'Host a party? You're kidding.

The ways we socialize change with each generation. Today, friendships often get squeezed out by work and family obligations.

When Bettie Neubert McLane was a child, her mother would host huge bridge parties. At the time, Mrs. McLane says, she never thought of herself as a hostess in training. Something must have rubbed off, though, because today, decades later, she is known for throwing theme-based dinner-and-games parties for her Dallas friends.

To some observers, these socials might seem a quaint anachronism in an era of insular cocooning, in which "home entertainment" has come to mean communing with VCRs, large-screen TVs, and other electronic equipment.

Certainly no woman - or man - with a full-time job could put on a party for 50 or more guests, and do all the cooking and planning, as Mrs. McLane does, could they?

"You can do it if you want to. You just don't start the night before," she says, explaining that her preparations are fitted around a busy schedule of teaching analytical reading. She might buy marked-down seasonal decorations a year ahead or freeze homemade pie crusts months before a party.

While McLane is proof that ambitious home parties aren't impossible in today's fast-paced world, this type of entertaining definitely appears to be on the decline.

"It's not like Americans have suddenly become hermits," says Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., "but compared to how we spent our time even 15 or 20 years ago, there are some really big differences."

Dr. Putnam provides some striking evidence in his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," in which he says Americans are still connecting with one another, but doing so less and less each year.

According to a lifestyle study he cites, Americans entertain at home roughly half as much as they did two decades ago (on average about eight times a year compared to 14 or 15 during the mid- to late-'70s).

He says unforeseen societal changes could halt the skid in home entertaining, but if they don't, "our centuries-old practice of entertaining friends at home might entirely disappear from American life in less than a generation."

The advent of two-income families, a mobile society, more single-parent households, and a general busyness in society are factors cited for the rise in homebody tendencies.

Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., says that pulling out all the stops to entertain friends has not totally gone by the boards, but many people, especially working couples, find it a daunting proposition in today's fast-forward world.

As a result, there's more casual entertaining than ever, which makes sense given the poor rate of RSVPs to many formal invitations.

"It's a sign of the times; people aren't making commitments," Ms. Post says. "You can put it under the heading of, 'We are such a rushed, busy, and informal society.' A lot of people put aside invitations and forget about them."

Without formal invitations, the host winds up trying to work out a mutually agreeable date, which can be a major undertaking in its own right.

Ruby Luckhardt of Needham, Mass., says she and her husband hosted two dinner parties earlier this year, and each was challenging to arrange, especially the one for younger couples she thought might have more flexibility in their schedules.

"Actually, I had to ask them two months in advance," she says.

Spontaneous socializing with friends most appeals to Mrs. Luckhardt and her husband, she says, but they've almost given up since each time they call on the spur of the moment, their friends are already booked.

The Luckhardts know from their own experience how narrow the social window of opportunity can be. In the last several months, they've been free just one weekend due to the busy schedules of their two teenage children.

In the old bridge-club days, people often locked themselves into socializing on a predetermined schedule.

An example of this is the "Club," a group of Cincinnati couples who began playing cards together more than 50 years ago and still meet the second Saturday of each month.

Today, this might not be the prevailing style, but even younger couples sometimes find it helpful to establish a semiregular "date" with the same group of friends. Sally Sampson, the Watertown, Mass.-based author of "The $50 Dinner Party," says she and her husband break bread with three other sets of young parents about half a dozen times year.

"It's incredibly difficult because there are eight people," she says. "We have dinner together, and then try for the next month, then the following month."

If a husband goes out of town on business, the dinner goes on, with the wife attending solo, lest the pattern be broken. The host couple provides the entree and hors d'oeuvres, and the others supply the dessert and salad.

"Part of the fun of socializing is in preparing the food," says Rick Castle of Evansville, Ind., who shares the kitchen with his wife whenever it's their turn to host a monthly Bible-study group.

For the good of the group, Mr. Castle says, "You have to agree early on that we're not going to have better stuff than you have. You can't let that happen." If the lead-off hosts serve chicken salad, that becomes the standard.

Nancy Fischer of Weston, Mass., says she's never been a dinner-party person. Partly it's a matter of low self-confidence in the kitchen and partly a preference she and her husband have for very casual entertaining.

In moving to New England from Texas, they've worked to develop new friendships by picking up the phone and inviting people over for pizzas and a movie.

"Last-minute things seem to be everybody's lifestyle," Mrs. Fischer says.

The guests get to pick out a video from the Fischers' collection. Watching it is strictly optional. "If everybody feels like a movie, that's fine," she says. "I actually like the interaction with people. Sometimes we're chatting and don't get to the movie."

While the Fischers order out for pizza, Mrs. Fischer will usually make something else to eat, perhaps brownies or ice-cream sauce.

"It's a small way of showing your guests that you care about them enough to do something," she says. "It's a little piece of love that's more than just picking up the phone and calling the pizza guy."

Having everything ready on time ranked as the top concern for home entertainers, according to a party trends survey conducted for Dixie Products.

Eating out with friends is one way around this hurdle, but Americans still prefer, by a 2-to-1 margin, to get together with friends at home, Putnam says. The perception that they dine out much more, he observes, doesn't square with the facts, which show little if any increase over the last several decades.

Ms. Sampson finds eating out with friends less relaxing. "You get to the point where you're not interested in eating anymore and just want to hang out," she says. "So it's nice to be at your house. Plus, at home you can take a big break between the meal and dessert, which you can't do at a restaurant."

And at home, it's easier for parents to include children, which Post says is often a priority these days, especially for working couples. She adds that many families get together after children's sporting events. "That seems a natural progression."

In North Bend, Wash., a growing semirural community near Seattle, the local children's social-service agency is helping to facilitate family interactions with a monthly Family Night, an evening of eating and entertainment in a county recreation building.

"To serve children, you have to serve families," says John Stout, executive director of Children's Services of Sno Valley. "One of the things families are in need of are adult friendships and contacts, but these friendships are harder and harder to sustain because of mobility in society and other factors."

His region is in transition now, so Mr. Stout considers the free Family Night get-togethers important social mixers. Held year-round, they bring together an average of about 200 people for a cafeteria-style dinner, crafts, and entertainment by jugglers, magicians, and the like.

"The evening does not lack for socialization," Stout says. "It goes on everywhere. The parents get to talk with one another and share similar concerns."

As Post says, "People who want to be friends will find a way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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