The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

PARTS IS PARTS: I think we’ve all been to parties and other social gatherings where we’ve wondered why we bothered to show up at all. Maybe the host owed you a dinner, maybe your wife is making you go, maybe your employer requires you to be there in order to make an important customer happy, but no matter why you showed up, you’re here, and here is a disaster of Titanic sized proportions and you would willingly cut off your left arm for an excuse to get out of this hellhole right now. This sort of thing happens to us all on occasion; just a part of the strange lottery of life, but it’s worse when you’re the host of this ten ton stone balloon and you know everyone in the place is blaming you for that awkward and uncomfortable feeling we all get when we know the party’s heading south and we wish we were, too.

Part of your problem may be that you do not have any interesting conversation pieces in your home. A good conversation piece gets people talking, gets them comparing notes about the piece on your coffee table and others pieces they’ve seen at other houses and on that trip to Europe a few years back with your Aunt Myrtle when she went looking for the ladies room in the Louvre after getting up close and personal with Mona Lisa, took a left when she should have taken a right, and wound up on a Bulgarian army rifle range being shot at by a squad of angry nearsighted kids who couldn’t get out of the draft and were glad to take their frustrations out on someone. American relations with Bulgaria have improved considerably since that trip and will go on improving, just as long as Aunt Myrtle stays home with her cats. But with so many different people interested in so many different things the perplexed host may find themselves in a bit of a quandary about what sort of conversation piece to get since very few conversation pieces appeal to everyone.

The host in this case should remember that the one thing that always excites interest is people, especially famous people. The famous are different than you or me, F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously didn’t say, to which Ernest Hemingway didn’t reply, yes, they have better press agents. But the chances of getting an actual, real life famous person to come to your party are usually pretty poor, all told, and even if they did come, you want everyone at your party to talk about what a wonderful party this is, not about whether some celebrity shows up and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. Let’s face it, celebrities come and they go; I mean, when was the last time you heard anything about Miss America 1938 or Ilona Massey or John Nance Garner or even Norma Shearer? The trick is to get someone whose name has stood the test of time but who won’t monopolize the conversation to the point where the party suffers. Not an easy thing to do, as I’m sure you would agree, but recently two books have come out that show the inexperienced host how to do such a thing and make your parties the envy of your entire neighborhood. Everyone who is anyone on this planet has heard of Albert Einstein and any party he attends becomes an immediate success since how everyone will want to know how you got the premier genius of the 20th century to come to your party while others will want to discuss the theory of relativity and how much they don’t understand it, having flunked high school physics after having spent most of the year checking out the cheerleader sitting four desks up from them, and still others will want to discuss Einstein’s role, and possible culpability, in the development of the atomic bomb, which is what your party would have been if Albert hadn’t shown up on time.

Now we all know, and if you didn’t I’m telling you now, that Albert Einstein died in 1955, so how can you get him to come to a social gathering some fifty years too late for him to bring a loaf of bread or some raspberry Danish or maybe a nice bottle of wine; this is something my mother always goes on about. Never go to a party with one arm as long as the other, she says, but that’s probably some sort of weird Irish cultural thing. In any case, Einstein may not be able to come because of his unfortunate death fifty years ago, but that does not stop his brain from being the life of any party it goes to. Yes, indeed, as the two books I mentioned above make very clear, Einstein’s brain is still available, floating in formaldehyde in some Tupperware containers somewhere in New Jersey. Of course, you can’t actually buy Einstein’s brain; the owner is not interested in selling, and who would be, given such a treasure, but you can rent the brain, I hear, for two hundred dollars a night, half price for bar mitzvahs, and isn’t a minimal investment of two hundred dollars a small price to pay for scoring the social success of the year?

And Einstein is not the only head in the ring, not at all; there are plenty of miscellaneous body parts floating around out there to liven up even the deadest party, body parts of every size and description, body parts for every occasion. Franz Josef Haydn’s head, for example, is back with the rest of the great composer, the head finally reuniting with the rest of the body in 1954 after a century and a half apart, but for the artistically inclined Francisco de Goya’s head is still wandering the highways and the byways at this time, and for the politically minded, I think Oliver Cromwell is still headless, said head being in the possession of a family that has (or had; the situation is unclear) old Ollie’s noggin in a velvet lined box, all set and ready to transform the dullest dinner party into a tremendous success.

For those who enjoy a bit of dirt with their conversation pieces, and you know who you are, the ambitious host has a choice between Napoleon Bonaparte and Grigorii Rasputin. Napoleon was the bigger man historically; a string of battlefield successes made his name as one of the great military leaders of history, and his revision of French law, codified as the Code Napoleon, remains the basis of French civil law to this day, marking him as one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century as well. Rasputin, on the other hand, was an unkempt pseudomonk who conned his way into Tsar Nicholas II’s household with his ability to calm Nicholas’ hemophiliac son, the crown prince Alexis, and soothe the empress Alexandra’s hysteria about her son’s condition. Unlike Napoleon, Rasputin survives in history as something of a perpetual dirty joke, something on the order of the second Clinton administration or the riper years of the Stuart Restoration. So you can imagine how a dull party can perk right up when you produce, from its very own shoebox, the reason why Rasputin was so sought out by society women during the first decade of the twentieth century, an object described by one witness as something akin to a long, blackened, overripe banana. By contrast, and there is a big contrast here indeed, when Napoleon’s came up for auction at Sotheby’s in London a few years ago the catalog described it as tiny and looking remarkably like a shriveled seahorse. Given the relative historical importance of these two men, I think it is safe to say that this is one of those instances when size really does not matter.

To maximize the effect of your conversation piece on your guests, you could try to work it into every aspect of the evening, although I’d leave Einstein’s brains off the dinner table lest someone mistake them for the cauliflower. You must remember to treat the conversation piece with respect; in all likelihood you are just borrowing it for the evening and while you obviously can’t return it to the original owner, as your piece is a scaled down version of the original owner, you should return it to the current owner in as close to original condition as you can get it without actually administering CPR, which will not be helpful at this time. This is only good manners, after all, and if you show people that they can’t trust you to be responsible with their property they will stop loaning it to you, and then you’ll wind up showing your guests slides of your trip to the Grand Canyon, and they will leave your home convinced that you are a dullard, a bore, a dolt, and maybe even psychotic as well. I mean, who is that interested in the Grand Canyon, really? It’s a ditch, a big ditch, to be sure, and a marvel of nature, but when you boil it down to its essence, a ditch is a ditch.
For those of you who are interested, the two books referred to in the post above are Carolyn Alexander's Possessing genius: the bizarre odyssey of Einstein's brain, and Driving Mr. Albert: a trip across America with Einstein's brain, by Michael Paterniti.


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