The celebration of my 60th birthday quickly turned into “The Gene & Wei-Jen Show,” although I had no advance notice that such a thing would occur. A distinguished assemblage of 35 guests joined their humble host at the Club Pheasant in West Sacramento for an evening of refined sophistication, but soon discovered it was to be quite otherwise.
Gene Weisskopf takes charge as the evening's emcee, having traveled all the way down from Washington State to grace the event with his presence (and before yet another absence resulted in his deletion from the guest list).
Wei-Jen Harrison arranged to haul in cases of champagne with which to toast the event. Jim Walker, who disapproves of Dionysian behavior, begins to be concerned that the evening's decorum may not last.
Guests arrive at the Pheasant Club and start finding their places and reading each other's nametags. Acquaintances are made or renewed.
Early in the evening, Gene chooses to bide his time, chatting amiably over the salad with Peter Horton. No one suspects a thing yet.
The cake from Konditorei (the Austrian bakery in Davis) attracts attention. The decoration is a model of C60, a fullerene molecule composed entirely of carbon atoms. (It's also called a “bucky ball.”)
The party includes both Candis Spallina and Peter Faure, high school classmates of the birthday boy (Porterville Union High School, Class of 1969). Traci Sinclair Knox and Maria Acuña Feldman marvel that such elderly people are allowed out on their own on a Saturday evening.
The evening is young for Joan Sallee, Jane de León, Aileen McGarry, and Melissa Green, even if the host is not.
Dan Kehew is concerned that there will be photographic evidence of his attendance. He fears for his reputation. Nancy Reitz, however, is not worried at all. Since she became a math dean, all the damage that could be done has been done. (The elusive Ted Ridgway is seen in the center of the photograph. Amazingly, he will not be seen again.)
First-timer Andrew Halseth is concerned that he has been seated at the kids' table. The presence of Eric Butow and Jim Walker would seem to confirm that suspicion, but Sherman Stein is an obvious counterexample.
Eric Butow and Benjamin Etgen scoff at the notion that one table is for grownups and the other is for kids, even while providing evidence for that hypothesis.
Joan Sallee reacts to the rumor that her husband is seated at the kids' table. She speculates that the criterion is behavioral rather than chronological. Maria smiles because Tim is seated there, too.
Tim Feldman smiles for the camera, demonstrating his laid-back poise and equanimity.
Aileen points out that her placement at the grownups' table must be a tribute to her poise and maturity. Melissa does her best to humor her.
Mark Sammut and Elaine Kasimatis flank the host, who is clearly giddy on the occasion of his birthday dinner.
Elaine attended UC Davis with the birthday boy back in the seventies (but she actually graduated).
Paul Knox and Mark Sammut are seated in the Reno section of the dinner party, next to the host so that he can keep an eye on them. Paul would like to talk about literary deconstructionism and Mark is an expert on theater organ reconstruction. It could be a long evening.
Steve Sutfin actually survived the experience of being in the host's calculus class. Elaine sympathizes over his cruel ordeal.
Trina Miller is another Porterville High alumna. She tells Sandy McKaig stories about how wonderful it was. Sandy clearly believes her.
Socorro Tril wants to know if life in Porterville was really the idyllic pastorale that legend says it was. Candis and Peter solemnly confirm that the legends are true. Candis and Peter are not to be trusted.
Wei-Jen explains to Steve that she will take good care of him during the evening meal. Selene Jacobs wonders if she will need to serve as chaperon. Selene has experience with grade-school children; she can handle this crowd.
Benjamin Etgen: “I was a student in one of Tony's classes!”
Tom Sallee: “Heck, I was one of Tony's professors!”
Benjamin: “Tom wins! His experience was more painful!”
Brandon Muranaka sees a chance to grab someone's beer. Someone carded him, so he doesn't have one of his own. Andy and Sherman pay no attention to Brandon's shocking behavior.
Trina wonders why Brandon is acting more cheerful all of a sudden. David Murray wonders what happened to his beer.
Brandon: “You can't pin anything on me!”
Trina: “I saw nothing!”
Benjamin: “I have photographic evidence of Brandon's behavior!”
Brandon: “I have even more evidence on everybody else. Let's join forces!”
The photographs from the dinner party suddenly become quite redundant in content.
Hannah Stein and Jane Viar listen intently as Melissa explains that Tony's birthday dinners are not exactly the equivalent of a literary salon. (Hannah refrains from pointing out that she is quite well aware of this.)
Andy and Sherman participate in the ritual opening and reading of the birthday cards. This is actually the entertainment segment of the evening's program and the high point of the dinner party. (No, it really is!)
Once again, the birthday cards are so clever, witty, and ribaldly humorous that Alan Willendrup and Brandon Muranaka cannot contain their laughter.
Paul would like some help understanding the birthday cards. They're keyed to more of a California-level of humor and Paul is from Nevada. He suspects his tastes are too refined to quickly grasp the esoteric humor. Hannah and Jane decide it will be more fun to let Paul figure them out on his own.
Gene takes charge of the proceedings by brandishing his copy of Dear Dairy. He's only one of three people present who possess the bound edition of the manuscript, but he's the only one with the chutzpah to wave it around. He seeks the guests' sympathy for having been one of the first readers of the novel.
The dinner guests express their sympathy at Gene's plight, since he fell for the old hey-read-my-novel ploy. As friendly impositions go, it's even worse than the hey-help-me-move gimmick.
Gene has sublimated his angst by taking reams of Dear Dairy print-outs and slicing them up into notepaper. He had them bound into pads and brought enough for everyone at dinner.
The host discovers that his notepad contains text from the episode of Jojo's accidental circumcision. (It happened to Tristram Shandy. No reason it couldn't also happen to Jojo Francisco.)
David Viar examines his notepad: “Hey, these chapters are even shorter than the ones in the draft that I read! I should have waited for this version!”
Thanks to some collaborative detective work by Gene and Eric, it was discovered that the birthday boy had created a scholarship at Porterville College in honor of his late calculus instructor. Gene reported that the party guests could take the opportunity to contribute to the Wilcoxon memorial fund. Unbeknownst to the host, Eric and Gene had contribution slips which were distributed to the attendees. (Mercifully, the fundraising pitch did not interrupt the proceedings as much as those on public television.)
Wei-Jen moves into action. It's time to turn up the heat on the evening's roast. She calls for stories from the host's long-time friends.
Wei-Jen tries to strangle Socorro and Candis into submission. Candis surrenders and tells a story about her days as the host's classmate at Porterville High: “Tony was the smartest kid in school and would correct the teachers when they made mistakes.” Candis was making it up as she went along, but—amazingly enough—it was all true! (Mostly.)
The crowd eats up Candis's narrative. An English-teacher/librarian knows how to hold an audience.
Wei-Jen: “What happened when you and Tony were in grad school?”
Elaine: “I'll never tell! Not even the story about Tony typing my dissertation for me!”
(It was an all-night word-processing job.)
Peter Faure: “I totally have the goods on this guy, but I'd like to be invited back next year.”
Traci Knox: “Would anyone care that Paul and Tony can talk on the phone about books and school for three hours at a time?”
Sherman Stein, the host's mentor at UC Davis, withdraws his objection to the design on the birthday cake and agrees that the depicted geometric object is mathematically feasible.
Tom Sallee regales the dinner guests with tales from UC Davis. He taught the host non-Euclidean geometry and, in return, got a term paper titled “The relationship of non-Euclidean geometry to the universe and everything in it.” Tom agreed that the topic seemed rather ambitious, but admitted to having liked the paper anyway. Many years later he also liked the host's dissertation.
Steve: “So, Wei-Jen, you want me to tell tales out of school, too?”
Wei-Jen: “No. I just like leaning against you this way.”
Wei-Jen: Hey, Alan. Did you see me pinch Brandon?
Brandon: Ow! Someone pinched me!
Wei-Jen chivvies David into reminiscing about the host's role as faculty co-chair of ARC's accreditation self-study report. David fondly remembers that Tony was his second choice for the job. (The college's accreditation was reaffirmed anyway.)
Jane adds her account of the accreditation ordeal and smiles to recall that she was the president's first choice for the job of faculty co-chair.
Wei-Jen: “Come on, Benji. I'm sure you have stories you can tell!”
Benjamin: “My arm. Ow! My arm!”
Wei-Jen: “That's okay. I think we have enough!”
Wei-Jen: “Nothing I do here tonight is going into my personnel file, is it?”
Nancy: “You're in the clear, Wei-Jen. It's after hours!”
Dan: “I've got the goods on her! See how she's trying to steal the photographic evidence from me?”
The voices in his head tell the host to do a dramatic reading from his novel. He chooses the “Boys meet girls,” episode—hardly an area of special expertise. (Aren't novelists supposed to “write what you know”?)
The guests give the host their rapt attention. If they listen politely, there might be cake. (Is that Ted hiding behind Benjamin? Could be.)
Everyone gets toasted! (You know what I mean.)
David & Jane: “Thanks for a lovely evening.”
Wei-Jen: “Don't worry, Steve. We'll always have West Sacramento.”
Aileen: “Yeah, it's the end of the evening and I can still stand up straight. Want to make something of it?”