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“So, what do you do at — ” I stole a glance at the name badge on the chest in front of me. “San Diego Story?”

“I review music,” said Christian, the man behind the badge.

“And you?” I asked Kris, the woman standing beside Christian. I recognized her from previous events, but I only knew her as one of the directors on the board of the San Diego Press Club.

“I’m a dance critic,” Kris said.

“Right. Very cool.” My knowledge of the classical music scene was weak, so I directed the conversation toward dance. “Have you seen Rayna Stohl’s new show, The Echo of Dracula? It just opened. She cowrote the story, which I read, but I’m hoping to get out to see the performance in person.”

“No, I haven’t heard about that yet, but I love Rayna,” Kris said. As she told us interesting information about the local dancer and choreographer, I relaxed and sipped wine from the glass in my hand. Conversation started. Mission accomplished.

The nametags at these sorts of parties definitely help, minglewise. This one — the Press Club’s annual holiday mixer — was easier to navigate than most. Conversations have no choice but to be struck up in a room full of reporters. When everyone is wearing a nametag at a “mixer,” people expect you to introduce yourself. But a house party is a completely different beast. It’s hard to tell — even for a social butterfly such as myself — when it’s okay to step up and insinuate yourself into a conversation with strangers.

I’ve been to a handful of parties this holiday season that were held by acquaintances with whom I shared few, if any, contacts. This meant I was often walking into a room full of people I didn’t know. Rather than, “Hey, good to see you,” directed at someone I recognized, I was left to scan unfamiliar faces above unlabeled chests and decide who looked the most approachable.

At one party, I cringed as I heard myself using the old cliché, “So, how do you know [insert host’s name here].” But I couldn’t think of any other port from which to launch my conversation. At least at the Slow Food Urban San Diego event (technically a mixer, but without nametags) I could begin with something interesting and sure to be familiar to everyone there: “Have you been down to the new Public Market yet?”

As the end of December drew near, I’d grown tired of telling my own stories. I knew how they all ended — I’d seen this show a thousand times; I wanted something new. The reason I dragged my ass out of my house almost every night for three weeks was to find out what’s going on in town beyond my usual orbit.

I knew I’d fizzled when, at a friend’s annual holiday open-house (a day-time affair featuring dozens of pastries the hostess had spent days preparing), someone asked me what I was working on these days and I yawned. I caught myself and stood up straighter, but I only managed a weary, truncated update about my projects before I punctuated it all with a sigh and a tone of self-mockery when I said, “You know, blah blah blah… What’s up with you?”

That same night, after just a few hours’ break, I again found myself standing, back against a wall, in a room full of people talking excitedly to one another. David had braved the crowded kitchen to work on creating a cocktail for me. I surveyed the room looking for a potential conversant, but it seemed everyone was already engaged.

Rather than stand there like a lamp, I headed to the backyard for a change of scenery. I sighed at the familiar party landscape: clusters of people seemingly deep in conversation. If I wanted to interact, I would have to interrupt someone. I approached the closest group — three men — and, when they paused to open their circle a bit and acknowledge my presence, I jumped right in.

“So, what are you guys talking about?” It felt good to get right to the meat of things, to not bother with the whole, “Hi, I’m Barbarella, what are your names?” boring bullshit. I smiled and waited.

“Um…” The one who spoke giggled, and the other two followed suit. It was slightly unnerving, but I kept up the smile and expectant stare. The guy shrugged, seemed to come to some silent consensus with the others, and then turned to me and said, “We were talking about vasectomies.”

“Oh,” I said, briefly destabilized. Still, I’d come this far — I wasn’t going to give up now. They’d revealed the subject, which meant they must be cool talking about it, and this was the furthest topic from my tired material, so I was all in. “And? Where are you at with them?” I looked first to the guy directly to my right. “What’s your story?”

Over the next several minutes, I learned that one of the trio was happy capping his family at four children, hence his interest in the procedure. The man in the middle — an older gentleman — had gotten his tubes snipped long ago but now found himself in the interesting and not unpleasant position of having a partner with grandchildren. “I got to skip fatherhood and go straight to being a grandpa,” he said with a smile.

The last — the youngest and the only one of the trio not currently in a relationship — said a vasectomy was his Christmas gift to himself. Here, I could contribute something to the conversation. “My husband had selected self-sterilization before I’d met him,” I said. “And I have a friend who I drove to get his — it’s really no big deal. You walk right out of there. He said if he ever changed his mind and wanted kids with his wife, he’d adopt.”

“There you are.” David came up behind me and handed me my cocktail.

“Ah, here he is now,” I said to the vasectomy triplets. I realized I couldn’t properly introduce my man, as I hadn’t gotten any of their names. David said he wanted to introduce me to a few people he’d been chatting with while making our drinks, so instead I said, “Well, guys, enjoy the rest of your night, and good luck with your man bits.”

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