We’re invited to a Christmas party, but not just any Christmas party. These are a bunch of my girlfriend’s friends, Lisa’s spiritual companions, who are into past-life regression, Reiki healing, psychic divination, the whole New Age catalog. Even Christmas, I gather, is part pagan, moved from whenever Jesus was really born to near the winter solstice, the beginning of rebirth and renewal.
As a natural skeptic, I find all this tough to swallow. But these people have never bored me, and tonight’s no exception. I’d like to say things go smoothly, but they actually go the opposite of smoothly. Bumpily, you might say. Because Lisa’s friend Nicole is having a fight with her boyfriend, they’re not talking to each other, and Lisa says Nicole should forget it and come with us, even though she’s mad and depressed. Like I said, bumpy.
Plus, the food is mostly vegetarian. And we’re way early.
We pull up to the house in Ladera Ranch, where the Christmas lights are festive and magical. I suggest we stroll around gawking until the party starts, which suits Lisa, but Nicole wants to stay in the car and send angry texts to What’s-His-Name.
“Knock yourself out,” I tell her.
I wander with Lisa through the decorated streets, gaping at spotlighted manger scenes and giant, inflatable Santas. One Santa rides a helicopter, complete with twirling rotor, apparently because the reindeer weren’t cutting it in today’s fast-paced world. Another features T. Rex Santa, like an inspirational refugee from “Jurassic Park,” with grinning steam- shovel jaws. I try to take a picture with my phone, which tells me it’s “updating camera firmware,” meaning, of course, that it’s unable to take pictures.
Eventually, we round up Nicole and head for the party house, where we’re the first to arrive. Lisa introduces us to our host, whom I’ll call Dave. Dave writes books of spiritual inspiration, from a Buddhist per- spective. He’s charismatic and instantly likeable. When he learns that Nicole works with the elderly, he mentions his own father, who was in a nursing home for many years until he “transitioned” at age 85.
I start to ask, “Does that mean he’s dead?” But I catch myself, because A) it would be really embarrassing if he had just moved to another nursing home, and B) it would be even worse if he “transitioned” to a pine box.
Not that we all won’t. Just sayin’.
In time, more guests arrive, and we’re treated to a vegetarian buffet. It’s surprisingly good: crisp salad with shaved almonds and orange wedges, mushroom tacos with spicy salsa, puff pastry loaded with cream cheese. The only thing I don’t like is the shrimp-and-sprouts spring roll, because I believe sprouts belong in the ground, not your mouth. They say sprouts have healing energy, but I’d rather be sick.
Nicole picks at her food; she’s more interested in the text-messaging wars— and in the red wine, which she samples freely. I try to look after her, but I keep getting drawn into Dave’s conversation, which goes in a strange direction.
“I got a cease-and-desist order from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,” he confides, “after I released 25 million brine shrimp into Woods Cove.” Brine shrimp (if you don’t already know) are tiny crustaceans, also known as Sea- Monkeys. Dave says he wanted to help them on their way, since (being brine shrimp) they’re “not very evolved.” I’m guessing he calls them brine shrimp, not Sea-Monkeys, because saying he released 25 million Sea-Monkeys into the Pacific Ocean would sound ridiculous.
Sadly, Fish and Game thwarted Dave’s brine shrimp relocation plan. But he holds no grudge, since he got a warning, not a fine. His motive was noble—if peculiar— and the damage was minimal, since those 25 million near-invisible critters weighed approximately one pound.
Meanwhile, Nicole’s on her third glass of wine. She talks about her ambition to become a registered nurse, which takes years of training and is far more difficult than I would have imagined. She has been taking classes for a year now. I say I’m proud of her commitment to better herself and that getting drunk at an upbeat, quasi-Buddhist dinner party seems unworthy of her.
She thinks about it, then empties her wine glass into the sink.
“I’m through for tonight,” she says.
It’s a startling moment when I see the strength in her, the steely resolve it takes to work full time and go to school and raise three kids, all with a cantankerous boyfriend. I look at Nicole with new respect. But it took this metaphysical dinner party, with its sprout rolls and tales of ocean-bound Sea-Monkeys, for me to see that. I hope someday she can transition to the medical field, though that verb now has a really creepy subtext.
The rest of the evening passes quickly. Lisa compares past lives with her friend “Carla,” since they were the Queen of Atlantis and the Queen of the Aztecs, respectively. Lisa recalls when her island kingdom dropped below sea level; Carla lost a kidney to the conquistadores.
These people define eccentric, but they’re warm and welcoming, full of Old World charm—perhaps really old—and our host Dave, the brine-shrimp liberator, is gracious and good natured. Maybe this weird-but-affirming vibe actually helps people such as Nicole, by fostering an environment where anything seems possible.
It even affects a skeptic like me.
After all, I celebrate Christmas, a holiday based on someone who rose from the dead, and whose mother was a virgin. I respect science more than religion, but technology has produced, among others things, acid rain, global warming, and a smartphone that won’t take pictures. Who’s to say my approach is better than theirs?
Maybe we’re all a little odd—except Nicole, who knows when to dump the wine glass. She’s clearly smarter than a barrel full of Sea-Monkeys.