Tis' the Season To Be Miserable?

Washington Post Magazine humor columnist Gene Weingarten talks about his recent column "Tis' the Season to be Miserable," which explains why he loathes holiday parties, or any party for that matter. Weingarten tells how to make the best exit from social gatherings when channeling the mood of Ebenezer Scrooge. (4,) Chinese Author Pens 'A Good Fall" — Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with author Ha Jin, who writes about the Chinese experience. In his new book of stories, "A Good Fall", Ha Jin sets his story in Flushing, NY, home to one of New York's largest Chinese immigrant communities

JACKI LYDEN, host:

At this point in the holiday season, you've probably been to several holiday parties, at relatives' homes, work, block parties. You might have thrown a get-together yourself. And inevitably, there's that one guy who, for whatever reason, just doesn't fit in. He's the first to show up and awkwardly and the first to leave. Well, that guy, you can identify him, is humor columnist Gene Weingarten.

Mr. GENE WEINGARTEN (Humor Columnist): To me, parties are as relaxing and convivial as a job interview. I feel intense pressure to perform and that turns everyone else - even people I like a lot - into steely-eyed, thin-lipped personnel from human resources.

LYDEN: That's a tidbit from Gene Weingarten's column in this week's Washington Post magazine, where we turn just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we're living these days. In this case, Gene is writing about a retirement party thrown for his editor and longtime friend. As a thank you for their longstanding relationship, the editor didn't invite Gene to the party.

Gene Weingarten joins us in our studio. I don't know if I should say happy spirit of the season to you or not.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: It's okay. I can take that. I can take that much.

LYDEN: That's all right. Now, will you cross the threshold with me? I mean, what's the deal here?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Well, first of all, we need to establish that I'm not completely crazy. You know...

LYDEN: How long do we have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Well, you know, we have to define what a party is. You and me, this is fine. I'm very happy in your company.

LYDEN: I'm happy in yours.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: And I feel no anxiety.

LYDEN: That's good.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: However, let's say your technician comes in and the security guard, and they're carrying glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres, I start to panic.

LYDEN: Why is that? What is it?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: It's kind of complicated. There are two things. First of all, I'm a neurotic, and that explains a lot. But I think the other thing has to do with the fact that I write humor for a living. And when you do that, there's one gigantic foe, there's one enemy, which is a feeling that what you're doing is straining.

You know, I'd rather take a chance, go over the top, offend somebody, that's okay. But if I'm writing something that just seems to be straining, it's when you feel like a total hack. So that's the enemy. And there is nothing like a party to create these little knots of small talk, where people are constantly straining to be funny and interesting, and it just makes me want to flee.

LYDEN: So you feel a bit like the lonely Dutchman, barging from island to island of complete conviviality, speaking a language you don't understand?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah, exactly. And so my goal is to get out as fast as I can and to try to leave as though I were like a saboteur who's left a bomb in the sofa. I don't even - you know, I don't even - I won't talk to the host, say goodbye or anything like that. I'm just out of there.

LYDEN: How many parties do you get invited to?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: A bunch. And getting invited to a party is its own anxiety because I know that if I don't go, I'm going to feel guilty about it, and if I do go, I'm just going to be in hell.

LYDEN: Well, maybe you could become kind of the anti-party guy. I mean, do you hear from a lot of people who say, Gene Weingarten, I know just how you feel?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Well, my column came out on Sunday, and I expect when I look at my email today, I will have hundreds if not thousands of people saying that they agree with me. And - because, you know, we hide this. It's a shameful thing. It's sort of acknowledging a deep flaw in your soul.

LYDEN: I think, though, that most humor writers, you know, it would seem to me that they would love to go to parties, looking for material and polishing material.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Ah, but see, something else happens. You wind up - you know, a party is supposed to be warm and convivial, but I feel as though I'm constantly on stage, being judged, and the whole thing is about as warm and convivial as a job interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, and then there is, of course, that most beloved of traditions for those of us in the - what used to be called the rag trade, now the digital rag trade, I guess - the book parties, especially those for colleagues. How do you feel about those?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Well, they are the only thing that's worse than the ordinary party.

LYDEN: Oh, you're so mean.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah, no, the book party is horrible because, you know, here's the thing. You go to a book party, and you've got this new author, who has a new book and he's proud of it, and there is always, in a book party, an unstated truth, which is that the book about which the party is happening is going to be or is already a dismal commercial failure. And that's because all books are dismal commercial failures unless they're about, you know, teenage vampires in love.

LYDEN: And diets.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah, and diets. Also, if they're written by people who are famous who can't write. Those do very well, also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: So basically, when you go to a book party, there is this gigantic unacknowledged fact, which is that the book is a disaster. And so you take the strain of an ordinary party and you quadruple it because there are things you simply can't say.

LYDEN: Now wait a minute. You've written a couple of books, if I'm not mistaken.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Massive commercial disasters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: And some of them were kind of advice books, too.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah, I haven't yet written one about how to write a book that isn't a massive commercial disaster, but maybe that'll be my next book.

LYDEN: What's the worst faux pas you've ever seen at a party? Let's trade stories. Either you've made or perhaps witnessed.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: I have seen people who were so drunk that they would not die if they fell out a window, they'd just sort of bounce. And, you know, that's a little obvious and clich�d, but I've never done anything particularly awful at a party because my stress level is too high. You know, in order to really embarrass yourself at a party, you need to cut loose a little bit, and that's simply never happened to me.

LYDEN: Want me to tell you a true story?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah.

LYDEN: I've published this story. So I don't feel like I'm betraying myself. When I was a very, very young writer-journalist type, I was invited to a party aboard a cruise ship out of Galveston, Texas, and I was at the captain's table. And my sister made me a dress that had little rhinestones holding it up around the neck. I was so poor, it was the only way I could wear an elegant dress. And I was laughing at something somebody said, and the little rhinestones went ping in front of about 400 people.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Well, wait...

LYDEN: And this is public radio. So I'm going to leave the rest to your imagination.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Okay, but I assume there was a wardrobe malfunction that followed?

LYDEN: We didn't have names for it in those days. That's when you need to make a strategic exit, after the wardrobe malfunction. And you say that parties have become an exercise, particularly for you, I would imagine, in strategic escape. And so you must have a strategy.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: You have to work yourself toward the door, and you do that by kind of - it's like swinging on vines from one little clod of small talk to the other. And then you sort of find yourself at the door, and you look around, and if nobody's watching, you're out, you're gone.

LYDEN: I thought you were going to do the old: May I get you another drink?

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: No, no because then people will talk about you.

LYDEN: If you don't come back.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Yeah, the key is just not to get - not to get noticed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: You know, I've always wanted to not go to a party and then talk to my co-workers after as though I'd been there, you know, just to see if anybody would notice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: But I have to ask, I can't leave this conversation without asking, you know, do you think you'll break down and throw a holiday party this year?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: No, no. You know, I throw one party every year. It's a Thanksgiving party for some of my oldest friends, including Dave Barry, and you know, we have about 20 people there. And to me, that's not a party because all the friends are old enough and they've all seen me do absolutely ridiculous things at various times in my life. I can handle that. That's it, though.

LYDEN: A really low threshold.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: And as I said, you know, you and me right now, we call it a party, it's good.

LYDEN: I call it a party.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Okay.

LYDEN: Here's the eggnog and mistletoe.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Excellent.

LYDEN: Clink, clink. Gene Weingarten is a humor columnist for the Washington Post magazine, where he has an article this week entitled "Tis the Season to be Miserable." Gene Weingarten, thanks for sharing your party secrets with us.

Mr.�WEINGARTEN: Good to be here.

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