“I’ve never been one to stand on protocol, for though I’d never urinate in a bath, I might in the shower. I’ve concluded, henceforth, that my expedient approach to behavior has been acquired, though I surely didn’t acquire it from my parents.”—By Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“I was a stranger and ye welcomed me.”—Matthew 25:35
“Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbor’s house lest he be weary of thee and so hate thee.”—Proverbs 25:17
I’ve concluded, henceforth, that my expedient approach to behavior has been acquired, though I surely didn’t acquire it from my parents. To teach me table manners when I was six or seven, my Midwestern father appealed to my profit motive when the image of “hogs at a trough” failed him. He handed me a nickel after saying grace one evening and told me that if I could keep one hand under the table for the entire meal, I could “keep the buffalo.” Over the next few weeks, he either figured I’d taken him for enough money, or I was hopeless, for the odd-man-out had a stubborn way of helping to lift the tea glass and then lingering above board. Though Dad’s lesson in etiquette ultimately failed, at least he didn’t tie a length of dental floss to my wrist as one of the Rockefellers did to his son. If a stray hand appeared, a yank brought it back to his decorous lap.
Some 50 years later, at a meal with my parents, I noticed that both of my father’s hands were visible above the table. When I teasingly reminded him of the nickel exercise, he stammered and said he now needed two hands: one to eat with and the other to support his aching back. When they had the preacher to dinner, he explained, he still used his “company manners.” My Southern mother, overbred as a border collie, said back or no back, she was wounded by her husband’s “two-fisted behavior.” She added that she’d never seen her father at the table with two hands above the linen. Nor had she ever seen him wearing a “gimme hat,” but her brothers often wore theirs at the table, and one of her nieces did the same, with the brim turned backwards. Hats were driving Mother, who’d never suffered a bad-hair day in her life, daft.
The night before my mother’s funeral, the family agreed on a restaurant that was near our hotel in Arlington. When the waiter asked how the twelve of us wanted to divide the bill, Dad quickly indicated he wished to pay for his meal and no more. It was a stunt he’d pulled before, but I never dreamed he’d pull it at his wife’s funeral. I really thought this was Dad’s opportunity to treat the family since we had not been together in a decade or more. But, as my sister pointed out later, perhaps Dad felt that his children should pick up the tab for him, but no one thought of that before the bill arrived. As I’ve suggested, whether to the manor or the manner born, deportment is acquired, not inherited.
I attended P.S. 201 in New York City for only one year, but I recall that my classmates in the seventh grade were already buzzing about the State Regents’ examination that lay five years ahead. Recently, I learned why. On the home economics portion of the test, students were asked, “If, at dinner, your hostess spreads a whole slice of bread and eats it without breaking it, the most acceptable procedure for you would be to: . . .” At this point, five choices were offered. Having been in similar situations several times overseas, I’ve always followed my hostess’s lead, yet the Regents’ “correct” answer in 1950 was, “Break your bread in four pieces and spread it as you eat it.” It vexes me that some students failed this test because they opted to follow another’s lead or broke their bread in two pieces, both of which seem acceptable alternatives.
Despite the New York Regents, manners have never been inscribed on stone tablets and passed to mortals by God’s prophet. Instead, they evolve to fit the culture and sensibilities of the time. A law in Louisiana states that children will use “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the classroom when addressing their elders but, just as morality cannot be legislated, neither can manners. Parents, therefore, are left to do the best they can with their charges. And from where I sit after 42 years in classrooms of my own and more recently as a reading tutor at Clemson Elementary, the parents and children are doing just fine. Perhaps I should add that I stand 6’ 4” and weigh 205 pounds, but the rude student at any level is a rarity in my experience. I recall reading with a handful of second graders in the school’s science lab recently when a fifth grader shyly opened the door and said, “Excuse me, Sir, would it be OK if we test our balloon racers in here while you read?” How could I deny them? They barely made a sound.
Between 1999 and 2011, Randy Cohen wrote the ethics column for the New York Times, and I don’t think I missed one of these though I sometimes disagreed with his take on manners or ethics, which are often closely tied. One of my favorite columns involved a fellow who’d left his half-full grocery cart in line while he briefly went to get a drink at a nearby fountain. The operative words here are “briefly” and “nearby.” While the male shopper was drinking at the bubbler, and before his unattended cart had reached the check-out clerk, the woman who’d been behind him shoved his cart aside. Surprisingly, Cohen agreed with this behavior saying, “Unattended carts may be moved.” Now perhaps the shopper should have said something to the impatient woman before leaving for the fountain, but there’s no good reason short of a fire that anyone should have moved that cart except the “owner.” The tempest that followed is fodder for another discussion.
Whether you write an ethics column for the Times or check Emily Post for the proper fork, well-mannered people know how to handle their hands. Indeed “handy” is the Latin origin of “manners.” Feet and mouths are also important appendages when it comes to civil behavior but, as the woman who pushed aside the cart shows, an ugly scene often originates with the hands. A fellow at the pool where my wife exercises used to bring two fingers to his mouth and whistle wolfishly when she emerged from the dressing room. Though she asked him to stop, he persisted despite the efforts of his own wife. When my wife had enough, she brought two fingers of her own to her mouth and delivered a whistle so shrill it combusted the wolf’s hair. He never whistled at her again.
Speaking of rude hands and mouths, my wife’s family often recall their eccentric Uncle Hundertmark and his buttered, white asparagus. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was widely reported to eat an asparagus spear by lifting it to his lips with his fingers and sucking it down whole. But whenever a platter of Spargel was served in the Hundertmark household, my wife’s great uncle would cut the tender heads off every spear and rake them onto his plate before passing the platter to his guests. Now this gesture might seem patriarchal at first, but its intent was political. Selfish as it was, it was also unmannerly.
Like tradition, manners are the ballast in the ship of state, but when they take a turn to the precious, it’s time for some freshly ground rocks. When Lady Gough stated in 1863 that books by unmarried authors should not occupy the same shelf, Victorian England had to know the Empire was ripening for a fall. After the self-tipping hat made a brief appearance in 1896, most realized that the male hat and its associated customs were in decline. And when I hear fundamentalists today say, “Excuse me, please, in Jesus’ name,” I long for the Rapture. But, when I hear a twelve-year-old order his Sprite “on the rocks,” I know there’s still gravel in that capacious hold.