ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN SAYS I don’t WANT to Play
IT SEEMS to me that it’s time textbooks on entertaining, etiquette and social activity in general started dealing with something that’s just as vital as knowing how to seat people, address them, serve them, group them and talk to them. That’s knowing how to leave them alone.
Too many people operate on the theory that, if guests, friends, members and congregations are to have a good time, somebody has to make a strenuous effort to arrange it. This isn’t a criticism of believers in organized fun, good-fellowship and enjoyment; I think they’re generally better social human beings than I am. What I’m criticizing is the belief itself a naive and mistaken conviction that all kinds of people, including me, can be rescued from dullness and made temporarily happy by careful programming.
I keep running into this sort of thing at picnics, dinners, evenings out, summer resorts, banquets and a lot of other places where people are not allowed to enjoy themselves in their own way and with whom they choose. Somebody is always stiffening programs with three-legged races, singsongs and middle-aged-men’s ball games; rousing people from deck chairs to go on bird-watching
expeditions or trail rides; getting guests on their feet at banquets and making them march around the table and sit down beside some stranger labeled “Harry”; bringing variety into their friends’ lives by getting them all playing some game they don’t understand; and sitting back beaming at the sight of everyone having such a good time.
A few nights ago at a party I was having a wonderful conversation in a corner with a little rumpled mathematics teacher who claimed that children shouldn’t be made to go to school, that mankind had no real existence, and that getting drunk was not an acquired habit but a basic instinct like love. Just as I was warming up with some ideas of my own, the hostess, a stout boisterous woman, walked up to me, said, “Here!” stuck an orange under my chin and burst out laughing.
“You’ll find ouf what it’s for,” she shrieked, tapping me playfully on the head with a score card. “It’s an icebreaker.”
She yanked me to a line of guests in another room and stood me in front of a thin embarrassed-looking girl about a foot taller than I am. The hostess explained to her that she had to get the orange out from under my chin with her chin and stick it under
somebody else’s chin without using her hands.
I stood there holding the orange against my chest, smiling up at the girl encouragingly, like someone being cheerful about a broken neck. She looked at me as if she wished that instead of being such a good sport I would just go home. It didn’t help when, after a horrible tussle for the orange, she got my glasses caught in her hair and walked off with them dangling down her back like a broken brooch. Everybody laughed hysterically.
In other words this woman broke upa good conversation and very nearly smashed my glasses just seeing that everybody had a good time. And she
FOR YEARS grimly energetic hostesses have been hustling Bob into games he doesn’t understand, browbeating him into wearing ridiculous costumes and pushing him into corners with tongue-tied strangers. He’s had enough. Now he’s going to be a poor sport and start enjoying himself
wasn’t through yet. She was already handing out stubs of pencils and pieces of colored paper for the next game.
“I’ll tell you what to do with them in a minute,” she told me. She glanced into my face, looking pleased, and said, “I like to get people out of the corner and make them forget themselves.”
This is a principle behind a lot of organized goodfellowship and it’s about as scientific as some of the early cures for warts. Organized fun doesn’t always help people forget themselves. It often does just the opposite. Party games, for instance, sometimes get people’s minds on themselves so that they can’t think of anything else for days. Any time I sit up in bed in the middle of the night thinking of myself and something I said or did at a party, it wasn’t something I said while sitting in a corner; it was something I said in a game, standing in the middle of the room and coming apart with nerves. Like the time I got into a game of charades and had to do a book title called The Web of Passion. There are still people on my street who were at that party who just barely speak to me to this day.
And I’m not the only one. I have a neighbor, a military old gentleman as erect as a polo mallet,
with such a distinguished appearance that people always take him for something like a retired university president or a nuclear physicist. Actually, he sells shirts and anything deeper than The Return of Lassie gives him a headache, but he enjoys a certain prestige because he seldom talks and it does nobody any harm. But his reputation was almost ruined when a big, tightly girdled woman with frizzy yellow hair held a party for a few of the neighbors, included him among the guests, and decided early in the party to make everyone just forget themselves with a few brisk games.
In point of fact, this man could forget himself for longer periods than anyone I’ve ever known. He had a way of standing for hours, eyes narrowed, hands clamped behind his back, staring at a tree or a rock formation. Anyone who didn’t know him would think he was going back millions of years and piecing together the earth’s origin. Then he’d take his bulldog pipe out of his mouth and say something like, “Found a perfectly good deck chair this morning. Not a thing wrong with it. Somebody just chucked it out with the garbage.”
That evening, sitting out on his lawn watching the sunset, the evening breeze ruffling his thinning
hair, he’d take his pipe out of his mouth, look at you sharply and say, “Little hole in the seat the size of my finger.” He’d hold up his finger. “Nothing else wrong with it.” It would be a moment before you’d realize that he’d been thinking about the deck chair ever since you saw him in the morning.
He was a happy outgoing personality if I ever saw one, until he went to this party where the hostess made everyone take off their shoes and pile them in a corner, then pushed all her guests into two lines and explained a game called Junior High. It consisted of running for a table and picking out a slip of paper bearing a number and the name of the capital of a country, multiplying the number by another number which was pinned to the lapel of the person behind you, running for another table and picking up a piece of celery in your teeth, dipping it in some kind of juice, whipping around and writing the product of the two numbers on a big sheet of cardboard, then running to a corner of the room and putting on your shoes and going to the end of your line.
In about twenty seconds my neighbor had caused a traffic jam that backed right out onto the veranda. The game had pretty well Continued on page 40
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stopped while everyone watched him in a sort of awe as it became apparent that he couldn’t remember anything, that he had multiplied six by nine and got one hundred and sixty-three, that he had practically no reflex action, had forgotten the capital of England, couldn’t hold celery between his teeth, and turned out to be a poor sport when the hostess started shrieking excitedly, "No. NO! You can’t put your shoes on yet. You haven’t done it right. You don’t pin the celery to the cardboard.” He snapped up at her from the floor, "What the devil do you mean? You told me to pin it to the board just half a minute ago,” got a crick in his back and let out a military oath that made everyone turn aside in embarrassment. It all revealed that he wasn’t a grand old man after all.
In fact he became completely demoralized, and for days after that when we’d be standing out in our gardens, he’d suddenly look at me with a new anxious look in his eyes. It was clear he was thinking of himself instead of deck chairs. He’d say, "I’ve got a head for figures, you know, but not when people are shouting at me. When they start that, I just want to get into a room by myself. I get rattled. I’d make a poor jet pilot.”
This hostess just about made an introvert out of him at the age of seventy-five, and probably would have if he’d gone to any more of her parties. But next time he just asked me, "Make my excuses, will you? Tell that woman I’m tied up in another matter.”
But the point is, whenever anyone starts monkeying with human nature they usually cause more trouble than they cure, especially the kind of people who think you can work on the human character from the outside, like a pie crust, molding it into something more desirable for a few hours.
A lot of activities at my kids’ Sunday-school class are presided over by a tall, pleasant young minister from New Brunswick who, out of real goodness of heart and a genuine desire to serve, believes that you always have to be doing something brisk about human nature or nobody will have a good time. I really like this man and respect him but I just automatically start hiding behind pillars when he appears.
I was at one of his affairs the other day when, following a picnic lunch, about fifty parents all sat around in a big circle next to the people they wanted to sit next to, talking and enjoying themselves. Then this minister came in, took one look around, saw that nothing was organized and, with the energy of a gym instructor, announced something about us all getting to know one another better. With that, he made everyone stand up, walk to the middle of the floor, tell a lot of people, who didn’t care, who he was, what his work was, and where he came from. Everybody nearly died of selfconsciousness, and the minister tried to make them feel at ease by making little jokes in a professionally projected voice and laughing heartily. When he got me up there, he caught me on that old one about what hand did I write with and what hand did I stir my tea with; when
I said my right, he said he used a spoon himself and clouted me on the back and left me to grope my way back to my seat.
The thing is, he not only changed the mood of the ones who had been in the middle of the floor-—all of whom, after they’d returned to their seats, sat looking unhappily into space—but worried the ones who hadn’t been called yet about what he was going to do to them, so that they couldn’t pay any attention to what was going on. On top of all this, he made a lot of people forget where they’d been sitting and they found themselves among people they didn’t know and who wouldn’t talk to them.
One time he told me with a sort of benign grimness, "I like to drag people out of themselves.”
With all due respect for his intentions, if a guest is the type who is shy, sensitive and slow-.witted, nobody is going to change him by dragging him out of himself; or if they do it’s something I’d just as soon not see. I believe in leaving people in themselves. The place for people to come out of themselves is on a psychiatrist’s couch.
A good host or hostess, in my opinion, not only doesn’t bring guests out of themselves but deftly keeps them stuffed in, so that the only part that’s showing is the best part—the part that should go to parties.
Not that all people who plan organized fun are trying for a quick psychological cure. Some just feel that a get-together of any kind is a failure unless everybody knows everybody else, and that the quickest way to bring it about is something that will make them all stand up and move away from the people they like.
What Do You Say to a Pumpkin?
One bright, brown-eyed young hostess I know has been doing this ever since I’ve known her. As soon as everyone is having a good time she pins strips of paper on them, divides them into two groups so that friends, acquaintances and people who get along well are not together, then puts one group in the dining room and the other in the kitchen. Then, as far as I know, she goes to a late movie, because I never see her again.
I’ve yet to see one of these games end any way but with a lot of people standing around in different rooms as if they were going through customs, waiting for something to happen. It never does.
It’s even worse when the guests are in costume, in some sort of pageant, to which only the hostess has the key. One time she herded seven guys into a sort of den, seated us all on the floor around a pumpkin, and told us in a haunting, tremulous eerie monotone that we were all witches. Then she left us looking at the pumpkin and wondering how long it would be before the party broke up.
Among the witches were a chemical engineer from a tire factory, a commercial artist from Simpson’s, an insurance salesman, a Hoffman Press operator, an auditor, a cop (dressed like a grandmother) and a linotype operator —none of whom had met one another until an hour ago and all of whom wished they hadn’t even then. Only two guys tried to keep up the spirit of mummery. The Hoffman Press operator, a large man who, I think, was supposed to he a skeleton, gave one eerie
Maybe the party hostess knew why—Bob didn’t —but suddenly he became a witch
cry and everyone stared at him until he just went back to staring at the pumpkin. But the really shattering sight was the linotype operator who was dressed as a baby, with a bottle and a rattle in one hand and a rubber nipple in his mouth. When he had arrived at the party he had cried and said he wanted more milk and everybody nearly died laughing. But springing this without warning on a large group of people, including a lot of women and several old friends, is one thing, keeping it up an hour later in a room with six strange men, including a cop dressed as a grandmother, is something else again. Every time he burst out crying, the cop scowled from under his lace cap and looked as if he would have liked to get him down at the station for five minutes at evening vespers.
I’d come as an old Rembrandt with a frame around my head. I’m usually tongue-tied at parties anyway, but if you want to see something really subdued you should see me sitting looking through a picture frame at a cop dressed as a grandmother, or even a cop dressed as a cop. On the other side of me was the chemical engineer, a big, handsome, sulky red-faced man who was supposed to be a cavalier.
I’ve never seen anything less gay than that group. We all sat there looking grimly at the pumpkin, the cavalier flipping little bits of lint off the rug with his rapier, the man dressed as a baby sucking his nipple thoughtfully, and the cop waiting for him to cry "mamma” just once more. It was as funny as a nervous breakdown. The hostess never did come back. We just all began to stand up after a half an hour or so to read book titles or shove our lace bonnets and picture frames back off our heads and say a few words to one another about the weather. We probably would have all been there yet, stark staring mad, if our wives hadn’t looked in on us eventually and told us in some surprise that they were serving cake and coffee.
String Ties a Party in Knots
Of all the confused ideas about entertaining, I think the worst is that it’s all right to invite anyone to a social affair, with complete disregard of tastes, background, interests, sensitivity, old feuds and delicately balanced relationships, and think that the whole thing will be a success as long as everyone is made to play games. I remember one time in Kitchener watching two principals in a feud chew their way along a string toward one another. A few days earlier they had been threatening to decapitate one another with shovels. For some reason one of them had a theory that he owned the other man’s driveway. It had something to do with a survey made by William Lyon Mackenzie. They were always yelling at one another above the sound of the wind, leaves, the roar of their cars and the barking of a beautiful big police dog.
Actually, it should have been a man and his wife at either end of the string, but the hostess got the teams mixed up. These two guys made an agonizing effort to be good sports and pretend there was something human on the other end of the string, but soon they were beginning to reel the string in with their fists, without taking their eyes off one another. They would have probably been scoring the game with loose teeth if a couple of guests hadn’t hollered, "Time’s up!” and shouldered them apart.
Another thing about party games, from a purely practical point of view, they’re not feasible. The essence of the fun in any game is a certain skill which implies a certain knowledge of the
game. But there isn’t time in an evening to learn most of the party games I run up against. The idea that somebody can learn a new game, play it, have some coffee and sandwiches and a good time all in one evening, is like expecting someone to spend Saturday afternoon learning algebra. It’s even worse the way most people explain games.
I’ve noticed that people who explain games explain everything hut the purpose of the game. A couple of weeks ago I was forced sullenly into a game involving cards, miniature plastic brooms and little wooden disks with numbers on them. For three hours I played without knowing once what I was doing. I don’t know yet. I don’t want to know either. But the point is, the hostess and her husband both started telling me everything about the game except what I was supposed to do —or, rather, why I was supposed to do it—and told me both at the same time. They not only didn’t tell me what I was supposed to do, they told me all the things that would prevent me from doing it and would count against me.
"See,” the husband would say, shuffling the cards, "if anybody gets a queen or three jacks before you’ve got thirteen, you make them take a card from the deck. Then you can pick up any of the cards you discarded, if they say they’re going to try for more than twenty-one.”
''You’ll catch on as soon as you start playing,” his wife said, completely disregarding the fact that I didn’t want to play. "It’s just like bridge, except that if you draw a three you become a lamppost, and you count with brooms and aces.”
How to Be a Lamppost
Every time I asked what I was supposed to do, she said, "You try not to be a lamppost. It’s loads of fun.”
I’ve been trying not to be a lamppost all my life. I still didn’t know how it fitted into this particular game.
"We’ll just play a couple of games so that you can get the hang of it,” the husband said.
Eight games later they were looking at me with horribly polite little smiles and saying things like, "No, you see, if you’re a lamppost you miss a deal.”
As far as I could see, the only possible purpose of this game was to end it as quickly as possible, or, better still, never to have started it. The only thing that half saved the situation for me was my partner, a huge woman with a happy face as expressionless as an egg, who not only couldn’t understand anything but couldn’t hold her cards so that she could read them. She would fan all the cards out to the right instead of the left, so that she had seven blank corners to look at and had to peek behind each card or underneath it as if looking into a hot oven. The only difference was that she didn’t use pot holders.
But I’m not criticizing games as games, but as artificial social devices. They don’t work any better than any other form of social coercion or methodical taping - out of people’s moods and prejudices. It’s sometimes hard to figure out people who think they do.
One time I was at a Canadian picnic in Florida, arranged by a local club. The chief organizer, with unerring instinct, sensed immediately that people who liked one another were going to group together and in a flash of genius said that we’d all sit in the order of home provinces. With this one master stroke, he had people from Winnipeg sitting next to people they didn’t know or like from Toronto; Argo fans sitting next to people from Ottawa; and New-
foundlanders and Albertans trying in vain to find something in common besides Canada.
People who don’t like one another, don’t like one another any better just because somebody arranges for them to meet. I stayed one time at a small beach community in Nova Scotia where I met a fussy, friendly, nervous printing salesman who was a born social arranger. He felt that, for a writer, I just wasn’t meeting enough people. All I wanted to do was to sit scowling at the gulls and occasionally talking to one little man I met, an old well digger who was full of fascinating stories of the things he thought about while he was below sea level.
But this printing salesman started arranging little soirées with people I didn’t want to meet and who wanted to meet me even less. At one informal little get-together he introduced me to a big bald lawyer who looked at me as if waiting for me to make just one wrong move; a sour little member of the town council with ulcers and no use for writers; an Austrian sculptor with a duck-tail haircut and a wife who talked all night about a pregnant cat; a millionaire yachtsman who tried not to be a snob about people without yachts; and a retired librarian who had written several papers on Cromwell’s England. The yachtsman thought the Cromwellian scholar was a square; the Cromwellian scholar thought the sculptor was a freak. Both the scholar and the sculptor thought people shouldn’t have yachts or a million dollars. I thought nobody should have a wife with a pregnant cat. Nobody liked me. And the lawyer and the councilor got into a fight. Everybody got away as fast as possible to their sculpture, office, yacht and books. 1 don’t know where the Cromwellian scholar went. On the last day, the printing salesman had us all make out little cards with our names and addresses on them and give them to one another. We all tore them up as soon as we got out of sight. At least, I presume the others did too—I’ve never heard from any of them.
All in all, making someone do something he wouldn’t have thought of doing himself doesn’t make him enjoy it. Dragging shy people out of their corners doesn’t make them any less shy. The way to help shy people out is to leave them alone. Pushing people around, on any scale, is a form of tyranny, even if it’s done with the best of intentions by means of hearty social gimmicks. In fact, this kind is the worst kind of tyranny; the kind with moral backing. Anybody who refuses to go along with the convention that you should not only enjoy yourself, but enjoy yourself a certain way, is generally regarded as a poor sport and the kind of guy who kicks dogs in TV plays and gets shown up in his true colors by a cowboy. If you ask me, hostesses who don’t like people who don’t like games, yet still invite them to their parties and try to make them play, would probably dynamite brook trout, and I give them fair warning that from now on I’m not going to play.
In fact, if it’s the kind of party that needs something to break the ice, I’m going to skate right past it and go home. A
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