THIS IS THE START of the holiday party season, that frightening time of year when many of us are forced to sip watery eggnog and mingle in stuffy wood-paneled basements adorned with velvet Elvis paintings while a scratchy rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" plays maddeningly in the background.
Sadly, in this era of the New Sobriety, holiday parties tend to be fairly tame affairs.
Gone are the wonderful parties where drunks reeled about spouting gibberish, your tipsy neighbor would brush against the chafing dish and set her dress on fire, and at least one couple feverishly groped under the coats in the upstairs bedroom.
In fact, if you attempt to have a good time by drinking, eating or (God forbid) smoking with gusto at a party today, a member of the Health Gestapo will no doubt tap you on the shoulder and politely (but firmly) remind you that your behavior is incredibly self-destructive -- and that you would be far better off with a bottle of Evian and something from the fresh vegetable tray.
Unfortunately, there is rarely a broom handle nearby with which to deliver a crisp whack across the knees of this person.
So what I do is quickly reach for the fireplace poker and jab the person sharply in the stomach, making it clear that his or her views on non-alcoholic beverages and low-calorie snacks are not compatible with my own.
(Don't be afraid to brandish the fireplace poker for the rest of the evening, either. Not only will it help discourage boring conversations, but it can also be used to poke any cats that wander too close.)
In any event, here are a few recommendations for the holiday host and hostess:
* Here is my feeling on mistletoe. If you have to put it up, for God's sake, let's not make a big deal about it. And let's not start with that kissing nonsense if someone steps under it, either. Please. Don't make me use this poker again.
* A personal aside to the inevitable dieter at the party: No one wants to hear about it, OK? No one wants to hear a lot of whining about how you're blowing your diet and will probably hate yourself in the morning. Hey, I'm starting to hate you right now. If you can't handle all the food, go lock yourself in the hall closet until this is over. We'll knock on the door when it's time to clean up.
* Please (and I'm down on my knees now) no tiny paper plates for the food. This is a real pet peeve of mine. Instead of those miniature plates designed for the Keebler Elves, let's break out some plates that an adult would use. That way your guests can help themselves to more than one meatball at a time without resorting to putting the rest in their pockets, the way I do.
* Speaking of meatballs, not everybody in the world is watching their weight, OK? Honestly, I have been at parties where the spread looks like something served in a cell on Devil's Island. So in addition to the carrots, celery sticks, bean sprouts, etc., don't be afraid to lay out real food: Buffalo wings, taco dips, mozzarella sticks, the whole song and dance.
Sure, you'll probably have a half-dozen people keel over in the driveway from arterial blockage, but at least they'll check out with smiles on their faces.
* Let's take it easy with the Christmas music. I can't stress this enough. After listening over and over and over again to "The Twelve Days of Christmas," many people develop a painful throbbing in their temples. Others become so disoriented that they will stagger outside, take off their clothes and lie in the middle of the street.
* Even worse are those parties when the hostess suddenly gets a crazed look in her eyes and chirps: "Hey-y-y-y, everybody! I've got an idea! Let's all sing Christmas carols!"
Hoo, boy. Next thing you know, she's herding everyone in front of the piano to sing "Frosty the Snowman" or some equally sappy tune. From there the party degenerates until it resembles a Perry Como Family Christmas on mescaline.
(It goes without saying this is another reason to keep the fireplace poker handy.)
* Know when to bow out of a conversation. If you're talking to someone and his eyes start to close and his chin begins to droop until -- BANG! -- his head smashes into the coffee table, it is a fairly safe bet that this person is tiring of the conversation.
Even with words, know when to say when.