with quite that shade of gray! Charming!” Find the correct place to throw your trash. Leave on time, and relatively sober.

How to host a party: Put out just a little bit too much of everything, especially ice. Don’t hide the trash can. If you’re tired or flustered or sick of the whole damn thing, don’t show it. Smile; for god’s sake, you’re the one who invited these people.

Moving to Minnesota was a shock to my system in many ways, but especially when it came to social matters. I quickly learned that eye contact and exuberant hand gestures were to be avoided as signs of the devil. Then I realized that there are only two times a Minnesotan entertains: 1) when a child is graduating from high school (begging for cash) and 2) when the hostess wants to get free swag from an in-home Party Ponzi Scheme (begging for stuff).

Nobody ever asked me over for a Friday night cocktail, but my mailbox was always full with requests to buy jewelry, Tupperware and sex toys, always under the guise of a “party.” My favorites of these is the “it’s really all about you, the merchandise is just an excuse” genre. Subject Line: “A Gathering of My Dearest Friends.” Text:  It's been too, too long since the hostess has really connected, you know, on a deeper level, with the amazing women in her life. An asterisk leads to the information that if these women prove to be as amazing as she hopes, the hostess will walk away with the free nesting canister set / choker and necklace combo / undereye concealer serum complex (with black cohosh).

My tell-it-like-it-is friend, Lisa, put it best when she told me, tartly, “I want to call up these chicks and say, ‘Look, do you need rent money? Can I write you a check? Help you apply for food stamps? Otherwise, take me off your mailing list, please.'"

Needless to say, I opt to stay home and miss these gatherings of amazing women on a regular basis. But it is fun to throw a shindig now and then, often just to provide an excuse to clean the bathroom. In my years as a hostess, I’ve witnessed some astonishing behaviors, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

The ridiculous includes those who see my party as merely a larger version of the Wings ‘N Things franchise at the mall. If there’s something they want that they don’t see, they don’t hesitate to demand it. In the old days, I used to comply, rustling through cupboards for a bag of herbal decaf tea for the Wiccan in my dining room, all the while ignoring the other 25 people who were holding their cups out, waiting for that decaf fill up.

Then, during an especially crowded and raucous Christmas Open House, my boss’ wife approached me with her three-year-old in tow. “Grace would like a juice box,” she said. “There’s a whole cooler of drinks right over there,” I responded brightly, doing my best human arrow imitation. “There aren’t any juice boxes and she wants one,” the women repeated. I blush to tell you that I said something about how maybe I had one down in the basement refrigerator, and yes, dear reader, I clomped all the way downstairs to get it for the dear little tyke, ignoring my other guests and sanity in the process.

That was the end. The next event I held was a party with the express purpose of dumpling making and eating, in honor of the Chinese New Year, for a group of families who had adopted kids from China. We got together on a Sunday afternoon. The kids rolled, I fried and steamed, and we all had a great time. Then one little darling decided that she, in fact, hated dumplings, and that what she genuinely wanted, nay, needed, was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The beleaguered mom smiled at me with the clear expectation that I’d spring into action with my loaf of Wonder bread and Skippy. I held firm. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s about dumplings today. Next time, bring a sack lunch.” She kept up a good, steady stream of whining, but I stood my ground and managed not to point out that there is a difference between being a guest in someone’s home and being a patron of the local Applebee’s. And, of course, I never invited the little brat or her parents again. Which was probably just fine with them, given my perverse refusal of her dainty whims.

There have been some sublime hosting moments, too. In addition to all the times when it’s great just to look at the faces of people who make you laugh and who expect nothing more from you than not to tell that damn story about the softball game and the woodchuck one more time, there are certain guests who rise to the occasion. At the Christmas Open House a few years back, a little girl, unbeknownst to the grownups, had a significant bowel incident in the powder room off the kitchen, an issue she tried to remedy by introducing several hundred sheets of toilet paper into the ancient plumbing. Here is how I found out about this incident: Tom Furey, a man who is in my Guest Hall of Fame, approached me apologetically. “The toilet was overflowing,” he said, “So I found a plunger in the basement and fixed that, and I’ve mopped up the mess and started a load of laundry. But,” he added sadly, “I just needed to tell you that I can’t find any more guest towels.”

Now there’s a man who deserves a glass of champagne.

This coming holiday season, I will be both guest and hostess. I will do my best to find the trash can, stay sober, and keep a smile plastered across my craggly old puss. And even if I don’t walk away at the end of the night with the stacking canister set, I’m sure that I’ll have a very good time when I gather with my amazing friends.

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