Tuesday, December 21, 2004

We Networked with Some Very Nice Firefighters

Time to write about our Christmas party!

Let's see where I shall begin: with a thoughtful disquisition on the political (by which I mean career-building) implications of party giving in general or with the grim game of life or death that played itself out at our Christmas party last Saturday?

Disquisition or grim game? Disquisition or grim game? Hmm? Hmm?? Hmm???

Grim game it is. Once again alliteration trumps microcosmic political economy.

So, we had our little party -- friends, acquaintances and not a single enemy invited to turn, burn or otherwise neutralize. (More about that later.) It was all very nice. The house was as pretty as toast points and my wife has this new cookbook, the Kama Sutra of Dips. Such a marvelous collection of guests, all apparently ready to unhinge their jaws in the good-hearted effort to eat something larger than their heads! We even had a famous writer, indeed the only famous writer we know. And we had a Bonus Guest, a friend's sister who is a registered nurse, whose presence produced much easy laughter since where the medical profession trods, can a sampler of Viagra and constipation jokes be far behind?

Several groups were talking in our tight companionable little kitchen, and I was telling the nurse about my alcohol-induced fainting spell from several months ago, about which those-ah of-ah you-ah who read-ah my blog-ah -- why am I channeling Chico Marx? -- are already well informed. And suddenly out there just beyond the sound of my wine-dark voice, the Famous Writer, with neither a whimper nor, thankfully, a bang, slumped to the hard bright tile floor of our kitchen.

This was educational, a learning moment. It showed that Hardy was right, coincidences do happen, the highly improbable is one thing and the impossible is another, and sometimes you bet on the Red Sox.

FW was only out for a few seconds. Visiting Nurse was right on the job, chatting him up, shining a light in his eyes, with never a "Holy shit" or "I need a drink" or "Stick a fork in him. He's done." My wife called 911 right bang NOW, not waiting to raise a finger to test the winds of embarrassment nor to ask the afflicted for permission. (Two true stories: My wife's dad lay on the floor with a broken hip for an entire night because he refused permission for my wife's mom to call 911. My aunt lay at the foot of the stairs with a broken hip for an entire night because her husband refused permission for my mom to call 911.)

Came the fire truck lights flashing. In rushed the firefighters with their medical devices in worn leather cases. The FW -- who had been spread out in the master bedroom on the big bed with the red Missoni bedspread while our 18-year-old cat watched from her own bed with the cruel indifference of the very old and the very cat -- said he felt fine, and declined a trip to the hospital.

As did I when I was spread out on that very bed as the very same indifferent cat watched, confident she would not be tromped by firefighter boots.

FW came back to the party strong -- slightly rakish smile, hair poofed out on distinguished temples -- and even lingered for a glass or two of wholesome Oakland tap water before, this display of manly calm indulged, his wife dragged him away. He hadn't drunk much before his collapse, just a glass of wine, and some suspected it was all a kind of Zen thing, him closing his consciousness down to ward off boors, bores and mysteries swimming in the dip.

I was left with my own thoughts, of which I had several: 1) That darn human nature! This little interruption sure didn't dampen the party. Indeed, once it was clear that FW was fine, it gave a kind of je ne sais quoi to the evening, as a particularly nimble streaker might at the academy awards or a particularly well-orchestrated fistfight at a baseball game, that fight taking place off in the safe distance. 2) What a coinkydink!! Me and my fainting tale being related and then Whomp! about a yard away. Religions have been founded on less. 3) And you know, once it was clear that FW was fine -- and I really was confident that he was indeed fine, having had my own fainting spell this very same year, which created an empathy of almost psychic intensity -- it did occur to me that had he died on the hard bright floor of our kitchen, our house would have become a footnote, the final period in a life well-lived. The evening would have become biographical. Fans would have put flowers on our lawn and left notes pinned to the door. What a demise it would have been, somewhere between Byron's fever death in Missolonghi in the cause of Greek freedom and Tennessee Williams in a New York City hotel choking on the plastic cap of his eye medicine, mistaking it for a sleeping pill.

And if some of you turn away from this page in discomfort at such cold calculation, oh don't go now. This isn't just a personal revelation, it's a transition.

By which I mean, our little hindbrains are always searching for some personal advantage, aren't they? Nasty little hindbrain. Get thee to a reptilery. And so we slide, as a spoon slides into warm tapioca, into the second half of this little essay, the philosophical part.

I told a friend who had a cold and couldn't attend Saturday night's party that this was not going to be a "political party." He said good I'm tired of talking about the election. I said nonono, I mean that I haven't invited anyone I work with or anyone I'm trying to get anything from in the context of work or career. This party will not be political in the narrow sense of the word, (I said), that is, it is not a locus of manipulations and indirections carefully gauged to push the old Life's Work uphill or at least pull it back from the brink.

You know, that's what an awful lot of parties are about. That's what an awful lot of parties are about like it or not, a fact I did not understand for many years. My wife and I have been inviting coworkers into our home ever since we got our own bedroom, living room, indoor plumbing, kitchen and enough celery and carrot sticks to rub together, succumbing (at least in my case) to the mythos of all those classic tv series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Barney Miller, that is, the comforting idea that the workplace is one big happy family. I thought you all got together and talked and laughed, and bonds were inevitably created and invariably strengthened. I did not understand that you needed to stay two drinks behind and two conversational steps ahead of those guests whose dislike of you could prove a problem. (It took me a long time to figure out that some people dislike me or wouldn't mind trying. Me! I wouldn't hurt a fly.)

I've learned better. At first I didn't understand that entertaining co-workers, and those in related fields who might somehow someday boost your career, is a political act even if you are not consciously trying to placate or enlist those coworkers, or workers in related fields, in your cause. It can't not be political, but I just didn't get it. All these people were my friends! Work was one thing, and play was another, I thought. Gradually slowly glacially I got smart, and saw that such social events are quivery as a mound of jello, protean, seismic, an infinity of rows of dominos stretching in every direction ready to topple. I got tactical. I learned to work the guest list, thinking who might like to meet who, who I might take aside to confirm a rumor or plant an idea or explain a project:

Oh yes my old workfriend, you know who you are, backed into a corner as I replenish your glass, call for the cashews and make clear as a raw bleeding sore some idea I had only hinted at in the office, apparently thinking that the blackest of Jack, the cashews, the faint thrum of Frank Sinatra underneath the general hubbub and my sour beating breath will somehow make plain why this hiring, this firing, this curriculum revision, this proposal to change the color of the departmental bulletin board from puce to fuchsia is now that you brought it up (somebody brought it up) a good idea.

Why -- you probably wondered, old workfriend -- doesn't he just drop a fistful of quarters into my highball glass, wink and walk away? Why does he think I'm the one with the pocketful of magic beans?

Yeah, I figured out I was just not very good at "party politics." And I could never figure when I was being played by my own guests: PFC Gomer Machiavelli, reporting for duty.

Lately I've given up on having parties with a political dimension. I stick to inviting those who are of absolutely no use to me except in the sense that we are all lost souls hungry for a few shreds of affection, respect and comfort in this life this wasteland blah blah, in short just the usual collection of lovable neurotics who I am proud to call friends or at least need to. They are thankful I'm not asking for their vote to get me on the committee to decide what kind of bottled water we will have in the new faculty lounge.

Of course the great However is that some of my workfriends are fine people and naturally I will want to have them in my house sometime. (Oh you are seeing through this silly game of words I play.) Their charm is irresistible. Their tolerance for the fact that I'm all thumbs when it comes to university politics shows they are smart and proves they are virtuous. (What? Someone sent them the link to this essay?! That's crazy talk!) Oh dear dear readers, how delighted I would be to have you at the same party as my dear workfriends. You won't have any trouble picking me out of the crowd: I'm the one two drinks behind, struggling desperately to stay two conversational steps ahead.


G Pabst said...

It's like you're living in a Stephen King house.

Maybe the house doesn't like writers.

Maybe when they pass out time stops. And the writer is transported into another dimension where his/her brain is scanned to a hard drive. Then the data is stolen by evil literary agents from this dimension who program the now-captive brain to write and rewrite 24/7 and publish the results without having to pay the writer.

And when the writer comes to there's all these firemen who are in on the scheme, padding their pension fund with the ill-got gains. Or maybe they're really from the Roswell FD, and you know what that means.

Everything published as either B. Traven or T. Pynchon.

It's a crazy idea, I know... but it just might work!

Thanks for listening,
Dennis Hopper

Anonymous said...

I've never known you to be two drinks behind *anyone*, JMike darling.....
--Wrasslin' Rhonda