12 Dec Party On
First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 14.12.20
Last week at one of those fancy annual get-togethers various industries do at this time of year, I saw a writer I admire very much. We don’t know each other that well, but we’ve been bumping into each other for decades in rooms like this, and I read his stuff and watch it on the telly, and he’s just generally brilliant and New Zealand is very lucky to have him.
We grabbed each other for a hug (it was a huggy kind of party) and asked each other (as we’ve always done) how we were, and simultaneously rolled our eyes (as we all do now) at the madness that is 2020. There will be particularities to our lives, of course, but fundamentally we all know what this has been like – universally weird and terrifying, but also unifying and, by crikey, aren’t we lucky when you take a global look around.
That middle six months, I told him, had been pretty munted but now, “It’s like normal life again, just with more gratitude.” That’s very good, he said, have you written that down? I told him I hadn’t yet, I’d just put it that way for the very first time, but I probably would, since he’d liked it. And here we are.
And it’s true – I am grateful every time we are allowed out of the house and we get to do things in large groups. Not just for work, but for social things like this – and I haven’t always felt that way. I’m fine at an event if I have a job to do but, like all secret introverts, I am an anxious guest. If I’m the MC or the entertainer, there’s a script, but just turning up for a party involves a hell of a lot of improvisation, and myriad opportunities for screwing it up.
Given that we are up to our shapewear-encased thighs in office parties and end of year work dos, and right on the cusp of Christmas family gatherings, it’s a good time to be honest about how anxiety-inducing this can be, and what we can do to turn the dial down a notch or two.
Let’s start with the premise that parties are supposed to be fun, so anytime you are making choices about how to approach it, run it through that filter. Wear a floor-length, sleeveless, backless shimmering gown if that’s your jam and makes you sparkle like a movie star, but if a posh frock leaves you heavy-limbed like an awkward toddler playing dress-ups, find another way.
About 30 years ago, I was invited to a glamorous birthday party for which the other young women had had something made by their family dressmaker. Pictures had been cut from magazines and fittings had been scheduled. Unaccustomed and overwhelmed, I’d been offered a ball gown that belonged to a very chic workmate’s very chic daughter. It had apparently been a triumph when she wore it, but it is hard to describe how hideous this many-tiered midnight-blue full-length lace gown looked on me, who was not her daughter. Picture an unfortunate cross between one of those tulle toilet roll covers with a doll’s head sticking out the top and an overly-compact Christmas tree. But it had felt wrong to reject it (rude!) so I wore it anyway. I could read the unmistakeable horror in my friends’ eyes. I stood in a very dark corner for a bit and clomped home early. I am still frightened of tiered lace.
My preference now is to wear something that makes me laugh, and pair it with comfortable shoes because there are enough challenges without being distracted by the notion that the balls of your feet are on fire. Challenges like remembering people’s names – particularly in that triangle of terror where you are talking with someone and a third person arrives, and you are Person A and it is your job to introduce Person C to Person B who is clearly known to you.
Once – and this is true – I introduced my mother to a new arrival, after a long pause, as “Mrs A’Court” because her first name had suddenly and terminally escaped me. My mother, always better at social niceties, leapt in with a charming smile and said, “Please, no need to be formal, call me Donna” and I was saved. But not really.
Donna’s advice is still the best advice for all the social anxieties about being too loud, or not fun enough, or not finding the right words. No one, she always said, is paying nearly as much attention to you as you are – relax.
And the best moments at a party – aside from the obvious which is long, hilarious confidential chats in the Ladies? Honestly, it’s just when someone seems really pleased to see you. So do that for them, too.