“I don’t like my manners myself,” says private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, “I grieve over them on long winter evenings.”
I’ve never understood the plot of that film noir classic, but I get what Marlowe meant about manners.
The sense of direction gene skipped my DNA, but I could tell you the difference between right and left. At least, politically.
I know what books I should read one day (War and Peace) and which Gutenberg moments to keep in the closet (The Nanny Diaries).
Though I’m the Dalai Lama of imperfection, I’ve pretty well nailed the 411 on the big things in life.
Kindness, integrity, love--honoring your parents are in. Stealing, killing, lying–cheating are out.
But, for me and I bet for you, too, it’s often the day-to-day interpersonal interactions, that present the real dilemmas.
We know that manners matter, that without civility and courtesy, civilization would stop.
More important there would be no more parties, dates, art openings, or Thanksgiving dinners.
These occasions are difficult enough. Even for geniuses and beautiful people–let alone the rest of us.
Can you imagine what they’d be like without manners?
Unfortunately, I can. And sometimes I’ve contributed to the decline of civilization.
At a recent poetry reading, I bolted from my table to avoid the poet sitting next to me. You’d have thought she was an axe murderer. Her crime? I didn’t like her voice or the print on her blouse. I thought both were too loud.
I can’t count the times I’ve slammed the door on missionaries wanting to pray for my soul or hung up on telemarketers.
When a friend seemed too anxious, I suggested that she consult a therapist. After my 552 years of therapy, I knew that I’d told her this for her own good. Not surprisingly, despite my apologies, our friendship ended.
As you’ve doubtless picked up, even though I’m visually impaired, I can be as rude as the next sighted person.
The other day, I started to cross the street when the walk sign came on. I raised my white cane and pointed it at a driver in a car who, by turning illegally on a red line, impeded my progress.
This gesture was effective. But, should I have given him the finger?
Occasionally, I handle the etiquette thing pretty well.
Once, while I was at the movies, I encountered a flasher. As the man was about to expose himself, I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Sir, if you’d give me a magnifying glass,” I told him, ‘I’d be glad to look.”
This deflated the situation.
Negotiating the realm of etiquette can make you tear your hair out.
What do you do when your dinner party hostess is the worst cook in the world, a health food nut, and a mother hen? Concerned for your well-being, she’ll offer odd-smelling medicinal teas, if you don’t scarf down her dry tofu turkey.
What should you say when your wannabe poet friend wants you to assess his work?
You don’t want to be rude to your pal or nip potential talent in the bud. But, his poems make Hallmark greeting card verses seem like Shakespearean sonnets. Do you really want to unleash verse of his ilk on to the poetry world?
How do you turn down unwanted lovers, offers of help or prayers?
One day, I encountered a street evangelist outside of a subway station in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C. “What did you do to make God make you blind?” he asked me.
“I became a lesbian,” I told him.
“You’ll keep the Lord from getting lazy,” replied Mr. Faith Healer without missing a beat.
Looking back, I’m not sure if my flippant response was helpful.
Though warranted, I may have been unduly or fruitlessly sarcastic to a street person.
You can argue with a wise man but not with a fool, my father (quoting the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem) told me during my rebellious teenage years. When I thought I knew everything under the sun – and then some.
The Sargasso Sea of manners has been the muse to many a creative artist – from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde.
One reason why these writers never seem dated is that our fascination with manners – our preoccupation with the intricacies of human behavior – is timeless.
Lately, I’ve been re-reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Wharton writes in her novel about Newland Archer, a wealthy gentleman in late 19th century New York:
“New York was a metropolis, and in....metropolises it was ‘ not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors....of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”
This description of Manhattan life sounds as if it were written last week.
Writing about manners is an art.
Bob Morris is one of our best contemporary writers on manners.
Morris wrote a column called “The Age of Dissonance” for 8 years for the New York Sunday Times Style section. He is a superb commentator on human behavior.
A playwright, performer, children’s book author, Morris has been an NPR commentator and New Yorker contributor.
Like many of his fans, I’ve been in mourning since “Dissonance” ended its run.
I miss reading about everything from bad wedding behavior to the perils of being too honest to the complications of “breaking up” with a friend.
“I don’t like writing about politics or art,” Morris told me in a telephone interview, “I’m interested in human behavior.”
Morris writes about manners. His writing is an insightful mix of wit and social commentary. He doesn’t want to be a scold, so he uses a light touch.
One reason why Morris’ work is so good is that he doesn’t lectures on etiquette or pretend to be an example of model behavior.
He knows how we should behave if we are mannerly, but doesn’t always act this way in his own life, Morris said.
“At a dinner party, you’re supposed to ‘turn the table,’” to enhance conversation, he said.
But, Morris, he said, often disregards this etiquette rule, and talks to the person he finds to be the most interesting.
His father, Joe Morris, was a frequent character in Morris’ columns. “He was a great guy,” Morris says of his Dad who died in 2006.
Morris is the uber sophisticated, middle-aged gay New Yorker, who wouldn’t be caught dead in the wrong clothes or with a passe beverage.
His father was a Long Islander, obsessed with playing bridge and creating (what Bob called “gross”) concoctions. “My father never laid a hand on anyone in our home,” Morris wrote in one of his Dissonance columns “The abuse, he committed, was instead of the culinary variety.”
His Dad, Morris wrote (with fond recall) put salad dressing on his mother’s lemon chicken and diet-raspberry soda on Jello molds and cobblers.
About a year after his mother died, his father turned to Morris for help with dating. Like many of us in this situation, Morris felt that his Dad was making this request too soon.
As a single writer, (his brother was married with children), Morris resented a bit that he was the one his father was turning to.
But, over the course of the year, Morris became enthusiastic about “pimping” – checking the personal ads, talking to friends–finding dates for his Dad.
By this point in his life, Morris had, he said, “given up on love.”
As so often happens, Bob while “pimping” for Joe, unexpectedly met Ira, the love of his life.
Joe in the 1980's, before many parents welcomed their gay children with open arms, told Bob it was fine with him if he “liked other men.”
While Bob offered etiquette advice and chaperoned Joe on some of his dates, Joe encouraged Bob to shed his cynicism about romance.
Morris’ memoir about his father “Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad” is just out.
The volume is an insightful, unsentimental, witty and well-written book about family, love, etiquette and aging.
Read it. You’ll not only learn about Joe, a great Dad, but about your own Dad and yourself.
Check out www.assistedloving.com. The site offers a selection of Morris’ “Age of Dissonance” columns and a potpourri of resources on aging.
Happy Father’s Day.
This month is Gay Pride Month. If you’re in D.C., check out this walking tour.
From 10:30 a.m. to noon on June 21, “Beltway Poetry Quartely” (www.beltwaypoetry.com) and Split This Rock (www.splitthisrock.org) will present “GLBT Poets of Washington,” a guided walking tour of the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Learn how gay literary culture has flourished in this area from the 1970's to the present with the influence of such writers as Essex Hemphill, Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Andrew Holleran and many others.
The tour, which will cost $5, will be led by Dan Vera, managing editor of “White Crane,” a gay men’s quarterly magazine and co-publisher of Vrzhu Press.
To register, send your name, email and phone to firstname.lastname@example.org