Party to a Disaster

July 1, 2005

THAT WAS A GREAT ONE," my husband proclaimed with an exhausted sigh, while lying next to me in bed one Friday night.

He was speaking triumphantly about the party we had just thrown. Potluck Hors d'Oeuvres, we had called it asking everyone, even the most culinarily disabled single men, to bring a little something for the communal table, from Grandma's Swedish Meatballs served in a carved-out country loaf to Chicken Mc Nuggets out of the box (it was a Friday, after all). When guests arrived, they proudly posed for a Polaroid and then displayed their creations, with the picture attached, on the buffet. A comparative tasting and animated conversation ensued. The last guest left after midnight, when everything had been devoured.

"It all just clicked, didn't it?" I said excitedly, propping myself up with some pillows to scribble notes in my event journal. "Now that's what I call hiving."

"Zzzz" he answered, already fast asleep.

Though my husband's reaction wouldn't have you believe it, hiving is the Next Big Thing, a life-enhancing sociological trend. It explains all those theme parties you've been invited to lately, the fact that every restaurant seems to be pushing "shared plates," and the reason your dining room table is now used more for poker than for pot roast. It's about the way we're all swarming around in groups, like bees in a hive. I like it so much that I've made it my personal lifestyle mantra: to promote great group connections.

But I'm not always the queen bee I claim to be. Take, for example, a very different party I threw recently. It all started with the best of hiving intentions: a party with a reason (Mark's visit from New York), a corresponding theme (New York, New York), and an assemblage of enthusiastic participants (Mark fans and/or NYC transplants.) The missing link? A hostess worth hiving for. I was a mess.

By 7 o'clock, I was way behind schedule, having blown my prep time fussing over the checker cab decorations, assembling whiskey and vermouth for Manhattans, and creating an apple tower for the centerpiece. And now I had less than a New York minute to dress, set the table, and do a little thing called "make dinner." Our guests might go hungry, but by God, they'd bond over the theme.

"What time are we expecting people?" my husband asked with forced nonchalance, trying not to instill further panic in me.

"Oh, any minute now!" I replied at a decibel level so shrill it propelled him out of the doorway. I hurled peppered steak slabs onto a broiler pan and into the oven, slammed the door shut, and sprinted past him to the bedroom.

Emerging in my festive "I love NY" attire (as my invitation had commanded) my mania was elevated to Defcon 5. My focus was single-minded: to play out my theme and enforce a fun, interactive event. "Enforce" and "fun," as it turns out, don't really go together.

The guests arrived to Gershwin music blaring so loud, conversations were difficult. My precious Manhattans were served - or rather, shoved - into guests' hands, despite their requests for wine or water. And each guest was presented with a card with the name of another guest at the party. My conversation-starter turned out to be a killer when everyone looked at the names awkwardly, discarded them, and moved on to those they did know.

All before dinner. And it only got worse.

"You simply must try the New York Strip," I demanded of a vegetarian, forking a slab of meat onto her plate. "Here, have a cocktail!" I said, filling the glass of a tee-totaler. Having had one too many myself, I interrupted conversation to make a rambling toast. "Let's all raise a glass to Mark," it began innocuously enough, "whose decision to come out of the closet has been a relief to us all." But I kept going: "We all saw through that facade, and don't you think I didn't notice when we dated in college..." Thankfully, the rest was muffled by loud "Here, heres!" and the clinking of glasses.

At some point, my husband found me in the kitchen, obses-sively arranging Statue of Liberty cookies on a tray.

"Wow, the queen bee strikes again," he said, laughing. "Even your mood is in theme!" He was right, I realized, stopping to catch myself. Far from laid-back Los Angeles, I was indeed in a New York state of mind. "But you better do something before your bees flee the hive."

After some serious deep breathing, I walked into the living room, cookies in hand. Miraculously, despite my missteps, the party had not yet dispersed. In fact, my horrific showing had inspired a story-telling circle of "bad toasts of yore," and my re-entrance was greeted with forgiving applause.

Sometimes the worst host is the best thing that can happen for group bonding. I don't plan to test that thesis again, if I can help it.

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