Sunday, June 23, 2024

Pity Parties

I was popular from 1992 to 1994. During this very brief period between my outcast childhood and young adulthood, and my 21st century run as a reclusive dot-com casualty, I had a bit of a moment.

I had a deep phalanx of friends, including movie stars and crackheads, sundry artists, writers, moguls, and musicians. I dated so many glamorous women that I lost interest in custom-tailoring and began to take every last one of them to Corner Bistro; a procession so unlikely (I was not rich; I was not handsome; I was not suave) that the Ecuadorian burger chef wagged his head in dumbfounded stupor whenever I swanned in with my latest.

How did it happen? As usual, I'd boiled things down to a childish simplicity and toyed with fragmentary observations until the pieces connected. And reframed accordingly.

I'd spent my life angling for invitation to parties. I don't mean, literally, parties. I mean "The Party" - a scene where something - jesus, anything! - was going on. When I occasionally gained entry, I usually found them unappealing. But that was no reason to give up. Much of life worked this way: a futile pursuit of disappointing results followed by rapid jading. Even peak experiences, as we often note, pour through our fingers like sand.

But after adjusting my perspective, I decided that, rather than try to score invitations to unappealing parties, I'd throw my own, better ones. So I made myself bigger. Louder. Ballsier. And I turned my collection of cool finds (restaurants, sure, but also bars, blues joints and all manner of great stuff) into a magic chocolate factory in which I was the magnanimous and enigmatic Willie Wonka. The wild ride of cool places, delicious bites, and amusing repartee became my Party.

I'd pick people up and drop them off. I was tour guide, raconteur, and confidente. I made everyone feel like the most important person in the world, asking (and certainly receiving) nothing in return. When I arrived, the show started. They peered at me with something akin to interest from their deep wells of boredom. I was one of those larger-than-life figures who spring up to offer amusement and distraction. One of those!

It all finally came to a crashing halt one birthday. I'd started a tradition of throwing birthday banquets in far-flung locales. I'd find the venue (some unlikely little grandma joint), wheedle a large group into agreeing to be flung far, arrange transport, order food, start conversations, make introductions, seat everyone, and inject inertia via my poor aching adrenal glands. At the end of the night, I'd count through the pile of money left by the departed crowd to pay the bill, covering the inevitable shortfall from my bodacious bank account as a $26,000/year financial colossus. Fun.

During one of these, it came time to serve appetizers. I brought a tray out from the kitchen (grandma being frantically occupied with cooking for the crowd), stooping to let a guest select.

He stared up at me expectantly - though with ample good will, since I was, again, an object of amusement. He watched me like I was on his television screen, but, no, I was a real person, right there, really there, holding a tray for him to engage with, while he passively slouched. Having satisfied 100% of his engagement obligation by merely showing up, he wouldn't pick up the tongs. He'd reduced himself to a unit of raw expectancy.

I moved on to guest 2 and guest 3, and they, too, watched me like a video game spaceship. And while I was, at this point, beseeching them to grab a yum-yum, they couldn't make it happen. It was too great a lift. They could not, would not, take the tongs.

I finally melted down. "DO I NEED TO PRE-CHEW THE FUCKING FOOD AND SPIT IT DOWN YOUR FUCKING THROATS??" I bellowed to the group at large.

That was the final birthday party. Soon, I’d strap in for nine years running a web site from a solitary gloomy apartment. No more dates, no more parties in the real world.

And Chowhound followed the same contour. A second camel hump. It was a party thrown via crushing labor - 15 hour days, 365 days per year, unpaid, under relentless stress, with no assets beyond those same puckered adrenal glands. When I eventually begged the million users of our free public service to chip in to help pay our enormous server bills, their response was drab silence, though a few loudmouths piped up indignantly. By offering their presence, they'd already satisfied 100% of their engagement obligation. They not only refused to pick up the tongs, so to speak; they sneered at me for even suggesting it.

This is what throwing parties is like: you're saddled with passive flesh sacks who deplete your adrenals and blink with blank docility when asked to pitch in, and explode into haughty rage when pressed. But a party thrower garners some attention. At least there's something happening - some action within your perimeter, even if you're too busy serving the meal to enjoy it.

It’s simpler to try to get invited to other people's soirĂ©es, but invitations are not awarded to those most eager to attend. In fact, eagerness is disqualifying, because it makes you cheap, when party hosts want valuable guests. Ideally, movie stars, moguls, and artists. Most people throw parties to bask in - and boast about - the attention.

A popular guest needs a familiar set of qualifying assets, a la The Immense Stature of an Attractive Person Making Idle Small Talk. It's all about perceived value - "seeming", not "actual" - which is why even grand parties are so drably disappointing. They're populated by shiny poseurs.

Let's review options:
1. Claw yourself to a position of perceived value, so you're invited to parties with no obligation beyond passive participation. Then endure the company of other impassive shimmerers. Or...

2. Be a party-thrower, enslaving yourself to infantilized guests. Or...

3. Eschew parties, retracting into a shell to nurse your resentments and envy. Or....

4. Try to do something worthwhile regardless of whether anyone gives a crap.
Spoiler alert re: #4: they won't give a crap, because if you don't present the thing you do like a PARTY, enticingly waving your juicy adrenal glands and making everyone feel like The Most Important Person in the World, you will seem smaller-than-life even if you conjure miracles. Remember how their almighty attention is the only thing they have to offer? Don't expect them to give it cheaply!

This isn't a bitter rejection of humanity. It's a sardonic case for karma yoga; for doing something worthwhile regardless of whether anyone gives a crap.

See also "Filtering the Zombie Army" and "Explaining Salinger".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if, now that we're used to paying for substacks and such, a payed-subscription plan might actually produce enough revenue to support a viable reincarnation of chowhound

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