Sunday, August 14, 2005

COLUMN: Cookouts

I am never going to be a homeowner. This decision, which I made ages ago, means that I will never have complete privacy. I will never be able to crank my stereo as loud as I want. I will never be able to take a shower without fear that the guy in the apartment next door will pick that exact moment, as he often does, to flush his toilet.

BUT -- it also means that I will never have to do yard work. I will never have gutters to clean. I will never make a mortgage payment. And, most importantly, I will never have to succumb to The Rule.

As more and more of my friends have left the collegiate era of apartment dwelling to become responsible, white-picket-fence home dwellers, I've started to become all too familiar with The Rule. Though I have never seen this rule in print, I know that it must exist, as every one of my homeowning friends has fallen under its spell. The Rule is such: If you own a home, you must -- at least once per year -- invite everyone that you've ever met on Earth over for an afternoon cookout.

Happily this is a rule that shall never apply to me, as "cooking out" at my place would involve holding the microwave precariously out the kitchen window. As that's a bit impractical, I may forever escape the role of party invitor. Sadly, the downside of that coin is that I am perpetually one of the invitees.

So what to do if you find yourself invited to one of these Saturday afternoon shindigs? The way I see it, I have two distinct levels of friends. When an upper-tier friend -- mainly former college roommates, girls I fancy, and co-workers who sit within 3 desks of mine -- throws a party, it's a Must-Attend. If it's anyone else, there's a good chance I've got Other Important Stuff to do that day.

Last weekend, I found myself at one of these cookouts. A good friend of mine just moved into her first house, plus it was her birthday to boot, so her party definitely fell within the Must-Attend variety. The problem was that when I arrived, I found that of the 75 or so people in attendance, I knew precisely: two. This isn't just a bad thing for me; it's borderline apocalyptic.

I come from the land of shy, awkward dweebs. Small talk is not a life skill that I've picked up over the years. "Mingling" is not in my vocabulary. But, I gave it the ol' college try -- and I discovered that, when faced with a cookout full of total strangers, a few simple strategies can be employed to make the event less awkward:

(1) Align yourself with the Providers. Everyone respects a man standing beside a grill. Small talk is easy when you're gathered over a burger. Everyone's got a magic grilling secret, myself included (onion powder, garlic salt, and 2 parts steak seasoning pre-grill; 1 half-can beer poured at the halfway mark.) Befriending the Grillmaster is a safe bet -- unless, of course, the Grillmaster is one of those crazy "I-just-like-fire" guys who's hooking up the propane with one hand while taking a drag off their cigarette in the other (that's NOT the version of "housewarming" one wants.)

(2) Align yourself with a housepet. Find the party-thrower's cute kitty and spend as much time as possible playing with it. Kittens are fun to hang with, they draw cute girls like flies, and you don't have to worry about making up inane banter about football or the weather.

(3) Find like-minded souls. Scan the crowd for anyone else outside the fray with a similar look of desperation. All it takes is one well-timed "man, I don't know ANY-body here," and your fellow outcast should commiserate.

If all else fails, sit back and remember why you're REALLY there. You're there because it's your friend's special day and she wanted you there.

Then realize that your friend is way too stressed out throwing the party to actually realize who's in attendance; promptly bum-rush the kitchen and eat your body weight in free burgers, brats, and Aunt Edna's potato salad; then sneak out the back when noone's looking. Or maybe I'm just pathetic. Sorry, Jamie, next time I'll be more social. Promise.

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