Montreal, December 8, 2001  /  No 94  
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville, Quebec.
by Ralph Maddocks
          The older I grow, a regrettable annual and routine event, the shorter the years seem to become and suddenly the feast of Christmas is upon us once again. This year there is to be no general theme for the Christmas edition of Le Québécois Libre. So because this is the season for parties, this chronicler has eschewed the opportunity to write about political parties and their liberticidal activities. It being quite another kind of party which retains my interest. 
          For those of us who enjoy a good time, this is the time of year to pull out our diaries or organizers and fill in all those spaces which have been blank for the last eleven and a half months. We are now able to pore over it and announce that this or that party invitation must be rejected because of a prior engagement. How pleasing it is to be able to decline an invitation with the excuse that the guy who fixes your refrigerator is supposed to come over. How satisfying to feel that everything in your life is so organised and that for once in your life you are in control.  
          Finally, we are at liberty to telephone our friends and invite them over for a pizza and a few beers. We can invite them to catch up on the activities and the latest gossip about other mutual friends, talk about books and films or even about the latest acts of political chicanery. This kind of exchange is largely an impossible task at big parties because they are invariably full of people that you don't know and have never met before. Strangers with whom you have little or nothing in common. Anyway, the music is usually far too loud to hear what people are saying, even if you did know everyone there. At these large parties, for most of the time everyone seems to be moving around aimlessly; perhaps searching to see if some really important person has been invited. Or then again, it may be to make sure that no one really important has been invited. In my own experience, the people that we see on television or in the newspapers are usually much shorter and a great deal less attractive when viewed at close quarters. Far better to retain our illusions. 
          Towards the conclusion of Scene III in Act II of Shakespeare's famous play "As you like it," Jaques, one of the Lords attending the Duke in his banishment, speaks of the seven ages of man. He declaims, "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages." 
          One can compare Jaques' seven ages to the different kinds of party we attend as we wend our way through life. All we have to do is to substitute the word party for stage and, in this age of political correctness, substitute the gender neutral word partygoer for player and you can begin. 
Scene by scene party 
          "At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms": Most likely this is the last time in any partygoer's life when the "mewling and puking" hasn't been brought on by too much injudicious drinking. We tell our children that these are the happiest times of their lives but they do not believe us. This is because they haven't realised yet that this is probably the last time in their lifetimes when they will experience perfect happiness, before they throw up. It is the last time that this experience will cost so little. A bag or two of potato chips, a few bowls of ice-cream and several chunks of sugary cream cake and the result can almost be guaranteed. 
          "And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel." In spite of his many insecurities this is the age when the young adolescent is most anxious to attend parties. It is an age when the hormones are bursting forth like a volcanic eruption, looking for ways to express themselves. It is an age when the young male hopes that his adolescent male friends will mistake his long absence – actually throwing up after imbibing all that home-brewed liquid – as evidence that he has finally managed to persuade that girl from the local high school to accept his advances – under that pile of clothes in the bedroom. It is an age when the young female first succumbs to the combined pressures of her hormones and the liquid refreshment provided. 
          "Then the lover, sighing like a furnace": On reaching the early twenties, both sexes are more than willing to go to parties, mainly because Nature is still impelling them onward to find a mate. It is also because they hope to hold in their clammy little hands something more exciting than a soggy piece of pizza. It is at this time too that males tend to fantasize about the women with whom they are most unlikely to enjoy success. An early and primitive form of contraception no doubt. 
     « On reaching the early twenties, both sexes are more than willing to go to parties, mainly because Nature is still impelling them onward to find a mate. It is also because they hope to hold in their clammy little hands something more exciting than a soggy piece of pizza. »
          "Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard.": Reaching their thirties, our partygoers enter a totally new stage of party going. Having found a partner, that they hope they will remain with for the rest of their lives, they go only to those parties held by close friends or their families. This is the dinner party stage where the host finds him or herself spending endless hours looking through cookbooks, seeking a recipe that doesn't need fresh Coriander, Jicama and Radicchio. All served together in a dish accompanied by a vintage wine. In desperation they wind up making the same old dishes that they have been making and serving for the last decade. Meat Loaf or Roast Beef served with some Chateau Under Seven Dollars from the local supermarket. 
          "And then the justice . . . full of wise saws and modern instances": Once they reach their forties, virtually the only reason that our partygoers attend parties is that one or more of their offsprings needs conveying to or collecting from some teenage birthday or Christmas party. Unless, that is, they are recently divorced and are again licensed to restart the process of making the rounds again. The energy they are able to devote to this activity very probably depends on how much they collected, or surrendered, when they last passed Go. 
          "The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon.": Embarking upon their fifth and sixth decades, with physical qualities beginning to fail, our protagonists attend only each other's family events; wedding anniversaries, golf club dinners and retirement parties and such. They very rarely party much at home any longer. This is an age group that prefers to spend its winters in warmer climes. In all probability so that they can fritter away all of their money in retaliation for one or more of their children having crossed them in some way. Sometimes they may have even disagreed with their children, most probably about letting their teenage grandchildren go to parties. Wisdom is indeed the product of age and experience. 
          "Last scene of all . . . Is second childishness . . . Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything": In the final stages of our lives people take an interest in and like to party again because, as Shakespeare points out, they have reached their second childhood. Very often though they are much too fragile to drive themselves around and they need chauffeuring by some younger relative. In common with those of the first age they too are often messy eaters. They are anxious to get out and about because they want to show off their new hip or knee joint, or display the scars from their latest life saving operation. At this stage of life it becomes very important to show one's peers that one is still very much alive. So much so in fact that these parties tend to become a parade for survivors. 
          With the various parties coming to an end, and the event itself now only a few days away, the last minute frenzy of hunting for suitable presents begins. Somehow, I always seem to be racing around the department stores on the eve of this popular feast. When I was working or travelling, I consoled myself with the thought that all this hectic activity was due to my being too busy earning a living. Nowadays, no longer having this excuse, I still find myself spending Christmas Eve racing around at the last minute looking for those presents which will, I hope, delight or at least please the recipients.  
From present to gift 
          As one grows older, this present choosing business becomes more and more difficult; one's spouse already seeming to have as much jewelry as can be found on the average department store's jewelry counter. Finding an original piece is difficult, after all who wants to run the risk of duplication? Anyway, what is the critical mass when it comes to earrings or necklaces? What about rings? I don't know anyone with more than eight or so useable ring fingers. Although, upon further reflection, I have seen them on all digits of each hand on some South American women, and even in some parts of this country the phenomenon is not unknown. Clothes? Only the boldest among us dare venture into this territory. Confronting the lingerie saleslady is a much more courageous act than most of us can manage. The mere thought of answering questions about size or colour preference is enough to send most males, including this chronicler, slinking away with rapidly reddening face. It would seem that a similar problem exists among the fairer sex, judging from the appallingly garish neckwear sported by their partners after Christmas. 
          It seems to me that Christmas becomes more and more commercialized each year, with seductive advertisements appearing on our television sets as early as September. This commercialization has not only destroyed the meaning of the feast, it has also managed to eliminate the word present and substituted the synonym gift. A present used to be something that one gave in the devout hope that it would fill a need or meet an expectation. Gifts are those things you find in Gift Shops. During recent decades, Canada, and more so our neighbour to the south, has been witness to a veritable epidemic of Gift shops. Often coyly described as « Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe », they are to be found in great abundance in frequently visited tourist areas and even in many places which most definitely do not fit that description. 
          Characteristically, they carry an astonishing variety of imported, usually tasteless and often poor quality novelty items. We have all seen those Eastern imitations of European porcelain figurines – there are more slant-eyed porcelain shepherdesses in this country than there are sheep – and there are wall plaques eulogizing various parental figures, key chains that break when you attach the first key, luminous toilet seats, battery operated musical toilet paper dispensers and hundreds of other objects sharing similar deficiencies of taste. A price card bearing the price prefixed by the word « only » is always a clear indication that the phrase « let the buyer beware » should be borne in mind when entering these places of commerce.  
          Another objection to such emporia is that they usually carry those dreadful, so-called Executive toys. You know what I am writing about, the ones with flashing lights or suspended steel balls which strike each other with irritating clicking sounds. These are objects which no self respecting executive would ever dare to put on his desk, if for no other reason than fear of the scornful mirth of his secretary. They may explain also why depressed stockbrokers hurl themselves from tall buildings. 
          A present needs to be chosen with great care to suit the personality and perceived needs of the recipient, not the donor. How often have you witnessed the flushed face of a relative and heard the insincere thanks, stammered through clenched teeth: « Oh, it's a battery operated tooth flosser. . . and made in Botswana too! Just what I have always wanted! ». 
          Whichever age you have reached, I wish you happy party-going and a Very Happy Christmas. 
Previous articles by Ralph Maddocks
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