January 1, 2008
More on the Kindness of Strangers
My sister really sort of hates New Year's Eve, mostly because it's her birthday. Some people think December 31 would be a great birthday, because there are always lots of parties--but the thing is, they're almost never for you. People usually have their own agenda on New Year's Eve, and they don't want to come to a birthday party for you every single year, plus if you host a party on December 31, people expect it to go til midnight and so forth. Then there's the business of birthday gifts: Only people who really love you and think ahead manage to buy you a present and send it to you in time; a lot of people do that whole horrible "This is both your birthday AND Christmas present" routine, or else they send you stuff in mid January. At least, this is what my sister tells me, and I believe her.
I don't dislike New Year's as much as my sister, but it's not my favorite holiday. Part of it is that there's no prescribed activity, aside from having fun, and I generally resent forced frivolity. I prefer holidays with clearly defined activities: eat turkey and pumpkin pie, or go door-to-door asking for candy, or give and receive gifts. The activity is dictated by custom; whether or not you have fun is entirely up to you.
I've had plenty of spectacularly forgetable New Year's Eves, and I've had several that genuinely BLEW. I want to talk about that, but before I do, I must say that last night was just about the best New Year's Eve I've ever celebrated in my whole life.
Probably my worst New Year's ever was 1988. I made travel plans to meet the family of the man I was in love with, and when I bought my airline ticket part of the plan was that I'd get an engagement ring for Christmas. Instead I got dumped, but for a variety of reasons I stuck around for the whole holiday. There were two other New Year's where I began dating someone after I'd already made plans to spend the holidays with my family, so I didn't have that kind of close-proximity misery to deal with, but there was still romantic drama and tension via email and over the phone.
Then there was New Year's Eve 1986/ New Year's Day 1987, when I got pulled over by a cop who was convinced I'd been drinking, and thought I was being cute when I said I hadn't had a drop all year. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "It's 12:30. But what about before midnight?"
"No," I said. "I meant all of 1986. I don't drink."
He shown his flashlight into the car. I had three passengers. "Looks like you were having quite a party," he said.
"Not really," I said. "The guys in the back are my little brother and his best friend, and they're not old enough to drive, which is why I had to go pick them up from the church dance. This person is my friend Ellen, whom I haven't seen since I went on a mission for the Mormon church in May 1985. I got home three weeks ago, and I'm still not recovered from my jet lag, which is why I'm wearing a flannel nightgown, a bathrobe and slippers: as soon as I get home, I'm gonna crash. You want me to get out of the car so you can see?"
But New Year's Eve 2007 was nothing like that. As I mentioned earlier, I'm in Chicago doing all sorts of fun stuff; the past couple of days have involved hanging with my friend Z. Also in town is Saviour Onassis, who is here meeting the friends and family of his new man, BG. SO was going to a party hosted by BG's best friend, and BG was cool enough to invite me and Z. He told us the party started at 6 p.m., so Z and I thought we'd be fashionably late, and arrived at 7:30.
But the party was actually supposed to start at 8, so we were the first to arrive, and nothing was ready. The hosts were complete strangers to both of us, but they welcomed us into their home, provided us with alcohol and all the queso we could possibly eat, including a really stinky Italian cheese that turned out to be lovely, even though I used to think I didn't like stinky cheese. Z and I sat and played Holiday Mellencamp until other guests showed up ("OK, Christmas gifts: a real bicycle or an exercise bike?" Real bicycle. "Jewelry or a negligee?" Jewelry. "A dozen red roses or a really powerful handheld vacuum cleaner?" The vacuum cleaner.)
And then other people showed up, and even though I'd only met two of them before in my life, and even though Z had never before met any of them, they were all lovely and welcoming and generous and cool. The food was AMAZING: the hostess was a professional chef,and she provided quite a spread. But as my grandmother liked to say after a very pleasant meal, "the food was good, but the company was better." The guests were really diverse: there were neighbors and friends of friends and children and even a Masai chieftan from Kenya who is in the US trying to promote measures to bring economic stability to east Africa. Z and I had originally planned to go early and leave early enough to be in bed and asleep at midnight, because the roads weren't bad, but we had so much fun that we didn't leave until well after 1 p.m.
Now, this is not the continuation of my previous post on good-natured strangers that I had originally intended to write. And it's not like I have never before been to a party where I didn't know many people and still managed to have a good time. But like so many things, the ability to do that is a skill, and one I had to cultivate.
As a freshman in college I drove half an hour to get a big bash held at the home of one of my favorite professors. She lived out in the foothills east of Tucson, and a wash ran through the back of her property; every semester she invited every student who had ever been in one of her courses to come to her home, where she had accumulated a stash of wood to build a bonfire in the wash, and then she facilitated a good time. This was 1982; I was 18 years old; and the drinking age was 19, so I knew there would be booze there. I didn't plan to drink, but I also knew I'd have to make conversation with people I hardly knew, and that I'd have find common ground with people who were nothing like me and who might be drunk.
I pulled into her driveway, found a parking space, took a deep breath, then backed my car out and went home. I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't make small talk with strangers who might consider me a hick. Oh, I could stand up in a room of 120 people and offer my opinion on the textbook we were reading; I could stand in front of an audience of 400 people and give a 20 minute talk on any pre-assigned topic anyone wanted to give me. But I couldn't imagine strangers being nice to me or being interested in anything I had to say at a party.
That attitude came partly from the fact that I grew up knowing people from kindergarten on; you didn't meet people at parties; you already knew everyone, so you played games or danced or ate or something; you didn't mingle and introduce yourself.
Am I the only person who had this experience? I'd like to think I'm not; I'd like to think that I'm not the only person who had to learn adult party etiquette.
But aside from that, I'd like to thank SO and BG for inviting me to that great party, and I'd like to say how great it is for me now to know that it's cool to make new friends. I realize that sounds like the kind of advice many people's mothers gave them in high school; I didn't really get told that. But being nice to strangers and believing that strangers actually have the ability and even the desire to be nice to me back is a really cool way to approach interactions and one I wish I'd adopted sooner.
So one of my New Year's resolutions is to follow the example set for me by my friend C and by BG's friend the professional chef and to assume that--and I cringe as I write this, because it's so cliched and smarmy, but right now it really does encapsulate how I feel--"a stranger is a friend I just haven't met yet."
Happy New Year.
Posted by holly at January 1, 2008 12:41 PM