According to the calendar that looms ominously over my desk, we are at last in the home stretch. The longest month of the year, the one that begins in early December and ends in early January, has less than a week to run. It checks out on Sunday at approximately 6 p.m., when we will bid adieu to our hostess and set forth for home. Praise the Lord.
No, it's not the holidays that I'm talking about. Notwithstanding the merchants who set up their Christmas displays in October and the people who composed "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," I like the holidays. I am a compulsive shopper and gift-giver, and I don't in the least mind receiving gifts. I love the spirit of joy and renewal, the old cultural and familial traditions. I even like New Year's Eve, now that our household has established a policy of doing nothing on New Year's Eve.
The holidays are okay. But decades ago the people in charge of such things scheduled the holiday season to fall at the same time of year as the cocktail party season. I have no idea why this was done, though it does tend to confirm my suspicion that we are systematically and mischievously punished for our sins. Whatever the case, this time of year when we are supposed to be filled with merriment and good will toward men is also the time of year when we are forced to subject ourselves night after night to one of the most agonizing social experiences known to mankind.
A cocktail party can be loosely defined as: when 12 or more are gathered together to commit alcohol and small talk. Perhaps my problem is simply that, having absolutely no talent for the latter, I tend to consume too much of the former. But surely I am not alone. Surely that man across the room, the one with the embarrassed grin and the perspiring brow--surely he is as miserable as I am. Consider that the woman to whom he is talking has just discovered that he is a lawyer. In one minute she is going to begin jollying him up for some free legal advice about her impending marital separation. Surely he is not having fun!
Or what about the woman at the other side of the room? She has just been cornered by a man whom she knows very slightly. The man is tipsy and the warmth of the world has descended upon him. It's confession time. He and his wife just aren't getting on any longer, but there's more to it than that. He, well, uh--quick, another long drink of bourbon--he's always had a secret passion for another woman, and it just happens that she's the very woman he's talking to. Is she having fun?
And not far from this pair is yet another, a pinstripe man and a polyester man. Pinstripe is a journalist who's rehabbing a row house, listens to National Public Radio and has spinach salad coming out his ears. Polyester is a high-school teacher who lives in a suburban split-level, reads People magazine and eats frozen pizza. The shifting flow of cocktail party circulation has plopped them together. They have conversed for five minutes and have discovered that they have absolutely nothing in common. Yet there they stand, hemming and hawing, ummmming and errrring, each with a sickly smile on his face and a wild roll in his eyes. This is fun?
Of course not--yet we do this to ourselves each cocktail party season. I have within my acquaintance a great many people who go to cocktail parties; but I have within my acquaintance only one person, to the best of my knowledge, who actually likes them--and she is an artist, which can explain just about anything. Yet we all go to them. At an hour of the evening when we should be slipping into jeans and slippers, we dress ourselves to the nines (sartorial competition being a major component of the cocktail party) and head for someone's house, usually in positively dreadful weather. The odds are that we have been invited because the hosts want to "pay us back," for a dinner party or a business favor or a longstanding obligation. They pay us back by torturing us.
First, they make us stand up. Bear in mind that this is the end of the day, when we should be sitting, if not lying down; but we stand up. Then they give us an alcoholic beverage, and no place to set it down between sips. The consumption of alcohol, which should be done while seated, becomes an athletic event; the result is that we drink too rapidly or that the hand holding the glass quickly becomes very cold or very wet.
And then they expect us to talk. But the chances of having a decent conversation at a cocktail party are approximately as good as those of having one on a television program. What with the din and the interruptions and the return trips to the bar, it's impossible to string together a dozen coherent and more or less interrelated sentences. At a recent party I was introduced to a neighbor who, upon learning what I do for a living, to my great amazement and pleasure actually found it interesting and wanted to hear more about it. I was more than happy to oblige, but what with being introduced to someone my wife said I just had to meet, and being pulled aside by someone else who had an urgent piece of information to impart, and visiting the bar and the bathroom and the cheese dip and the other necessities of life--what with all that, my neighbor by the end of the evening knew as much about what I do as I know about what he does: nothing at all.
The noise we make at cocktail parties isn't talk and it most certainly isn't conversation. It's babble; we turn off our minds and let the words spill out. No greater authority on the subject has existed than James Thurber, and no one has depicted it more penetratingly. The cocktail party season sent me back to the cartoons collected in "Men, Women and Dogs." A few samples:
* Eager young woman to shrinking man: "I'm so glad you're a writer--I'm just full of themes and ideas."
* Hostess to male guest: "This is Miss Jones, Doctor--I want you to cheer her up. She's been through hell recently."
* Large woman to timid man: "If you can keep a secret, I'll tell you how my husband died."
* Female to male: "I love the idea of there being two sexes, don't you?"
* Husband to wife, "Will you please cease calling me Sweetie Pie in public?"
* Woebegone man to younger woman: "My wife wants to spend Halloween with her first husband."
When T.S. Eliot presumed to write a play about cocktail parties, Thurber sent him up with a piece called "What Cocktail Party?" He opened it with a paragraph that is a cocktail party classic: " 'I'm not so stupid as to believe that the cocktail party in "The Cocktail Party" is actually a cocktail party,' Grace Sheldon told me the other day at a cocktail party that was unquestionably a cocktail party. 'What do you think it is?' "
It can be argued, I suppose, that any institution that could inspire Thurber is an institution worth preserving, but I won't buy it. I go to cocktail parties because my friends insist on giving them and because I do not want to hurt my friends' feelings. But the nicest thing my friends could do would be to stop giving them, because then I could stop going. And then I could say, with deep and genuine passion: "Happy New Year!"