Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

Rah-Shar!

The other evening I poured myself a glass of sparkling, barely-alcoholic blush moscato wine, using one of my lovely pink Depression glass stemware pieces. I held the glass up to the light and admired the bubbles of rosy wine sparkling within the equally-pink glass, and then sat down to sip my treat as I relaxed with a book.

It didn’t quite work out as I had planned.

Having perched myself on the corner of the couch, I set my glass down on the wooden arm and picked up my Kindle. A moment later, reaching for the stemware, I knocked the glass right off the arm of the couch, splattering wine everywhere and smashing the glass into a thousand shards and fragments as it hit the wall.

Whereupon I exclaimed, “Rah-Shar!”

You see, years earlier, my Chosative (Chosen Relative: for an explanation of that term, see my 12/18/17 blog post) had told me of a magazine article she’d once read, which explained an especially lovely concept: When some beloved, treasured item breaks, it is essentially taking the hit for a loved one—taking harm upon itself, so that the person or people you care about will not be harmed. Consequently, instead of regretting the loss of something unique or cherished, one should acknowledge the event by exclaiming the word which embodied this concept.

We both loved this idea. Unfortunately, my Chosative hadn’t written down the foreign word and was quite unable to recall it.  The two of us spent the next few years searching for the word across the vast reaches of cyberspace, to no avail.  We even each separately contacted one of those of  public radio shows that explores the delightful concepts of language, but they failed to respond.  Perhaps they couldn’t find the word, either.

And then one day, while desultorily once more searching for the word as she waited for a repairman, there it was. Algerian.  The concept was part of the consciousness of several Eastern countries, but the word itself, the single word embodying the concept, was Algerian.

“Rah-Shar!”

The listing was far down under the thread following a question, “What do you say when you break a glass?” There were many answers, ranging from the downright silly to the rude, but a number of Eastern countries seemed to have assimilated this concept that a broken treasure was protective; that to break something beloved or cherished was actually lucky, for it meant a family member or friend was now safe, the broken object having taken upon itself the harm that would have otherwise befallen them.

“Rah-Shar!”

Considering this concept, I compared it to what I had once written in this very blog in November of 2017: that we should never refrain from using our beautiful or special things, never save anything “for good”, for our good is right now; that as much as our guests deserve to be served upon our fine china, with our costly glassware or silver—even as they deserve to dry their hands upon those lovely embroidered guest towels, or to enjoy the scent of our expensive perfume–so do we deserve it, also. We are, always, every day, deserving of our own best.

In the same vein, then, we should never hesitate to use our lovely things: our glassware or silver or china, our best perfume, our embroidered towel—even the favorite toy still kept in the box and never played with. For if these precious things do shatter or tear, if they break irreparably, they are serving a much greater purpose than that of merely providing us pleasure: they are protecting those we love.

As I cleaned up the fragments of my once-lovely pink Depression glass, I murmured a thank-you to the wreckage. And as I placed the remains in the trash bin, I said quietly once more, “Rah-Shar!”

Lessons in the Thimble

I’ve read quite a number of self-help articles and books in my time, and what I’ve learned from all of them, taken together, could be aptly described by the very old country adage, “Shake it all together and stuff it in a thimble and blow it in a bed-bug’s eye.”

Oh, this isn’t to say that I learned nothing from dozens of manuscripts purporting to reveal the mysteries of life and/or the best way to live, for I did learn a great deal–especially from those authors who were humble enough to admit that these ideas were simply methods that they, personally, had found to work in their own lives.  These unpretentious authors tended to suggest that the reader could adapt and apply all or part of these lessons to her or his existence.

But what I actually learned from most of the self-help sages was that I was intelligent enough to debate their pronouncements—sometimes arriving at the conclusion they were insightful; occasionally gaining only a scrap or two of wisdom amidst a whole lot of nonsense; and, sadly and most often, finding discovering egotism and conceit in their writing.

For instance, reading one child-rearing article some years back, I learned that to handle a toddler who was throwing a tantrum (said child wanting Mommy to participate in building a Lego fortress at a time when she simply could not stop to play), Mom should solemnly promise to play with the Legos “next time”.  Of course, I thought to myself, “next time” will occur when good old Mom is preparing a formal dinner party for ten, but, what the heck—this is an EXPERT talking.  There was also the childcare expert who suggested that, in order to teach a child that a stovetop was hot, the parent should see that the kid burned his little fingers “ever so slightly”.  I am not even going to tackle my reaction to that sage piece of advice!

Later I encountered the trendy “Two Different Planets” concept of couplehood.  In the chapters of that book devoted to those actions women must absolutely take to preserve their unions, I particularly remember a pronouncement that couples should take weekend trips away together to renew their relationship–and that, if she was under the impression that they just couldn’t afford to do so, she was wrong.  Uh-huh.  Yep.  Just wait until the bills begin piling up in the inbox after that romantic weekend getaway, I thought, and see precisely how much good it had done their marriage.  Buyer’s remorse was going to set in once the checkbook reached government-style deficit financing proportions, and the resultant quarrels would be beyond ugly.  Not to mention the fact that, since this “how to preserve your relationship” ploy was pronounced by this expert to be her responsibility, she would be the one locating the B&B and making the reservation while also lining up babysitters for the kids or pet sitters for the dog and cat. And although he would likely see that the car was gassed up and the tires aired prior to their jaunt, she would be the one rushing home from work to hit the kids’ soccer game and dance lesson before getting the laundry caught up so that suitcases could be packed…and all of this only to learn, much too late, that the whole romantic getaway had been planned in conflict with the weekend of the Big Game.

What a great way to save one’s marriage.

All too often, though, I learned that the self-help gurus themselves had the proverbial feet of clay. One, whose popular book I could not finish despite the fact that it contained genuine nuggets of insight, provided telling examples throughout his narrative of the points he was making.  But every single negative example he provided was illustrated using the behavior of one gender, while each of his positive examples was delineated by describing the behavior of the other.  Noticing this anomaly only a few chapters into the book, I thought that it must certainly change as the work progressed, so I skimmed quickly through the remaining chapters, searching for further illustrations of the author’s points. And the singularity was consistent. Negative examples were always illustrated depicting the behavior of one gender; positive examples, the other.  I was so appalled by this bias that I could not finish the book, despite what might have been some very helpful guidance.

It’s a rare day now when I read either self-help articles or books. After half a lifetime of taking all those books and magazines and putting their lessons into the thimble, I’ve learned that listening to self-proclaimed savants is  just a way to test one’s own wisdom; that arguing with the individual who has all the degrees “proving” their erudition is futile and something best done in the privacy of one’s own mind; and that, finally (and most importantly), hidden within my own soul is all the wisdom that I’ve ever needed to run my own life well and competently, if I will but listen to and act upon it.

Beware the DST, My Friends!

I woke at just a little after 5:00 a.m. this morning, roused by a small furry animal who does not comprehend the latest clock change. I can’t really blame her; my body, too, has yet to adapt to this most recent nonsense of yanking the clocks backwards and forwards according to some mysterious formula which supposedly reduces energy consumption for lighting—lighting!–in an era in which air conditioners and electric furnaces operate year-long, and desktops, tablets, laptops, phones and all manner of other tech devices run ceaselessly, constantly in use, endlessly charging.

I grew up in an Indiana which refused to do Daylight Savings Time. Like Hawaii and Arizona (rational states in which the populace recognizes the salient fact that another hour of heat during the summer months is NOT desirable), most of Indiana, smack in the center of two warring Time Zones, stood in solitary and sane splendor.  Because their populace tended to cross the artificial borders of the various State lines for their work commutes, the northernmost of Indy’s 92 counties aligned themselves with Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, while the southernmost counties aligned themselves with Kentucky.

In actual practice, what all this meant to me, as a State employee, was that the Central Training Unit for which I worked for several years had to constantly figure out some way to gather regional employees to a designated site for a day of training that somehow encompassed different working hours. It also meant that (back when long distance calling rates varied according to the hour) my late friend Anastacia could never figure out what the heck time it was in Indiana when she was calling from Massachusetts.  And the lack of a time change spawned a pretty entertaining Eerie, Indiana episode.

But we dealt. We made it work. And most of us were pretty content with the status quo.

Eventually, though, the Indiana General Assembly decreed that Indy would join ranks with the other 48 split-personality states and do Daylight Savings Time. As to exactly why we were going to do this, I remain uncertain, although I personally blame former Governor Mitch Daniels.  I never liked the man, anyway, so it’s easy for me to blame him.  (Ah! To be a retired State employee and be able at last to say anything I can about the State’s governors, past and present, without fearing for my job!)

In any case, the State legislature gleefully announced that all of Indiana would be on the same time at last. All 92 counties worth of us.  In reality, though, we are no more on the same time than we were before the advent of the Dreaded DST.  A dozen Indiana counties, perched on the northern and southern tips of the State, remain aligned to Central rather than Eastern time.  So, the simple truth is, nobody outside the State—heck, not even most of the residents inside the State!–well, simply put, to this day, no one knows what the heck time it is in Indiana.

The real problem as I see it, though, is that I have yet to meet a single person who likes Daylight Savings Time.  Whether they align themselves on the “spring forward and leave it alone, for God’s sake!” or the “fall back and never touch the damn clocks again!” side of the debate, they are all united in one simple belief: DST sucks eggs big time.  It wrecks people’s internal body clocks.  Parents of small children lose their minds for fully two weeks after the twice-yearly time change, trying to help their children adapt to the lost-or-gained hour.  (It’s not, after all, like this is something one can explain to a newborn infant!)  And hungry pets demand to know why their palatial offerings of kibble and canned food are not being presented when the REAL timekeepers—those little clocks in their tummies, like a mantelpiece novelty—are informing them that it is, too, time for breakfast!

Sadly, since Indiana, (ever regressive and rural, despite its contemporary pretensions), remains one of the few States in the Union which denies its citizens the right of voter referendum, so that residents can place issues on the ballot, I don’t expect the unhappy Daylight Savings Time dispute to be resolved anytime soon. But I’ll continue agreeing with the proverb:

You can’t cut the end off a blanket, sew it to the other end, and pretend you have a longer blanket.

Saving Things For Good

My mother died in November, 2010. Following her passing, it took months — quite literally months — for my Dad and I to go through all her hoarded possessions and decide what to do with them.

One of the last things we sorted through was her china cabinet. The shelves were packed with her best china — lovely, thin, translucent white dishes with gold rims. There was expensive glassware, too,  and silver and crystal salt shakers, many of them.  Sadly, although unbroken, everything was in dreadful condition.  Each piece was covered with a pasty, thick film comprised of yellowed nicotine residue and grey dust.  The two prettiest salt shakers, exquisite cut crystal from the former country of Czechoslovakia,  were capped by ruined lids, the silver badly corroded because the seasonings put into them years before had never been removed. Nothing, not one of these lovely pieces of china or crystal, had been used in over twenty years.  They hadn’t even been visible, hidden behind the closed doors of cabinets, slowly gathering dust and grime.

For hours I carefully washed each piece, using a heavy mixture of nose-and-eye searing ammonia blended into scalding water; it was the only way to remove the thick film. Then I rinsed them multiple times and dried them gently until they shone once more, and took the dishes home with me.

A few mornings later, as I prepared my breakfast, serving myself on the pretty white-and-gold china, salting my eggs from the glistening Czechoslovakian crystal shakers, (newly capped with replacement lids that I’d hunted down at a flea market), it struck me forcibly that my mother had lived with these beautiful things all her life, and never enjoyed them.  It wasn’t just that they weren’t used — they weren’t enjoyed.   She took no pleasure in them; she merely owned them. They weren’t cherished, but accumulated.  They weren’t treasures, maintained and conserved; they were merely possessions.

A dear friend told me of a proverb she’d one heard, from another country, another age: that when something precious breaks, like a piece of valued china or a crystal cup, it is taking upon itself the harm that would otherwise have come to a loved one.  Therefore, when some precious possession shatters, one should rejoice, for now a loved one is safe.  In consequence, there is no point in packing precious things away or refusing to use them, for if they are destroyed, they have served even a greater purpose than the sheer pleasure of appreciating them.

So I use my mother’s fine china every day, and salt my food using her crystal shakers from a vanished country. Most of her plates are chipped now, touched with the “chigger bites” that indicate long use, their gold rims fading. Many have been broken. And often, too, I now use my own personal fine china and lovely pink Depression glass teacups — admiring them, holding them before my eyes and drinking in their beauty with my tea — taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated.  And if, as sometimes happens, one shatters and breaks, then I rejoice, knowing that my loved ones, my true treasures, have been kept safe from harm.

Hoard nothing.  Treasure everything.  And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.

It’s the End of the World…Again

I’ve lived multiple times now through the End of the World.

The first of these “Ha! Still here!” scenarios occurred when I was barely out of my teens.  A classmate (we’ll call him Tony, because that was his name) was for weeks seen to be toting about a book written by a man who had calculated the End of the World.  Tony was preparing, because it was close, very close.  The year of our coming graduation, in fact.

Since we were in our senior year of high school, I wondered that Tony bothered coming to class, seeing as it was going to do him no good whatever, bound as we all were for the Celestial Chopping Block. But he did, all the while blithely anticipating an Armageddon that somehow failed to happen.  Sadly, Tony and I had long graduated and parted ways when the End of the World didn’t happen, denying me the pleasure of rubbing it in.

Then there was the Great Planetary Alignment. That was the next biggie I remember in the raft of EOW scenarios.  The planets were going to align, and the resultant gravitational forces exerted were literally going to rip the earth apart, pulling it piece from piece.

Didn’t happen. The planets lined up, nicely, like little soldiers falling in, and the birds tweeted, a soft breeze blew, and everything went peacefully on.  (Well, except for wars, devastation, plague, and starvation, but that’s all been going on since the beginning of recorded history.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.)

Haley’s Comet missed the Earth. The Rapture failed to happen multiple times.  Nuclear war did not break out on the predicted dates (although it’s currently looking pretty ominous, with Twit and Twat running opposing countries).  Nostradamus and a whole lotta others got it wrong about 1999. The Y2K bug failed to trigger worldwide destruction, economic meltdown, and panic. Nibiru didn’t collide with Earth.

And then there was December 21, 2012. Despite a massive publicity campaign, including a big disaster-flick, it just didn’t happen.  The world didn’t end. Very thoughtless of it, after all that work.

Of course, most recently, the world was expected to end in September this year. When it failed to happen, the date was bumped up to October.

Or perhaps it was just that, in all the chaos surrounding the final preparations for my daughter’s wedding, I missed it. Although, considering all the things-gone-wrong scenarios I dealt with during that final month prior to the wedding, I would almost have welcomed  the end of the world to put me out of my misery.

I clicked up Wikipedia to check on the future dates for the EOW. 2020 seems to be the next one to watch out for.  That’s not such a bad idea, I’ve decided; at least Social Security won’t have the chance to run out of money for all us pensioners. Most of the dates, though, were far enough in the future that I will likely be sitting on a comfortable cloud in Heaven, watching the puny little beings scurry about below, stockpiling canned goods and searching out deep caves to hide in and possibly survive the devastation.

Having been to Mammoth Cave once as a child, I recommend it. It’s nice and deep and large and even has its own ecosystem.  Great place to survive Armageddon…if it ever happens.