Discover more from the pillow book
we missed you at the pregame
A friend invited me to crash a dinner. It was a small gathering, for a visiting speaker, hosted by an art history PhD who had volunteered his immaculate downtown apartment to have about a dozen people over. The guest speaker was a San Francisco writer whose work I so admired that I had written about one of her books in an essay about women desiring men. It was one of those texts I read and identified with so wretchedly I quoted it sometimes, though never well, never accurately. She used the word “cunt” a lot. She described herself as messy and gaping and ravenous. I’d never had the chance to meet somebody like this before. When my friend said this writer was coming and invited me to the dinner, even though I wasn’t in the class, I said I would come.
Inside, the writer took a seat at the table, with the aluminum takeaway trays of Middle Eastern food — yellow pilaf gleaming with oil, squat brown falafels, fattoush. Students gathered around her eagerly, the table was set for the would-be apostles. There wasn’t enough space for everyone. I sat on a stool by the coffee table and couch where some other people were sitting. I knew of one of them, so even though we’d never met before, we fell into an easy conversation about labor organizing and ballet. Then there were two friends of my friend too, a spectacularly outfitted man who’d studied fashion as an undergraduate, and a gentle Oregonian who gave off slightly bemused geniality, and soon I found out that the dinner’s host had done the same Chinese immersion program as me but the year before, and we knew someone in common who I’d incidentally just seen in New York, and even though I hadn’t yet exchanged one word with the writer, my greatest fear, which was being silent and left alone, had not come to pass. My friend came back from her perch on the dais glowing, the buzz of red wine and proximity to the writer, and said, looking at the sociable circle around the coffee table, See, this is why I never worry about bringing you anywhere, you know everyone, you’ll be fine.
Meaning, if there were a counterfactual me, less prone to drawing out the spiderweb gossamer between other people and myself, I wouldn’t be fine, she might worry.
I was very anxious at a dance a few nights ago. It was in the graduate student pub, in a spacious dim wooden room. I’d eaten too much channa masala and palak paneer extremely fast, and then a yawning tiredness overtook me. I knew about the same number of people as at the dinner with the writer, but here at the dance we were sitting at a little round table talking about insipid things. All of us with our feet half in half out on this event. They complained about school, how much time they had to spend on it, and they complained about the people from school, the same people who surrounded us. One girl came over and asked if we knew where drink tickets were, and when she walked away, someone said, That’s the person who made the unhinged comment about gender confirmation being mutilating children at that doctors’ talk…
A strange confrontation occurred: between the social butterfly who’d invited us, well you, to the pregame, and a girl who he didn’t.
We missed you at the pregame! he said in a singsong voice to her.
I wasn’t invited, she said bluntly.
Oh, I didn’t text you because I thought X did! said the social butterfly.
Well she didn’t.
Oh, he said, and bounced away.
The social butterfly had always been affable to me, but I would not stake any money on him knowing my name. We had hugged, smiled widely at each other. I smiled a lot at people. When I smiled at them I felt like I was grabbing hold of flotsam in the ocean. It was sort of grotesque. My muscles ached from the work of holding up the smile, again and again. A man I’d never met before called me by my name, introduced himself, said he saw the poster for my talk at the business school, asked if I had LinkedIn. The request came through later that night: “nice meeting you! was quite loud in there…” It was loud. Some people were dancing enthusiastically and others bobbed around. I didn’t know anyone in the dancing circle except for you, and you seemed happy. You wove in and out of two circles of dancers. The circles occasionally broke apart when people made factions to take selfies on their phones. I tried to stand in such a way that I wouldn’t be pushed to the outside of them, but sometimes the way you wheeled around meant you made the new wall of the circle and your back was to me, and the seconds felt like years.
It wasn’t like a club, where nobody knew me and nothing I did mattered. People knew you, and some people knew my face and not my name, and others knew my name and I’d forgotten theirs and felt terrible about it, and this meant I couldn’t stop noticing the way people stood near each other or didn’t, who was on the inside or the outside of things. The tenseness of the room floated around, a miasma of exclusion and envy and muscling your smiles around. All the women were so beautiful. They took pictures in each other’s arms on a bright raised platform with a printed-out backdrop.
When I went downstairs to use the decrepit restroom I stayed in the stall a lot longer than I needed to, there was nobody waiting. At the sink, I saw a girl struggling to get the soap from the broken dispenser. The front black plastic piece and blue soap bottle had fallen away from the mount, where the previous day’s jugaad solution (buttressing with thick layers of clear tape) had evidently finally failed. After fiddling with the dispenser we took turns holding it out to squirt foam onto each other’s palms, laughing. God help the next person who has to use this thing, I said, and we walked out together.
I was glad then, with the broken soap. “To be of use” by Marge Piercy: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” None of us in that place were doing real work, not in a Piercy sense, but I got to be of use, and fussing over the soap together afforded me a quieter mind than all the conversations I’d had that night with people who needed to shout in my ear to be heard.
I read a book called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker several years ago. Parker writes about how much humans need gathering and how shit most of it is: inefficient meetings, awkward cocktail parties. She writes most organizations suffer less from conflict than “unhealthy peace,” which translates into resentment and passive aggression. She combats these things with outrageous exercises like getting executives to dress up as sumo wrestlers and verbally debating different directions in a timed match. Outside of her work as a corporate consultant she tells people how to lead better classes and throw better dinner parties, too. I loved The Art of Gathering, because it confirmed two of my notions about social life: that it was mostly suboptimal and that thoughtful planning, while derided by some as unsexy, could make it more enjoyable. Don’t fear being an authoritative host, Parker commands: your employees/students/guests are looking to you to guide them through an experience, and if you abdicate the role, don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re liberating them; you’re just letting some other form of hierarchy and order rule. Maybe who gets to speak becomes about who has the loudest voice, the most self-confidence.
I think everyone should do structured activities more. Plan them, attend them. The most uninhibited I’ve ever felt dancing as an adult while sober was at an extremely planned event — a contact improvisation workshop led by a dulcet-toned Big Man on Campus, a sort of hippie looking guy with long curly hair. We were in a basement dance studio. He sat cross-legged in loose linen pants and told us all to lightly make contact with our neighbors in the circle, so our knees started touching, or elbows, a woman next to him leaned her head on his shoulder. I thought, in my snarkiest head voice, It’s 50/50 this dude’s in the news in ten years for founding a sex cult, but you know what, I liked it. Sometimes that’s all I want: invite me in, tell me what to do.
Image credit: Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth (1948), MoMA.
I’m only 78 pages in, but Quinn Slobodian’s book Crack-Up Capitalism is really good! It has made me extremely angry at, among many other eminent figures, Milton Friedman, who R. confirmed is “very dead” (2006, rest in NOT PEACE). Friedman liked that Hong Kong, as a special economic zone, had cheap labor due to little protection or democratic process.
Another economist I was angry at this week: James McGill Buchanan, who developed the “Virginia School” of economics and was a big advocate for regressive tax policy (e.g. Prop. 13 in CA, which froze property taxes and led to my tuition at Berkeley being so goddamn expensive, among many other severer consequences). A lot of the Nobel Prize economics winners are bad people with bad takes!!! If you have advice for how I can manage my blood pressure as I read about people who have been fêted globally for being Big Smart Guys but are literally Evil (see also: Henry Kissinger), please let me know. This situation is only getting more dire the longer I stay in school.