THE KEY TO enjoying yourself at a party is learning how to mingle, which is essentially the art of making vapid conversation while raking a cracker through the onion dip.
Let me say this about mingling: It is not as easy as it sounds.
Mingling with one's own family and friends is trying enough, but mingling with strangers can be an absolutely hellish experience, particularly if the room is dominated (as it was at one memorable party I attended) by men and women with shaved heads and flowing saffron robes just back from working the main terminal at O'Hare airport.
(Just try mingling with people like that. I get a migraine thinking about it.)
Upon first arriving at the party, there is an initial moment of awkwardness as the other guests size you up to determine whether you're the pizza delivery guy, a street person the host has taken in for a few days or (the worst-case scenario) someone trying to sell them insurance.
This probably goes without saying, but remember to dress appropriately. If, for instance, the other guests are wearing casual evening attire and you arrive in combat fatigues, greasepaint and a duffel bag which you nervously clutch to your chest, it might make mingling that much more difficult, as the other guests would soon be edging toward the exits while citing vague problems with baby-sitters.
Anyway, once in the door, it's time to grab a drink and a handful of cocktail peanuts and mingle. Strike up a conversation with the first person you see, perhaps by breaking the ice with a compliment such as: "You don't see many ties with little sailboats anymore . . ."
Usually it's best to focus the conversation away from yourself, although if pressed, you might touch briefly on your own interests ("Me? Oh, I like to make papier-mache busts of Ellen Burstyn and talk to them.") and career ("Yeah, I did some time. Bitter? I guess. Hell, they dragged that river for days and never even found a corpse. . . . ")
(If the person you're talking to brings up the subject of insurance, however, don't be afraid to toss your drink in his face.
(Insurance salesmen are used to this sort of shabby treatment. Chances are he'll simply wipe the margarita from his face and corner another guest with a breezy observation such as: "Y'know, they say you can never have TOO MUCH insurance . . .")
Above all, avoid discussing controversial subjects, such as politics, religion and your firm conviction (gleaned while thumbing through a recent "People" magazine at the dentist's office) that only a sick individual wears fur these days.
Stick instead to "safe" topics, such as your gastritis, Oprah's continuing diet woes and the exact wording of the theme song from "Gilligan's Island."
A word or two about alcohol. Many people like to have a few drinks at a party in order to "loosen up."
This is all well and good, although sure signs that you've loosened up a bit TOO much include baying at the moon and tearfully recounting your suspicion that you were raised by wolves.
Another warning sign that you've had enough: You find yourself insisting (in a slurred but oddly resonant voice) that everyone do the Hokey-Pokey.
This is usually enough to prompt even the most tolerant host or hostess to grab you by the elbow and quietly (but firmly) ask you to leave.
Alcohol can also strain a conversation if, for example, the person you're talking to is standing upright and you're slumped awkwardly under the pool table. Know when to say when. And remember, it should be long before you find yourself using a mop handle as a microphone while belting out: "You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out . . ."
Finally, a word about flirting at parties. Flirting, in and of itself, is a harmless pastime enjoyed by members of both sexes. However, the repercussions can be especially troublesome if you're a man who has left his wife in the company of, say, an octogenarian wearing a fez while you chat up the stunning blonde near the punch bowl.
Sometime later, perhaps on the ride home, your wife says: "I saw you looking at her all night."
And you say: "Looking at who?"
And she says: "That . . . woman."
And you say: "Margaret? Margaret's my buddy."
And she says: "Yes, you two seemed awfully chummy."
And you say: "What's that mean?"
Hoo, boy. You can almost hear the bell for Round 1.
And they wonder why you drink.