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Rethinking Parties

Kathleen has long taken the position that she's opposed to large parties to which we invite all our friends and hope that most show up. Such parties are loud and awkward, some people drink too much, and you can't really have a conversation with anybody. Kathleen thinks that it's much better to get together with friends in smaller groups. I've been inclined to agree. Aside from family gatherings at holidays, we haven't given a party in years.

Kathleen also reminds me that, when we did give parties, it was so that I could show off my culinary skills, or just get a good, loud buzz going. This amounted to giving parties for the sake of giving parties - a pretty pointless business. Because our friends are a varied lot, there was always something schizoid about hosting them, flitting from frivolity to seriousness and back without being able to get in the spirit of either.

On Sunday, we tried a different approach and were delighted by our success. "Delighted" is really an understatement. I'm overwhelmed with satisfaction, if such a thing is possible. The revolutionary principle? Limit the party to people who are almost certainly on the same wavelength, but who have never met, or who don't get together often. Some of the guests were old friends. Most were men whom I had not met until earlier this year, but whom I had gotten to know anyway, thanks to the Internet - and thanks to their troubling to publish their writing on the new medium. When I did actually meet them, there were no real surprises (except in the case of Édouard of Sale Bète, whose adopted French persona allowed for wildly inaccurate guesses about his American personality). Eventually, I wanted to bring them together, and I wanted to introduce them as well to some of my old friends. After long negotiations, a date that suited everyone concerned was determined. In short, the guest list was the only thing that mattered. This was going to be a party about people, not entertainment of some kind or other.

There's nothing new in this. It is the principle underlying the traditional hospitality of educated European elites. One welcomes an invitation because it will bring one together with people likely to be interesting and skilled at conversation, not complete strangers limited to small talk. The invitation implies that, although hitherto unknown to you, the other guests will not be strangers. That is pretty much what happened here on Sunday.

I didn't foresee the impact that all of my planning would have on the interest that I would take in the conversations that sprouted freely once the second guests arrived. There were always at least two conversations in our not-very-large living room, and sometimes three or four. There weren't enough people for the party to spill into the Blue Room (where the books are), and nobody got stranded in solitude. Nobody tried to talk to me because I was more familiar than anyone else in the room. I didn't feel the need to talk at all. Freshness and familiarity blended as I have never known them to blend.

The crucial novelty, if there was just one, was that we were getting together in the afternoon. It might as well have been a tea party. I certainly drank tea, all afternoon. I wouldn't have sipped a glass of wine (and then another...) for the world. I was completely at ease and completely interested - why mess with that? I don't remember talking very much, but I do recall asking questions - and remembering the answers. Perhaps the  gathering wasn't felt to be particularly unusual by anyone else, but for me it was, enormously. Host of the party, I was very content to be one of the guests. (December 2006)

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