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.
Politics — It's impolite to gloat but it will be almost impossible not to. If you find yourself in a roomful of Republicans, first, make sure you haven't blundered into the wrong party. Then take the high road and be magnanimous. Express relief that the Democrats took the House and Senate. Discuss it in conservative terms, i.e., the new majority will "stop the hemorrhaging of our tax dollars" and "put an end to the desecration of our Constitution." If anyone still defends the administration, and the war, treat them as you would a person suffering from brain damage. Smile warmly and agree with everything until they shut up.
Religion — It is still, apparently, impolite to scoff at someone's beliefs. However, if you find yourself in a roomful of right wing Evangelicals, it might be fun (after, again, making sure you're at the right party) to ask them to explain The Rapture. But note: keeping a straight face will be harder than you think. Enthuse along with them as they exult in how wonderful it will be, to be dead and in heaven with Jesus, and express sympathy for how miserable their lives must be here, now, on earth. Or, if in a room of less fundamentalist believers, pose the question for group discussion: "How come, except for Sally Field as the Flying Nun, I have yet to see or meet a happy or joyful person who devotes their life to God? Why are nuns and priests and ministers and those types always so bummed all the time?" Point out that the Hassidic seem angry, the Evangelicals seem driven, the Catholics — well, let's not go there. As for the Muslims, let's not go there, either. Together!
Sex — It is impolite to pretend to be on the fence about gay marriage. If gays pay taxes like the rest of us, then they should be treated equally by the state. If someone objects, and decries homosexuality in moral terms, just keep saying "the Human Genome Project" until they give up.
Gossip — It is not so much impolite as just dumb to admit that you don't know all about Tom Cruise and Katie Holms. We mean, really. Come on. If you truthfully don't know that Tom is gay and Katie made some Faustian deal with him to advance her career, then you have no business leaving the house and venturing out into the "real world." Do not, therefore, express sincere pleasure at their "marriage." (Do, however, express faux, sarcastic pleasure.) Feel free to express genuine sorrow at Reese and Ryan's separation; if it comes up, and you don't know what people are talking about, just look grim for a moment and say, "It's the Business. It's brutal." Shrug haplessly and don't-know-what-to-say if someone mentions Michael Richards. End at least one comment, about any subject at all, with the phrase, "…until O.J. writes a book about how he'd have done it." Openly roll your eyes when someone mentions Britney and K-Fed. Tip: to get a laugh, mention that those in the know now refer to him as "Fed Ex." If you wait long enough, and allow people to have drunk enough, they'll laugh even if they've already heard it.
These, of course, are simply suggestions. There are other, equally worthy, topics. All we insist on is that you put as much time, thought, and energy into your performance (because that's what it is) as your host will have devoted to preparing the meal. And, of course, whatever you do, for God's sake don't just be yourself.
Books mentioned in this post
Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman is the author of Yiddish with George and Laura