Why this particular company chose to have its Christmas party at a downtown salt water aquarium I'll never know. The choice was oddly appropriate however. I nursed my drink, watching first the colorful fish and then the equally colorful revelers. Both groups seemed to be milling around aimlessly. The fish circling endlessly in their tanks, occasionally defecating on the shell fragments and detritus that littered the bottom, while the crowd of people outside the glass, mixed drinks and hors d'oeuvres in hand, did essentially the same thing.
I had never really envisioned my peers as tropical fish before, but now I can't get the image out of my head. In a season where is is easy to attend twelve holiday parties in a seven day stretch, the aquarium analogy becomes increasingly appropriate.
At the parties hosted by photographers, film companies and ad agencies, everyone dresses with a studied flamboyance, circling continually through a crowd of vaguely familiar faces. Everyone is making a mental note of who is there, but few people actually talk to one another. On one hand, this could be because of the ubiquitous loud band playing in the corner. On the other hand, it could be related to the fact that as a group, these media mavens are uniformely shallow and have little to say anyway. Small groups of fashion models in black knit dresses huddle together, refusing to talk to anyone. Older, self-styled creative types with their pony-tails still intact, suspiciously eye younger counterparts sporting contemporary marine recruit haircuts. Young women in bare midriff tops and black silk slacks proudly display their Stairmaster stomachs to the general irritation of another generation of women who have begun to feel the effects of gravity and time. Everyone drinks too much. And the high-decibel ambient noise provides an environment of isolation that makes the idea of conversation ludicrous.
At a large holiday party there might be five hundred people in a room designed for fifty, but everyone is still conspicuously isolated. The revelers circling through the crowd might just as well be driving alone down a crowded freeway with their car stereo turned up all the way. Everyone is reduced to colorful fish in a tank.
At one of these parties I am struck by a chance conversation I'd had with a friend earlier in the day. I hadn't seen Carol in almost three years. She was a local agency producer and I had made an appointment to show her my reel in hopes of picking up a little business. I played my tapes. We chatted a bit about old times. And it didn't take long for me to notice that something was different. The Carol I knew could put me to shame with her sharp tongue and cynical worldview. This Carol seemed almost happy. I mentioned something about this to her and she smiled and told me she'd had a good year. "It took me fifteen bad ones to come up with one like this," she said, but she wasn't complaining at all. She told me how she was sent to New Guinea for three months to film a commercial using tribal people as the principal talent. Carol said the film crew went to New Guinea expecting the natives to be ignorant and difficult to work with, but that before they were finished, everyone on the crew realized they had much more to learn from these indigenous people than they had to offer in return.
Her tale sounded suspiciously at first like she'd exchanged her cynical trappings for a bunch of new age claptrap, but I continued listening. Carol explained how the tribe she was working with had lived in the same four hundred square mile area for over a thousand years. She said that during that thousand years they had never learned to drive automobiles, make cappuccino, or program computers. There were no roads, no telephones and nobody in the tribe had a job. These people considered the land they hunted and fished on as theirs, but had no concept of real estate or private property. The children in the tribe were well educated and many spoke English, but they did not know how old they were. Birthdays were never celebrated. There was no divorce in the tribe. Carol said since many in the film crew had been divorced several times, there was much curiosity about what the tribe's secret was. When asked, one elder said in essence, "where would we go? This is a small island. It's easier to learn to get along." So that's what the tribe did. They spent a thousand years learning to get along. Carol said she felt more connected to other people during the few months she spent with the New Guinea tribe than she had during the entire time she had lived in Dallas.
She almost died after eating an unnamed poisonous fish during her visit, but still considered 1995 her "lucky" year. I asked if she had ever considered that everything in Dallas was just as fucked up as it usually was, but that she herself had changed? She smiled and said she'd considered the possibility.
As the ongoing succession of holiday parties inches toward the new year, it is apparent to me that no matter how many people are gathered together at these celebrations, there is absolutely no feeling of being connected. We revelers are all tropical fish in a tank. Parading. Preening. But never even attempting to communicate.
I'm wondering if this self-imposed isolation is a function of age, occupation, or perhaps a bit of both. The one holiday party that I actually enjoyed was the one I almost refused to attend. It was hosted by a bunch of real estate agents. I wasn't going to be caught dead with this crowd of heathen. But having nothing better to do, I went anyway. Surprisingly, it was here where I wound up finding what I'd been hoping to discover at the more fashionable media gatherings. The guests were all older. They just didn't give a shit. They laughed. They were politically incorrect. They made fun of each other. They were confident about who they were. Keeping in the Christmas spirit of things, they all brought presents to put under the tree. The idea was that everyone selected a present and opened it, but that if you liked someone else's present better, you could go up and steal it from them. According to the rules of this game, a present could be stolen three times before it finally found it's true owner. Purposefully, some presents were quite nice and others were trash. The guests attacked the presents like piranhas, and seemed to take great pleasure in stealing the good stuff from each other while making fun of the people who got stuck with the junk. They had absolutely no pretensions about who they were and you got the distinct impression that they stole each others listings with equal zeal and abandon.
I listened to a group of older men tell me how they put those plastic crown air fresheners you always see in taxicabs on the dashboards of their Cadillacs and Jaguars to keep them from getting stolen. When I started laughing uncontrollably and told them this was the silliest thing I had ever heard, they just gave me a knowing look and said that no one would steal a car from a brother. They were all crazy as loons. One said he had to keep his crown hidden in the glove compartment until he got out on the open road, because his wife gave him too much shit about it.
I was starting to see why Carol felt so transformed by a distant group of tribal people who could actually talk to one another. In three weeks of arduous holiday celebrating, the closest I had come to seeing anything remotely resembling a connection was in the eyes of a group of old men laughing about the plastic crowns they kept on their dashboards.
I had briefly tried to explain to Carol how the internet might serve as a vehicle for reestablishing those connections with others our own society had inadvertantly severed. Almost instantly I realized what a lame argument this was. What was I thinking? The internet is just a new high-tech way of keeping our distance. The last party on my holiday circuit was hosted by one of those up-and-coming companies with one foot in the future and the other in your wallet. I had the pleasure of seeing my homepage displayed on a gigantic Sony jumbotron high above my head. A loud band called Experimental Barbecue played music I'd never heard of. Nobody talked at all.