The Perfect Party Guest

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9 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Three toed sloth at the Dallas World Aquarium. By Sergiodelgado.

When deciding on whom to invite to your next gathering, be sure to give consideration to the sloth. Either the two-toed or three-toed variety will do, for each distant relation will have unique insights to share from their suspensorial lifestyles, which is just a tongue-pleasing way of describing upside-down living in trees. These days you needn’t even worry about tailoring the invitation like you would eleven thousand years ago, when sloths of the giant and grounded species might suddenly show up at your door, not being able to fit through, and wouldn’t that be dreadfully embarrassing, having to turn away guests because the fire code for your condo common room doesn’t permit twelve-foot tall, elephant-sized vegetarians, and even if it did, you might never live down the fact that your party might be the only one in history to ever run out of salad. 

Surely, you might protest, there must be others capable of bringing cheer to your event without tracking cornstraw hair and symbiotic algae all over the berber carpeting. Perhaps the albatross or axolotl, as you proceed down your invite list in alphabetical order, or the black marsh turtle, AKA the smiling terrapin, sound like genial guests to attend your shindig; like the sloth, they also seem to sport permanent cheery smiles on their faces. Then you might think—pursuing down this train of thought—that the gleeful chirp of a bottlenose dolphin would set the perfect tone for future aquatic-themed celebrations, even as you harbor designs for the downstairs pool and sauna. You may have already thought of mailing out RSVP’s to members of the skate family after hearing about their stingless reputation and flap-happy demeanor from the friendly neighborhood ichthyologist, who mentioned one Saturday that a throng of these round and triangular fish is called a fever; and surely one in the know would base this moniker on disco-era Travolta impressions.

But just because one is smiling on the outside, doesn’t mean one weathers untroubled within. Does the internal psyche of a quokka, dubbed “happiest animal on Earth,” match the jolly outward expression that made it an Instagram sensation? What storms were brewing inside when it posed cheerfully and bit down on the hand that held a peanut-buttered wheat thin? (It is essential that no one comes to associate your soirees, which may feature potential finger foods, with the prospect of potential finger loss.) Perhaps the diminutive wallaby was overjoyed at the prospect of company, any company, being the lone land mammal on Rottnest Island, and overcompensated by coming on a might strong. I do not know. It is difficult enough to gauge another’s mood behind their everyday facades; it is even worse when basic anatomy gets in the way. Take the aforementioned skates, with everyone mistaking their underset nostrils called nares for eyes, thus regarding them silly and affable even when they are likely sulky and irascible, especially after being forced to take time out of their schedule to attend a function not at all related to their true passions, which comprise a mixture of shell-crunching and crab-crushing. In this sense skates might make for better conference delegates than house party chums; at least on the tradeshow floor they get to flap their mouths and work the circuit grind without too much thought, mirroring much of what they do in their native benthic habitats.

In a similar vein, don’t hold out too much hope for that Antipodean albatross you thought would regale your guests with worldly tales of travel. Just because one racks up the air miles doesn’t mean they aren’t merely going through the motions, like when George Clooney played jetsetting George Clooney in that one movie critics liked but no one watched. (I feel like there are a lot of these.) Besides being awkward at most land-based affairs, albatrosses are never ones to stick around, being always first to claim that they need to get up early next morning for a flight bound for some god-forsaken scrap of rock at world’s end, usually south of New Zealand. And sorry to further damper your prospect pool, but banter with any axolotl, while bubbly in tone, will always be juvenile in content, for in their state of arrested development they cannot help but reminisce about days from years past—who dated whom during high school senior year, which teachers told the worst dad jokes, and do you remember how they scored three touchdowns in that state championship game? It will be a depressing exchange in many ways, the saddest of which might be seeing someone demonstrate in real time how their best years have passed them by.

Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) in flight, East of the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia. By JJ Harrison.

But what of the former star performer at many a dolphinarium? Like  many a child celebrity, the bottlenose has long suffered under the spotlight in captive silence, without us realizing it, or perhaps with us denying it, thinking or wishing their playfulness to be jovial in nature, when in reality they were more desperate in form, warped by unfulfilled yearnings for kinship and a multitude of desires that they themselves do not recall and we cannot even begin to fathom. You will need a much bigger space than the downstairs pool for Flipper and his compatriots to feel at ease, so cross them off the invite list, please, for everyone’s sake.

But fear not, dear planner! Rounding out your guest list is not yet a lost cause. The smiling terrapin remains a stout choice, and should you manage to book off that two-hour block for the pool and jacuzzi combo, be sure to ring up the capybaras, genuine rodents of unusual size and disposition. Unlike other members of their family—which includes hoarder squirrels and scrounger mice, burrowing gophers and workaholic beavers—this mastiff-sized mammal is easygoing and emotionally keen. They can even slot in for you as host should you feel overwhelmed, slipping into the murky waters of social exchanges with ease, radiating a mellow energy that is most likely the result of navigating life in large extended clans. Inviting a capybara is like inviting the most interesting man in the world from those Dos Equis commercials but better, because capybaras never spend time bragging about their own accomplishments, numerous as they are, but instead use their charisma to prop up their flock of super-interesting friends, all met under the most fascinating of circumstances. From the black vulture to the wattled jacana to many a shiny cowbird, the capybara’s avian entourage will attest to the rodent’s sturdy character and unmatched sagacity, which lies at the heart of any sound commensal relationship. A lookout perch; snack bar with the finest flies and ticks; ferry service with an onboard sundeck—the capybara is all this and more for its motley cast of companions, is always happy to provide.

A Capybara with a “Cattle Tyrant” bird sat on its head. By Charles J. Sharp.

Whomever and whatever you do decide to invite, dear reader, keep in mind that a memorable party need not be a high-stress event, but simply a venue to bring spirits together for connection and communion. In Greece, a group who meets regularly to share their philosophies, values, and ideas is called a parea. In Denmark, hygge is the term given to a cozy atmosphere co-created between caring individuals. The allure of the French salon stems from it being a space for life-changing conversations. Perhaps the party part that matters actually begins in the dying phase, when the crowd has dwindled and those who came to mooch on good potluck and free booze have shuffled off. This is the time when the true and few have sunken into their niches—enveloped within the beanbag in the corner; fortified with cushions piled around the loveseat; wreathed in a fleece throw, watching the flicker of the wood stove. This will also be the phase where your sloth guest will undoubtedly shine. (Not that it wouldn’t have before, being one of the chillest mammals around on a body temperature basis. You would literally suffer from hypothermia to be as cool as a sloth, so don’t even try.) Receiving such a relaxed guest naturally means little upkeep and minimal food costs, as the leaf-litter eater will be glad to consume and divert any leftover greens destined for the compost, even the bruised soggy bits you had been trying to dress up with your raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. But beyond dietary and monetary savings, you may be surprised to discover that, beneath its bedraggled exterior, the sloth is in reality a most attentive and accomplished conversationalist. For one, it has never been known to excuse itself to use the facilities in the middle of an exchange, for it only needs to do its business once a week, and is at peace with the fact that no amount of powder will ever fix its shiny nose. The sloth also excels at defusing those tense situations that threaten to kill the mood of any gathering, being apt at shedding hurled insults and bigotry like raindrops off its hirsute coat. For it has shrugged its way through indignities from the entire peanut gallery, from the drunk by the stairs no one remembers inviting to snooty eighteenth-century French naturalists like the monkey-loving Count of Buffon, who once out of nowhere besmirched the sloth’s good name by decrying it as “a bungled conformation, the lowest form of existence, and that one more defect would have made its life impossible.” (There is more, but I will not reprint any more slander.) Such is the mettle of the sloth’s character that even when confronted with such uncouth vitriol it bore no ill will, and would indeed be happy to pick the Count’s slightly larger than normal-sized brain, now preserved in a crystal urn and installed under his statue at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, but only if the chance for a free sightseeing trip to Paris should arise, and only if there is a suitable tree in which to hang upside-down nearby.

View of the main central space inside the grande galerie de l’Évolution (called in English the Gallery of Evolution) of the French National Museum of Natural History, in Paris (France). By Joe deSousa.

It is perhaps this topsy-turvy living that makes the sloth the perfect party guest, for some of the most compelling souls you will ever meet, dear reader, are ones who have learned to live amongst the forest. No, I’m not talking about YouTube survivalists out scrounging tubers for the end times, or flannel-wearers building “authentic” cabins on their parents’ vacation properties, but those who have absorbed the art of stillness from their arboreal mentors, becoming adept at seeing moments from beginning to end. Watching the spider weave its web strand by strand. Noticing how moss around a trunk swells from beaded dew. What is the sound made when a fruiting mushroom breaks the surface of the soil? The sloth may tell of these and other phenomena throughout the night, should you be inclined to listen. And if you are very lucky, it may even speak to trees of the family variety, namely its own, in the stylings of a deep time saga, full of ancient locutions, passed down from sloth to sloth. Like the time eight million years ago when its five cousins of the genus Thalassoncnus crossed the Peruvian desert to eke out a seagrass living, braving crushing waves that threatened to break their bones and killer whales that threatened to rend their flesh. Or when ol’ uncle Lestodon from Argentina, a hulking brick of a brute, devoted his life to spreading avocado saplings like a prehistoric Johnny Appleseed while working as a prospector, splitting rocks with nothing but his bare knuckled claws, carving some of the largest creature-crafted caves one can still get lost in to this day. Your sloth storyteller may decide to insert certain comic interludes—like when its great aunt the locals dubbed “the Devil Beast” got bored one day of climbing trees and decided to scale the Andes (whether that was for the view or the thrill, no one knows)—before speaking more solemnly about its house’s fall from grace, highlighting the time of the grinding ice that doomed so many intrepid explorers in their North American sojourns. It may describe how some of them grew in fur and girth to guard against the gnawing frost and sabertooth cats, but found that they could not cope once the climate thawed and warmed once more, even while as this new world arose a new threat emerged with it, a breed of two-legged hunters against which size and claws proved to be no defense.

It is customary for sloths to buffer many of their deeds with bouts of silence, but you may sense this even more so at the end of this intimate sharing, steeped as it is in melancholy and an understanding that its family’s gallivanting days have since passed. The sloth before you, sunken into your grandmother’s floral-patterned velour couch, one clawed arm hooked around the pisco sour named for the formation where its Peruvian brethren now lie, is one who appears done with doing and more at ease with a quieter role on this Earth. Perhaps in this case, this one lone case, both the smile it sports and the stories it spins are truly as they seem. In the days to follow, you may have the urge to call up the sloth. Do so. For one-on-one time with such a soul may help all of us pick up some much needed tricks of the heart—namely, how to quiet it down; how to hold space and patience for the present; the importance of flipping everything upside-down once in a while, so as to see out at the world anew with eyes old yet undiminished.

  • Isaac Yuen

    Isaac's short fiction and creative nonfiction can be found at AGNI, Gulf Coast, Orion, Pleiades, Shenandoah, The Willowherb Review, Tin House and other publications. A first-generation Hong Kong Canadian now writing in Berlin, he is currently at work on his debut nature essay collection titled "Utter, Earth", forthcoming via West Virginia University Press in 2023.
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