[Our church has a social program called "Circle Dinners". The coordinator puts everyone who wants to participate into circles of 8. They meet for a potluck dinner once a month for four months, then the coordinator forms new circles. I wrote about some memorable circle dinners I've had, but the web committee decided not to have them on the church site for fear people would assume the memorable ones were routine. Here they are on my personal site.]
One of our members is an RN born in Malaysia. She went to college in Perth, Australia. She made friends there with a lady from Zanzibar. The lady from Zanzibar came to Oakland for an international conference and spent the weekend with her old college friend. As luck would have it, that Saturday was Circle Dinner night at our house. The Malaysian lady asked if she could bring a guest. I said we'd be honored. While she was in Modesto the Malaysian lady had married a fellow RN, who was an Englishman. One of the other people in our circle that cycle was, by chance, a Canadian.
So, out of a total of nine people, we had people from four continents and five nations around our table, eating oak-grilled salmon and drinking three kinds of Chardonnay. I wanted to commission a brass plaque to commemorate the occasion. My wife said that, knowing me, everyone who ever stepped foot in the house afterwards would hear about it, and she didn't want a plaque attached to the middle of her dining room table.
One of the ladies in our circle was in the middle of moving. While she waited for her home in Arizona to sell, she rented an 800 square-foot house in Modesto. We assured her she could host. The night of her dinner our babysitter bailed at the last minute. We showed up with our 10-year old son and his friend. We had told his friend's parents we had a win-win situation. They would have the night to themselves, we would three hours of good food, good wine and good conversation with six other adults and our baby sitter could sit back in our house while the two 10-year olds played video games until they got dizzy. Whoops! We didn't have a plan "B" in case the baby sitter caught the flu. The two boys sat in one bedroom with their bucket from KFC and half a roll of paper towels. We eight adults sat in the living room with plates in our laps.
We got our three hours of good food, good wine and good conversation. Our hostess was gracious, if nervous about the two extra guests. I wrote her a two-page thank-you note afterwards. The general theme of was doing the best you can with what you have. I quoted an article I'd read in Sports Illustrated, years ago. The reporter asked a high-school football coach in west Texas what he thought of Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State. The Texan coach said the true test of a man is what he does with the hand he's dealt. "I'd like to see what Woody Hayes would do with a 167-pound fullback and a front line that had to skip practice during fall calving season", he said.
We live out in the country. We usually tell people the dinner will start at 6 o'clock, and we plan to spend half an hour with wine and nibbles while everyone arrives. Some people live 30 miles away from us. Once, just once, six out of seven people arrived within 30 seconds of each other, at 6:05. Our seventh guest, who showed up 15 minutes later, missed half of the hors d'ouvres and all of the Gewürztraminer. There's a lesson in punctuality!
One of the people in our circle should have dropped out for the year, as she was going through a messy divorce. On the night she was supposed to come to our house with the main dish, she came by with a casserole full of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli, said she couldn't stay, left. We ate it with crusty French bread, a green salad and a robust Zinfandel. Looking back, I admire her courage; not many people remember other people are counting on them for trivial tasks when they themselves are caught up in the maelstrom of a divorce.
I was 24 and knew as much about making myself pleasant as the little chrome bulldog on the Mack truck knew about the physics of internal combustion. I thought the older members of the church were welcoming me into their homes every month because of my clever anecdotes. Ha! They were being gracious. They had seen better, frequently and they had seen worse, rarely, but one of the tenets of our faith is the worth and dignity of every person, and they lived it.
Back when I was six feet one and weighed 175 pounds, I lied to the couple who were supposed to bring a vegetable dish. I told them to bring a dessert. I planned to microwave a pound of green peas and, since the couple who were supposed to bring dessert were still bringing dessert, make a pig of myself. The couple who were supposed to bring the wine had to cancel. I came up with four reasonable bottles and a couple from the substitute list. They asked what they should bring. I said dessert. The skies trembled. We feasted like guilty children that night.
By chance, two couples who had been in the Peace Corps together and I, who had been in the Peace Corps when I was single, were in the same circle. I missed the first dinner. When my wife and I got to the second dinner early, the hostess asked me to try to steer the conversation away from the Peace Corps, as that tended to leave the other members out of the conversation.
(When returned Peace Corps Volunteers meet, they tend to spend the first part of the dinner discussing noble ideals, the middle courses discussing amusing differences between their host county's culture and their own, and, when you get to the port and cheese, lying about the length of intestinal parasites they have passed.)
Fine and dandy, I said. It turned out the two ex-Peace Corps couples were accomplished musicians. They had all sung or played classical pieces written to take advantage of the acoustic qualities of a particular building in Europe - in that particular building. Score one for music, 0 for a conversation topic everyone could join. We listened, fascinated. The third dinner was at our house. I asked everyone to tell us something they had done that (a) they were proud of, and (b) no one would guess they had done it, to look at them. Everyone got to join in on that topic.
[Written August 2010]
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