High Anxiety

Any fellow or guest of the American Academy in Berlin will quickly realize that there is one dreaded social event with which are going to become pretty well acquainted: the Formal Seated Dinner. These three-and-a-half hour behemoths are notorious for putting the four to ten attending fellows in almost absurdly awkward predicaments. As a form of therapy, we’ve taken to making our own, satirical versions of the academy’s seating charts, always ominously posted on a large easel prior to the event:

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Now there have certainly been a few really interesting dinner guests this year—composers Robert Ashley and Helmut Lachenmann certainly topped that list, and of course occasionally one is lucky enough to meet some agreeable, normal person. But most of the awkwardness stems from how grossly mismatched and random the seating arrangement tends to be—I remember once trying to carry on a conversation with former Sex Pistols and New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren, along with some austere conceptual artist and some ashen-faced rich person of indeterminate profession; had the circumstances been different, it could have been a great conversation, but it was hard to find some common ground for everyone at the end of that table.

And it’s easy to find yourself in a situation in which there’s absolutely nothing to say:

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Part of the humor of these events (which normally precede major policy lectures) is there obvious attempt to cultivate an atmosphere that is oh so elevated; for one thing, we have definitely noticed that the food becomes less hearty and more stereotypically “artsy” in preparation, in some kind of effort to impress potential donors. I think I speak for all the fellows in that we usually feel like grubby, unkempt children in these situations, occasionally required to “perform” and trot out some version of our bio and pet project. It’s definitely a lot different than what I’ve been used to back home.

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