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At Least I'm Getting Invites Again

No matter what else goes wrong, one of the most important things is going right: I'm getting party invitations again. Two this month, even. Todd threw a disco-themed party weekend before last (I went anyway). And TKO and her roommates threw a Faerie-themed St. Pat's party last Saturday. And now that I'm no longer on an insane schedule, I can go to Saturday night parties without having to worry about being at work at 7 am on Sunday.

An excuse to get out of the house, lots of friends, lots of interesting conversations. I hang out with people who are mostly as smart as me or more so (some way, way more so), so I always learn things I didn't know. And quite a few of my female friends are smart, sexy, kinky women -- and over half of them are costumers. Life just doesn't get any better.

Well, yeah. I could be throwing parties again. It may happen again in a year or so. Who knows. But in the mean time, it's good to be back.

Look, parties aren't just the best entertainment value on the planet. They're important. No, really, I really believe this.

  1. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, a best-seller last year about a wealthy liberal columnist who goes back to her working class roots to find out if it is in fact possible to live on low-end service industry wages. She concluded that it couldn't be done, despite the fact that she started in perfect health, with a paid-for car, and with a thousand bucks saved up.

    Now, to those of us who live this life and read her book, it's easy to pick apart. For all she says she was raised in this world, she misses some pretty obvious survival strategies. And one of the things she admits she can't figure out is why all of her service-worker co-workers keep inviting her to come over to their place for parties, to get drunk or smoke some dope and just hang out. Why would that be fun? Well, for the God's sake, even if it's not fun, don't think of it as just hanging out and getting drunk. You'll fully get it if you see the parties she was being invited to as what they are. Sure, they're also very cheap entertainment. But more than that, they're "user group" meetings for poverty.

    Once you get drunk with your fellow poor people, nobody's too proud to admit that they're scrounging these obscure charities or thrift shops for their clothes. It's how you set up evening appointments with food pantries, by finding someone who's done so. It's where you get tips on eating well for seriously cheap. That's where you find out which doctors are generous with sample medicines, and what the clinics' hours are, and which ones are any good. That's where you find the one thing she needed more than anything else in the world: a roommate. Nobody, and I mean nobody gets to start at the bottom of the wage scale and get their own apartment. You start out with a roommate. In a strange city, where do you find roommate situations? At any party you can get to, and then some.

    Where else are you going to learn this stuff about a strange city? From social workers? Please. They may have lists of this stuff, but they don't use any of it themselves. They don't know what the pitfalls of any of them are. They don't know which ones are any good. You find this out from fellow poor people - once everybody's at least a bit beyond embarrassment over having the information.

    (OK, you could learn some of this at some churches. But Ehrenreich burns this bridge even faster. You do not get to burn both bridges, not and stay afloat.)

  2. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, even more recent best-seller on the subject of "social capital." In a nutshell, demonstrates that successful economic and democratic structures need people who have lots of social ties to other people. Family is important, church is important, clubs are important. But interestingly enough, strong social capital (and the personal health, education, and income advantages that come from having strong social capital) correlates just as strongly with "informal social capital" - by which he specifically means having friends over for dinner (or going over to lots of friends' houses for dinner), and yes, throwing parties or attending parties.

    Putnam actually demonstrates via solid math and good use of statistics that it is just as useful - not just to you, but to society around you - to go to a party as it is to go to church, attend a city council meeting, or attend a political party club meeting. It is just as useful to you and to your community to throw parties as to organize any other group meetings. In fact, he shows that if you belong to fewer than five groups, the health benefits of joining another group or picking up another group activity exceed the benefits you'd get from losing weight or quitting smoking. (As measured by reduction in average medical expenses.) And remember, I'm hard to snow with statistics - I majored in this stuff, and I eat it up with two spoons. I don't just agree with him because he's saying stuff I wanted to hear - he really, really does prove it.

    But what's more, he shows that informal parties are among the most important kinds of social capital formation. If you throw parties and invite to your parties people who wouldn't otherwise hang out with each other, you're creating the best kind of social capital: "bridging" social capital, versus "bonding" social capital. "Bonding" social capital ties you in with other people who are like you. It's good for you, and it's good for society, and it does a superior job of making you feel good about yourself, but it's not especially useful to you when you're in trouble. "Bridging" social capital ties you in with people who aren't specifically like you - and therefore it's not only good for you and good for the community, it provides you with access to information and resources that you otherwise wouldn't have.

Did you know that in classical Athens, there was an actual word for someone whose claim to fame was their skill at organizing parties? It generally fell to people with just the right mix of skills who also had some kind of vaguely passive income stream that freed them from desperate want. It was the male equivalent of a hetaera, a "companion" - think high-class geisha. The male equivalent was someone who made the bulk of his life, living, and actual priestly ministry out of getting people to show up at parties together, meet each other, have interesting and useful conversations, and have a good time doing it. He was expected to know people from all walks of life, and how to get along with them. He was expected to be an expert at mixing and dispensing drinks - and at judging people's capacity for them. (That was no trivial task in a society where "wine" includes flavors ranging from mint to belladonna to opium.) He shared duty with the hetaera (if one showed up) for managing the conversation and keeping things lively.

The word is "symposiarch." "Symposion" means "drinking together," and it is the root of our word symposium. A symposiarch is someone who is superior at drinking together. It was a highly praised skill ... among the people who invented democracy, free enterprise, entrepreneurialism, and society focused on the needs of the middle class. It's also among my highest aspirations.

(In fact, every good party had four specific sacred social roles. The host pays for it, and provides the food and the space. The symposiarch brings the booze, the drugs. The hetaera,"companion," brings the music, the entertainment if any, and yes, the girls. The basileus, or "king," is an elected position at each party, specifically intended to be the most popular person there - he has specific ceremonial duties, and gets his choice of the first conversation topic if he wants it. It's a pretty good system, if you ask me. I could go on and on about how this worked, and what's so cool about it.)

So - when's the next party?


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 19th, 2002 09:27 am (UTC)
Not just LOA
Hey, that's got Thrill Kill Kult on it, too!

Next party? I will keep you informed.

hetaera TKO
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )