My Dinner Party

Copyright (c) 2003 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

She is an activist educating political leaders for the benefit of the world. Rather than outright demonstrations though, she collects the material that elucidates how the world works along with the full ramifications of our choices and carefully makes it available globally. She is a diva of activism. She spots a drunk splayed on the sidewalk in the distance and shakes her head — here is a man who is a prisoner of his own idea of panhandling. He lies on a dirty sleeping bag and although he averts his eyes and his voice is mum, he almost cries out for money with his mind.

Giving him money wouldn’t do him any lasting good; what he needs is a good kick in the seat of his pants. His suffering is for his own long-term benefit — he will learn society’s expectations of him as he pays attention to the thoughts of those that judge him. And besides, when the Good Lord extirpates your worldly possessions he is asking you to explore that last part of you that is real. She steps past the man on the sidewalk, harnesses her turquoise beads around her neck, and piles into the cocktail party.

Drawn to the challenging causes she savors the difficult life herself; indeed she wouldn’t be at this party at all if it weren’t for the angels that support her (men and women that actually keep her alive). Slowly and unpretentiously she changes how we live; imitators abound who try to do the same — reporters and writers and actresses. But she is honest in her profession and takes her goal of education seriously — more than punditry, more than entertainment, and much more than self-serving research. Her goals are to honestly share social inquiry. Aside from the occasional recognition from her peers, she is invisible to the general public. But she works by making the tiniest of alterations — always the next possible shift that could be realizable — and very gradually (although too slow to notice while it’s happening) the world changes; after a couple of years the possibilities are different due to the webs that she has woven and the bricks that she has laid. She knows and appreciates the contrast of complaining to lending insight, the departure of mocking from irony, and chooses the fulcrums of her targets carefully and with deep understanding.

She is chatting with a bottle-blonde and a couple of men — one in an open-collared white shirt and one wearing a tweed jacket: “We create a limit when we struggle to educate people. This boundary is what we can tolerate in others — both our coping with the speed at which they learn and our struggles at the edges of our own patience. You can’t teach people faster than they can naturally learn by themselves.”

The tweed man nods, “and you can’t teach people any slower than your own patience allows. You think that you are an autonomous driver on the freeway of education, but you are forced to travel at the speed of traffic: you have less choice than you imagine. Society even predetermines the students that sit in your classes — the most expensive colleges get the best students.”

She tightens her lips for a millisecond and then continues, “More important though is the struggle to impart the education that is not only appropriate for a student but that also moves society in the right direction. You must wrestle free of what is convenient and entertaining for the classroom and actually provide your students with the wisdom and the nexus to make a positive difference in the world.”

Tweed man says “fine, but who are you to judge what is important for students to learn? Who makes that determination?”

The activist answers, “I’m not saying it’s up to anybody to determine; that wasn’t my point. It’s your method that concerns me: anyone can structure their teaching to be entertaining (but we’re not here to entertain one another). And anyone can cut out articles in the newspaper and teach current events. The trick is to teach your curriculum with a purpose: while generating interest in the students you must still use a technique that addresses the important topics.”

Tweed thinks for a moment and recognizes that the activist is baiting him somewhat — making a straw-man argument to set him up. He smiles, rubs his chin, and conjures that he will play along: “Educating people is a high art (sometimes actually the high art itself educates people). And yet sometimes it is the technique of educating — the technique itself — that qualifies as the high art. We look at our tools, we look at how people learn, we look at our subject matter, and we put these things together and come up with a means of expression that makes for a deeper revelation.”

The activist circles back to an earlier topic: “So you have a framework, a modus operandi for arriving at your curriculum? Does the State dictate that?”

Tweed ignores her question: “The methodology of arriving at the curriculum is itself high art — craft too, yes, but it is also intuition and aesthetics as much as painting or sculpture or music. It is the music of teaching.” Tweed turns to the man in the open-collared white shirt (who has been sipping on his drink and listening patiently), “What do you think Bob? Is there any music in politics?”

Bob smiles: “Oh, I think we can apply this high art concept to a wider realm than just the school room — take for example the administration of civil servants. I’m not saying that I’m the conductor of an orchestra full of garbage collectors and county recorders, but public service embodies a generalized coordinating process that isn’t teaching in the traditional sense at all. I’m more making an effort to motivate the public servants — realizing that en masse we can grow the world into a better place for everyone.”

The activist opens her mouth to speak, but then checks herself.

Bob continues, “facilitating this takes high art, as we indirectly create the environment for the public services to actualize. More than just collecting taxes and doling out budgets… it has to be done in a way that enlightens the public at the same time that you are feeling their pulse. Perhaps it is the art of debate.”

Now the activist feels her pulse race, “so then you create the large changes in society?” although she wishes that she had better camouflaged her baiting.

Bob returns a politician’s smile. “It’s less invoking change than adding some sand to the river. Things go along as usual, you take the kids to school and they grow one day at a time; after a few years you are picking up the birth control pills for your daughter and gradually  (although it’s too slow to notice) the world has changed. After a couple of years though the possibilities are different — the course of the river has been displaced. So what I do is to allow for the changes that will happen anyway. And some is to manage the public’s perception of how we spend their tax dollars.”

“Ah,” the man in the tweed retorts, “but then you’re not describing the public servants… you’re talking about politicians. The clowns in the bureaucracy.”

“Well,” Bob continues, “a lot is just a sense that you have to give /some/ kind of direction — you have to ask people to do things that are obviously in the public interest. They wouldn’t make the effort to do it themselves — nobody is going to hop onto a street sweeper, turn it on, and drive it around the block. If you /ask/ them to do it however then they will, partly because they feel that since somebody /asked/ it must therefore be worthwhile.”

“And partly because you pay them to do it,” the activist points out.

Bob continues, “A lot of my job is gauging what is appropriate to ask of others. Most of the struggling in the name of public service though is rather sublime. The media avoids it; most politicians won’t talk about it. Most of my cohorts need to prove that they have been good public citizens; distinguishing themselves as having sacrificed for the public gains them social acceptability and entry into the most fashionable circles.” After a brief hesitation he adds “like this party.” He hugs the bottle-blonde standing next to him; she shrugs and flips her hair back.

“You know hon,” she says with a wink to the man in the tweed, “this broadly crosses the interests of people who entertain. Those struggling to entertain overlap those called to public service with a similar mindset and form (a similar gestalt) such that we tend to congregate together, intermarry, and breed kids. Amidst the fleas and the midgets, the circus ringmaster and the elephants, we lion tamers charm with our sequins and snap with our whip. We actresses get along well with politicians because we both believe in the same struggle for a better world: we’re part of the same show. Both the politicians and the actors join together under the big top to share a deep and unsettling angst that we inherit from the wrongs of the world.”

“Oh, give me a break,” the activist challenges. “It’s more like you are complimentary because you have the same extreme tastes in bed. Your perspectives so inure you to each other’s thoughts that the only way that you can mate is by creating imaginary scenarios that titillate each other — little mental games to challenge one another. Your public acting is just an extension of your private acting inherited as the only way that you can make love. It has nothing to do with working toward a kinder world (outside of your own private world).”

Blondie pecks collared-shirt on the cheek. “Those struggling to entertain use their angst to raise awareness in return for love. Those struggling to service use their angst to raise awareness in return for power. Different ends to the same means. And then we wrestle amongst ourselves: more than a battle of love over power or power over love, our struggle is one of purpose of intention. Are we really here to tame lions or to collect admission? We are both making the world a better place and yet he questions my sincerity and motives because he misreads the depth of my actions.”

During a long reverent pause, a man with a beard who was standing in an adjacent group, having heard the blonde’s insight turns from back to front and nods. “Struggling to entertain is one of the most common of human traits — all children go through a phase competing for their parents’ attention and then later for their peers’ attention. Sparring for attention is how an animal attracts the most mates — it promotes the inheritance of genes.”

“So you’re saying then,” Blondie asks as she leans over and licks Bob’s ear, “that I entertain as a way to mate? But I already have Bob.”

The bearded man continues, “Those that stay unenlightened and insecure (due to genetics or failed affections) can continue striving for more love indefinitely. After many years the struggle itself becomes their defining characteristic — these artists become renown more for their battles than for their accomplishments. Or rather their struggling /becomes/ their accomplishment. Look at Mozart, look at Van Gogh — men who grappled for acceptance their whole artistic lives and yet died broke.”

“Well,” the activist adds, “often times the struggle uniquely clarifies the soul. Some of the finest people that I have ever met are also those afflicted with severe agonies through no fault of their own. Born into hardship or victim to mishap, their struggle to tears has given their souls the caramel coloring of sweet braised onions.”

Blondie needs to speak. “A life that is too easy though is interminably boring. Hence we create a veil for ourselves to hide the obvious fact that life is only really about just surviving life. Sure we are spiritual beings too, but when push comes to shove we set ourselves up with a false objective: we strive for happiness. But life isn’t about a search for happiness — it’s just about surviving and following your heart. My entertaining flows from my heart, because I love to make people feel their own emotions.”

A gentleman with a bit of a paunch (in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt) and carrying a dish with chips and a bowl of guacamole walks into the circle. “To create an environment that frees people to laugh, cry, or feel emotions you need a support crew.” He dips a chip into the guacamole and takes a crunchy bite. “Support folks live in a nebulous middle ground — we nurse a personality bruised by our failure at both entertaining and musing. And yet we play a curious role in that both the entertainers and the muses rely upon us to pace off their own progress.” He dips in one more chip and takes another crunchy bite.

The man with the beard peers at the guacamole and smiles. “Maybe you are the necessary jazz of the otherwise structured entertainment industry. Despite the fashionably marketed glitz you are able to remain detached because the nature of your work removes you from the daily power struggles, money grubbing, and political maneuvering of the entertainment grind.”

Guacamole shrugs, “maybe this person runs the commissary. Or maybe this person leads the grips. The entertainers do their schpiel for their love, the muses do their schpiel for their soul, but the folks stuck in the middle are too lazy to produce fine art and we’re not inventive, self-sacrificing, or caustic enough to muse.” He smiles at bottle-blonde. “We put up the tent poles, clean up the elephant dung, shop for makeup, and hand out the tickets. And yet the egos of both sides need us to provide a direction to grow against — we are everything that they are running away from.”

Blondie snorts. “I think it’s more that people hang out with their own ilk — birds of a feather and all that. So you just tend to have lunch with the guys that share a bit of remorse about their artistic skills. It’s not that we are against you or running away from you, it’s just that we think differently. Though maybe you gain some benefit in deceiving yourself with your own importance.”

A lithe woman with jet black hair and a group of three rings running up the side of one ear leans in, “Some folks (a very small handful) walk that creative fine line where they elude themselves; irked by the draw of love and even surprised to be alive, the effects of their actions provide a kind of quiet humor. They might end up working in a tattoo shop or drawing cartoons for a living. Small sparkles of musedom trickle accidentally from their fingers; amazing things become manifest in the glaze of their ceramics. People who admire our work silently and inwardly chuckle when they identify how our color and design snares our hidden cynicism and noble spirituality. We are the hue and the tone, the carmine and the prusssian blue of the painter’s materiel. We are the weave of the fabric.”

The politician pokes his finger in his ear, “so here we have a young lady who thinks that she is the material and here a young gentleman who thinks that he is the scaffolding, yet neither one claims to themselves this wreath of artisanship. Which raises an interesting question — how /does/ one become an artist; is this something natural or do folks actually learn their artwork? Do art teachers actually /do/ anything?”

A woman with fluffy reddish hair and a translucent floral dress turns and winks, “I have certainly known other fine ladies (and a handful of men, but they are quite a bit more singular) who teach creative skills. This is a gentle art (which is why women dominate art instruction) for it involves both recognizing talent and being careful to moderate an overly sensitive precociousness. You could call it the art of art instruction. Those born with this gift recognize their predicament fairly early. They live by and appreciate variety. They are frequently psychic, moody, and driven by both passion and a passion to drive life’s textures.”

Guacamole disagrees, “I don’t know,” he says while turning to place his empty guacamole bowl down on a nearby table. “A lot of the true suffering artists I meet are artists just because they are suffering. We steer clear of talking about it, but a lot of them have had just horrendous personal lives. Beat up by their parents, damaged from accidents or medical screwups, art is the only way their souls get relief from their otherwise horrific suffering. All I can remember about the art teachers that I had in school was that they were somewhat failed attempts at being entertainers.”

The man in the tweed swirls the ice cubes in his drink, “the vast majority of teachers that I have met though are practiced entertainers. They may only be mediocre at making people laugh or engaging the attention of their students, but they aren’t ignorant of the reactions that they muster in their audience. They don’t aim for laughter as the end-all of their existence; the student reaction is just a pleasant side-effect. These teachers don’t fabricate any Einstein’s though: they usually have a straightforward and simple methodology that depresses their classrooms and prevents their best students from exploring new avenues on their own. Their entertaining (or rather the awareness of their entertaining effect) actually inhibits their students from discovering how to learn for themselves.”

“But teaching artists is a different matter entirely” answers floral dress. “The environment that you are creating is not really about materials or skills. You allow the artist to discover his imagination and give him guidance — you give him the tools to deal with his imagination once he discovers it. It’s different than teaching history or science where you are just dropping facts. Although of course teaching facts has its place in the world too.”

Turquoise necklace clears her throat; “a few folks though get the blend just right and can attain quiet renown for keeping people engaged with interesting facts. They can be the life of the party (provided that they know when to stop). The road here is wide though, often traversed by the width of ego — those who are most humble can pull off the entertaining fact-dropping with a quiet brilliance that enamors them to CEO’s. Those who feel overly self-entertained though can veer toward boorish.”

During a short pause a few people in the circle sip in unison from their drinks, their brains casting about for where to lead the conversation next. After a moment several of the folks silently grasp the common thread and they nonverbally coalesce as a group.

Floral dress redhead removes a ring with a large green stone from her finger and places it back on again. “Society holds a special place for those artists who succeed at more than just entertainment — those artists who actually conceive works that outlast them. This is difficult to achieve in any medium; frequently the works of the popular entertainers fade after a couple of years. Likewise it is common for the most subtle artists (those with work that outlasts them) to provide no immediate entertainment value during their own lifetimes. But on just a few occasions, perhaps in music, maybe in painting, or perhaps in acting, we will run across that true genius that balances both entertainment and the creation of new culture. A person right in the middle of the two — an Astaire, a DaVinci.”

Bob clears his throat. “A diplomat, a true diplomat (not a spy) is one who can be both entertaining and a public servant. I haven’t known any personally, well not in actual government service, but I have met their likes in my corporate pursuits. These folks have a very peculiar take on the world. They are clearly superior in analytical and mental acuity (and are well aware of it) yet they remain unassuming. More than anything they seem somewhat struck at the oddity of their predicament, as if an alien God dropped them in from outer space with a superior set of faculties, as if they can see ninety million colors of words whereas most people can only see five million. They accept that a small class shares this trait that is as much of a handicap as a gift. They end up in positions requiring both great humor and great delicacy — say negotiating union contracts. They are in between two worlds: the sophistic jester and the humbled monk.”

Beard removes a handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his brow. “Some religious figures climb to this rung as well, although they gear their public service toward individuals rather than to groups as a whole. And they achieve this with an entertaining group approach — they preach to the congregation, but fish for individuals. Religious leaders and diplomats curiously though have traits that are as distant and opposed as two groups could possibly be. The gist is that the diplomat entertains at the individual level, but serves at the group level; the religious leader regales at the group level, but serves at the individual level. They are in-between the same perfunctory mechanisms but press in the opposite directions.”

The activist purses her lips. “I have seen people press in two directions at the same time within their own life. Often it’s when they trap themselves in situations that go contrary to their heart’s intent. Many Chicana women that I know have husbands who are machismo — very proud of their heritage and their dominance. And yet these women maintain civility even though dangerous men attract their heart. On the one hand they will allow a man to roughhouse them and yet at the same time they will spend hours in the kitchen making tamales. They use their slow and deliberate creative activities to drive their larger intentions of calming the beast within their mates.”

A slender gentleman carrying a bottle of water walks up to turquoise necklace and gives her a hug. “Sometimes the end-result of an activity isn’t its purpose — just like a politician, some folks serve the public by doing nothing other than raising awareness, promoting sounding boards, or even by acting contrary to ‘standard behavior’ just to raise the obvious sensibilities at the center of other souls. Frequently this falls upon the writers of the world: the process of creating written communication — the distillation and selection of letters and sentence order — creates a chimera of actual meaning projected onto the reader’s heart; the writer just sets the table.”

“Ah, but the writer does more than this,” bearded adds. “Words are just words and descriptions just a rearrangement of thoughts, except for the tenor and flavor that the writer adds by braising them like sweet peppers over charcoal.” He winks at the activist. “Through his imagination the writer turns the mundane to the ghastly, the piquant to the explosive.”

Floral redhead almost interrupts: “The imagination has a life all its own — some say that the people who live there are out of touch or non-productive participants in the world. That part of their brain that creates of its own ‘independence’ entraps them into free-association, transcribes light with sound, taste, smell, memory, electromagnetism. It metamorphosizes clothes to skin. Transcending time and space and the standards of their society, writers cope as outcasts and yet they are part of everything. Struggling authors are exceptional folks.”

She reaches over to T-shirt and takes his drink; he smiles and makes no objection. “What makes them especially unique is that they succeed in a very intensive area quite specifically because of their failures. Everyone has a talent for /something/, yet the artists who struggle are really still exploring the boundaries of their own souls — they display their contrivances to the world just so they can eventually get to the point of their existence (which isn’t any point at all, actually). But we love them because their wrestling is also our struggle: they actualize in a story what we face every day in our hassles to make ends meet and find time for ourselves. Their muses pin them with perfectionism against their own imperfections.”

The man in the tweed jacket scratches his cheek. “So now you’re agreeing with the premise that folks create art due to an intrinsic force — that their situation itself evokes their creativity. I guess that I concur: I would take some folks to be artists under any circumstances, whether you plopped them down into the middle of a modern office or placed them in a quiet studio with a block of clay. And then I’ve seen other folks whose talents permanently doom them to the mundane — for changing cash at the register, driving the trucks to collect the garbage, or watching the security cameras at the mall.”

The drunk outside, a student of floral dress, a patient of bearded, fired by white collared shirt, lies in his urinated pants and is trying to make us think about important things. He attracts and repulses us at the same time — not by his lack of hygiene, but rather the urgency of his descriptions — he wants us to share the priorities and values of his world at the same gray scale that he witnesses. It is important to him (for some reason) that what he views as high art we should evaluate similarly. We turn down his recommendations and immediately discount them because they have served him poorly and yet as we walk past, his ideas linger at the back of our brains — an hour later his urgencies rattle to the surface of our thoughts for inspection.

As the activist leaves the party she hesitates at the door — she is frozen on her walk to the car for she suspects the vagrant is still outside. She doesn’t fear for her safety, but her lost perspective gives her dismay that she will be unable to avoid his gaze, his hollow eyes, his grasp at her shame. How is it that she is that much different from him. Perhaps he has chosen a life on the street as his own artwork; perhaps his private demons drive him to this fringe. She is frozen by the thoughts of the people that she loves from the party. She has lost her nucleus for how to behave.

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