The age guessing game

I’m not good at dinner. Nor am I good at parties. You can imagine how awkward it is for me when those two things are combined. That’s right, that most civilized of social pursuits, the ‘dinner party’, is generally a source of discomfort and embarrassment for your friend Arthur.This might seem odd to many. After all, dinner parties are supposed to be full of interesting and successful people. Such people, moreover, probably converse in tones that both sparkle with witty intelligence, and touch on a range of important global issues. “Miss Stringdasherié,” asks the generic dinner party guest, “what say you to the plight of the recalcitrant poor?” Indeed, perhaps the label ‘dinner party’ conjures up an image that looks something like this:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I wish that this were the case for me. No, for me the ‘dinner party’ fills my mind with images (often borne out in the reality) more like this one:


Source: Wikimedia Commons


Incidentally, the partial title of this picture is ‘a dinner party is interrupted by the appearance of death …’. Not so incidentally, this is sometimes how my own appearance at dinner parties comes to be described later.

Some might wonder why I attend dinner parties at all, especially given my less that sanguine feelings about them. There is no easy answer, or set of answers, for this. I can give some decent rationalizations, though, and these are threefold in nature. Firstly, I am always perennially worried that if I refuse invitations, pretty soon I’ll find that I don’t get any invitations for anything … ever. This would leave me with nothing much to do, except maybe blog with nothing to really blog about. (Although I guess, at a push, I could always write about that really great sandwich I had for lunch.)

Secondly, I am either an optimist, or just not very clever. With every fresh invitation I reassure myself that “surely the last party was just a ‘one off’ in string of ‘one offs’; things are bound to go differently this time.” Having repeated this mantra several times in front of the mirror, I polish up my naivety and trundle off with a nice bottle of wine.

Finally, whatever the outcome of such soirees, I am always provided with days of semi-intellectual amusement afterwards. For the most part, this takes the form of trying to figure out what I should have said but didn’t, or what I did say but shouldn’t have. (The latter normally ends up in my uncovering of the crucial moment where things ‘took a turn for the worst’.) But sometimes the experience is so strange that I have to engage in something close to analysis, just to figure out what it was that actually happened. As regards this last, I should probably provide an example by way of illustration.

As luck would have it, I attended a dinner party of the ‘what just happened?’ variety not so long ago. Unfortunately, it was not attended by the brilliant and charming Miss Stringdasherié, whose absence was acutely lamented. Including the hostess and her husband, there were twelve attendees, with myself to make up the ‘baker’s dozen’ (that is, six couples and myself). At the beginning, the conversation consisted of all the normal social niceties, “what a lovely garlic bread,” or “… yes I picked up that particular vase at a small shop in Morocco.” But, still, I could not but help notice the faint ringing of an alarm bell in my head. Not so much indicating the calm before the storm, as it were, but more highlighting the retreating waterline before a Tsunami. And then it happened, the ‘turn’.

“How old do you think I am Arthur?”

The question had come from a woman, seated opposite me, who looked to be in her mid-twenties. I did a quick calculation, subtracted a year, and gave that answer.

“That’s amazing,” she exclaimed, “you only guessed too low by about three years. Now, let me see If I can guess your age. Oh, don’t look so concerned, it will be fun. Let’s see …? I would guess that you are about ….”

She then promptly guessed an answer a full 15 years older than my actual age, which I then felt mysteriously compelled to reveal.

“I am sorry,” she responded, “it’s just that you do look so very old. I even thought you were retired or something, since you don’t seem to really do very much.”

“That’s what I thought too,” the man sitting next to her contributed helpfully. “Have you considered using, I don’t know, a stronger sun-block?”

And they were off, with absolutely every guest providing helpful suggestions on my appearance, reaffirming the truth of my very haggard and elderly look, and commenting on my lack of success in life. At a certain point I looked to the hostess, with what I hoped was a silent plea for assistance, only to view a countenance looking both amused and proud. No help there, then.

Thus far, things were progressing very much in a accordance with my usual experience. I was even preparing myself for the round of ‘what I should have said’ reflections to come later. This is when the strangeness manifested.

Seemingly without any warning at all, one of the guests turned to another and said:

“No offense James, but did you know that you are completely bald?”

“I did know that,” he replied, “but Mavis, did you know that shade of lipstick gives your skin the pallor of a four day old corpse? No offense intended.”

With that, they were off again. This time, however, the focus was entirely on each other. Questionable and insulting questions were fired across the table like so many tactical missiles. Each was met and replied to with further, and much more insulting, questions. There was, so it seemed to me, a feverish escalation of offensive ‘no offense’ conversation. All this was accompanied by the star-like beaming of our hostess, and punctuated by hysterical high pitched giggling from all the men. And this went on way past the small hours of the morning.

Strange, no? I mean, what was that? What was it that happened there? Seriously, what the [censored]? Then it hit me, I’d seen this before, although in a different context, and one not nearly so extreme or multifaceted. I had been ‘life-trolled’, and with some elegance too.

I have touched on the subject of ‘life-trolls’ previously, so I won’t rehearse this again here. In any event, most of my former run-ins with this category of person had been more of the ‘one on one’ variety. What I had found myself in the middle of in this case was a setting most elusive. I, with no foresight on my part, had been invited to dinner with a life-troll ‘Oven’ (this is much like a Coven of witches – to whom life-trolls are distant cousins – but much hotter).

The pairings of the guests, I came to understand, was not that of husband and husband, or wife and wife, or some other culturally conventional relationship of that kind. Instead, these were pairings of the teacher and apprentice type. The instigation of the ‘age guessing game’ had been delivered by a teacher, and then supported by the man who was her apprentice. And this had been the consistent pattern for all the ‘life-trolling’ aimed in my direction. As the ‘thirteenth guest’, my role had been that of a ‘learning opportunity’. Although, this was not the only reason for my invitation.

I was also the ‘warm up’, and was used in much the same way that butchers use an iron to sharpen their knives before carving meat. I’d be upset about this, if it weren’t for the fact that it afforded me a glimpse into a normally hidden facet of ‘life-troll’ cultural practice. I had been a witness to ‘meta-life-trolling’: the practice of ‘trolling’ other ‘trolls’.

Meta-life-trolling is something that can only happen in the presence of the ‘Grand-Master-Life-Troll’ (GMLT) of the ‘Oven’. (In my case, this was the party’s hostess, which explains why she was no help to me at all.) ‘Meta-trolling’ performs several key functions within life-troll society, one of these being that it allows members to demonstrate their skill, and thus affirm their right to be part of the Oven. It also reaffirms social connection within the group, which is why there was so much high pitched giggling. In addition, it provides opportunities to advance in rank, or even to Oven leadership. If you can ‘out-troll the troll’ above you in the hierarchy, you automatically take their position. This, therefore, is the primary way in which life-troll politics works (which probably doesn’t seem that different from the way it works for the rest of us, really).

This, then, is the substance of my analysis for that particular dinner party. If there is any conclusion, or moral, to be drawn from this anecdote, it comes in the form of some unsolicited advice. If you should find yourself being invited to play the ‘age guessing game’, you should probably get in the first ‘troll’. You know, just in case.

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