about table settings & 2022
Maybe one of the best bits of a ‘royal’ drama — the made-up kind like Netflix’s The Crown, Larraín’s Spencer and especially Coppola’s Marie Antoinette — are the place settings. The scenes of white gloves on silverware; tables that stretch over entire rooms. Elaborate, excessive, neatly-placed glassware. Heavy table cloths. Layered plates for layered hours of indulgence; menus planned with scalpel precision. In real life, it’s just a big fuck you to like, 98% of society. Disparity in the form of tiny forks forged and finessed for one perfect, ephemeral bite. Still, I’m enthralled by it in made-up form. And I’m convinced that it’s in the circus-try of banquet-style prep and polished cutlery that makes what might otherwise be pretty average stories of love and loss and family politics (and politics-politics) sparkle.
A lot of us do our own place settings around this time of year because we want to make sure that our dinner parties and roast dinners are elevated beyond the everyday. This is not just - a day - it’s Christmas Day. It’s not - an eve - it’s New Year’s Eve. And of course, you don’t need to be a royal, or a made-up one, to make a table feel a bit fancy.
Me? I’ve smashed (not on purpose) every single wine glass I’ve ever owned. I’ve also kept an art-deco-style set of pink-tinted prosecco glasses unbroken, for two years, because I’ve used them something like four times. I love these glasses. They’re cheap and pretty and magic-making; they only clink to commemorate a newly-formed memory. They clink to click, like a camera, on a moment worth saving.
Place settings are also placeholders. Even without name cards or table plans, we’ll gravitate to the place, the seat, that is our own. Next, or-across-to, the best time or the closest ally; a strategic few seats down from an awkward chat. A set table is haunted by Guests of Parties Future. The cutlery and glassware sits in lieu of conversation; it saves space for drawn out stories and laughter, hot dishes passed between hands and gravy spills. It’s not always, or even often, the feel-good fun we want it to be; but a set table is optimistic. It is a postcard of a perfect couple of hours, before the squeaking reality of chairs being pulled from underneath.
But a set table is also fleeting; its dismantling is preordained. A successful set table will end in ruin and be abandoned for the kitchen or the living room. For cosier spaces and warmer connections, and sofas. Later that evening, or the following day, the plates get washed and the nice glasses are all put away and we get back to living our everyday again. Routines. Meals that require a single plate. Because if we don’t, then the power of the place setting weakens and also, we’re tired of washing up.
It’s that week where everyone says they don’t know what day it is; what writer Helena Fitzgerald calls the Dead Week, “a time when nothing counts, and when nothing is quite real.” A rare, sleepy, needed few days of “communal pause”. Most years I actually love this week, because I can watch 17 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy over three days and exist under the illusion that absolutely no one can judge me. Except that the limitlessness of just how weird this decade can get is unnerving. And it all keeps changing, still. I was supposed to be in Canada, again; and now I’m not in Canada, again. Which isn’t so bad, if I zoom out Google Earth size to The Big Picture.
But 2022 is just two days away; and the expansive repetitiveness of this week, this year, of last year — of continued, fixed uncertainty — makes my brain feel like it’s gravitated far away from the horizontal body through which I watch Meredith weep, over and over again, about McDreamy. It’s somewhere else; maybe space. And not the good space where you can observe Earth like a martian, but the darker part of space; the oppressive, drowning deep sea one, where you can’t even bring a flashlight to enjoy all the translucent, neon monsters floating on by.
This week, to me, feels like a placeholder for the 51 weeks to come; but also a placeholder for the week it should have been. And the year it could have been and our collective dreams for today, tomorrow, next year. The clinking of newborn memories we all planned for, and continue to plan for, despite it feeling like the days are being filed away into dusty office cabinets. What we can do, in spite of it, is to keep setting the table with the fancy glasses; hopeful for an evening that ends in runny camembert and happy ruins. Hopeful that it happens at all.
Recommended read: Helena Fitzgerald’s essay for The Atlantic “In Praise of The Dead Week”. She also publishes work through her legendary newsletter, Griefbacon! I especially love her writing on parties.
Recommended listen: Biffy Clyro, but esp. Hunger in Your Haunt.
Oh and this week I have been reading novels by Sayaka Murata; Convenience Store Woman was so deadpan and fun. Earthlings made me impressively nauseous throughout & I could not put it down.
Hey! Thanks for reading. I know it’s very intermittent and mostly weird. But thanks anyway.
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