The bride and I put on our glad rags last week and infiltrated a couple of Christmas gatherings. You may very well have been there, too.
And if you were, did you have the sense that your fellow revelers looked familiar, though it was tough to bring up their names? I think that was because they all looked so good and behaved so well, at least for the most part. The neighbors, I am happy to report, clean up very well, despite the inescapable annual deterioration. When they put on a little greasepaint and some clean clothes, it can throw you.
Of course, all dressed up and courted with all manner of princely victuals, folks are pretty congenial. Most of them are restrained by the invisible lashings of civility and seasonal benevolence. One does not expect to encounter boorishness.
(I confess I did once, not this year, encounter a boor of world class proportions at a small party. It was one of those "Ah ha, Cabral, is it you, you villain? Draw your weapon, else I cut you down forthwith" moments. He was inflated with some sense that he and the whole wide world had been kicked in the pants by something we had published. It might have made me cross, but I learned that he got nothing but turds in his Christmas stocking a few days later. Quite right, too.)
Anyway, in this season of good will, folks were well dressed and well behaved. You could add happy, well fed, and well off, despite much of what we see and read that passes for news. Nevertheless, one notices that turbulent currents roil below.
For instance, I said "happy holidays" to one up-Islander. He said, "I'm going to say Merry Christmas to you, if you don't mind. I'm an old Yankee, and I can't get out of the habit."
You go, Ephraim, I thought.
Unsolicited, one fellow with whom I found myself competing for shrimp proposed that he was relieved to learn that Iran is benign and that we wouldn't have to follow that warmonger Bush to the front again. A passing Republican muttered his enthusiasm for warmongering and steered a course for the free drinks table. I, seeking refuge, caught the scent of a passing tray of oysters, which a gimlet-eyed gynecologist had in his sights, and I set off in pursuit.
It did get me thinking about how much damage all this national opinion mongering might do in the long run. Not a very Christmasy topic, I admit, but it is disturbing that even at holiday gathering, the two sides take sides.
And I would have worried about it, if I had not remembered what H.L. Mencken had to say in 1941 about judges and other political eminences.
"My recollection of judges," Mencken wrote, "and my veneration for them go back a long way before my newspaper days, for I was a boy not more than eight or nine years old when my father began taking me on his tours of the more high-toned Washington saloons, and pointing out for my edification the eminent men who infested them...
"But it was not their public fame that most impressed me; it was the lordly and elegant way in which they did their boozing. Before I really knew what a Congressman was I was aware that Congressmen were bad actors in barrooms, and often had to be thrown out, and years before I had heard that the United States Senate sat in trials of impeachment and formerly had a say in international treaties, I had seen a Senator stricken by the first acrobatic symptoms of delirium tremens."
Mencken was savage, yet the nation has endured. Holiday celebrants this year may occasionally emulate these high and mighty politicos about whom Mencken fustigates, but despite them, we must hope for more tranquil days ahead.
Another partygoer, this one engaged in fish chowder, had a thing or two to say about trophy houses and taxes. It was obviously the opening to treacherous subject matter. I had not mapped out an exit strategy. These were Christmas gatherings after all, and I hadn't thought politics, national or local, goes well with egg nog.
No one enjoys the rough and tumble of debate more than I. I think Judge Stewart Dalzell may have had it right in 1996, when he said, "Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."
But, it's Christmas after all. Perhaps we might give it a rest, I thought, taking refuge behind a plate of bacon-girdled scallops.