Tuesday, July 12, 2005

An Evening Out

The invitation came as a postcard in the mail, from a woman, L__, who I knew from church. Because she lives right down the street and because I like her, I RSVP'd that I'd come. My desire to be social and get to know other women here overcame my aversion to these parties that's made me avoid all other similar invitations in the past. But on Friday evening, the night of the party, I began to feel apprehensive about going. I wanted to call and plead sick; I knew it wouldn't matter if I didn't show; I wanted to stay at home with Blain and the children something fierce. I pulled my keys out of my purse and shuddered: I had a premonition of how awful it was going to be.

The party started at 7 pm, and I pulled up across the street and walked in about 10 minutes after 7. The first thing that hit me was the overpowering scent of highly-perfumed candles. And background music that was up too loud--Christmas music of the annoying sort. L___ offered me some fresh-pressed apple juice, which was very good and made me like her even more. There were three other women there besides L___and the woman selling the stuff, C___, and I was introduced briefly.

As soon as I sat down and turned my attention to the display C___ had set up in the living room--cast iron plant stands with silk greenery and flowers mixed with candles ("you could go with just the ivy for a sparse look, or nestle in some rose sprays for a real lush look--it's just so versatile!"), company-artist produced framed artwork of cowboys riding into the twilight or angels with wings, and decorated stoneware that managed to be frilly and gaudy, I knew it would be a disaster. I was surrounded by the worst kind of materialism-inducing, taste-killing junk available. I couldn't believe how the women around me were fawning over this stuff, to the exclusion of conversation. I listened, thinking of how to ask them about themselves, and couldn't find a segue amidst the discussion of candle scents and christmas mugs. Admittedly, I am quiet in groups as a rule, but this setting completely cowed me.

And I felt slightly embarrassed for C___, who I knew from church. She was fully immersed in her sales persona and launched into her spiel a couple of minutes after I sat down. She took out a key and scratched furiously at a pine-branch decal on the side of a bowl, showing us that this stuff was real quality, that we wouldn't scratch the surface if we wanted to use knives on it. It reminded me of the show the Nogales shopkeepers put on with their lighters and lamb-skin coats. C__'s main tactic was telling us how much she hadn't liked the catalog picture of various items, but once she had actually seen them and used them in her home, she had completely relented and been converted.

As I looked through the catalog (at first disdainfully, trying to hide my lack of enthusiasm, then with desperation, trying to find any samll thing I could order so I could just get out of there), I saw the testimonials of various saleswomen. Several of them referred to the company in religious terms, saying the Lord had led them to it and it was a blessing from God to be a sales rep for the company, etc. I felt like this was another layer of manipulation in this whole set-up night of manipulation. First, I felt some obligation to come because I was a friend to L___. Second, C___said she was trying to make this business work so she wouldn't have to work outside her home during the day (allowing her to be with her kids). Third, the company orchestrates its offerings so that most of the merchandise is discontinued after 6 months--so partygoers will feel pressured to buy now. I really dislike that tactic. It goes against the sensibility of good craftsmanship and pride in product.

So I wracked my brain, trying to come up with someone that I still needed to get a Christmas gift for. But no! There really wasn't, and the only items that were inexpensive enough to be go-along gifts were the candles. But these candles weren't beautiful--they were jarred candles, meant to make your home highly scented. Why would I give a gift that would give me a headache if they used it?

As the evening wore on, I felt more and more uncomfortable. Another guest arrived, very late, and C__ repeated some of her sales pitch, adding to my sense of embarrassment for her. All of the other women seemed to think that this stuff was the most beautiful, well-made, reasonably-priced stuff they'd ever seen. I couldn't figure out if they were just being nice (and acting very convincingly), or if they were shopping deprived, as C__pointed out in the beginning of her spiel.
The other women seemed to have a great bonding moment as one told how her husband had just bought two new fishing rods, "So I can spend at least $50 tonight and he can't say a word!" "Yeah, I'm entitled to pursue my passion, too!" someone else said.

I began to formulate a plan for leaving. I was really nervous about just standing up and saying, "Thank you. Good bye, I really have to go now," because I'd been largely silent, unable to force enthusiasm or the pretense of liking this stuff. I wondered if C__ knew I hated it all, and I wished she could just drop her sales persona for one minute and say, "This might not be your style. I won't be offended, I'm just glad L__ invited you tonight" etc.
But it wasn't like that at all. In the end, I left in exactly the way that I had been afraid of doing, saying nothing about the company's offerings, simply thanking C___ and L___, and saying I needed to get going. When I got out to the car, I felt relief and bewilderment and disappointment--in these women, and in myself. Folklife is everywhere, and the folklorist who is a prideful snob will be blind to most of what she wants to notice.

How could I be so put off by a simple difference in taste? Why were the women so ga-ga over this stuff? Is this how all these parties are, or does being an hour and a half from any store except Wal-Mart have a profound effect on women who like shopping, who like acquiring things? Over and over, I saw a strong polarization of gender as a way of reinforcing who they were. References to husbands were inevitably negative ("It's nice to get out of the house, away from my husband for a night", "My husband will kill me if I order this, but I'm going to anyway.") It seemed to me that the very frills and flutings on the stoneware serving platters were designed for these women. Perhaps they were simply vocally appreciating the theme, which was a mixture of western and feminine design. Hardy and delicate together. Like a bouquet arranged in an old boot. Like these rural women.

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