Saturday, December 09, 2006

Happy Birthday Milton

Now we are 398.

Happy Miltonmass, everyone.

One of the professors I worked with last year on my postdoc (a Miltonist) holds an annual party in honor of Milton's birthday instead of a Christmas party. It takes place in her gorgeous Victorian in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal, around the corner from the all night bagel shops, where you're likely to encounter frum housewives wearing headscarves, groups of yeshiva students in streumels, Portuguese hipsters, and university professors all on one block.

Students and faculty and the local used bookstore owners attend. There's usually a birthday cake for Milton, and everyone gathers around the piano and sings carrols. In the front hall the boots and slush pile up, and people wander around in their socks or in nicer shoes that they bring along in plastic bags. The compulsively obedient border collie trots from room to room, checking up on everyone, whimpering and whirling when another guest walks in the front door. It's cold and wet outside, but warm, bright and jolly inside. Everyone gets drunk and can't stop hugging everyone else goodnight.

I've always wanted to be the kind of professor that throws parties like this. But whenever I throw a party I spend too much time worrying.

It didn't used to be like this: during my year at Oxford I had people over constantly, cooked up a storm. Dinner parties in grad school were haphazard and fun. Then things seemed to deteriorate. The first party I threw post grad school was mediocre: too large for a dinner party and too small for a party. By the time the last of us found ourselves stuck in an entirely un-engrossing conversation about drywall I knew it was time to shoo everyone out the door.

The next time I tried too hard. I burnt the fiddleheads for the morel risotto, filling the kitchen with smoke. When my guests arrived (coughing), the risotto wasn't done, so they took turns helping me stir while I wrung my hands and paced from room to room. Then I accidentally froze the creme brulees and had to put them back in the oven which for some reason turned the caramelized tops a crestfallen shade of gray. As I took them out of the oven, one of them was so disgusted with my attempt at french cuisine that it abandoned ship, skidding off the tray and sacrificing itself on the kitchen floor. Meanwhile I'd invited a guy I'd fancied who didn't return the sentiment but couldn't figure out how to break it to me. I contemplated telling him it was okay, but my attempts at semaphore went unnoticed. It was months before I could have people over again.

The only party that was not an entire flop happened at the end of the summer. And I had help. Still, I fretted. Of course it was ok. No one got into a fist fight, there were no awkward silences, no one ended up having to sit in the corner. We invaded the backyard patio belonging to my landlords and sat outside in the candlelight. It was difficult to get folks to leave, actually, because I think some of the people were having a very good time. But a very good time has a price: After the last person departed the two of us left passed out from sheer exhaustion.

Which brings us to December, 2006. I can't seem to have parties on my own. I need someone to pry the vacuum cleaner from my shaking hands at 1am the night before the party when I'm terrified that my allergic friends won't be able to breathe, or that my fastidious friends will frown at the giant dustbunnies snuggling together under the bed.

Tomorrow I'm having 8 or 9 friends and colleagues over for tea. I went to Whole Foods, got some interesting cheeses. And I'm going to try my hand at a pear tarte tatin. I purchased ready-made puff pastry so I won't do it all from scratch. I've vacuumed and dusted, but I'm not going to mop or polish the bathroom sink. I think this is a nice compromise. Fingers crossed.


Hilaire said...

Oh gosh, I totally get the parties-being-stressful thing...GF was pettty insistent about throwing me a 30th b-day party. Did I have fun? Frankly, no. Nor at the look-i'm-moving-in-with-GF housewarming party. So I really hope your tea is a marvel - what a great idea. The thought of an afternoon party is so smart - what a good way to test the party waters, yet have an inbuilt exit! Have fun!

muse said...

Thank you Hilaire! I think what's so surprising is that I used to be so good at it, and I don't know where all this sudden anxiety is coming from.

Last year I had a great 30th birthday at an authentic Spanish restaurant with five female friends. There was a mariachi, a flamenco dancer, cheap wine and too much tapas. It rocked. I think a party would have done me in!

Calliope said...

I just attended that Miltonmass party last night! You are very accurate in your description--that was amongst the most interesting and successful parties I have ever attended. The professor/hostess is phenominal, always warm and welcoming to everyone she invites into her gorgeous home. I never envisioned myself singing Christmas carols around a piano with numerous profs and classmates, but what a lovely way to celebrate the holidays and bring people together. And to make it all better, the party seemed almost.....effortless in its perfection. You could see the work behind it, but the house was not immaculate, the rooms were overcrowed in a cozy way and no one was stressing out about pouring drinks or serving food. It just WAS. Happy birthday Milton, and may the wonderful tradition continue next year!

muse said...

Hey, Calliope. Thanks for posting!

Yes, that professor is indeed a great hostess. She's very good at bringing people together.

Glad you had a good time.