At 4 PM, it was just the three of us, me and Jane and our one guest, Judith. We all know each other through the Menlo Park Chorus. And it was nice to have her there, Judith. It was also nice when my landlord Tom, wandered in from his upstairs apartment. It was very nice. It was also very scary, because the table was loaded. The board groaning, as it were. I had bought enough champagne to keep much of the county bubbly for a considerable period, sucked Trader Joe’s dry of juice drinks, cheeses and smoked salmon. And this was it? Some party. Of course, with a starting time of 4 PM, perhaps one shouldn’t draw too rigorous a judgment at 4:10 PM. After all, this was a drop-in affair, any time until 7 PM, and I had even forgot to request an RSVP. So who knew? Suppose one had a book party and no one came?
Well, there would be lots of food…left over. Some to be composted, doubtless. I kept nervously glancing at my watch. Then I saw a a couple from my congregation. More chorus members. A neighbor. Then some friends. Mishpoke arriving from Marin. And now…. Well, there is that feeling of falling behind in the greeting and acknowledging of people. Thank you for the flowers. Thank you for the wine. Thank you for coming. Thank you for existing. The latter without an ounce of irony, for I am existing too, and that is the strangest thing. When one considers the initial odds, say, four and a half decades ago when my current saga began. And the damnedest thing, I really don’t have to do anything. The book is written, after all. It is even on the shelf at the local bookstore. This is the part where I just turn up.
Under advice of my publicist, and I admit I need advice, there will be readings at this party, that much preestablished. Jane now asks if I would like her to get the attention of the multitudes. She asked this earlier, maybe twenty minutes ago, or was it half an hour? Hard to say. Also hard to say where people are going to sit. There is no more sitting space, that is the thing. The apartment is full. The apartment is very full. The apartment is now full in the way the Marx Brothers stateroom is full in Night at the Opera. People seem to wander up the wheelchair ramp and through the front door and stand looking puzzled. Standing is really the only option, for…where did these people come from? I invited them, that is true.
But here is Robin, and with his wife whom I have not seen in…could it be 15 years? She has brought a weeding tool. I don’t know what to do. She must be kidding, based on a little joke in my e-mail invitation about weeding my garden. But, no, she is not. It is an actual gift. And as I look at it, and she describes it, I see this is quite a wonderful thing. The blade at an angle, the very sort of thing for a quadriplegic farmer to drag through his soil. Tilling the earth much in the fashion of an actual plow. It is way cool, but she tells me that she sees it is designed for right-handed people. She wants to get the left version, and now there is a queue of people behind her all trying to say hello to me, get my attention, which they have in a way. So, artlessly, I change the subject, move on, in an effort to get them moving on. But there is nowhere for them to move to.
And incredibly, Arlon Hunt, a Berkeley physicist with very original ideas about generating solar power…someone I wrote about and wrote for decades ago…has just wandered in with his new wife. I could spend a day with him, but I don’t have a day. Actually, I have about 45 seconds, if I am to use time efficiently, or fairly, or whatever is called for here. Arlon tells me that he has tried to retire but failed. And for all the right reasons. The Google foundation is funding a solar demonstration project of his technology and he must stay on. I checked my watch.
What is called for is Jane. It is time, I decide, time to read from the book. The Book of Life is reading itself. It is holding forth quite admirably and saying everything, and saying it loud. I don’t know what comes next, that is the funny thing, and even funnier, I am not worrying. I am only worrying about Jane. She has disappeared. Although it is hard to say for sure, the reality hard to discern, for she could be a couple of meters away. Such are conditions in this, my apartment, a.k.a., suburbia’s Black Hole of Calcutta. There is no air, at least in this part of Menlo Park. I want to ask everyone in my apartment to stop breathing, but this would sound uncomfortably like one of those harangues from the director of the Menlo Park Chorus. I am getting desperate. I dispatch a friend in search.
Jane worms her way through the crowd, and I get the distinct impression that she would like to worm her way back. Back to the kitchen, where the air is still breathable. But no. Not without a chat. I ask her about the reading. Jane says that in terms of timing, now would make sense, except for the traffic flow. The Marx Brothers’ friends are now arriving, followed shortly by room service, I am certain. The the incoming flow includes a couple of Jane’s friends, people I have not seen in a while and find most delightful. Except that I can only intermittently find them, the shifting crowds being what they are. And now I have the belief, perhaps a religious belief, but it will have to do for the moment: start talking, and the whole thing will start settling down. I ask Jane to make an announcement.
Attention! Attention! Jane is used to doing this, presiding at many a church function, as she does. Good. I admit this part is not my thing. Asking for people’s attention. Maybe the next part isn’t my thing either, but never mind. We have shared the burden. That is what is important. Now the rest is up to me.
I don’t know what to say. Yes I do. I say what I feel – that I am delighted and grateful to have everyone in my apartment supporting me at this moment. I thank Jane for making all this happen…for it is true, she has urged me on repeatedly. I mention the people who have driven some distance…such as the Sierra foothills…and are turning up after several years of absence…and how wonderful it is. Then a little intro about the book, mostly saying how the very writing of it says something about my general increase of confidence and decrease of self-consciousness…adding a preplanned anecdote to illustrate. Which gets everyone laughing. Which, I decide, is how I want to leave them, if possible.
And so I start. Reading funny bits from the book. Then, because somehow it seems unavoidable, one serious bit about my shooting. After which the laughs stop, of course. And so I conclude with a funny bit. Lev Grossman’s blog has helped prepare me for all this. He is the book editor at Time magazine, an author in his own right and all around funny guy. Don’t worry about your autonomic nervous system, he advises, during author readings. And somehow I have managed to do exactly what he says. I don’t have to pee. I know that and I’m not worrying about it. The one thing that is essential, breathing, I am making sure happens. Funny thing about respiration and how it tends to go away under stress. But I know this. I have thought about it. I am prepared. Which is why I get to the end of the reading loud enough and clear enough to be heard.
Done. I am done. But the party is not. And, in fact, I know I am not done reading, either. For this was only the first shift. Slightly more than an hour later, one crowd has replaced another. I try to keep track of who has heard what. Never mind. I know this is something that I have not prepared for, but I refuse to let this undermine my spirits. Fuck it. Yes, I should have found more bits of the book to read. Instead, I just have a few – and will have to repeat some for the next performance. So what? It is more than an hour later when Jane gets everyone’s attention again, this time rapping on a champagne bottle. Just to be on the safe side, I point out that some people have attended the matinee and are staying on. Enough laughs ensue to reassure me, and I am off again.
This time without the passage about my shooting. Once is enough, I have decided. One shooting, one reading, in fact I shall try something new. Why not? I haven’t practiced this part about Gypsies in Gloucestershire. It doesn’t matter. That part works out okay too. At the end Jerry Nachman, writer and ex-newspaper columnist, reminds me to mention my appearances. It is customary, he tells me. It also feels slightly ludicrous, but who knows what this is about? I don’t waste a minute worrying about this either. The library in Menlo Park, Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto and an actual bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. Be there, I tell them, or be square.
At 6:45, it is a relief to be outside. I want to show someone the garden. But I really want to show myself that there is still air. There is. About eight people have gathered around the raised beds. I with them. I offer people spinach. It doesn’t matter. They like the spinach, but they didn’t come for that. I don’t even have to chat. I don’t have to do anything but enjoy.