Feuilleton 4: Neighborhood game night
It’s also important for people to know that creativity is not just about being a singer or writer or painter; it’s about a person with imagination who is curious and filled with wonder. Perhaps it will take the form of giving a dinner party and making it special. [. . .] We don’t have to do traditional artwork to be creative. So I guess one suggestion I could give as a general overall possibility for everyone would be to make something to give away.
We started a neighborhood game night at my house. My wife and I made a bunch of flyers detailing the time and date—it will recur every month—and put in some pictures of games like backgammon or Monopoly to get people all hyped up, and then we walked through the neighborhood putting them in people’s mailboxes. The first game night was back in late September; the number of people who came was small but still reasonable, including a few neighbors. Most of the people who came were actually my own siblings—their role was similar to that of the people who get paid to sit in the front and clap during open mic nights at comedy clubs, I think. In general I would say it went well. I got thrashed at mancala by my six-year-old daughter. There was a good rockin’ game of Clue going on in the other room. At my house we play with the 2016 redesign of the game, with Dr. Orchid switched out for Mrs. White, but my wife’s parents also have the old version at their house—but, old or new, that game always gives me the vibe of being a board game version of Knives Out.
But here’s the rub: I don’t actually like games. I’m not very competitive, so I never give a game the full attention necessary to succeed at it—which means that the other players don’t get as much of a challenge as they might like; hence, their own enjoyment is not as full as it could be. Because of this, I tend to refrain from playing the complicated games. So in a sense, my neighborhood game nights are, for me, not so much about the games as about being neighborly: making my house a focal point for neighborhood- and community-building events and happenings.
As the neighbors interact, I can occupy myself with the things of the background: making sure we aren’t out of drinks, cleaning up spills, answering the door and making small talk with people who haven’t yet settled in, etc. I’m much better at this role than I am at playing some complicated game like Clue or Forbidden Island. Everyone is happy; I get to have people in my home, people get to play games and have fun, and hence we all win. We are all able to relax, have a good refreshing time, and get comfortable.
Think back to all the homes you can remember reading about in literature. Note that I didn’t say “houses”: don’t think about the house in The House of the Seven Gables or the one in The Fall of The House of Usher and especially not the one in House of Leaves. It’s corny, I know, but the realtors are correct to note a difference between a house and a home. Everyone can sense this difference. A home is something like the Badger’s den in The Wind in The Willows, or the Baudelaire mansion in A Series of Unfortunate Events, or, best yet, Rivendell from The Fellowship of The Ring. That last book has several of this kind of house, and scholars have noted that the book deploys, in its first half, a pattern of alternating episodes of peril followed by a retreat to a “homely house” where the characters find shelter and regroup for the next stage in their journey.
For a work of narrative fiction, The Fellowship of the Ring has a rather audacious structure. Tolkien certainly did not follow the old “show, don’t tell” rule: the most important, and the longest, chapter in the book is “The Council of Elrond,” and in it nothing happens except for a very long and highly discursive discussion of the novel’s backstory. It is notable that this talk happens in one of the “homely houses” mentioned above—Rivendell, the home of Elrond. Elrond, as host, does little more than act as moderator and historian at the council. But it is Elrond’s power (derived from his possession of one of the three elven rings) which allows Rivendell to be preserved and to act as a safe haven and site of the council. Elrond’s actions in the background facilitate and promote the agenda of the council; his safe haven—an oasis of culture and rest in the midst of a wilderness—is both fitting to the gravity and import of the council’s business at hand, and necessary for that business to be conducted in a calm and level-headed manner with no threat of dangerous interruption by the impending calamity which the council is seeking to deflect.
Does that sort of thing happen in the real world? Yes, in fact—let me give you an example.
I have in my personal library a curious volume called The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision. It is the only book I own (aside from books of poetry and stage plays) which keeps a running count of the lines on every page. It is the record of a meeting of pastors which was held in 2003 for the purpose of discussing a controversial line of thought in Calvinist theology, the details of which are not of interest to us in the present context. What I want to draw attention to is how and where this meeting was undertaken. Here is the book’s editor, Cal Beisner, telling the story:
I began to form the idea of a small, private, invitation-only colloquium at which these eight [pastors] and a few more whom they would choose for each side would present and discuss papers on the specific issues of controversy. [. . .] Then, at a conference, I met a businessman who, learning that I taught historical theology, asked my opinions about the AAPC controversy. He told me that he highly respected men on both sides, that he believed much of the debate was rooted in misunderstanding, and—without having heard my own idea—that he thought the men needed to be brought together privately for better communication. When I replied that I’d had the same idea, he said, “If you host it, I’ll pay for it.” And that he did. He insisted on paying all the expenses and bringing these pastors and theologians together at a luxurious resort, feeding them gourmet meals, and doing everything possible to make them comfortable to enhance the fruitfulness of their meeting. He also insisted on remaining anonymous.2
What we see here is a real-life counterpart to the council of Elrond. This anonymous businessman wasn’t hosting a meeting to decide the fate of all the free peoples of the world; but he was, just like Elrond, furthering the resolution of issues which were of vital importance to the people he was serving. And his desired anonymity reminds me very much of the line from the old hymn: “Content to fill a little space if Thou be glorified.”3
We’re getting close to Seth Godin and his assertion that everything is art, but Godin is right: as with most things, there is an artistry in being a host. This artistry is implicit in the proper setting of the table, the choice of menu and decor, and all the rest of the details that make up a good feast or a good gathering; this is probably half the reason why all those old etiquette books from the previous century were so popular at the time. The hosting of an event is a subtle kind of glamour, since good manners dictate that the hosts of an event not call attention to themselves. What they are doing is giving a gift, a gift of time, space, food, beautiful things: a memorable occasion.
It could be that the most important, most meaningful, and most appreciated art that you or anyone else will ever make is something ephemeral, transitory, fleeting: a meal for someone you love. In film, the classic representation of this food-as-art-as-gift is in Babette’s Feast. But here is a real-world example—consider this account of a feast at which Brett McCracken was a guest:
It may sound lofty and pretentious to describe food as worship. All I know is that when I took my first bite of chicory-rubbed filet mignon in bordelaise sauce on a Sunday afternoon in 2010, it felt like tasting a little bit of heaven. It felt like the pleasure of God. That filet mignon was one course of a ten-course dinner prepared by my friend Jessica Kemp, who does things with food I’ve never seen done before. And this meal, in which each course was creatively inspired by one of Jessica’s favorite songs of the year, was unsurpassed in the pantheon of great meals I’ve ever had. At this dinner, which probably lasted six hours or more, seven friends and I enjoyed mind-blowing homemade delicacies: quail confit with poached kumquats, tempura basil and sage, blue cheese ice cream with Madeira poached fig and wildflower sage honey, and a strawberry rose milkshake with rose-laced cream. How could I not experience God through food like that—sitting in good company, enjoying never-before-tasted flavor combinations, anxiously awaiting the next carefully concocted course, and never getting full? (The courses were nearly all bite-sized.) Dinners like this can be worshipful experiences. In community, with hours and hours of conversation and exquisite cuisine, how can our thoughts not orient us toward God in thanksgiving for friends, creativity, and the fact that he gave us tongues to taste and not just stomachs to fill?4
I might be wrong, but I have a suspicion that Jessica Kemp herself was not particularly involved in the “hours of conversation” that Brett McCracken mentions. Her role as chef and gift-giver would have precluded her being part of the talk, but that is okay; just like the anonymous donor that Beisner mentions, or Elrond, moderator of the council—or myself, keeping an eye on the drinks during game night—these people of the background are embracing the role of giver / facilitator, an artistic role which can sometimes be overlooked when pondering possible routes of artistic expression. But as Spackman says in the quote which begins this feuilleton, acting as a giver is an act of artistic expression; it is a strange kind of art, one which doesn’t emphasize the object of artistic contemplation or the artist; instead it calls attention to the recipient of the gift and the relationship between gift, giver, and recipient.
A friend of mine told me once of the time he was in New York and visited the legendary Death & Co., a bar famous for their unique cocktails. He ordered a Mezcal Old Fashioned, and afterwards he told me that the drink he was given was so good, so well-crafted, so beautiful, that it made him want to be a better husband and father.
Really, isn’t that the most anyone could ever want from their art? For it to be meaningful, for it to have a positive impact on the life of another person?
Here is a rather disturbing development: The art critic Ben Davis wrote a review of a show of works by Devon Rodriguez, and Rodriguez, who is hugely popular on TikTok, unleashed his fans on Davis; the critic received enormous amounts of hate from the fans of the self-styled “Most Popular Painter in the World.” In this essay, Davis reflects on the whole situation, and offers some thoughts about parasociality and performative aesthetics. But I thought the whole kerfuffle was indicative, once again, of the deep divide between highcult methods of engagement with and discourse about artworks, and the same but from a lowcult stance. “High” art is all about reflection and the aesthetic experience; “Low” art is more about sentimentality, decoration, and relationship-building. Both views of how to engage with art and artists are legitimate in their own ways, but as we can see from this example, when they get out of their containment units and interact with each other, the sparks can fly.
Here is a picture of me next to a bizarre cow-like home decor item (not in my own house, thankfully); it’s in here just because it’s so funny.
E. Calvin Beisner, “Introduction” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, page xi, lines 47-48, and page xii, lines 59-66.
Brett McCracken, Gray Matters, pages 27 and 28.