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Is there such a thing as “disaster etiquette”?

I live in Nashville, where we’ve been suffering the duress of major flooding, ever since this past weekend.

The theory is that, as the water level rises, everybody rises to the occasion, and everybody’s best behavior rises to the surface. (At least that’s what we see on CNN, when a dog is trapped on the roof of an SUV.)

I fear that is not alway so.

This past Sunday, fellow homeowners and I devoted three full hours to mopping out and swabbing up the muck in the lobby of the condo building where we live. Throughout the process, another homeowner strolled amongst the mix of us, talking on her cell phone. (The legend was that she was maintaining contact with our building’s Maintenance Engineer.)

Once the initial cleaning was done, and once the swabbing/mopping team had decided it was time to hose down the entryways, the homeowner-on-her-cell-phone stepped in and said, “You know, I’m not truly comfortable with what you’re doing, right now.”

To which my response, looking up through the spray of my hose, was, “Go home.”  And so she went.

Even a gentleman, mop-in-hand, has his limits.

Did I do the right thing? (Of course, I did.)

Even when sandbags are being hoisted, hand to hand, it is never wrong to say, “Thank you,” even if a grunt gets in the mix.

— John/

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It’s wedding time, and the invite business, sticky-note-wise and otherwise, is already bedecking the break-room bulletin boards.

One, fiercely engraved, says:

Mr. and Mrs. Herrick Kinsley Postough

request the honour of your presence

at the marriage of their daughter

Marryanne Eugienne

to

Mr. Jeremey Allan Glanzich

Saturday, the sixth of June

Two thousand and ten

at six o’clock

Church of the Best Birthings

856 Interbred Road

Tautly, Connecticut

Then there is another, simply thermographed, with an entanglement of wedding rings dancing round its margin:

Ms. CAUSELINE ROBERTA INGAWE THOMAS

and Mr. ALBERTO FRANZ DiFOCCO

along with THEIR CHILDREN (from a number of previous marriages)

cordially invite YOU to join THEM

as they SOLEMNIZE their

REAFFIRMING PERSONALLY SACRED VOWS OF HOLY MATRIMONY

June 6, 2010

(Saturday, starting at 5 p.m.; continuing until closing)

Monimo’s Gyros Take-Out and Kurdish Dip Bar

528-K 4326 E.128 St.

New York, NY.

(Cash bar only.)

Please R/S/V/P at causeline@becauseitsdifocconow.com

What is one supposed to do, when such invitations appear out of nowhere, briskly pinned up on the cork board in the office break room?

One may assume that Margienne’s invite, deeply engraved, is stuck there simply for purposes of information, intimidation and the setting down of boundaries.

Causeline’s invitation may be asking for something more — especially if it’s accompanied by a sign-up list for the

IT Office Pot-Luck Lunch and Second-Time-Around Wedding Shower,”

honoring “Causeline“.

and “Alberto”.

focusing on wine and

gifts they might use for their children, ages 9-13

(registered at Target.com, including kitchen utensils)

Large Break Room

11:30=12:30 EST

Please sign on, below.

Guests are requested to clean up after themselves.

Must you sign on? (Of course not.)

Must you show up for the party? (No, especially if you have no interest in being involved in any office wedding showers, ever again.)

Must you bring a gift, if  you show up for the party?  (Not necessarily, since, in many instances, the dictum is “your presence is your present.” A fruitless and ineffectual dictum, if there ever was one. It’s useful, always,  to stop by the wine store, or by a shop that hawks clever cocktail napkins.)

What’s more, if you don’t take a present to the party, age-old propriety maintains that you don’t eat the cake. That’s the basic trade-off.

Age-old propriety is full of itself.

Go to the party. (Go on-line; send Causeline the Target-store garbage can she’s been dreaming of.)

Eat the cake.

— John




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The cover story in this month’s Vanity Fair purports to be about Grace Kelly — at least that’s the way things look if you’re giving a cursory browse to the racks at the airport news stand. But the real news in this month’s Vanity Fair — or what seems to be the virtually unavoidable substitute for news these days, is ( you guessed it)  the unseemly saga of Tiger Woods. Not one but two cover blurbs, each playing off our  blacklure to learn more about Tiger’s “kinks,” and promise us the spectacle of “Tiger’s Girlathon Gallery!” (At least VF subjects us to only one exclamation point; thank god for journalistic restraint.)

With good reason, cover blurbs such as these are also known as “teasers.” But Vanity Fair, making good on its pledge, comes through with a spread of full-page, professional-makeup-artist-styled portraits of at least a limited cross-section of Tiger’s girlfriends. Some of them are wearing underwear. At least one of them, I’m pretty certain, is not. Almost all the photos are shot in the restaurants, or in the bedrooms. or, even more egregiously, in the hallways leading to ill-specified hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, I’m distinctly uncertain whether”girlfriend” is the term I’m looking for in this instance, precisely.  (Maybe you can help me think of the word.) “Mistress” doesn’t quite do it. “Mistresses” traditionally maintain at least a modicum of decorum and can command at least some fragile claim on a gentleman’s commitment. (Think of Susan Hayward in Backstreet.) What’s more, “mistresses” know how to keep their mouths shut — maybe out of some misguided, self-flagellating sense of loyalty, or maybe as a means of just making sure their mortgage payments continue to get covered.

But nobody these days, whether they’re part of the John-Rielle-Elizabeth triangle or a participant in the Sandra-Jesse-Michelle trifecta, seems to have any resistance to the temptation to talk, especially when a hot microphone is within shouting distance, when there’s a seat available on Oprah’s sofa, or when there might even possibly be a book deal in the offing. And it’s hard to tell who’s most at fault — the feckless and the forsaken who can’t manage to keep their mouths shut, or the rest of us who can’t resist the urge to eavesdrop.

Maybe the question that needs to be asked of everybody — the philanderers, their ill-used other halves, and the rest of us who just can’t stop flipping through In Touch at the check-out counter — is “Have we no shame?”

Vanity Fair knows, of course, the wry-making irony of putting Princess Grace on the cover of its “Tiger’s Girlathon” issue. Grace Kelly was nobody’s fragile flower. (Nobody seems quite sure how many of her leading men she slept with; she seems to have felt no particular urge to say whether she did or didn’t — grown-up, inexpressibly beautiful people of her age simply screwed around, and nobody seems to have dared to have pressed the awkward questions — how often, and if ever, and with whom?.) It’s stunning, by today’s standards, to note that, as young Miss Kelly, Oscar winner and fiancee to the Monagasque Prince Ranier, could actually pursue their multi-continental courtship in 1956, writing actual letters back and forth to each other, with nobody–at least as far as we know — steaming open the envelopes.

Imagine such intimacy. Imagine such privacy. Imagine the naughtinesses lost forever, before the advent of e-mail.

In tiny print, up in the right hand corner of its current cover, Vanity Fair quotes a couple of lines from W.B. Yeats. “The innocent and the beautiful,” Yeats says, ‘Have no enemy but time.” Grace Kelly seems to have known how to stop the clock.

For the rest of this crowd, it’s still ticking.

— John

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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.

The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it —  at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.

There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”

In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.

It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.

What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”

Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.

In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”

The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”

To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”

Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?

Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.

— John/

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This question in, via e-mail:

I know it’s not an uncommon experience, but it’s the first time it’s happened to me. My son, who’s 6, was part of a sleep-over party at a friend’s house last week. When he got home, there was a red spot on his arm. It looked like a bug bite, so I checked him out. What I found was something that looked like a bedbug crawling around under the collar of his shirt. The mother who was hosting the party is scrupulous when it comes to cleanliness, so I know she doesn’t want bugs crawling around in her house; but I don’t want to embarrass her. What can I do?

The bug-bite — bedbug or not — may have come from anywhere, or from the sleeping bag of any kid cuddled up at the party. (Is there no possible chance your own kid was the carrier? Have you checked out your own mattress pads?)

Every mother involved in the spend-the-night needs to be informed; but it’s not your job to alarm the entire guest list.  Your responsibility — which is tough enough, in and of itself — is to call the host-mother and say, “Tom-Tom had a great time at your house the other night. When he got home on Saturday morning, however, he had what looked like a bug-bite on his arm. Later in the day, I found a little critter crawling around on his collar.

“Have you heard any similar reports from any of the other boys?”

Inevitably, the mother-in-question will say, “No! My goodness! What a horrible thing!” In the absolutely best of instances, she will say, “Oh! My goodness! What a horrible thing! Let me check on this!” (Unless she is uncleanly by habit, she will be stunned by this revelation; and it will take a few seconds for the reality to sink in.)

It is not your responsibility to contact all attendant mothers, asking “Did you hear that my tiny Tom-Tom got a bedbug bite at Mikey’s?” It is the responsibility of the hostess-mother to run through the roster, if she chooses to do so.

Your only responsibility is to decide whether you want to risk Tom-Tom’s sleeping bag-to-bag with Mikey, ever again.

This is a situation best handled directly by phone. E-mail is a bad option, since it offers a “Reply All” to all the mothers involved.

And every mother’s business is her own.

–John/

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Here’s a concern voiced to me, post-Oscar Monday, by a not-overly blond nor excessively slender person, at the gym:

“Last night, I threw my Oscars party. I did all the food, except for the part of it that people brought, just because they wanted to. Drinks-wise, I asked everybody to BYOB. Almost everybody brought wine. [One friend; let’s not give his name] brought a jug of not-so-good Merlot; so it never got opened, all night long. When it came time to leave, he picked up his jug and went home — no explanations, no apologies, no nothing. How rude is that?”

A BYOB invite always begs for mixed blessings, of course.

Not only does it empower people to drink more than they ought to — since they’re consuming their own hooch (so who’s counting?) — it also leads to an unseemly confusion:

Should I — acting like a graduate-school student — scrawl my name on a bit of masking-tape and and stick it across my personal bottle of vodka? (I’d seem chintzy if I did that. Wouldn’t I?) Meanwhile, if I’d really like another cocktail, and, if it’s not all that late in the evening, while unscrupulous others have already emptied my fifth of good Scotch? (I ought to have a right to somebody else’s rot-gut? Shouldn’t I?)

If almost everybody is bringing a bottle of wine for the evening, and if some bottles don’t get opened, it’s perfectly all right for [One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] or anybody else, to take home his unopened bottle.

[One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] may have decided that his wine was too fine to be wasted on the company at hand. Or he may simply have decided that it’s time to take home his unopened bottle.

This was a BYOB party, after all.

A wrong idea from the beginning; so any judgment calls are iffy.

To make matters worse, the recycling of bottles is unlikely.

John/

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Here’s an inquiry from a Facebook Friend

Sometimes when you see someone in person after you haven’t seen them in a long time, you might not recognize them right away. Whether we want to admit it or not, some of us have changed over the years 🙂

Hair changes. Cheeks change. Jaws change. Teeth change.  Anything can change, hour by hour, day by day  — even without the assistance of a surgeon or a hair-dresser, even without the assistance of a well-meaning :).

A glitter in the eye remains the same, always, as a means of welcome.  A nod or a mild wave across the air can most often cover the reach of an uncomfortable room.

If a gentleman friend appears healthy, and has trimmed down, it’s always right to cheer him on by saying, “Well, Eric, you’re certainly looking fit.” To which he will usually respond by saying, “Thanks. I’ve been working on it.” If such is not the case — and if he has lost weight for some reason he’d rather not talk about — he will say, “Thanks. And how are you?”

If a lady friend has lost weight, or if her hair color has changed, or if her jawline has been joisted up to a point where she is virtually unrecognizable, she is usually aware of that fact, and will go ahead and re-introduce herself, even to some semi-intimate acquaintances. If one is forced into the most discomforted of corners, where there is no possible means of remembering the lady’s name, the only appropriate greeting is a quick kiss followed by, “Don’t you look wonderful?” or “I love you in purple!” or “You’ve got to tell me about that pin!”

“I’m on my way to the bar. Will you come with me?” provides a ready escape from almost any awkward encounter, in passing, with a lady left alone.

Then one can only pray for another person to come along — a person with a name one actually knows — so that one can say to his lady-friend, “I want you to meet my friend Bobo Highsworth.” To which one can only pray that the re-done lady will pitch in and say, as she would appropriately do in any social situation, “Hello, Bobo. I’m Angela Taughtely. It’s so nice to meet you.” If the introducer is left foundering in absolutely desperate straits, his last resort (or his first resort, if he sees trouble brewing, from afar) is to chat amongst the three of them, for just the space of a breath, and then say, “I’m sure you know each other.”

In the most potentially awkward of situations, a gentleman’s only out is to say, “You’re going to have to forgive me. I fear you’re going to have to introduce yourselves.”

But a gentleman can only do that once in a lifetime, with any one pair of acquaintances.

Otherwise, he will have to find a corner where he can stand by himself, until his friend Angela Taughtely draws him into the room and says, “You do know my friend Bobo Highsworth. Don’t you?”

–John/

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I had absolutely no idea who you were, the other night at a cocktail party.

It was probably my mother’s fault.

Sometime last week, NPR reported “the results of a recent scientific study” indicating that the gift for recognizing the faces of others, at cocktail parties and elsewhere, may be inherited. In that study — if I understood it correctly — some relatively newborn babies were presented with a chart consisting of a square, a triangle, and a smiley face. First time around, nothing much happened. Second time around, the selfsame babies slapped on the smiley face.

I wish I could be as lucky as those babies. And I wish I could politely slap your face at a cocktail party, as well, if it would help me remember your name.

Reconnecting with faces may be a gift, but remembering the names to go with them is a craft.

Once you’ve been introduced to a person, repeating that person’s name, over the course of the conversation, early on, usually helps. (As in, “Yes, Jared, I was wondering, Jared, what you were doing with your poodles, Jared”; or ” Yes, Jeannette, I was wondering how you, Jeannette, made that happen with your hair, Jeannette”; or “Yes, Morcum, I was wondering whatever happened to my 401K, Morcum. I thought you, Morcum, were taking care of it.)

Mnemonics (the trick of memory games) may help. For example: It helps if I remember that “David,” of a couple, is “dark,” as opposed to Michael, who is “mild.” It also helps if I look at my friend Callie and remember that she and her husband live on Bittersweet. (Bittersweet is a flower; so is a calla lilly; every connection boosts.)

But if a face and a name don’t click — particularly if the face has been reworked or the hair has been re-colored — there’s no embarrassment in saying what my good friend Henschel usually says to people he may have met before : “I’m sorry; but I fear you have the advantage of me.”

Worse things might have happened.  The research reported on NPR also involved chimpanzees, and their handlers, most of whom were wearing masks. No faces were ever recognized.

I’ve been to that party, too. Haven’t you?

John/

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“How late may we linger at a restaurant?” friends ask me, trying to put a little parley-voo-spin on the obvious question.

What they’re actually asking, of course, is, “If we just sit at the table, ordering nothing but coffee re-fills, and more water, and stay there for 90 minutes, without even asking for a second round of cognac, while 27 couples are lined up at the check-in desk, will the servers hate us?”

I’ve conducted a brief, relatively random survey of restaurant servers. The servers claim they don’t care, as long as they’re tipped considerately — not just in terms of their percentage of the bill, but also with some consideration of the time they’ve spent re-filling coffee cups and water glasses, while old friends simply reminisce, long after the plates have been cleared.

Every server in my random survey is a liar.

Unless we’re ordering a third or fourth round of drinks, or another set of Choc-o-mania Brownie Upsets for the entire table, any rational server with a rent payment to make would clearly prefer that we move on. They hope to see us again, very soon; but they hope to see another table-full of patrons even sooner.

This is one of those moments when the relationship between diner and server devolves into a sort of unspoken arithmetic. The tally, at the bottom line, is the tip.

At a fine restaurant, where reservations must be made weeks in advance, and where the tables are spread with linen, and the silver truly is silver, patrons may linger as long as they wish. (The expense of their lingering is built into the final tab; the customers get to tip on top of the charge for lingering.) And, even at a restaurant where wanna-be diners are lined up, waiting for the hostess’s next available, every patron — even if he’s only headed to the salad bar — should feel free to ask for an extra cup of Catalina, on the side. Everything should happen in its own time. But everything in life, if we are closely attuned to it, also has its own rhythm.

The other night my friend Lynette and I were the last two patrons in a restaurant. As we got up to leave, one of the servers was waiting to plug in the floor-waxer.

I had tried to be kind with the tip. I even blew out the candles at the table next to ours.

“Do you think they hate us?” Lynette asked, as I helped her into her coat.

I said, “I don’t know.

“I usually eat at the bar.”

— John/

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It’s not quite March, but already the clanging of wedding bells can be heard in the distance. Already, in some cases, they’re clanging out of tune.

Witness the extremely public example of Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, whose son, Quinn Bradlee, is scheduled to be married in Washington on April 10, which turns out to be the selfsame day when Sally Quinn’s step-granddaughter  (which makes her Quinn Bradlee’s niece, for those of you who are keeping score)  is scheduled to be married in California.

Since a number of the bodies thrown into this nuptial bed of nettles come equipped with well-known names (Sally Quinn is married to Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the Post. The mother of the California bride is ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz; the father of the California bride is Ben Bradlee Jr., a high-profile editor at the Boston Globe), a situation that might best be handled entirely by in-house negotiations has become fodder for all sort of unneeded comment, and unrequested input, all over the blogosphere.

This past weekend, Sally Quinn (who’s in a no-win situation, since she’s mother of the groom on one side, and step-mother of the bride on the other) tried to walk the readers of her Post column through this mangled maze, a bootless effort if there ever was one. I hate to tell her, but it won’t work.

Any wedding, no matter how private it intends to be, is everybody’s wedding. Even the uninvited (especially the uninvited) can take aim at it. In terms of public opinion, and bruised feelings, danger lurks at every turn.

The other night, after a committee meeting, I was talking with my friend Claude, whose son, Claude Jr. (familiarly known as “Cloffo,”) is scheduled to be married this coming July. (That makes Claude the father of the groom, the least necessary party in any wedding party.)

Because he is a sincere and caring person, Claude is predictably concerned. The mother of the bride (as is her enforced responsibility) has set a limit on the number of seats at the ceremony — on both sides of the aisle. Rhonda, Claude’s wife and the mother of the groom, is doing her best to understand. She remains uncomfortable.

“Cloffo and Miranda have a lot of friends,” Claude said, leaning against the driver’s side of his Lexus. “If they can’t all come to the wedding, I told Rhonda, ‘Let’s you and me give a big party on our own, for Cloffo and Miranda and all their friends, whether they’re invited to the wedding, or not.’ ”

I said, “That sounds swell.”

Claude said, “Rhonda hates it.”

There was a brief pause, spent mostly by Claude clicking the alarm button on his Lexus keypad on and off. “Rhonda says you can’t invite people to a wedding party,” Claude said, “if you can’t invite them to the wedding too.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Claude said.

I leant against the bumper of my Camry and said, “Have the party.”

“Thank you,” said Claude, as he slipped into his driver’s seat. “I was almost pretty-sure I was right.

“But one more thing …”

“Yes?” I said, taking my own keys out of my pocket.

“If it’s July, and everybody else is wearing white dinner jackets, can I wear one too?”

I said, “It’ll be after Memorial Day. Wear the jacket.” Claude hit the start button on his keypad, and his engine revved.

“It’s all up to you from now on,” I said, “… sort of.”

“I’m rockin’ with it,” he said, watching carefully in all mirrors as he backed out of his parking space. “This should be easy … sort of.”

At no time is it too early to forestall the calamities of an uncoming wedding. Claude is lucky to do his deals in a parking lot, with hardly anybody watching. Meanwhile, the rules should all be the same, for Sally Quinn, or for anybody else, when it comes to the intensitivities of our private lives.

“Except, now I have to go home to Rhonda,” Claude said, as he roared backward out of the parking lot.

— John/

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