The Psychology of a Dying Party, or: The Elements of a Good Party

4 Feb

One of my favorite books is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  It’s one of his shorter works, clocking in at only 228 pages as opposed to his masterpieces, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.  It’s also one of his “happier” books–though happier is a subjective term.  It’s happier than East of Eden but not a happy book.  It’s lighthearted at times, but lighthearted in the way only deeply profound insights can seem to be.

The plot doesn’t drive itself as much as it saunters and moseys easily along.  The basic plot is set in the Cannery Row district of Monterey and revolves around a cast of well-meaning bums trying to throw a party for Doc, who is the central figure of the story.  They throw one party that ends in disaster but, by the end of the book, are able to throw a party that is hugely successful.

(What does this have to do with wine?  Or anything, for that matter?  Patience.  Have another sip of your merlot.  I’m getting to it.)

As a former social chair at a fraternity and a catering assistant for almost three and a half years, I’ve seen my share of parties–both highly organized and wildly spontaneous.  I’ve seen seventy-year-olds get drunk off their minds at bar mitzvahs and what looked like seventeen-year-olds do keg stands in dark basements.  There are events complete with wine charms and little signs for different types of cheese, and others that aren’t planned as much as they arise from some primordial, yearning, post-pubescent muck.

What characterizes a good party?  And how can one ensure that the party one is throwing is a success?

My thesis is that a good party, much like a good wine, is characterized by its finish.

Here’s what Steinbeck has to say about this matter:

No one has studied the psychology of a dying party.  It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair and they leave a dead body.

Of course, not everyone is going to have a great time at a party.  It’s impossible.  But we all know that there are parties that are fondly remembered years later by its participants–what makes these stand out?

Drinking a lot helps, I have found, though nothing ruins a party quite as much as someone who is three drinks past drunk, someone who might have passed out in a bathroom stall in his or her own vomit and urine and must be lifted out by three people, hosed off, and accompanied home in a taxi (though in certain circles this MIGHT be considered an AWESOME night).

Close friends are always a crucial element, though not necessarily required.  Having a crush or romantic interest there can go either way.  As in wine, there are so many components that must be considered.

Let me present “tasting notes” of three of the best parties I’ve been to in my life:

Six Months ‘Til St. Patrick’s Day Fraternity Party | Berkeley, CA | 2003
I was wearing an ugly plaid green shirt.  We had dyed the beer green.  Green bulbs in the lights.  Green cups.  Green plastic beads, shamrocks, and plastic leprechaun hats.  Live DJ.  A LOT of people.  It helped that I lived in the house.  A lot of incoming freshmen.  No midterms, no finals to worry about.  No police to worry about.  A cute girl.  Dancing with her.  For forty minutes.  Upstairs.  Newly-renovated room with new bed.  Outside on the fire escape.  Some words about the moon.  She had a tongue piercing.

Friend’s 21st Birthday Party | Berkeley, CA | 2006
I didn’t really know too many people.  Some people were dancing, some people were outside in the patio smoking.  There was PLENTY of alcohol, though, of a large variety.  I took up the reins of de facto bartender and found I had enough to make many kinds of drinks, including the always well-received cosmo.  And, there was a sufficient amount of ice.  People were there and were there to have fun; no “bitches”, if you will.  It also helped that it was before finals.

Wine and Cheese Party | Oakland, CA | 2007
Dressed up in a collared shirt and slacks.  Others there were similarly attired.  I brought a bottle of shiraz from Shotfire Ridge and a bar of Scharffen Berger dark chocolate.  The guests came with their offerings.  A good number of people.  Everyone knew at least one or two others.  The majority of the party knew the hostesses and were on at least casual acquaintance terms with most of the guests.  Wine, cheese, food.  Quite possibly every contemporary Christmas song ever written.  Wine charms.  White elephant gift exchange.  Cigarettes outside.  Exchange students from France.  Newly-graduated college kids acting like adults.  A LOT of wine.

Maybe it’s true that parties just have a life–a mind–of their own.  That fits in with Steinbeck’s metaphor of the “psychology” of a party.  If people are there to have fun, if people are there and just want to talk and socialize and have a good time, then the party will be off to a positive start.  And if the party is sustained by more people (who bring more to drink, optimally) throughout the night then even better.

What do you guys think?  What makes for a good party? and how can we ensure as much as possible a long, warm, and delicious finish?

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6 Responses to “The Psychology of a Dying Party, or: The Elements of a Good Party”

  1. Joe February 5, 2008 at 12:42 am #

    Hire strippers.

  2. E February 5, 2008 at 2:46 pm #

    hard liquor, dancing, and homosexuals

  3. yaly February 8, 2008 at 12:45 am #

    A good party… Makes me think of music, dancing, some sexuality, and cake. lol

  4. james February 9, 2008 at 11:05 am #

    i love small, laid back housewarming parties. i once had a housewarming potluck dinner in which people were only allowed to bring appetizers, desserts and wine, and it was a great time.

    when it comes to all-out partying, the only thing i ask is that i control the music 🙂 i mean, ideally you want a brilliant theme, too, but i hate dancing to generic club music, which puts me at odds with 80% of the dancing population.

    the best party i ever organized/attended was the 50th Anniversary Enchantment Under the Sea Dance on November 12, 2005. other great themes i’ve been a party to include:
    -Surprise Bar Mitzvah
    -Retrofuture World’s Faire
    -Drunken Art

  5. C November 2, 2008 at 12:58 am #

    Just finished hosting a party gone sour. I’m not sure what went wrong… I think maybe it was my choice of people. I’d been to parties with each group of people before, but never mixed all the groups. I think they just didn’t blend well and that’s how things got out of hand (it was supposed to be a quiet affair).

  6. Cracka August 10, 2009 at 3:14 am #

    If you do the same thing for over an hour, things tend to lose momentum and a party can die. People arriving or coming and going throughout the night, plus meeting new people and changing the mood of the party if often helpful.

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