The core of my upbringing revolved around my becoming the ultimate arm candy. As a girl, I attended multiple etiquette and modeling classes, numerous sessions for head shots and portfolios, and countless trips to shops and boutiques for the ultimate dress. I became an expert on the placement of silverware and the proper address of others. I excelled at small talk and charming chatter. You really could take me anywhere. (Well, I haven’t tried a formal State Dinner, but the thought inspires no concern other than, “I’d need a new dress.”)
In my parents’ efforts to improve their name-dropping skills, they sent me to some very fine schools, not realizing that these very fine schools were actually sources of stellar education and not just matchmaking parties. This was their mistake. They assumed I would find some nice rich boy to marry and use my education to chose which painting to hang over the mantle; I assumed I was there to learn how to think.
So, I did. I studied philosophy, history, literature, science, the arts, and anything else I could. When at these fancy parties, I asked questions of these fancy people about what they do, how they do it, why they do it. At a dressage show, for example, I leaned into my hostess and began asking all sorts of questions about the horses and what were they doing. At the Monterey Jazz Festival, I asked why the atonal jazz performers sounded like they were yelling at someone – what’s that all about? (They are yelling – at previous composers. Even if you don’t “like” it, you can’t help but respect it.) As it turns out, people tend to enjoy talking about the things they love. If you ask them questions, usually, they enjoy teaching you. My parents were mortified when I would be invited back to the next event – but they wouldn’t asked. They thought my admissions of ignorance were embarrassing; actually, their pretensions of experience were the embarrassing bits.
I got really good at mingling. And looking good and being funny when I did.
Then, I did something inconceivable: I opted out.
While my parents were busy bragging about my education, I was busy studying. While they were throwing me into the paths of eligible men, I was grilling these poor guys about the whats and whys of their lives – and ending up with some good friends in the process. I failed to develop a passion for jewelry and big houses (but I do still love well-engineered automobiles), and instead invested that energy into attending museums, film festivals, conferences, and so on. Why spend the money on a cold rock when I could buy hundreds of books with it or a new stylus for the record player cartridge or backpack across Europe? I continued to wear the pretty dresses, but more often, I stayed in my jeans.
There was, of course, a great deal of arguing between my parents and me about what I was doing with the gifts they had given me. This was all several years ago now. I no longer live in the glamorous world.
A few days ago, there was a small Labor Day party hosted by some of my family for a group of old, dear friends, all of them excellent, good people. It was a wonderful afternoon. Lots of laughs, good conversation, and many many hugs. *This* was a party worth attending. Before everyone started to arrive, though, I found that I was very very nervous. (I’m always most vulnerable *before* something starts. Once it’s happening, I’m cool and collected. Usually.) My stomach fluttered around and bounced like the butterflies I was watching. I sat under a dogwood tree repeating to myself, “It’s just a small group of family friends. I’m at my in-laws’ home with my family. In a few hours it will be over and I can return to my reading or knitting.” I realized something. In all my years of socializing, I had never wondered whether or not I enjoyed any of it. The socialite gig was just something I did because it was expected. I never wondered if I could – opt out.
Sitting under the dogwood tree, I discovered that I Fucking hate parties. Doesn’t matter who else is there, how many people, what the occasion is, where I am, or if I can wear jeans. I hate these damn things. This may be why my husband and I eloped…. I love seeing people and curling up on a chair for conversation but I loathe spectacle. I will gladly spend hours with one or two (but three is pushing it) of my friends. But any larger group makes me queasy. Sure, I know how to behave — but I really really hate it.
Fair or not, in groups we are all on display. There is a haze that falls over parties. Folks, despite their best efforts, talk a bit more loudly, drink a little more, and exaggerate their accomplishments or opinions. I only know one person who avoids this: and he tends to be quiet during events, if he can’t avoid them altogether. People sometimes find him aloof, when really he’s just waiting for something relevant to say. (I married that man.) The butterflies of nervous anticipation become butterflies of glamour and spectacle, and even the most sincere of us can become a bit affected and inflated by the circumstances. Honest conversation seems to make others uncomfortable, as if they’ve been caught doing something unseemly, and the kindest act is to pretend that you aren’t aware that you’re wasting hours on empty chatter.
I don’t know about anyone else, but this always makes me feel guilty. I enjoy the company of these people one-on-one. I like them. But, I don’t people in groups. I am not the social butterfly I was supposed to be. I don’t want to be. I now offer less chit-chat about weather or travel, and my conversation about sports is based in stats and rules, and not on local team prejudices. Discussions of politics and religion are – as is tradition – avoided by me, but not because it’s tasteless. I avoid it because I don’t want people to embarrass themselves by thoughtlessly repeating contradictory lines from NPR or Fox News. When others bring it up, as they often do, particularly during an election season, I make excuses to leave the conversation. Please, let me think that you aren’t so easily manipulated by our culture. Let me think that we fly because we have wings, and not because we are caterpillars with fancy feathers.