Summertime and the living is supposed to be easy. Relaxed. Low-key.
Alas, the warm weather seems to bring out the worst in some people. In the past few weeks, distressing reports have floated in from unsuspecting guests who stumbled away from a social event clutching their chests and vowing never, ever to subject themselves to anything like that again.
The problem? Overzealous hosts who impose their vision of entertaining on their friends. They get what they believe is a great idea, issue invitations, then torture anyone who doesn't follow orders. While one is loath to discourage any soul who makes an effort to entertain, there are limits.
To wit, five true and cautionary tales of summer party woe:
The Garden Party, Part I: Such a lovely garden. Of course, the Georgetown hostess wanted to show off her prized petunias at the late-afternoon book party. Close to 100 people, who came straight from the office wearing business suits and dresses, were hustled into the back yard, where the temperature hovered somewhere above 90 degrees. Don't even ask about the humidity.
Shall we mention that the historic old mansion, dark and cool, beckoned like a mirage? Need we tell you that no one was allowed in the house, not even to use the bathroom? And that no one understood exactly why?
"It was excruciating," said an old friend of the hostess. "Horrible."
The Lesson: Physical comfort is crucial. If your guests are too hot, too cold or suffering in any other way, it is the host's job to make all reasonable efforts to correct the situation. Pass out hand fans, fling open the doors, pay attention.
The Garden Party, Part II: Cocktails at 7 p.m., followed by dinner. Big, expensive house in the District. Small but exclusive guest list of business, political and social names. Weeknight, which means everyone is expected to leave by 10.
Drinks were served in the garden. (Make that the beautiful but hot, steamy garden.) The men pulled at their ties, but no one took off his jacket. The cocktail hour stretched into two. Guests should have been alarmed by the beautifully set table in the garden: Surely it was too hot to eat outdoors. The handful of people could have easily moved to the air-conditioned dining room.
But no. Dinner was served as planned and lasted two more hours.
The first problem was keeping guests so late on a work night. And forcing them to put up with such miserable conditions for so long turned an annoyance into an endurance trial.
The Lesson: Thoughtlessness is always a crime, but stealing time is a felony in Washington. Just because people are supposed to slow down during the summer doesn't mean you can keep them for hours. If guests linger after brunch or dinner, wonderful. But don't hold them hostage.
The Dress-Code Party: The invitation asked everyone to wear white for an evening lawn party. Imagine men in cream suits and women in gauzy white dresses shimmering in the moonlight. A simple enough request, no? Who doesn't have something white in his or her closet?
Well, at least one female guest. On the day of the party, she received word that it would be--how to put this delicately?--a problem to show up in any other hue. After considering and rejecting tennis whites, a darling little white lace ensemble from Victoria's Secret and a wedding dress, she settled on a white cotton dress from a nearby sale rack.
The party was lovely, with charming people and sophisticated touches. Almost everyone wore white from head to toe. She went home and dyed the dress pink. Dr. Freud, white courtesy phone.
The Lesson: When it comes to dress, guidelines are fine. Great, in fact, because people (women) are always obsessing about what to wear. A host has every right to specify black tie or informal. Guests should not, however, be confused with extras in a costume drama.
The Pool Party: Everyone was invited to splash and swim at the Saturday afternoon pool party in Virginia. Kids squealed at the shallow end. Adults started a game of water volleyball.
One woman politely declined to jump into the water.
"Come join the fun," coaxed the hostess.
"Come on," said her husband. "You can't look that bad in a swimsuit."
Everyone laughed good-naturedly. Every woman who has ever agonized trying on swimsuits suppressed an urge to leap up and strangle him.
The Lesson: Most people are not party poopers by nature, but participation at any party is voluntary. If someone doesn't want to swim, or sing karaoke, or play baby shower games, he or she should not be the object of undue attention. That goes double for eating and drinking, no matter how many hours the hosts spent slaving over a hot oven or grill.
The Barbecue Party: Two Maryland couples--casual friends--made plans for Sunday supper. The weather was balmy, so one of the thirtysomething women said, "Instead of going out, why don't you come over and we'll throw something on the grill?"
"Sounds great!" agreed the other. "Can we bring anything?"
"We've got salad and sorbet here," answered the wife. "Why don't you pick up some steaks or swordfish?"
The guests didn't actually like steak or swordfish, but hamburgers sounded cheap. So they brought steaks, and the host husband overcooked them. The sorbet, however, was very tasty.
The Lesson: When a host invites people over, the assumption is that food and drink will be provided. Potluck parties, picnics and barbecues can be great fun, but they require the explicit consent of everyone involved in advance.
If a guest asks if he or she can bring something, the correct answer is vague: Wine, dessert, chips would be nice. An incorrect answer: "Bring some lemon squares. Or brownies, but if you bring brownies don't put any nuts in them because Tommy is allergic. Oh, and could you pick up some Haagen-Dazs, too?"
Or you could just stay home. Summer is supposed to be fun, remember?
Roxanne Roberts can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.