Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlatanry made easy

Anyone can do it!

I recently attended a no-gift birthday party. (My favorite kind!) The celebrant did not want any presents, but asked instead that attendees bring “birthday cards that conform to local community standards.” I noticed that some of the guests construed those local community standards rather broadly—and hilariously—as we passed the cards around, spooning up ice cream as we read the cards and laughed at the punch lines.

Some of the cards were homemade, with inside jokes that had to be explained to the uninitiated. One of the homebrew cards, however, was more puzzling than the others. It passed from hand to hand while people pondered its obscure message. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to the author of the mystery card. He eagerly prompted me to try to figure out its obscure significance.

The card was decorated with photographs of several flags. Was it significant that all of the pictures included Old Glory? Did it mean something that the photographs had clearly been snapped right there in town by the card's creator? Did it matter that the flag in the picture of city hall was at half staff? (That one actually distracted me momentarily, especially since I had recently traveled to Sacramento to photograph the State Capitol flag flying at half staff in memory of a cousin killed in Iraq.) Meanwhile the brains behind the card was cheerfully prompting me and nearby guests to discern its hidden meaning.

Frankly, I just wanted him to keep quiet as I thought about it for a while. My solution was to pass the card to the next person and contemplate the matter in peace. It turned out I didn't have to think too hard. The hubbub continued around me and I heard the card creator's wife giving broad hints to other guests. In fact, she gave it all away and I heard her do so. Her husband was now focused on the current holder of the card and did not realize that his spouse had spilled all the beans. Instead of blurting out what I had heard, however, I bided my time.

The flags you see, are standards. The photos were taken in the neighborhood; that is, in the local community. The flags were therefore local community standards. This punctilious attention to the birthday boy's request would have been fairly funny if the joke had been left to ripen on its own. As it was, I don't think the punchline was robust enough to withstand the weight of our expectations. Pretty clever, though.

The card continued to circulate with the other birthday greetings, eventually coming back around to my vicinity. The card's creator homed in on the guest currently holding the card and was on pins and needles awaiting her solution of the puzzle. He had been sorely disappointed thus far and was almost vibrating with anticipation. I leaned forward and said to the card holder, “Think of synonyms for flags.”

The card's author looked up with a startled expression: “Oh, you did figure it out!”

I maintained my composure and offered a small, thin smile. He immediately concluded I had divined his intention all along and was merely holding out before revealing the gag. He had no idea I had overheard his wife's prompting of other guests.

Monstrous clever, I am.


Anonymous said...

How, how, HOW does one persuade people to not bring gifts to a NO-GIFT birthday party? Please ask your host and blog his/her answer! I'd love to use my birthday as an excuse to share cake and ice cream with my friends, but no amount of imploring will keep at least some of them from bringing gifts. With a few exceptions that friends don't tend to know about, I DON'T need more stuff; furthermore, they all have better things to spend their hard-earned cash on. AAAGGGHHH!!

Zeno said...

The ban on gifts at the party in question was not entirely successful, but the few gifts that did appear were handled discreetly. One couple brought a joke gift (an old mechanical calculator) that was left out on a table as a conversation piece. One guest brought a slender present that appeared to be a book; it quickly vanished into the host's valise, which was right next to the table where the birthday cards were being deposited. Finally, it looked like the host quietly palmed a gift certificate he found inside one of the birthday cards. (I didn't see any others.) The gifts were never mentioned, although everyone was chattering about the cards and the guests were polled regarding their favorites, which elicited rounds of applause for those who had brought them. If I were in the host's place, I would later thank the gift-givers privately, but with a mild admonishment: "Thank you, but you really shouldn't have."

As for me, I took only a card!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Zeno. Maybe if more of us were adamant about this, we could establish a tradition of no-gift parties for adults. How fun! I could inflict my favorite lasagna on a crowd! (The recipe, which I haven't succeeded in scaling down, makes enough to feed a small army.)

Anonymous said...

Regarding the real subject of your post, I wouldn't, even in a substantial chunk of geologic time, have associated "standard" with "flag". "Lanyard", maybe... though I once spent a night in a berthed sailboat, and "lanyard" has since meant "clanking annoyingly all night in a slight breeze" to me.