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Party Animal

Here--in all their pure, unexpurgated horror--are the three ugliest words you can hear after you've accepted a dinner-party invitation:

"Grandma can't baby-sit."
If just reading that sentence didn't soak your shorts in cold sweat, you either don't have a four-year-old, your four-year-old doesn't have a grandma, or you're never invited to dinner parties. Because what those words mean is that you're going to have to take your kid with you. And what that means is that your evening and your reputation as a fun party guest are about to be destroyed.

By definition, dinner-party hosts don't like children and have none of their own. If they did, they'd be too tired and cranky to host dinner parties, and their homes would be too messy to let anyone past the front door. But when such folks request the pleasure of a mom and dad's company, their invitations traditionally conclude with,

" . . . Oh, yes, and your child is welcome to come along, too." All dinner-party hosts say this so they'll seem like thoughtful, accommodating human beings. The truth is, they don't want you to bring your kid any more than they want you to show up with the wild coyote you captured on your last camping trip.

They don't expect you to bring your pride and joy, either. Their offer is just one of those pleasant conversation-enders people always use but never mean, like "Let's do lunch" or "If you need help moving, give me a call" or "Honest, I really like your new hairdo. I really, really do."

You can hardly blame them. While children can provide an adult with fine company in a variety of settings, out in public is not among them.

Tell my son that he's going to a party and he'll squeal with delight. He'll squeal all the way to the car and all the way to our hosts' porch. His excitement level doesn't taper off until the door opens and our hosts say something rude or threatening, like "Well, hello there!" Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't--but when you most hope it won't happen, the boy will stare these strangers right in the eye and announce, "I don't like these people. I don't like this house. I want to go home."

On such occasions, parents often feel compelled to make up some excuse as to why the child they've always bragged about is behaving like an honor student from the Morton Downey Jr. School of Etiquette. A common fallback position is, "I don't know what's gotten into him. He never acts this way." But this tactic rarely works for a couple of reasons. One, the hosts know you're lying. Two, there will be another guest in attendance who has met your child before, and he or she will be happy to refresh your memory.

Here's what I always do in this situation. I take the party giver aside and whisper, "His dog just died." This always makes the boy seem more sensitive than monstrous. For a while.

Of course, all illusions shatter when the evening's bill of fare is trotted out: fresh-vegetable hors d'oeuvres, leek soup, spinach salad and eggplant parmigiana. In other words, the same menu offered at the McDonald's franchise in hell.

"I don't like this yucky food," my son will report.
"Oh, noooo! It's gooood," I will reply, suddenly and for no reason adopting the voice of an escaped mental patient. "Just take one bite and see! Yum, yum, yum! This is what bunny rabbits like to eat! Why don't you just pretend you're a bunny rabbit?"

"No! I don't like this food! I don't like these people! I don't like this house! I want to go home and eat hot dogs!"

As a last resort, I employ my oldest and most reliable threat: "If you don't eat your dinner, you won't get any dessert." I then turn to the hosts and ask, with pleading eyes, "Uh, we are having dessert, aren't we?"

"Oh, yes," he or she will respond. "I sure hope the little guy likes rhubarb pie!"

The odds of salvaging any portion of the evening are now equal to the odds of settling a gang war with an empty squirt gun. Still, I keep trying until the gala gathering mercifully begins to unravel, and I suggest to my son that farewell handshakes are in order.

"No!"
Well, then, can you at least say thank you?
"No!"
How about good-by?
"No!"

On the way home, there's some solace in knowing we'll never have to relive the scenario. Once word gets out, our popularity as party guests will rival that of convicted skunk molesters.

My son, of course, will be oblivious to the sudden, ninety-degree plummet of his family's social status.

"That was a fun party," he will say brightly from the back seat. "Can we go back there tomorrow night?"

While children can provide an adult with fine company in a variety of settings, out in public is not among them.

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Michael Burkett