Saturday, December 5, 2009

sketchbook no. 8

this is the personal essay i read at lewis and clark today on an open radio station art piece by gregory green.

The use of "Ma'am" is disappearing and is little used in the North except by displaced Southerners or servants of the old school. In the South you still hear it and in some areas there is a strong effort to keep the custom of having children and, of course, servants address adult women as "Ma'am." I don't endorse this. I feel that Mrs. of Miss together with the surname is properly respectful for everyone for all parts of the country.

this is christopher bayerle and that was an excerpt from amy vanderbilt's Etiquette: The Guide to Gracious Living.

to the left of the plate, the fork. to the right, the knife (blade in), then a spoon. a constellation of utensils. sometimes there will be two forks, a smaller salad fork to the outside of a larger fork for the entree. on the right, above the knife and spoon, a binary system of water and wine glasses, the water to the left and slightly above the wine glass. around the table an orbit of men and women eating, talking, laughing, drinking, sharing. men wait to be seated until all the women of the table have taken their seats. no one begins eating until everyone has been served.

these are basic laws of the social universe, gravitational pulls that maintain the order and fluid rotation of a dinner table, of a family, of a group of friends.

If just the family is at the table, let us say mother, father, and three children, the serving is usually handled by both mother and father, with father serving the meat and the mother the vegetables. It is pleasant to vary the serving sequence if all three children are of the same sex, with the oldest one not necessarily always being served first, and the baby last. If the children are of mixed sexes, the girls are served before the boys as they will be when they are grown up.

when my family would travel during the summer from alabama to visit relatives in new york, my father would recall with a groan the friendliness of yankees. he would remind us of the waiter in some diner on one of these trips who took our order with barely a word let alone a smile, pouring water into cups in one fluid sweep of her arm across the water, leaving the table puddled with water onto which cups of coffee and plates of food were sloshed.

my mother, a yankee herself, never liked my sister and me to call her ma'am, telling us it made her feel old, but she instructed us that we were to refer to our teachers as such, that women in the south liked to be called ma'am and men were to be addressed as sir. that we would be looked more kindly on if we could remember this.

parents instruct their children to say please and thank you when asking a favor. our parents raise us to cough into our sleeves, to wash our hands, to ask permission before borrowing something, to say "excuse me" when we bump into someone else, to apologize when we hurt another, to not pick our noses.

If you are having people to dinner, mix only one kind of cocktail and offer, in addition, sherry, and scotch or bourbon or rye and soda - with vegetable or fruit juice for possible teetotalers. Old-fashioneds are a nuisance to fix for more than four or five. The safest choice seems to be martinis, which have the virtue of being relatively inexpensive, more or less foolproof as to concoction, and mixable well in advance... You make no mistake when you choose one of the following cocktails to serve before a dinner party - martini, bacardi, or daiquiri (especially in summer), whisky sours (good any time and well-liked by both sexes), manhattans and old-fashioneds (with a minimum of garnish for male tastes).

at a party in atlanta, ga a few years ago, i tried to strike up a conversation with a gentleman at the bar wearing a shirt for an album on which my friend, the dj playing even as i spoke, was featured. i said, "my friend, this dj playing right now is featured on that album" pointing to his shirt; he replied, "oh," turned away from me and walked away into the crowd.

certainly atlanta does retain its southern charm a lot of the time, but this sort of behavior to me exemplifies typical east coast, big city rudeness and uncaring. everyone seems too caught up in their selves, too busy, too uncaring, too oblivious to the details, too untrusting.

perhaps birmingham, alabama, the city where i grew up, is just small enough that it's easy to feel comfortable when interacting with strangers. but birmingham isn't the safest cities. in fact, its one of america's least safest cities. a place in which one can't walk alone or at all at night. a city in which everyone you know has at least one story about being held up for cash or beer or a bike. a city with some neighborhoods you don't even think about driving through.

so why then does it seem like we're so open with others despite all this?

Modern notions of what constitutes proper dinner table conversation are drastically different from those that prevailed in Victorian and even later times. It was once thought that politics, religion, illness, accidents, scandal, were not fit subjects for the dinner table. I concur within reason... Impersonal conversation is, at best dull. A healthy give and take, warm expression of one's feelings and opinions, the accounting of interesting personal experiences, all means lively social intercourse. Even argument may make lively interchange so long as barbed and painful personal remarks are avoided.

when i moved here to portland, friends expounded to me the wonder of how friendly portlanders seemed to be. portlanders are friendly. this city is so laid back and trustful; its citizens having built a great community here. but i've been yelled at by older oregonians on the street several times, been brushed off when introducing myself to strangers at bars or parties, given straight-forward but brusque directions or the time when asked of a stranger on the street.

if a stranger on the street in birmingham had asked me for directions, i wouldn't have looked cross or impatient at all, would have answered warmly, would have paused in case the questioner had any other question, would have told the person to have a great day, expressed hope that the other would find their destination quickly. i would offer a stranger at a bar to sit with me. i would excuse myself even if another person in the street had tripped me.

In greeting people we say, "how do you do?" We do not really expect an answer, but it is all right to reply, "Very well, thank you," even if it is a blue Monday and you feel far from well. No one wants a clinical discussion in response to this purely rhetorical question. In fact, you may answer Socratically with "How do you do?" - expecting, and getting, no answer. In farewell, say simply, "Good-by," or something you really feel, such as "Let's meet soon again" or "It was so nice running into you." Don't some current banality such as "Good-by now." It is obvious it is now you are saying "Good-by" - not an hour previously nor an hour hence. Watch these cliches.

for amy vanderbilt there was a form for everything, a proper way of doing any activity. the complexity of the form or gesture seems gratuitous at times, but there was and can still be a purpose for such rules of etiquette. what these manners provide us is social lubricant. they allow us to interact with others more easily without offending. they alway refer and defer to the other. i hold the door open for YOU. i offer YOU a cup of coffee. i introduce myself to YOU. i say thank YOU.

it's not important to me that one always gets the form correct. i express deficient etiquette often. but looking at amy vanderbilt, i see as important that deference to the other, that consciousness of social interaction. perhaps the south's preference for sugary politeness and the comfort of manners seems false at times, but i miss the warmth and ease of social relations there, the coy politesse, the deference to the other despite one's motives.

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