3/28/12

The Last-Minute Invite

It can be a wonderful thing, that phone call that comes like a wish fulfilled, when you don’t have plans, you don’t feel like working and you are deep in the doldrums.  Suddenly there is a friend’s voice saying, “I have tickets to a show tonight, are you by any chance free?”  And voila! Your evening is transformed into something enjoyable and unforeseen.

Last minute invites--especially when they involve theatrical performances--are often things to be greatly appreciated.  However, if you have a friend who only calls you at the last minute, you may not appreciate it so much.  (“In about 45 minutes I’m going to see this movie I’ve been wanting to see, want to go with me?” Or “I’m sitting at this bar not far from you, why don’t you come out and join me?”)  The people who are guilty of this kind of invite may call themselves free spirits, but is it really devil-may-care behavior or just devil-ish?  Sometimes, the last minute invite is really what it sounds like, someone to whom you are a last minute consideration.

Now, I want to be clear; I know many people who live and die by the relaxed, never-know-what-I-am-going-to-be-doing-tomorrow social credo. There are also those rather enviable people I meet who are members of a small but solid “crew” of friends, so that they don’t have to bother to make plans; their social life, while it may be a bit predictable, just happens automatically--albeit with the same six or eight people.

However, I think most New Yorkers over a certain age (30) and under a certain age (75) are busy enough that keeping a calendar is essential; indeed most people I know are booked up at least several weeks in advance.  They are juggling social lives with work commitments and family commitments, so if you really want to see them, you usually have to make plans with them way beforehand.

But there can be good reasons for a last minute invitation. It can mean you simply did not anticipate you were going to have this particular hour or two of leisure time.  It can mean you just got tickets to something unexpectedly.  It can mean that someone else cancelled you at the last minute.

Obviously there is a difference between a last minute invite to a movie and one to the opera.  If a friend is going to take me to the Met because someone just dropped tenth row center orchestra tickets into his lap, he can call me as late as he wants and I’m delighted.  But it doesn’t really matter what the last minute invite is for, as long as it is not this friend’s standard MO and as long as it is proffered the right way.

Always preface the last minute invite with “I’m sorry, I know it’s last minute.”  If you have an extra ticket to something, it is always gratis for the other person.  If the person is not available, you must say something like: “Oh, I figured you might not be free at the last minute.  Let’s make another plan right now for when you are available.”  This says to the person, I’m not just trying to fill my evening, I do really care about seeing you.”

Once in a while you’ll come across a person who feels somehow “entitled” and expects everyone to be at their beck and call.  This person will call at the last minute to get together and, if you are NOT free, is often extremely annoyed.  This attitude obviously adds injury to insult.  There are also rare instances when someone may invite you at the last minute because they feel obligated for some reason; they want to get credit for inviting you, but they really don’t want you to come and they are actually hoping you won’t be free.  (Beware of the party invitation that arrives in the morning on the day of the party.)

Of course, habitual last minute social planning can be a corollary of intimacy.  With your best friends, there is never any problem with a spur of the moment plan, because if you are NOT free at the last minute, it’s no big deal, you will see the person again soon enough.

I know I tend to be a “martinet” about matters of social protocol; I do insist that we need to behave with as much courtesy to each other as we can.   But when all is said and done, I would not want a life without the possibility of a last minute invite.  It’s nice to know that your day can change in the blink of an iPhone.

3/14/12

Sappy Birthday: The Reliable, Artificial Heart of Facebook

I am certainly not the first person to write about the relatively new social phenomenon of the Facebook birthday. On the other hand I may be the last person to actually share my date of birth on Facebook (at least it feels that way to me).

For years I have eschewed what I felt was the insipid practice of posting birthday wishes on people’s Facebook walls. “It’s fake, it’s forced, it’s formulaic,” I would complain. After all, does it not nullify the entire idea of wishing someone “Happy Birthday” if a machine is reminding you to say it, and that machine is only reminding you because the person having the birthday has, in essence, programmed it to remind you? If you are out with someone who demands, “Ask me how I am!” and you respond by saying, “So how are you?” is that really satisfying to the other person?

But this year I was too busy to nudge my friends about my approaching birthday (which, as a person who loves birthday attention, I have become accustomed to doing), so I caved. And anyway, I am at my core an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” type of gal. So I succumbed to the all-powerful God of Facebook.

There seem to be three types of Facebook birthday well-wishers: The Good, the Bad and the Boring. The Good ones give you a little something personal but not too intimate (“Happy Birthday, good luck with your writing!” or “Have fun in Hawaii!”). The Boring ones just write “Happy Birthday!!”--with the prerequisite double exclamation points. Boring in this situation is perfectly fine, in my opinion; if you think of Facebook as a big party, these are the people who are raising their glasses to you when the host (in this case the host is Facebook Notification) offers up a birthday toast.

And the Bad? The Bad are the ones acting like 7th graders, and typify everything I dislike about Facebook and the social networking universe in general. (I myself was fortunate enough not to get any of the Bad, but I have seen them around). The Bad tend to post things like: “Happy Birthday!! Hope you don’t get drunk like last year, when I had to drive you home, and then you sang really loud even though you were already in bed, remember?” Or “Happy Birthday, maybe this year I will actually get to see your face, stranger! R U mad at me? Why don’t you call a person up some time?”

In a perfect world, we might use Facebook as a tool for remembering people’s birthdays, but then do something more personal to commemorate them—a phone call, or a card. But in the real world we seem to lack the time and wherewithal to do that for more than a very few close friends. Of course, that is what made birthday greetings so special in the old days. Now, who wishes you a happy birthday has more to do with how much your friends are keeping up with Facebook than it does with how much they are keeping up with you.

However, as much fun as it is to diss Facebook—and I admit it’s one of my favorite pastimes—I have to say that Facebook’s birthday reminder mechanism is on the whole a great boon. A Facebook acknowledgement is better than missing the birthday entirely. When I was a child, I was sure that by the time we got to 21012, computers would be able to interact with us the way a servant would, like the overly-maternal robot in The Jetsons. I imagined them as perfectly efficient, perfectly discreet personal assistants who would automatically remind us what we have to do, where we have to be. I have always kept a birthday reminder book next to my desk--a calendar of family and friends birthdays--but of course the system doesn’t work unless I remember to write people’s birthdays down and remember to look in the book on a regular basis. How different, really, is the Facebook notification system from my old-fashioned birthday book, except that it does all the work for me—better than I can? Is it so bad, having an electronic birthday secretary? Isn’t that what computers are for?

So now I have completely embraced the Facebook birthday ritual. Does this mean I have become a social zombie? Perhaps. But as we all know from watching zombie movies, once you are a zombie, you are unlikely to care whether you are one or not. You just join the horde of flesh-eaters and have a good time.

3/8/12

Doubles' Advantage: A Singular Lament

Okay, I confess: I envy married people.

But not for the reasons you may think. I envy married people because they have a built-in excuse to get out of absolutely anything.

The other day, I was caught unawares by someone asking me to do something I did not particularly want to do. I hemmed and I hawed, I prevaricated and stalled, but in the end I ended up just doing it because I could not figure out how to get out of it. That very same week, I called up a married neighbor who had borrowed my best ice bucket weeks before but had never returned it.

“F-ing Jim,” she swore. “I told him you needed that back! Without asking me, he took it to the office for a party they were having. I’ll bug him about it again this weekend.” That’s when it hit me what was missing from my life: a built-in, ready-made scapegoat.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that one of the main duties of a spouse is to be a scapegoat. (I believe promising to serve in this capacity is in the marriage contract). For example: “Sorry I’m late—my wife had a horrible sinus infection and I had to take her to the doctor.” Or “Oh dear! I would have so loved to come but Joe forced me to stay home to help him with this work thing.”  Or “Darn, it turns out Sue made another date for us Saturday and neglected to tell me, as usual.” Or “My better half says I have to be home by 6 p.m.—or else.” Or “I can’t be on your fundraising committee because my spouse has me signed up for so many other things.” And the most common one of all: “He/she never gave me your message.”  When your spouse is the scapegoat, the only blame that can be leveled at you is that you married the wrong person.

Couples have a decided advantage when it comes to the social arena. Let’s face it: When you are single and you feel like staying home alone rather than accept an invitation to a social event, you really can’t use that as your excuse. After all, “I have to wash my hair tonight,” does not really fly, while “I have to wash my wife’s hair”—well, that’s a whole different story.

Often, we’re not even sure we want to get out of whatever it is. We merely want to hedge our bets, to delay committing to whatever it is. Couples can easily make use of the handiest of all staving-off techniques, commonly known as the Spousal Consult, or the I-Have-To-Check-With-My-Wife ploy. Perfect for pop invitations, this dodge was ingrained in most of us as children (“I have to ask my mother.”) The beauty of the Spousal Consult is that it allows for the possibility that you may eventually accept the invitation—or that you will “forget” to check with your spouse at all, thereby letting the whole thing dissipate.

Last but not least, there’s the good old good cop/bad cop. A great ruse for married couples, but also quite doable with roommates or siblings, this dodge was custom-built for two. Let’s say you have guests who won’t leave your house. Dinner and coffee are long over. When you can’t stand it anymore and you are beginning to fear these people will never leave, the person cast as the bad cop yawns, stands up and excuses himself with, “I’m afraid I’ve got to hit the hay—I’m dead on my feet. Good night, Mr. and Ms. Guest. Don’t forget to let in the cat, sweetheart.”  After the bad cop has disappeared, the good cop apologizes for her partner while emphasizing how much it really is past his customary bedtime. Even a braindead guest gets the message at this point and packs it in. Good cop/bad cop also works like a charm for quick exits: “I would love to stay at your wonderful party, but Charlie is falling asleep on his feet.” Or “I have to hang up now—my wife is standing over me with a rolling pin in her hand and the children are screaming.”

I don’t even want to get into how handy kids can be as excuses. Suffice it to say, once you are a parent, you have a get-out-of-it-free card for, like, the rest of your life.


*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, February 22, 2012