I had absolutely no idea who you were, the other night at a cocktail party.

It was probably my mother’s fault.

Sometime last week, NPR reported “the results of a recent scientific study” indicating that the gift for recognizing the faces of others, at cocktail parties and elsewhere, may be inherited. In that study — if I understood it correctly — some relatively newborn babies were presented with a chart consisting of a square, a triangle, and a smiley face. First time around, nothing much happened. Second time around, the selfsame babies slapped on the smiley face.

I wish I could be as lucky as those babies. And I wish I could politely slap your face at a cocktail party, as well, if it would help me remember your name.

Reconnecting with faces may be a gift, but remembering the names to go with them is a craft.

Once you’ve been introduced to a person, repeating that person’s name, over the course of the conversation, early on, usually helps. (As in, “Yes, Jared, I was wondering, Jared, what you were doing with your poodles, Jared”; or ” Yes, Jeannette, I was wondering how you, Jeannette, made that happen with your hair, Jeannette”; or “Yes, Morcum, I was wondering whatever happened to my 401K, Morcum. I thought you, Morcum, were taking care of it.)

Mnemonics (the trick of memory games) may help. For example: It helps if I remember that “David,” of a couple, is “dark,” as opposed to Michael, who is “mild.” It also helps if I look at my friend Callie and remember that she and her husband live on Bittersweet. (Bittersweet is a flower; so is a calla lilly; every connection boosts.)

But if a face and a name don’t click — particularly if the face has been reworked or the hair has been re-colored — there’s no embarrassment in saying what my good friend Henschel usually says to people he may have met before : “I’m sorry; but I fear you have the advantage of me.”

Worse things might have happened.  The research reported on NPR also involved chimpanzees, and their handlers, most of whom were wearing masks. No faces were ever recognized.

I’ve been to that party, too. Haven’t you?

John/

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“How late may we linger at a restaurant?” friends ask me, trying to put a little parley-voo-spin on the obvious question.

What they’re actually asking, of course, is, “If we just sit at the table, ordering nothing but coffee re-fills, and more water, and stay there for 90 minutes, without even asking for a second round of cognac, while 27 couples are lined up at the check-in desk, will the servers hate us?”

I’ve conducted a brief, relatively random survey of restaurant servers. The servers claim they don’t care, as long as they’re tipped considerately — not just in terms of their percentage of the bill, but also with some consideration of the time they’ve spent re-filling coffee cups and water glasses, while old friends simply reminisce, long after the plates have been cleared.

Every server in my random survey is a liar.

Unless we’re ordering a third or fourth round of drinks, or another set of Choc-o-mania Brownie Upsets for the entire table, any rational server with a rent payment to make would clearly prefer that we move on. They hope to see us again, very soon; but they hope to see another table-full of patrons even sooner.

This is one of those moments when the relationship between diner and server devolves into a sort of unspoken arithmetic. The tally, at the bottom line, is the tip.

At a fine restaurant, where reservations must be made weeks in advance, and where the tables are spread with linen, and the silver truly is silver, patrons may linger as long as they wish. (The expense of their lingering is built into the final tab; the customers get to tip on top of the charge for lingering.) And, even at a restaurant where wanna-be diners are lined up, waiting for the hostess’s next available, every patron — even if he’s only headed to the salad bar — should feel free to ask for an extra cup of Catalina, on the side. Everything should happen in its own time. But everything in life, if we are closely attuned to it, also has its own rhythm.

The other night my friend Lynette and I were the last two patrons in a restaurant. As we got up to leave, one of the servers was waiting to plug in the floor-waxer.

I had tried to be kind with the tip. I even blew out the candles at the table next to ours.

“Do you think they hate us?” Lynette asked, as I helped her into her coat.

I said, “I don’t know.

“I usually eat at the bar.”

— John/

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It’s not quite March, but already the clanging of wedding bells can be heard in the distance. Already, in some cases, they’re clanging out of tune.

Witness the extremely public example of Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, whose son, Quinn Bradlee, is scheduled to be married in Washington on April 10, which turns out to be the selfsame day when Sally Quinn’s step-granddaughter  (which makes her Quinn Bradlee’s niece, for those of you who are keeping score)  is scheduled to be married in California.

Since a number of the bodies thrown into this nuptial bed of nettles come equipped with well-known names (Sally Quinn is married to Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the Post. The mother of the California bride is ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz; the father of the California bride is Ben Bradlee Jr., a high-profile editor at the Boston Globe), a situation that might best be handled entirely by in-house negotiations has become fodder for all sort of unneeded comment, and unrequested input, all over the blogosphere.

This past weekend, Sally Quinn (who’s in a no-win situation, since she’s mother of the groom on one side, and step-mother of the bride on the other) tried to walk the readers of her Post column through this mangled maze, a bootless effort if there ever was one. I hate to tell her, but it won’t work.

Any wedding, no matter how private it intends to be, is everybody’s wedding. Even the uninvited (especially the uninvited) can take aim at it. In terms of public opinion, and bruised feelings, danger lurks at every turn.

The other night, after a committee meeting, I was talking with my friend Claude, whose son, Claude Jr. (familiarly known as “Cloffo,”) is scheduled to be married this coming July. (That makes Claude the father of the groom, the least necessary party in any wedding party.)

Because he is a sincere and caring person, Claude is predictably concerned. The mother of the bride (as is her enforced responsibility) has set a limit on the number of seats at the ceremony — on both sides of the aisle. Rhonda, Claude’s wife and the mother of the groom, is doing her best to understand. She remains uncomfortable.

“Cloffo and Miranda have a lot of friends,” Claude said, leaning against the driver’s side of his Lexus. “If they can’t all come to the wedding, I told Rhonda, ‘Let’s you and me give a big party on our own, for Cloffo and Miranda and all their friends, whether they’re invited to the wedding, or not.’ ”

I said, “That sounds swell.”

Claude said, “Rhonda hates it.”

There was a brief pause, spent mostly by Claude clicking the alarm button on his Lexus keypad on and off. “Rhonda says you can’t invite people to a wedding party,” Claude said, “if you can’t invite them to the wedding too.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Claude said.

I leant against the bumper of my Camry and said, “Have the party.”

“Thank you,” said Claude, as he slipped into his driver’s seat. “I was almost pretty-sure I was right.

“But one more thing …”

“Yes?” I said, taking my own keys out of my pocket.

“If it’s July, and everybody else is wearing white dinner jackets, can I wear one too?”

I said, “It’ll be after Memorial Day. Wear the jacket.” Claude hit the start button on his keypad, and his engine revved.

“It’s all up to you from now on,” I said, “… sort of.”

“I’m rockin’ with it,” he said, watching carefully in all mirrors as he backed out of his parking space. “This should be easy … sort of.”

At no time is it too early to forestall the calamities of an uncoming wedding. Claude is lucky to do his deals in a parking lot, with hardly anybody watching. Meanwhile, the rules should all be the same, for Sally Quinn, or for anybody else, when it comes to the intensitivities of our private lives.

“Except, now I have to go home to Rhonda,” Claude said, as he roared backward out of the parking lot.

— John/

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J.D. Salinger died on January 27th.  Can’t we give him a rest?

The life of a genius recluse holds a lurid fascination. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye, a book that, once it’s been read  — from its publication in 1951, on through the 1960’s, into the 1970’s, and probably even now, in the 2010’s — has turned out to be a defining moment for most of post-adolescent malehood, straight or gay, in English and in any number of foreign languages.  (The narrator, Holden Caulfield, is 16; but I’ll bet it’s 18-year-olds, and onward, who identify with him most, which probably says a lot about the eternal verities of post-adolescent malehood.) The book continues to be troublesome, at least for some boards of education.

Salinger himself continues to drive scholars, journalists, and reporters crazy. The last time a certifiably Salinger story was published was in 1965. The last time he’d had a great success with a story, before that, was in 1963. His life indeed had its oddities (an attraction to Christian Science, Dianetics, and urine therapy). There is at least one report that the mother of his children was driven almost to the brink of madness. (The fault for the madness is not quite clear.)

Nevertheless, in a town like Cornish, N.H., where Salinger eventually settled, he seemed to come and go pretty much like an average person (at least by the standards in Cornish, N.H.) He seems to have had no Chappaquiddick.

So, a couple weeks ago, the New Yorker, the magazine which championed much of Salinger’s work from beginning to end, filled page after page with self-gratifying contemplations on, and remembrances of,  J.D. Salinger. There was even a “Talk of the Town” item in which the writer reminisced about the night when a girlfriend and he went to Salinger’s house, in Cornish, for the screening of a 16 mm. movie. Nobody was drunk. Nothing happened.

Just a couple of days back, the New York Times gave a third of a page, complete with a glamour photo, to a woman whose real name is not revealed. (She writes, professionally, under a pseudonym). Her story is that she had her first date with “Jerry” Salinger. She went out a virgin. She came back the same way. Nothing happened. (Thus the Times’ status as the “Paper of Record” remains assured.)

Of course, Salinger remains a story to tell. The briefness of his notoriety, along with the length of his reclusion, and the perfection of his work, is a story rife with doctoral dissertations. Edward M. Kennedy, full of incidents, is a long story, full of life-long notoriety, clumbered by imperfections — with no place to hide, even in Hyannis Port. He is fodder for best-sellers to come, as long as there remains a Kennedy.

Maybe the difference lies in the notoriety of the names.  Or maybe (could it be possible?)  one life was simply more interesting than the other…

— John/

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Here’s a real-life conundrum from a friend in Virginia. (Let’s call him “Prentice.”  Let’s call his wife “Leticia.”)

Since Prentice and Leticia have a two-year-old (let’s call her “Brandoline”), they’ve become part of a play-group community. (How did it happen? Via e-mail? By means of a bulletin board at the Y? As a result of a bulletin listing at church? As the result of some curious encounter at the dog park? Who knows?)

Brandoline loves all of this, and Brandoline’s life would be entirely dandy, Prentice advises me, if it weren’t for Birthday Parties — not to mention Second-Baby Baby Showers.

“This all started out, sort of idyllic,” Prentice said. “It was about little children playing together, sliding up and down, bumping up and down on see-saws. A lot of juice got spilled, but a lot of mothers got to know one another. A lot of Pampers got changed outside the sandbox.”

“Leticia tells me it was good, really good,” Prentice said, “Until money got involved.”

Now, predictably enough, every child in the play group is having a birthday; and a great many of the mothers are pregnant, once again. (Parties are being planned; shower invitations have already been printed.)

Inevitably, there’s one mother in the group who never pitches in. “It drives Leticia crazy,” Prentice said. “It’s not just about the money.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to club-like situations such as this one, when everybody is expected to pitch in, it is all about the money.

Leticia might take the bold leap, by simply dropping a “best-wishes” card in the gift basket. Or she might suggest that the play-group mothers toss their cash contributions into one happy basket.  (Since the gift is intended to be from the play-group, as a group, no checks will be accepted. Anonymity assured. This is not, by the way, a bad idea.)

Better yet, somebody in the group might be deputized to take the unwitting mother aside, reminding her, in a kindly way, that everybody in the group usually pitches in. (” It’s just what people usually do,” the deputee might say. If the unwitting mother takes umbrage, and says she wants nothing more to do with the group — and that she is taking her tiny Tad and his twin brother, Teddy, to another play-group, the ultimate goal has been accomplished. Hasn’t it?)

“All in all, the whole thing begins to sound like a cash-exchange,” Prentice said, “money  simply shuffling back and forth. Leticia plops in $20 at the next birthday shower; and then, if Leticia is lucky, everybody else will plop in another $20, when Brandoline turns 3.”

“Is that right?” he asked.

I said, “Of course, that isn’t right. The giving of gifts should never be seen as a matter of tit-for-tat. If you give a gift, you don’t necessarily expect a gift in return.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Prentice. “But I’m not sure Leticia sees it that way; and she’s concerned about what Brandoline will think.”

I said, “Brandoline is just turning 3. If she doesn’t get a gift from everybody in her play group, it probably won’t be the hardest lesson she’ll ever have to learn.”

“Maybe not,” Prentice said. “But we’re still  concerned.”

— John /

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Some people simply cannot let it go.

Take, for example, my friend Hiram, who called me, from Minneapolis, day before yesterday. He was busy at his desk. (I could hear the shuffling of papers in the background, and the murmur of people talking on their headsets.)

“You know Lorene and I are divorced,” he said.

I said, “Yes, Hiram. You’ve been divorced for ages.”

“It’s not ‘ages,’ ” Hiram said. “It’s just 26 months.”

I said, “Twenty-six months is more than two years.”

Hiram said, “Can you hold?” I was left alone, for a brief time, all by myself in a void with nobody but me and the Bee-Gees; then Hiram was back with me. “Where were we?” he asked.

I said, “We weren’t any where.”

“Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I need to do something.

“Do you know somebody who could do some flowers? Nice, you know, but not roses. Can you hold?” This time the void was filled by Celine Dion. Then he was back.

“I was thinking maybe the florist could deliver them to Meghan.”  Meghan is Hiram and Lorene’s daughter — their only child, except for Hiram, Jr., also known as “Hype.” (Hype spends a lot of his time in a recovery center in Providence, R. I.) “Then she could just take them to her mom, and say, ‘Dad wanted me to give you these.’ ”

“Why?” I asked.

“Sheez,” Hiram said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. I don’t want her to be lonely.”

“But what if she …?” I started to ask. But Hiram took care of the rest of the sentence. “Hate not to be paying attention,” he said. “Major presentation at 10:45.” (I spent the next minute-and-a-half with Barry Manilow.)

“I’m back,” he said.

“What should the note say?” I asked. “What note?” Hiram asked.

“The note Meghan’s going to deliver with the flowers.”

“Don’t worry about Meghan,” Hiram said. “She’ll know what to say.”

“What if Meghan gets out of this equation? What if she has a date of her own?” I asked. “What if you just had the flowers delivered tomorrow afternoon?”

More than a trifle aghast, Hiram said, “What do you think Lorene wants? A bunch of dead pom-pom mums on Valentine’s Day?

“I still have a great deal of respect for that woman,” he said.

“Can you hold?”

I spent the next three-and-a-half minutes with ABBA.

When he came back on the line, Hiram said, “And would you make sure they don’t send roses? Anybody could send a bunch of roses. I could have ordered a bunch of roses for myself.”

He took a quick, short breath of hesitation. There was a flustering of papers in the background.

“Hate to do this to you” he said. “But can you hold?”

— John/

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“You still may have time to make a reservation,” I assured him yesterday.

“Oh, no,” my friend Cecil gulped. “There’s no table, anywhere, where she’d like to eat.”

I asked, “Well, what does she like to eat?”

Cecil said, “I’m not sure. She has tattoos.”

“Tattoos?” I asked.

“Yes,” Cecil said, “Three intertwining cobras, tatooed up to her left elbow.”

“Do you know what they mean?” I asked.

“No,” Cecil said, “but I thought she and I might have dinner.”

Valentine’s Day is not the time for this sort of first date, or any sort of first date, I can assure you. It is not a time for testing the waters. It is not a time when two people who hardly know each other should be left standing in line, waiting for a table, talking about their tattoos, while a hostess calls out “Briggham? Are you Briggham? Are you the table of three?” It is not a time when the hostess finally turns to them and says, “Oh yes, you’re the Grisgow party, aren’t you?  The ones with the intertwining cobras.”

By that time, all romance has certainly been sapped out of any evening.

On a Valentine’s evening such as this, a gentleman is much wiser to serve up some take-out cannelloni, at his own place, spooned up on nice plates, even if they’re borrowed from his mother. (Candles always help.) Quiet is good. (So are flowers, trite though they may seem.) A 90-minute wait in line is never impressive. If it leaves two people with nothing to say, for an hour and a half, it can easily last for a lifetime.

I asked Cecil, “Are you sure you want to spend an evening with tattoos you don’t understand?”

“I don’t know,” he said, in a hesitating sort of way. “But it’s just a first date.”

I said, “But Cecil, It’s Valentine’s.”

Cecil said, “Maybe we’ll just do pizza.”

–John/

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Here’s a modern-life situation that arrived, a couple of days ago, via Facebook:

The other night, my wife and I stopped in at a local night club. It’s a place where the clientele is predominately gay, but it’s a place where [Suzy] and I have a lot of friends. The other night, as we were leaving the club, we ran into a longtime friend of mine, a former business associate — somebody I’d always assumed was gay — so I stuck out my hand for a handshake. Immediately, I felt he was reflexively uncomfortable, and he didn’t even respond to the handshake. I said, “You know [Suzy], don’t you?” He said, “Hello.” But that was all he said. Despite the fact that he had a friend at his side, no further introductions were offered. I tried to make conversation, but it went nowhere. It was a bad, bad moment.  How could I have fixed it?

— Anonymous

Nobody can ever “fix” this sort of clumsy encounter. It sounds as if you, [Suzy], and your friend — not to mention your friend’s friend — were all caught in an out-of-context moment. They didn’t expect to encounter you on the sidewalk outside a “predominately gay” night club; and they probably weren’t the first people you were expecting to meet, either, waiting in the queue for a cab outside Kasa Koniption.

In our modern, shaken-not-stirred cocktail mix of a world, awkward, off-kilter moments are well-nigh inescapable. (Twenty years ago, the question wouldn’t have been, what was your friend doing at a gay bar? The more likely question would have been, what were you and [Suzy] doing there?)

You and a friend — even a best friend — can be caught off guard in the most seemingly innocent of moments. For example, you encounter a business colleague at a corner table in a fine restaurant, and the woman with whom he’s dining is definitely not his wife. Or you mis-remember the name of a longtime friend when you’re trying to make an introduction at a cocktail party. Or you ask a friend how things are going with her husband — from whom she’s been divorced for a year and a half. Such moments fleet away, ever so quickly, if we simply let them go. There’s very seldom any cause to proffer an apology, except maybe to say, “Jack actually is one of my closest friends; you’d think I could come up with his name,” or “Sorry for not remembering about the divorce. How are things with you?”

In any case, it is never wrong to say hello, or if proximity permits, to extend a handshake. If the response to the handshake seems “reflexively uncomfortable,” the problem probably stems from the handshakee — not from the handshaker, unless the handshakee has some good reason to suspect that the handshaker will be revving up his iPhone, the minute he hits the cab, calling all his old fraternity brothers and saying, “Hey. Guess where I just ran into Floyd Bosko tonight?”

That sort of small talk suggests a very small, and rather out-moded, mind. If a gentleman becomes known for this sort of untrustworthiness, his reputation is long overdue for an overhaul.

— John/

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My friend Brick just broke up with his girlfriend, Tristina — via a text message.

I said, “Brick, that is just about the lowest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Brick and I were standing in the snacks-and-nuts aisle at the grocery store. (Brick was wearing a baseball cap, turned backwards.) “Hey man,” he said, “at least I signed it. It’s not like she didn’t know where it was coming from. It’s not like I just tweeted her, or something.”

I said, “Brick, it’s less than two weeks until Valentine’s Day.”

“Yeah, I know that,” said Brick. (He was breaking open a pack of pork rinds.) “That’s why I thought I’d give her a heads-up.”

Then he paused, just long enough for a confused little furrow to work its way across his otherwise untroubled brow. “Whaddaya think I am?” he said. “Stupid?”

I said, “You could at least have called her. You could at least have talked to her in the parking lot at the gym. You could have at least have stopped by her condo. ”

“Oh sure,” said Brick. “And then she would have started crying.”

I said, “Brick, you could at least have faced this like a man.”

Brick tossed back a fistful of pork rinds. “Jeez,” he said, brushing the pork-rind bits off the front of his sweatshirt. “That’s what I thought I was doing.”

Some messages seem horrific enough, even written by hand on the best quality card stock; but they certainly have no place being left on somebody’s voice mail, much less on the screen of an iPhone. It’s bad enough to send along a last-minute “Sorry. Got tied up. Maybe you can take a cab to the airport,” or a conflict-avoidant “Thought you ought to know. We just decided to give your office to Eustace.” But, when it comes to passing along certain messages, the biting of bullets is still required. Among those messages are, “I’m really sorry I ran over your dachshund,” “Sorry for the remark about the woman in the two-piece. I didn’t know she was your mother,” and “Great 18 months. It’s OK if you don’t keep my toothbrush.”

In some situations, the music must be faced, face-to-face. In some cases, there is no easy way out, no acceptable escape hatch — at least, not for a gentleman.

So I said to Brick, “I guess you’re open on Valentine’s Day.”

“Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I could still get a table at Cafe Cozy. Girls like Cafe Cozy a lot.”

Standing there in grocery store aisle, I looked at Brick and said, “Are you going to pay for those pork rinds?”

Brick looked back, scratching a flake of something crispy out of one of his eyebrows. “Hey man,” he said, “Whaddaya think I am?… “a jerk?”

— John

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Here’s an egregious example of implausibly foul behavior. But it actually happened. Names have been changed, for obvious reasons.

My friend Minerva invited her friend Genette for a stopover on Genette’s cross-continental trek in retreat from her recent, bad divorce. (Minerva didn’t know how long Genette was planning to stay, but that’s fodder for another post.)

Once she settled in, Genette asked, “Do you mind if I smoke?” (Both Minerva and Genette are in their mid-50’s.)

Minerva gave up cigarettes ages ago; so she said, “Thank you for asking; but I don’t smoke anymore. So I don’t like smoke in the house. It’s so nice to wake up with all the windows smelling fresh and clean.”

To which Genette responded, “Do you mind if I smoke?”

To which Minerva responded, “Oh, you mean SMOKE,” as if she were experience a flashback of self-discovery and enlightenment. It was a flashback from sometime in 1978.

Genette grew a little dreamy-eyed, and said, “Un huh.” Then she tried to give a conspiratorial little wink, but she wasn’t really very good at it.

Minerva said, “Actually, I’d rather you didn’t. It might make the dog sick.”

Minerva set restrictions, as best she thought she could, on Genette’s indulgences. As it turned out, Genette only smoked while driving around the neighborhood, driving her own rented car. Genette drove around the neighborhood three times a day. She ran the air-conditioner and opened the windows, every time she got home.

For good or ill, of course, Genette was putting Minerva at risk, legal-wise, from time to time.

Etiquette-wise, Genette should have addressed the issue ahead of time (although etiquette is not the major issue in this case, since legalities are involved), telling Minerva, “I smoke a bit, from time to time,” to which Minerva’s incontrovertible response would have been, “I love you; but not while you’re staying with me.”

Minerva set herself at risk, legally. Such is never a hostess’s responsibility.

Sometimes, the most hospitable thing to say is, “Go home.”

— John

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