I have a binder full of parties. It may not be as plentiful as Mitt Romney’s binders full of women (remember that?)—but extra points, please, for color-coding, elaborate labels, pre-party timelines and checklists, guest lists, menus and complementary wine selections, notes on table settings, a nebulous category called “inventory,” and post-party observations on what to do differently next time. There are lunch, brunch, and dinner parties, cocktail parties, barbecues, housewarmings, milestone celebrations, and a standalone section for New Year’s Day. Please note that I have not thrown this many actual parties, and the ones that I have were far less elaborate and well-coordinated than this level of detail suggests. But for a certain personality type, the binder is the party. And that, in my party-throwing heyday, was me.
When I looked at this record of past parties recently, in preparation for a cluster of holiday meals, most of what I read was vaguely panic-inducing. But I took great comfort in the post-event commentary—what you might call the Regrets Section. From Christmas Dinner 2011: “Next year: enough (and right size) tablecloths, iron them, enough chairs, figure out tables in advance.” From Thanksgiving Dinner 2012: “Halve rutabaga recipe.” From a winter dinner party in 2013: “Starting at 7 works well. Don’t do skirt steak on the grill again. BC can’t drink red wine if she expects to drink more than 2 drinks and wants to sleep.”
At least to me, these little bits give color to otherwise bland snapshots of parties past—a micro example of writer and self-proclaimed “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz’s premise in her 2010 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. In a November 2011 TED talk promoting the book, Schulz admitted to a past tendency to drink “our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time; that we should always look forward and not backward; and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.” She later came to embrace regret, and to insist that “if we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”
My favorite Regrets Section in the party binder comes from a long-ago New Year’s Day brunch and was penned not by me but my cohost. His post-event commentary was always far more literary and nuanced than mine—frequently peppered with gossip and minute personal details (who might be pregnant, who called at 4:30 p.m. to say he had just woken up, who brought a Protea plant). He wrote,
Next year: some sweets, maybe cornbread, video for kids, buy a small bag of ice. Mimosas. KIDPROOF and try to relax about it. Set EVERYTHING up two days before. Set up bar/table, glasses, silver, napkins, planters, chairs, pillows, bathroom. Cover couch for fear of children.
[Name redacted] broke a Champagne flute. And within 15 minutes of arrival had poured himself coffee, Champagne, and red wine. But, he brought red wine, figs, cheese, and donut holes!
In hindsight, I’m grateful to Name Redacted—and of course to the chronicler of his indelible party presence. Yes, I’m down one Champagne flute, but I’ve also got a permanent reminder that at parties as in life, what you break matters less than what you bring, and the spirit in which you bring it.
I thought about this yesterday as I was making cookies with my daughter (who clearly was not yet around for that aggressively kid-unfriendly New Year’s brunch of 2009). At one point as she mixed the dough with characteristic gusto, little pieces of it flew all over the kitchen counter. I quickly grabbed the bowl and said I’d take over for a while.
“I make one mistake, and lose my chance,” she grumbled. Not a lesson I wanted to reinforce. I gave her back the bowl.