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Party Planning

I love giving Christmas parties--to be specific, tree-trimming parties. I started having them right after college, when I was living in Manhattan and buying a Christmas tree for the first time on my own. And every year when we decorate the tree, I remember who gave me each ornament, the apartment I lived in, the person I was at the time. (I also remember the after-Christmas sales where I bought plenty of ornaments at half off.)

I love being with a group I have personally curated: people who mean a lot to me, with a few I want to know better mixed in for freshness. I love the aha moments when friends of mine who haven't met each other discover something they have in common. I love the way a party flows, from welcoming the first arrivals and assuring them they're not too early, to the crunch time in the middle, to the quality time spent with the last to leave.

For the most part, I also love the planning: invitations, menu, baking plan, shopping. It's the last few days before the event when everything takes an inevitably hellish turn. It doesn't matter how far in advance I've started or how airtight my plan. Party panic comes over me like a fever and I'm convinced it will all come crashing down.

Here are my main areas of pre-party anguish:

Number to plan for. How many to expect? It's always a moving target:

Those who don't RSVP. Do I call them and ask if they're coming, or just try to figure out who'll show and who won't?

Cancellations. Some percentage of those who said they were coming call to cancel (a better offer?).

Extras. The flip side: Guests ask if they can bring extra people (usually visiting relatives or houseguests). I used to worry that these extras, who always seem to be women, would throw off the male-female ratio. Now I just worry about having enough chairs.

The Great Unknown. They say "maybe" and never follow up. Will they or won't they?

No Shows. Anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of expected guests--people who actually took the trouble to RSVP--don't show up. Maybe half of these will call and explain themselves. The others, who knows?

The final crowd at any party always contains some surprises, whether the person I couldn't wait to see who mysteriously never made it, or the friend of a friend who pitches in and helps when things get busiest. Besides, in Los Angeles, or maybe just in the times in which we live, you can't expect even a simple commitment without second-guessing. This is the area I worry about the least because I usually have too much food anyway.

Food. I like to do everything myself (except the Honeybaked ham), so I start early and cook all week. Since I don't bake too often during the other 11 months of the year, I have to adjust to the issues that arise anew:

Over- and Under-Cooking. Recipe-given baking times with no basis in reality ("It's still not done?" or "How can it be burned?").

Tedium. How long it really takes to roll out dough and cut out shapes and then roll out more dough and cut out more shapes and then decorate the shapes...I usually end up with at least one or two Ziplock bags of dough in the refrigerator at the end of the week because I just couldn't face the rolling pin again.

The Time Suck. Discovering part of a recipe I hadn't noticed before that keeps me up past midnight. For Christmas, I mostly make old familiar things, but even those are not without pitfalls. It's amazing how I can block out the time-consuming parts.

Running out of Ingredients. Shocking how this happens despite the best planning efforts. Can I substitute yogurt for sour cream? What if I only have vanilla yogurt?

Dishwashing. There's something about washing the same things over and over again that gets to me after a while.

Injuries. It happens to me all the time: I cut open a finger. The most recent time, I was slicing bread right before a party and cut right into my thumb. It wouldn't stop bleeding, and bled right through the band-aid to put a drop of blood on a dress that had only had the tags cut off minutes earlier.

Cleaning. Here we have the crux of my party-planning problem. I know many people who say they like to give parties because it gives them an excuse to clean up the house. Well, my situation is to that as full-blown pneumonia is to the common cold. I live in a house where the word "clutter" is not just an understatement but a distant memory. What we have are teetering piles, the kind of excess that makes news when it buries the packrat who wasn't able to let go of anything and was crushed by his own newspapers. As much as I'd love to pull a dumpster up to the driveway, I have to be satisfied with hiding stuff in closets. Sometimes I hide things so well that they disappear for years.

I love the post-party honeymoon period when the clutter is still hidden away and the dishes are all clean. Just don't get me started on the next phase: back to normal.

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