Today is the day before we lose whatever control we have in our lives — or, rather, whatever control we've conned ourselves into thinking we have. It's Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. And, as we all know, once Thursday hits, there's no turning back until the exhaustion, depletion, and eerie calm of January 2nd. Yes, tomorrow starts "the holiday season," and from then on, we're in it up to our eyeballs.
We're looking down the business end of a full six weeks of shelling out money we don't have, eating what we shouldn't eat, traveling to see relatives we spend the year avoiding, feeling (or denying) guilt at over- or under-spending on gifts for people who don't or maybe do deserve less or more, and waiting for it all to be over — all while fending off the implicit and explicit messages of every tv commercial, storefront sign, and giant beaming billboard proclaiming this "the happiest time of the year."
Psychologists — and dogs, parrots, and anyone else with a rudimentary feel for human nature — know that in two days we shall commence our annual season of maximum depression and suicide. The pressure to be happy, under normal conditions a faint microwave background buzz in the American soul, asserts itself with particular force once we swing into December. We are now obliged to believe in everything we spend the rest of the year doubting — peace on earth; goodwill toward men who bear goodwill toward us; the hope that the tomatoes in the supermarket must (even though it's December) be good, because they really wouldn't charge this much for one that crunched like an apple and tasted like jicama. We are under siege from the Holiday Borg, and resistance is futile. As Tom Lehrer says in his Christmas song, "Christmas time is here, by golly/Disapproval would be folly."
So what should we do on this last, precious day? How do you celebrate, or at least exploit, the calm before the storm? Some of you, of course, are cooking like maniacs. Barbara admires you, particularly if you enjoy cooking, which she so doesn't. Our deal is, Ellis cooks, and Barbara cleans. Fortunately, he likes cooking and, to everyone's, or at least his, vast relief, she likes cleaning. However, the tragic fact is that, for the last two months, our dishwasher's been broken. (The reasonable person will ask, "Why don't you get it fixed?" It's a long story, and concerns the unnaturally narrow and short counters in our house. Just never mind.) What matters is, Barbara has banned any and all dinner parties with four or more people.
Luckily, we have, during this troubled time, managed to con some people into enjoying our company, so we don't spend every night eating dinner at home, alone, and watching reruns of Law and Order. And our luck has held for Thanksgiving. Someone has invited us over for dinner.
Which brings us back to the original question: what should we — the non-cookers, the invitees, the guests-to-be — do on the day before? The answer is simple: we should run our lines and prepare for our appearance.
Those of us lucky enough to be invited to Other People's Homes have a big responsibility, one which we fear some take too lightly. When invited to dinner, Thanksgiving or otherwise, and (it's almost too good to be true) handed food and drink at no charge, the least we can do is to be our best selves. We must be people whom other people look forward to seeing and spending time with. And if that means writing about these issues in such a way as to wind up ending a sentence with "with," so be it. As Miss Manners so lucidly put it (we're paraphrasing), the obligation of a guest is to make your presence preferable to your absence.
We must have amusing anecdotes with which to tickle the assembled throng; we must be up on all the latest news, but not too much so, lest we obnox the general gathering and strangle the entire conversation by being a big fat Smarty Pants. We must also be a good, if not fabulous, listener.
But there are different kinds of "good listening." For a juror in a murder trial, being a good listener means paying attention, remembering what you hear, and keeping your big, or even small, mouth shut. This will not do, however, at a dinner party. Being a "juridical" good listener at a convivial table where people are drinking and dining is the equivalent of being a passive, if well-behaved, passenger on a scull in a crewing race. In both circumstances, you have to pull your weight.
Sure, this may sound obvious, but sadly it's often ignored. People think they can show up at someone's house and "just be themselves." This is grotesque. The whole point of socializing is for everyone to help everyone else to not just be themselves, but to be part of a larger, smarter, more amusing whole. Otherwise, why bother?
Dinner-party good-listening, then, entails not only "listening," but "talking," about topics of general interest. Such as? Well, such as the following. Here's a little cheat sheet of topics, along with some general suggestions about how to approach them and what to say — when you're not, of course, listening.