Thursday, July 07, 2005

Family of the Familiar

The Fourth of July is a holiday meant to be spent in small towns with little parades where the fire fighters get standing ovations and toss tootsie rolls to little children. But, I now live in DC, so my access to small quaint towns is vastly diminished. The two other major options available to the DC resident are 1) To join the rest of the pasty white plump tourists on the Mall for a giant celebration of the Nation’s traffic and listen to Souza standards while baking or 2) go to extended parties at friends’ houses. Of the options available I knew which was right for me. JKD has had for at least 3 years held a heroic party at his parents’ house in Cabin John (Bethesda). For the past three years I have wanted to attend this party, but my residence in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado has made it impossible. This year was my first.

I’d heard that the party drew attendees from up and down the east coast, so I expected hundreds of guests. I attempted to add to the mayhem by bringing a friend, Amanda. Amanda worked on Paul’s last campaign with me and we’ve more or less stayed in touch since. I figured she’d enjoy meeting the Oberlin crowd, and they’d like her (she’s from Carleton, which is like a second cousin to Oberlin). We (Amanda and me) were picked up from the Bethesda metro and whisked away to the party.

Upon arrival there were closer to 15 people than the hundreds I’d both expected and feared. Small gatherings with more talking than shouting are much more my speed. This party was just that. A room full bright people sitting around drinking fairly substantial amounts of beer and eating sizeable portions of dead things, this is my kind of party. I should also explain that I love JKD’s parents and their house. Last year when I was out here interviewing I stayed with JKD and his parents. They were so warm and generous. Just wonderful people, and a great house.

The evening progressed, with old friends showing up to sit and chat. I met some new folks. Mainly the evening was just a blur of good spirits (both kinds), good conversation, and an easy pace. Amanda left as did several other friends, and the crew was largely reduced to the Oberlin kids. We imbibed a bit more and I found myself asleep on the hardwood floor—my previously reserved couch spot having been usurped midway through the evening (when I mistakenly chose to get up to use the bathroom).

Sunday dawned with people staggering about fighting off the various and varied effects of hangovers and the other repercussions of late nights and early mornings. We awoke to a giant bowl of pancake batter and blue berries as well as the Times and Post. In turn people would talk quietly, or read the paper, quoting hated sections of this article or that. It was perfectly delightful.

After breakfast and after watching Federer dismantle Roddick I retired to the sun room.. While taking a nap to remove some of the throbbing in my head from a night of sustained sociability and consumption, I awoke to the sound of a houseful of people swarming past me. Without opening my eyes to see who was there, I offered an aphoristic defense of my prone position: “Never trust a man who says he doesn’t nap.” I can’t be sure who heard my wisdom, or say with great certainty that it was said and not just thought, but it remains one of the enduring images of the weekend for me. My complete comfort in the space of JKD’s parent’s home and the easy banter that the place seems to support if not require, is unusual. I’ve slept in many of the rooms and know the weight of the front door as if it were my own. It’s one of the few places beyond my own home where I could easily nap without fear of judgment or scorn. It’s a place like home.

Upon waking it became time to leave for the 2nd party. JKD’s party still had a two days left, but my friend Dave’s fete was a one night only engagement. Dave’s party has long been the second fiddle of the DC Oberlin party scene. While both attract Obies the parties are pretty dissimilar. After another brief nap on the Metro, Dave picked Mooch and I up from the Shady Grove Metro. We pulled up to the house and for the next 2 hours we waited for guests to arrive. In those two hours there were never more than 10 people at the party.

As people began to show up a poker game was organized and our host was sucked into the world of taking his guests’ money. Dave is a strong poker player, and he plays a lot. It was fun to watch, but poker is at its best a tedious game and at its worst the chance to watch a lot of people win or lose 45 cents. Not content to sit and learn, I decided to begin heckling. For those of you not familiar with Frisbee culture, good natured heckling is considered essential. One time tested approach is to play fantasy ultimate. The basic premise is that you pick players whom you think will do well and then count the points that their performance earns you. But to spice it up you can also shout outlandish things to distract and detract from the performance of others, thus improving the chances that your fantasy player will score and not your friend’s. I decided that what this poker game need was some heckling. I began playing fantasy poker. I called Dave to win, and negative (meaning I’d get points if he failed) on some guy named Marty (who makes an appearance in another fantasy moment). Turns out I don’t know how to pick fantasy poker and no one else wanted to play. I was not in a room full of Obies. I was surrounded by swing dancers, talismanic poker players (each player had some ritual or item that he believed would bring success) and bickering environmentalists. Good people, all, but none with whom I share obvious or easy commonality.

As the evening progressed a Frisbee game broke out and Neil Gray showed up. Two very good omens for a party. Neil had been delayed because upon arriving at the rental desk for a car rental agency he’d been informed that they “didn’t have any cars.” They’re responsible for a single product. It’s not like they’re a grocery store and they ran out of lemons, it’s a fucking car rental place without cars. Eventually, hours later, Neil got himself the car he’d reserved and was on his way.

At what proved to the be midway point of the evening (12am) all decorum broke loose Inspired by an oboe playing swing dancer, the party took a decidedly adult turn. By adult I do not mean, responsible, mature or measured, rather I mean behavior that is usually reserved for adults. In point of fact, the party simply became a wild regression to my stereotype of a middle school party but with different choices and different boundaries. Whereas spin the bottle presumes some randomness in the pairing of forced lovers, this party accepted no such accident. This woman, Jewel, began determining who would drink and with whom they would makeout. Gleefully relinquishing their control over body and mind to an external authority the party picked up steam. Along with a few other Obies, and some other tired folks, I sat on the periphery and waited…hoping for a chance to get some sleep. Every so often, like the searchlight from a prison guard tower, Jewel’s gaze would catch mine and I’d expect to be forced into some tryst. Turns out I did a pretty solid job of indicating that I was in no mood for any of this. I have no problem with consenting adults doing nearly anything. The problem I have is when it becomes inappropriate to avoid participating. I didn’t want to be licked or kissed by anyone in that room, and it seems like that’s just as valid a personal preference as the opposite desire. As this giant multicelled organism called “Dave’s Party” began to absorb and writhe about, I found a likeminded soul and began commenting. It was not unlike watching infomercials when I was younger. There’s something refreshing about being able to think quickly and mock savagely. I often feel a bit like an outsider, and rarely more so than at this party. All in all I felt like a modern day Margaret Mead watching the mating ritual of people I only pretended to fully understand.

I began offering color commentary, noting which person was most likely to be groped next. Finally it hit me, this is the perfect situation for a new game, "fantasy-making-out". I began to bet on which persons would, after the forced kissing, make out with eachother. In the ultimate coup de grace of this newly formed sport, I correctly predicted a three-person-kissing-orgy (the aforementioned Marty doing his best to place himself directly in the line of desire between two women). This group of folks placed themselves under the dining room table. Later they moved, tastefully to the basement and the pool table. Events after this and the varying degrees to which people maintained possession of their clothes seem beyond dignity to mention. Suffice to say, this party was not my speed.

Finally at 4:30am I found both sufficient quiet and floorspace to go to bed. Sadly, as ever, I was unable to sleep in, so at 8:19am I was wide awake. I went for a morning run, which made me feel like the biggest badass ever. Here was this house of stumble down drunk folks sleeping off a night of debauchery and I was running. In retrospect, it was just a matter of choices, people got out of the party exactly what they needed. I needed to feel, arrogantly and probably defensively superior, and others needed to feel loved or at least attractive. Everyone won, no one lost. But, I was tired of their company (Dave and Neil notwithstanding) and commandeered a ride to the metro to rejoin JKD’s party.

Upon returning to JKD’s party for Monday’s festivities, I encountered seven remaining party goers, each looking as though the previous evening had exacted some gastro-intestinal revenge for unspoken but well understood transgressions. JKD explained that several party goers the night before had experienced “a Roman incident.” I laughed so hard at hearing this term that I myself nearly had “a Roman incident” or “a reversal of fortune” the other wonderful euphemism coined the night before. Here’s to unrelentingly witty people willing to tackle the most base of human moments with some wry humor. I guess in some ways that was the difference between the two parties. The one was filled with people acting out impulses with little regard for the appearance and seemingly no self awareness, while JKD’s party was unapologetically self critical and overtly self aware, even as the party goers drank to excess. The joy was at least in part in the analysis, in the recognition even as they experienced reversed fortunes. That awareness buys you a lot of points in my book. The rest of JKD’s party was calm. People sat around, barbeque was had, in general it was my ideal of relaxation.

I never really attended family reunions growing up. When I hang out with people from Oberlin (specifically friends of JKD and mine) I feel at ease. I miss that feeling from time to time, and am grateful that in DC I’ve found it can be reclaimed more often. It really feels like a reunion with people who while they aren’t family are certainly familiar.

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