Mighty Life List
Aug 16 2010

Flashback Monday: Chagrin and Men I Have Loved

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally published in 2002 by the The Morning News and later by Fray. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, for the edits. Renewed apologies to my high school boyfriend, who is irritated every time this article sees the light of day.

Dad Was a Soprano

If you’ve taken the Universal Studios tour, you may remember when the tram rumbles over a bridge and a giant robotic shark pops out of the water. It is the very robotic shark used in Jaws, which is to say, a rather large shark with fierce metal teeth.

As the shark surfaces, the tour tram tips sideways, threatening to drop passengers into the pond. The effect isn’t especially thrilling for an adult, but it’s enough to terrify a four-year-old who fears only three things: snakes that swim up through the toilet and wait for you to pee so they can bite your bum, slithery things that hide under your bed at night, and sharks.

I took the studio tour with my dad. He was a big guy who liked to whistle and drum his enormous thumbs against the steering wheel when he drove. Dad had a deep voice, a full beard, and a conspicuous fondness for Hostess snack cakes. I remember sitting next to him at the back of the tram, swinging my legs, and picking absently at the hem of my sundress. Everything was just fine. It was sunny outside and we were headed over a pond while the tour guide quacked along about Murder, She Wrote. My dress had a little red sailor knot in the front that I could tie and untie, easy as pie.

Suddenly, our tram lurched sideways and the shark lunged from the water a few feet to my right. I did what any little girl would do when faced with gnashing robotic shark teeth: I screamed like my hair was on fire. It was a long, healthy scream that lasted much longer than necessary. When I finished, everyone on the tram turned to stare at me.

The blood rushed to my face, and I looked up at my dad with brimming eyes. He put one hand on my back and held the other to his throat:

‘Ahem,’ he coughed. ‘Excuse me.’

Grandpa Still Has the Tape

When I was twelve, my aunt asked me to sing at her wedding. I’d never been in a wedding before, and I was thrilled. I practiced the theme from Ice Castles in front of my mirror for weeks. I delivered the last line particularly well, singing passionately, with dramatic pauses and my best vibrato. ‘Looking through…the eyes…of looooooooooove!’ I was stupendous.

When the day came, I stepped up to the podium, twisted my hands together and exhaled. The church seemed bigger from there: My aunt and new uncle stood at the altar with the minister, and they looked oddly exaggerated, like giant cake toppers. The pianist started, and I began to sing.

‘Please…don’t let this feeling end. It’s everything I am,’ I scanned the rows of pews in search of Mom and my big sister, Raina. Raina is six years older than me, and had already moved out of the house. Because of the age difference, we’d never been especially close. As a toddler, I ruined one of her favorite books with my crayons. I was banned from her room from that day forward. When she moved out, Mom said I could move into Raina’s room; I was amazed to realize I didn’t even remember what it looked like.

My sister had driven down for the weekend to attend the wedding and visit. I found her and mom about five rows back from the front, and I smiled at them. Mom smiled back, but Raina crossed her eyes, and stretched the sides of her mouth open with her fingers. This was hilarious. This was comedic genius. My breath hitched, but I looked away and tried to concentrate.

Raina smelled blood. Eventually, my eyes wandered back to her. She had pushed the end of her nose up with her index finger, and was lying in wait. When we made eye contact, she snorted. She snorted loudly, in the middle of church, with Aunt and Uncle Cake Topper standing solemnly by.

I whooped into the microphone, right in the middle of a verse. Raina gasped, then grimaced at me apologetically. I was in hysterics. I tried to struggle on, but there was no calming myself. I was up there, before God and country, guffawing through my aunt’s wedding ceremony.

Grandpa stood at the back of the church with his trusty camcorder. It was his new toy, and he’d promised my aunt he’d tape the ceremony for her. The lens was trained right on me. ‘Grandpa gets the job done,’ I thought. This, I thought, was very funny.

I giggled, sang a word or two, giggled more. My aunt looked stunned and vaguely sympathetic. Well, as sympathetic as can be expected of a woman in a white veil when things don’t go according to plan. My uncle, like everyone else in the room, was suddenly fascinated by his shoelaces. It was horrible. It was hilarious.

Grandpa moved slightly to the right, so as to better frame his shot.

I forgot where I was in the song; the lyrics were gone. I found this amusing. Riotous, really. Mom was furious with my sister and began elbowing her in the ribs. Raina’s expression was alternately giddy and horrified. As my mom poked her, she mouthed ‘I’m sorry’ over and over. My sister was a trout; a gasping, penitent trout. I began convulsing, tears streaming from my eyes.

Grandpa refocused.

I snorted and coughed my way through the song. The pianist had panicked almost immediately and started playing at a roller-derby tempo, so I tried to keep up between gasps for air, ‘Please, don’tletthisfeelingend, it’severythingIam…’

I faced row after row of bowed heads. Some family members were trying not to laugh themselves, others simply fixed on the floor and waited for the song to be over. I wiped my eyes, stood up straight, and belted, ‘Looking through…the eyes…of looooooooooove!’

The last piano note died out, and the church was pin-drop silent. From the back, I heard a soft whirring. Grandpa looked up, gave me a satisfied nod, and flipped the viewfinder shut.

His Mama Raised Him Right

My junior prom dress was perfect. Bright pink satin, almost crimson, with a full skirt and three-quarter sleeves. It had a flounce underneath that was edged in satin, and it swished when I walked. Swished, I tell you. It was exactly what every sixteen-year-old wants, a dress that is different, distinctive, and indisputably normal all at once.

The day of the dance, I spent hours getting ready, carefully paging through my hoarded magazine clippings. I steamed my pores, perfected my pedicure, and silky-smoothed my legs. My mom helped me curl my hair, and stuffed tissues next to my ears where the hot rollers burned. After she zipped up my dress and left me in my room, I actually spun around to watch the skirt flare. I did a few practice cancan kicks. A-cha-cha! The flounce had a reassuring rustling sound that made me sigh.

My boyfriend and I went out to eat before the dance with a big group of friends. I ordered pasta in a cream sauce with vegetables al dente. As I was trying to spear a particularly undercooked carrot, my fork slid across the plate, collecting a mound of fettuccini and depositing it on the bodice of my pretty-princess frock.

For a moment, I had trouble breathing. The table paused in awestruck silence. I looked around at all the wide eyes and decided to laugh instead of sob (though it was a very close vote). Everyone at the table guffawed with relief. Everyone, that is, except Sean Anderson. Sean Anderson was appropriately, endearingly horrified. As my boyfriend and the rest of our friends laughed along with me, Sean rose from his seat, gathered me up, and ushered me to the women’s restroom.

He pretended not to notice the tears standing in my eyes by the time we got to the bathroom, and asked me if I’d like him to wait while I got cleaned up. I shook my head; he nodded and returned to the table.

The dance was mercifully dark, and I enjoyed myself. In the photos from that night, I’m facing my boyfriend and peeking over my right shoulder in a way that would seem kittenish if you didn’t know about the Texas-shaped cream stain on the front of my dress.

A few years later, my boyfriend went off to college and didn’t write. Sean sent letters once or twice a week and called me when he was feeling homesick. When he came home for Christmas break, we pawed at each other for a few weeks before abandoning the attempt as misguided.

I’m still glad we gave it a shot. He was the first real gentleman I ever knew up close, and one of the few I’ve met since.

Aug 9 2010

Flashback Monday: Ladies Night Transcript

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was my first for The Morning News and first was published in 2002. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.

A few years ago, I had a group of girlfriends who met every Wednesday to chat over a few glasses of wine. I used to write up partial transcripts of our conversations here on Mighty Girl, and this particular week I asked everyone to help me complete a freelance assignment. (Names changed for good reason.)

Me: I have to write an article. Will you guys help me?

Erika: What’s the article for?

Me: The Morning News. I believe I’ll be the first contributor with breasts on the site.

Diana: Cool. What are you doing the article on?

Me: Well, I was supposed to do it on bad date experiences, or kinds of men to avoid, but I just feel like I’ve read those a million times.

Mary: And they’re never good.

Me: Yeah. ‘Men bad. Women good.’ So I decided to do it the other way around. Like, meanest thing I’ve ever done to a guy.

Erika: Meanest thing?

Me: Yeah, like who were you meanest to?

Candice: I haven’t done anything bad, but I have a friend who did something pretty bad.

Me: What?

Candice: Well, she was dating this much older guy…

Me:
How much older?

Candice: Much, much older. Like she was nineteen, and he was in his forties.

All: Yuuuck.

Candice: Yeah.

Me: You know something weird is going on when the age difference is that extreme.

Candice: Yeah. It was a weird relationship. Anyway, they had this really bad breakup. So she called his boss at work and pretended she was younger than nineteen.

Julie: Whoa. Serves him right though.

Me: When you’re 40, you don’t date someone who can’t have a beer with you.

* * *

Me: What about you Sam? Meanest thing?

Sam: The meanest thing ever?

Me: Meanest thing you’ve done to a guy.

Sam: Oh, I don’t know. Well, I did sleep with three of his new girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends.

Me: What? Sorry, it’s taking me a moment to parse that.

Sam: [laughing] I know. To be honest, it wasn’t intentional. But your mind plays tricks on you, when you’re not…healthy. [laughing]

Me: So how did that happen, exactly?

Sam: Well, he was kind of a jerk to me. I was so in love, you know, and I think he was sleeping around. Well, I don’t know if it ever came to fruition or whatever, but stuff happened.

Erika: With this chick?

Sam: Yeah. So when they started dating, I promptly went and slept with three of her ex-boyfriends within the next couple months.

Me: Oh, man.

Sam: I think it was a subconscious thing, but I did find out all the bad stuff about her.

Candice: Like what?

Sam: I mean, all her ex-boyfriends didn’t like her. She was very princess-y. Oh! And I also found out she had never had an orgasm.

Me: You’re kidding me!

Donna: They told you that?

Sam: Well, yeah. I was sleeping with these guys.

Me: But none of this is mean to the guy in question, really.

Sam: Yeah. It was indirectly, I guess. How about the guy who wouldn’t go down on me, and I told him it was a major character flaw?

Mary: What was his response?

Sam: He was like, ‘Well maybe I’ll do it for my wife.’

All: [derisive laughter]

Alyssa: What a weirdo.

Sam: Yeah. He was cute though.

Me: How long had you been dating?

Sam: Not very long, it was like the third time. At first I wasn’t sure because, sometimes, you know, it takes awhile.

Alyssa: Why wouldn’t he?

Sam: I don’t know. Grossed out, I guess. I think he was gay.

Me: Whaaat?

Sam: [whispers] I always think men who don’t like pussy are gay. You know? Most guys love it. [laughter]

* * *

Donna: OK, I have a good one.

Me: Kay.

Donna: When I was younger, there was this guy who I used to correspond with. We would email back and forth and we actually kind of fell in love that way, right?

Me: Yeah.

Donna: But he was friends with the guy I was dating at the time, so nothing happened. Then I broke up with the guy a few months later, and pen-pal dude came to town. Anyway, he was going off to college and he was a virgin.

Lannie: Sweet.

Donna: So I took care of that. [laughter]

Donna: But then, he left, right? I didn’t hear from him for, like, months. No phone calls, no notes, nothing, right?

Me: Oh, man.

Donna: Yeah! Keep in mind that we used to correspond constantly, so I was really hurt. Upset about it, of course.

All: [sympathetic sounds]

Donna: So he came back to visit or whatever, and I was really niiiice, and we started hooking up. We got all hot and heavy, and then I was like, ‘OK, you need to leave.’ He was like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘I haven’t heard from you in months, then you come back and expect me to be all fine with it?’

Lannie: Right on. You’re the one who made him a man! [laughter]

Donna: I know, seriously. And he was all confused and stuttering, ‘You’re just gonna leave me like this?’ And I was like, ‘Yep.’

Mary: Good. That whole blue balls thing is such a myth.

Donna: Yeah, he was pretty much limping out though.

Alyssa: Was this after he had…made sure you were satisfied?

Donna: …Yeah.

All: NO WAAAAYYY!

Lannie: Oh that is the best.

Donna: Yeah, it felt pretty good.

* * *

Me: Your turn Anne.

Anne: I’ve never really been mean to anyone.

Erika: Never?

Anne: Not that I can think of.

Me: Like never, ever?

Anne: Not really. I wish I were more vengeful when someone screwed me over. I’ve dated some real dickheads.

Me: What about guys who repulsed you and you told them you weren’t interested, but they just kept coming back like the plague?

Anne: No.

Me: Oh please, you’re gorgeous. That has to have happened to you.

Anne: Aaaaah.

Me: I don’t believe you.

Anne: Actually, I do have one. But I’m afraid you guys will think I’m a slut.

Alyssa: Oh, now you have to tell. [Anne covers face with hands]

All: Tell! Tell! Tell!

Me: None of us are going to think you’re a slut, come on.

Anne: OK. [anxious] Oooooohhhhhh! It’s really, really bad! OK. [exhales] So I used to live with this one guy, and he had this super-hot best friend who used to come around all the time.

Donna: This can’t go anywhere good.

Anne: So his brother was also really hot.

Me: Oh nooooo.

Anne: Sooo…So all of us went out one night and we decided to try ecstasy. I’d never done it before, and it totally affects me. Like, a lot. So we’re dancing for a while and then we decide to go home, but I can’t find my boyfriend anywhere. We looked around for like an hour, and finally we just gave up and went home.

Me: Uh huh.

Anne: So I’m in the living room with these two gorgeous guys and I order them both to go sit on the couch. Then I just kneel down in front of them and [covers face with hands] give them both a hand job at the same time.

[stunned silence]

All: AAAAAAAAAAA!

Me: You are kidding me!

Donna: Holy crap! With his brother?

Anne: The worst part is, he was married.

All: WHHHHHAAAATTT?

Lannie: Who, the brother?

Anne: Yeah.

Donna: Ahem, you’re in trouble with the married lady over here.

Anne: I know. I knoooow. [covers face] It was so terrible the next morning. Like, ‘Oh my God. What just happened?’

Me: What the hell did happen?

Anne: I don’t know, I just felt like such a porn star. It just…sort of…unfolded.

Me: Oh my god. That’s amazing. I would so never expect to hear anything like that from you. Anne? Cupcake-baking, freckles on the nose, smiley Anne?

Anne: I know, I still can’t believe it happened.

Lannie: You were livin’ the dream, girl.

Me: Was it good?

Anne: Yeah, it was totally good.

Erika: The brother was married?!?

Anne: I know. Well, not that this makes it any better, but they really shouldn’t have been married in the first place. I actually think he got a divorce a few months later.

Me: Where the hell was your boyfriend anyway?

Anne: Well, that’s an even better part of the story. Turns out that he was out getting crack.

All: WHAT?

Anne: Can you believe that? Yeah, I mean I understand a little pot or something now and then, but when you get into heroin or crack… We broke up.

Me: Did you tell him?

Anne: No way. He still doesn’t know. I wish I could go tell him now. He was a jerk to me.

Me: Why didn’t his brother or his best friend say anything?

Anne: They’re not gonna tell. They’d get in more trouble than I would.

Me: I guess that’s true.

Alyssa: You totally win the story contest.

Me: Oh, man.

Anne: I know. I don’t do ecstasy anymore.

Aug 2 2010

Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Part IV, Weddings

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally titled “The Non-Expert: Threesomes” and was published in 2003 over at The Morning News. The Non-Expert series answers questions posed by Morning News readers. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.

I’m about to outline some of the more common wedding etiquette missteps. Before I do I should tell you that by the time you read this, I will have been to five weddings this season.

Please note that none of my dear friends have committed any of the social blunders I’m about to mention. If they did do anything wrong, I was far too overcome with joy to notice. However, I’m quite sure they didn’t, because they’re perfect.

Now for the rest of you.

Engagement

I’m not sure how things got turned around, but the correct way to ask for someone’s hand in marriage is to first ask your beloved, and then to ask for a parental blessing. Asking her parents beforehand makes it much more embarrassing if she turns you down, it’s also an uncomfortable way to find out that they never really liked you.

If luck is on your side, the champagne will flow freely during your engagement. When friends raise their glasses you and your affianced should smile brightly and keep your hands folded in your laps. Drinking to oneself is immodest; no matter how much you like champagne.

If you decide he’s not for you, decency demands that you return the engagement ring. If you find out he’s been having an affair with his secretary, self-respect demands that you return the engagement ring, albeit in a more spirited manner. If your wedding is canceled, return any gifts as well.

When choosing attendants, remember that they don’t need to line up symmetrically. If one of you has more friends, so be it. Better to upset the photographer than your old dorm mate.

Invitations

Most couples decide they want a sumptuous sit-down dinner and then cut their guest list until it bleeds. These people are going about things backward. Your guest list should determine the scale of your event instead of the other way around. Trim the decorating budget and the seven-course menu. An abundance of friends is much more charming than an abundance of flowers.

Once you have a basic list, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you must invite both halves of a socially recognized couple. Those who are married, engaged, or living together count as social units. You may not have the company of one without the other, even if this particular other is a jerk. Second, you get to decide whether you want to invite children. Guests who express annoyance that their children aren’t included are the same ones who will let them scream through the ceremony.

There’s a lot of room for error with invitations. It’s helpful to think of them as petite social landmines with quaint wax seals. Send them four to six weeks out.

A few things you shouldn’t include in the envelopes:

The tissues that come with engraved invitations. They’re meant to protect the ink from smudging before the invitations are delivered to you. Including them in the envelope is rather like wearing a plastic poncho over your dress so as not to ruin it for a really special occasion.

Registry cards. Gifts should always seem to come as a pleasant surprise. This is what is known as a ‘polite fiction,’ emphasis on polite. You can tell people where you’ve registered, but only if they’ve asked, and only if you can manage to dim that spark in your eye.

RSVP cards. These imply that your guests wouldn’t otherwise take the time to respond. Unfortunately, the same cretins who don’t respond to wedding invitations won’t bother to mail back your RSVP cards. Etiquette permits you to beat these people senseless.

There are a few guidelines for invitees as well. You don’t get to bring a guest unless you’re specifically invited to do so. You also don’t get to complain about not being invited to do so. It’s time you learned to mingle and socialize like a big kid. If your spouse or significant other can’t make it, you may not bring a friend in his or her place (much as you may not exchange the invitations for the price of your dinner and do something more fun with the money).

Attire

I know you think black bridesmaid dresses look sharp, and you’re having an evening wedding anyway, and you’re trying to choose a dress they’ll wear again. The answer is still no. In American culture, black is associated with mourning and loss, two emotions you’re not trying to inspire in anyone except his ex-girlfriend.

Though attendants on either side can be any sex, they should still dress to suit their gender. This means if your bridesmaids are wearing blue dresses the groom’s female attendants should wear blue dresses as well. Making the groom’s female attendants dress in novelty tuxedos is awful unless you have a tap routine planned for the recessional.

Either the event is formal, or it’s not. The bridal party’s attire should reflect the same level of formality as that of the guests. It makes no sense to have the guests in suits and the groom in a tuxedo. It makes even less sense to have the groomsmen in black tie and the groom in white tie.

Female guests shouldn’t wear white, lest they look as though they’re competing with the bride. Neither should they wear black, unless they’re mourning for her.

Ceremony

As mentioned earlier, it is untrue that all of the bridal attendants must be women and that everyone on the groom’s side must be a man. If the groom has a sister, she should stand on his side. If the bride has known Tommy since she was three, why would he stand next to the groom?

The custom of giving away the bride should be altered to suit your particular situation. If your mother raised you, she should do the honors. If a grandparent raised you, it would be sweet to ask him or her to accompany you.

Have a receiving line after the ceremony. It’s the only way to guarantee that every guest is introduced to all of your family and attendants, and the only way to ensure that you’ll have a chance to speak with sweet Aunt Thelma who traveled all the way from Florida. It’s also the best way to catch sneaky guests who skip the ceremony and show up for the food.

Your guests’ comfort takes precedence over your scrapbook. Don’t delay your arrival at the reception by scheduling a photo session just after the ceremony. If you must have a few post-ceremony photos, keep the shoot duration to less than 20 minutes.

Reception

Look at how embarrassed the bride is! How hilarious to see the groom’s head up her skirt, removing the garter with his teeth. Isn’t it sweet how she blushes at this reenactment of marital consummation? No, it’s vulgar. Cut it out. If you’re going to toss a garter, at least remove it in private.

Technically—technically—you’re supposed to leave your wedding before your guests do. The bride should change into a smart little traveling suit so everyone can pelt the happy couple with rice and then go home to get some sleep. This never happens. Instead, older guests hang on as long as they can, halfheartedly toss a palm full of rice at the couple, who are busy shimmying on the dance floor, and retreat to the quiet of their hotel rooms.

If you can’t afford alcohol, don’t make your guests pay for it. Provide what refreshment you can afford, and forget the cash bar. And, you, guests: The hosts are in charge of the leftovers. If you decide that it’s a shame to let so much food go to waste, you may be informed coldly (as you’re filling makeshift doggie bags) that the bride and groom have arranged for the extra food to be donated to a homeless shelter.

Gifts

Guests who receive invitations to weddings that they won’t be able to attend are not obligated to send a gift, but they should send a congratulatory note. The same is true of wedding announcements.

Gifts are properly sent to the couple’s home before the wedding or up to one year afterward. This way, the newlyweds needn’t worry about renting a truck to cart the gifts home, and you have a year to make sure that the marriage will take. This is a handy thing to know.

The horrible idea that the price of one’s wedding gift should roughly equate to what the bride and groom spent on your dinner is untrue, but it continues to be propagated by people who spend too much on their weddings. On the other hand, a guest’s transportation to the wedding doesn’t count as a gift to the couple. So cough up that toaster, buddy.

Also false is the notion that guests must choose a gift from the couple’s registry. While registries are helpful for those who don’t know the couple’s tastes, it is a compliment if a guest takes the time to pick something more personal—even if that something is yet another crystal flower vase.

Registries are the limit of how much a couple may direct gift giving. You may not indicate that you would prefer cash, request donations to your mortgage fund, take up a honeymoon collection, or even mention that you’d rather the money go to charity. Any attempt to direct generosity looks greedy. Coincidentally, it also makes guests feel less generous.

After the bride and groom have opened a gift, they have about three minutes to write a thank-you note. That includes the time it takes to cackle over the crocheted toilet-paper cozy with Barbie Doll topper. There’s no etiquette rule specifying that the bride must write all of the thank-you notes. Gentlemen, take up your pens.

While we’re on the subject, a few things that don’t count as proper gratitude: verbal thanks, postcards from the honeymoon, and those terrible preprinted cards that quack, ‘Your generosity is appreciated.’

Happily Ever After

It doesn’t matter who is paying the bills—weddings are family affairs. So if you want a nudist ceremony, you might want to run that by your parents first so they can opt out. And if Uncle Murf dies on the day of the wedding, you can go ahead with your solemn ceremony, but you should cancel the reception out of respect.

Like any good party or celebration, the objective of your wedding reception is to cater to guests’ needs and make sure that everyone is having a good time. Couples who run around screeching, ‘It’s our special day!’ ultimately deserve one another.

Jul 26 2010

Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Part III, Socializing

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally titled “The Non-Expert: Threesomes” and was published in 2003 over at The Morning News. The Non-Expert series answers questions posed by Morning News readers. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.

I know I’m going to get a lot of grumbles on this one, especially because it’s written in such an unfamiliar tone. Please remember that the idea behind these etiquette articles isn’t that you should be perfecty-perfect all the time, which would make you insufferable, only that you should know the guidelines. That way you have the pleasure of feeling wicked and bohemian when you flout them.

My late grandmother had fantastically eccentric decorating taste. In the living room immense zebra-striped curtains stretched to the ceiling, the red shag carpet came to your knees. I spent many spin-sick childhood hours on the swivel stools of her tiki bar, replete with coconut monkey and glass hula-girl swizzle sticks.

She also kept a noticeably unattractive gilded bust of Nefertiti on her living room table. When I asked her where it came from she replied, ‘Well, Margaret, an older gentleman friend of mine has arthritis. That bust is covered in 14-karat gold. His hands were too bad for him to paint the gold on, so he held the paintbrush in his mouth.’

‘Wow,’ I replied. I was seven.

‘Yep,’ she said. ‘That thing is goddamn terrible. But I tell you what, when a man paints something for you with his teeth, you put it on the living-room table.’

Grandma also taught me more general etiquette guidelines. For example, one does not wear white shoes before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. This rule remains steadfast unless you happen to be a bride, a tennis player, or a pimp. In the latter case, you have more pressing etiquette issues than your choice of wingtips.

You may know etiquette basics, but knowing the niceties is twice as much fun. This is because there are a few things that nearly everyone does incorrectly without realizing it. Therefore, you can scandalize your friends in expensive restaurants by removing fish bones from your mouth with your hands and blithely grasping asparagus with your fingers.

What’s more, you can learn to avoid inadvertently offending those you hope to impress, and impress people who know how the playbook reads. One person’s ‘No big deal’ is another’s ‘Well, I never.’ Nowhere is this more apparent than at social gatherings. Let’s review what grandma expects of you.

Don’t throw parties in your own honor.

Throwing a birthday party, a shower, or an anniversary party for yourself lacks humility. It also suggests that the party is a poorly camouflaged push for gifts, instead of a heartfelt expression of affection from a dear friend. The guest of honor and the host must be two different people so that one can say, ‘Oh no, you don’t need to get me anything. The pleasure of your company is all I need,’ while the other whispers, ‘She’s very fond of Tiffany’s.’

Never issue invitations too far in advance.

Overzealous hosts who send invitations several weeks in advance are setting social traps. How can the polite, but unwilling, friend possibly find a reasonable excuse? ‘I’m having surgery that day’ only works once, and it’s rather unpleasant to arrange for the scarring as evidence. Polite hosts send invitations no more than a week and a half beforehand unless the event will require travel arrangements (as in the case of a wedding).

Respond to invitations promptly.

When someone invites you out you have approximately two days to respond. If you’re not going to attend for goodness sake say something. Are you coyly holding out for a better offer, you clever thing? Do you suppose you’re being discreet by simply showing up at the event when nothing more interesting comes along? I assure you, the host—who is now scrambling to provide food and drink for you and five others of your ilk—knows exactly what you were up to and is already plotting revenge. Do you really want this person mixing your drink?

Remember that invitations are non-negotiable.

Accepting only a portion of an invitation is rude. ‘Oh, I would so love to hear little Timmy perform on his new banjo, but that evening is awfully busy. Would it be possible for us to just drop in for coffee afterward?’ No, it wouldn’t.

If you’ve said you will attend, please do.

Once you’ve said you’re coming there are a few acceptable excuses for not showing. These include sudden coma, the death of a loved one, or having left the country unexpectedly under government protection. Unacceptable excuses include heavy workload, exhaustion, a better offer, or the ever-thoughtful ‘just feel like staying in.’ This implies that a nap or the Sunday-night showing of National Lampoon’s European Vacation is more interesting to you than whatever your host had planned.

Handle introductions gracefully.

Introductions should include first and last names. This way guests can locate one another if they’d like to pursue a ‘closer friendship.’ More importantly, they needn’t call each other by first names until asked to do so. By American custom acquaintances greet one another and take leave with handshakes. If you insist upon hugging non-intimates you can be reasonably certain that people are making funny faces over your shoulder when swallowed in an unwelcome embrace.

Don’t offer or request a house tour.

Tours of your home should only be given upon request, lest you look as though you’re showing off your bowling trophies. Genuinely interested guests should request tours vaguely, ‘I’d love to see the what you’ve done with the house sometime.’ This way your hosts can politely deflect the inquiry if they’ve stuffed their dirty laundry in the study.

Know the difference between business and pleasure.

One does not properly hand out business cards at a social event, even if another guest makes a business-related request. Doing so implies that you’re using friends’ homes for mercenary purposes. Perhaps you can find a small piece of paper and a pen instead. If you’d like to be perfectly correct, you can have slightly larger social cards printed with only your name and contact information. And please stop chuckling: a girl can dream.

Don’t groom or perform otherwise personal acts in public.

No absent-minded cleaning beneath the fingernails, no after-dinner tooth sucking or picking, no stocking straightening, no undergarment adjustment, no hair patting, no lipstick application, and no overtly moist displays of affection.

Repackage prepackaged food.

Under no circumstances does the well-set table include prepackaged food items. Ketchup, mustard, jam, and so on are housed in jolly, lidded pots with wee-little spoons. Milk goes in a pitcher. The only exception to this rule is the wine, which you can put in a decanter if you’ve one laying around (perhaps next to the silver grapefruit spoons), but otherwise is fine in its own bottle.

Keep conversation comfortable.

I shouldn’t even have to say this, but certain segments of the population need a reminder that religion, politics, and anecdotes involving excessive bleeding are not proper dinner conversation.

Send a thank-you.

A host gift isn’t required for dinner parties (though gifts are almost never rude), but you do need to write a proper thank-you note.

So, what is a proper thank-you note? Let’s start with your little box of ‘Thank You’ note cards tucked in your desk drawer. The kind with preprinted gratitude stamped on the front? First, I’d like to congratulate you for being amongst the few who still realize that thoughtful gestures are correctly recognized with a note. Now, throw those cards away. Please.

Thank-you notes should indeed be notes. They’re written on white or cream stationery with a plain—but colorful—border. Blue is a classic choice. (And while you’re dispensing with the thank-you cards, you might want to discard the sympathy cards, which are even more impersonal. Purchase some white or cream paper with a black border, and use that instead.)

Reciprocate.

After you’ve expressed your gratitude remember that it’s your turn next time. You may entertain in whatever manner you can afford; a Sunday breakfast is an acceptable return for a formal dinner. Many people will tell you not to worry about social debts. You’ll note that these are the same people who don’t throw dinner parties.

Stop worrying.

If you’ve read this far you deserve a reward. So here is the answer to the ultimate etiquette question, the only reason 90 percent of the population will ever flip through an etiquette book:

Use the fork farthest away from your plate.

That’s it. If you need a different fork, someone will set it down in front of you with the correct course. If you still somehow manage to use the wrong one, no one will notice. Anyone watching you to see which fork you’ll use is just trying to figure out which fork they should use, which is really rather sweet.

Jul 19 2010

Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Part II, Relationships

On Mondays I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. A version of this piece was originally published in 2002 over at The Morning News. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin for the edits.

Not caring what other people think has become uncomfortably fashionable. It is an admirable sentiment when expressed by people who work for an honorable but unpopular cause, like civil rights. It carries less weight when you’re on a date with someone who insists on picking her teeth in public.

All the same, it can be a convenient way to view the world. That is, until you want something from someone else. Sex, for example.

Having ignored etiquette for most of their lives, freewheeling sorts aren’t quite sure how to make a favorable impression when the time comes. ‘Women make no sense,’ a man sighs after wheedling a woman’s phone number out of her and then finding that she won’t pick up the phone. ‘Men can be such jerks,’ a woman complains when the object of her affection says he’ll talk to her soon and doesn’t call. ‘Dating is a pain! Why can’t everyone just be upfront?’

Because, my love, upfront is painful when you’re on the receiving end. It’s easier to give a persistent fellow your number and ignore a ringing phone than it is to tell him that he’s old enough to be your father.

The alternative to being upfront, or doing what comes naturally, is doing what is expected of you. This is more work, but less solitary. There are guidelines that make courtship and relationships easier for everyone. Let’s review them, shall we?

DATING ETIQUETTE

1. Call only once.

When you’ve first met someone, it is impolite to make more than one attempt to contact him or her without reciprocation. This rule is so widely ignored that you may be incredulous at the suggestion. ‘But, but, but…’ you stammer, ‘What if the message never got passed on? What if the answering machine is broken? Maybe the email program was acting up.’

Yes. However, the most polite way for this person to express disinterest in your amorous attentions is to avoid contact. When you call repeatedly, or send multiple emails, you force the object of your affections to find a more personal, painful way to shake you loose. Like telling you she’s not into skinny guys.

2. If you asked, you pay.

If the date was your idea, it is also your financial responsibility. Ladies, I don’t care what your mother told you about it being the man’s job to pay. She also told you that you were never supposed to ask a man out, so you do the math.

In ambiguous situations, the gentleman traditionally pays. The lady is expected to share expenses by offering to cook meals or pack a picnic. She’s also supposed to express enthusiastic interest in free or inexpensive activities, and find ‘extra tickets’ to concerts and events she’d especially like to attend.

3. Don’t force intimacy.

Note how your date is avoiding eye contact, how he has shredded an entire napkin and is now rearranging the torn bits into ever-shifting shapes. Perhaps the first date was a little soon to share the details of your sex life, how your last boyfriend treated you, and what your therapist thinks about it. Mystery is attractive; your daddy complex is less so.

4. Coo with caution.

Sweet nothings are so named because they contain no startling information. Fantasies about your future together are romantic; fantasies about her best friend in a bikini are not.

5. Even affairs have codes of conduct.

Speaking of that best friend, if you plan to engage in romantic activity outside the bounds of your relationship, it is unacceptable to confide in friends. This puts them in the awkward position of being an accomplice, and jeopardizes your new partner’s anonymity. It is also rude to generate evidence of your tryst in the form of love letters, emails, obviously romantic gifts, or condom wrappers.

6. Guard private information.

You may not publicly complain that your boyfriend doesn’t wear underwear on Sundays. In exchange, he will refrain from revealing that you call him Cowboy when you’re drunk.

7. Be respectful of time.

Check with your significant other before scheduling an event, and don’t ask with interested parties in the room. Presented with, ‘Honey, Mark here would like to know if we want to go out to dinner tonight. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?’ your darling doesn’t have the option of responding, ‘Well, no, actually. I rather dislike Mark.’

8. Don’t use jokes to camouflage rancor.

‘I was joking!’ is never a good defense, as intent is immaterial when it comes to wounded feelings. When he wants a big-screen TV and she reminds him of the night he said size didn’t matter, only he may decide whether the comment is amusing or hurtful.

9. Avoid amorous competition.

It’s improper to express anything but delight at your beloved’s accomplishments, even if you’ve just lost a sailboat race to her.

10. Quaint can be endearing.

A few romantic niceties to help things along: On a sidewalk, men properly walk nearest the street. They follow women to their table at a restaurant (presuming that the host or hostess is showing you to your seat), but precede her in a crowd to clear the way, and take the lead down flights of stairs to act as a pillowy man-cushion if she should trip. They open and close her car door (whether or not she is driving), hold open restaurant doors, and hold out chairs. Advanced chivalries include rising from your seat when a lady stands to powder her nose, slightly raising your hat in greeting on the street, and dueling to the death when someone insults her honor. Perhaps nowadays you can get away with simply slapping the offender with your leather driving gloves. Times are changing.

WHAT’S MORE

Obviously, there is no polite way to rummage through someone else’s stuff, yell, curse, slam doors, or throw things. In light of this, a lady does not throw that cheating bastard’s belongings on the front lawn. She places them there, gently, and then forgets to turn off the automatic sprinklers.

And while you’re busy being perfectly polite to each other, remember those around you as well. Don’t assume that your roommates don’t mind having your girlfriend around all the time. Don’t cling to one another at parties as though your friends aren’t worth talking to. Finally, never break an appointment with friends in favor of a date. When you find your moldering belongings on the front lawn, you’ll be glad you have someone to call.

Jul 12 2010

Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Kindness

On Mondays I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. A version of this piece was originally published in 2002 over at The Morning News. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin for the edits.

As a society, we’ve decided that flatulence doesn’t exist. If everyone followed basic etiquette guidelines, none of us would need to worry about passing gas in public. The thing to do if you have a digestive indiscretion is to pretend your intestines never tried to join the conversation.

So you see, etiquette is on your side. Perhaps you don’t care what an oyster fork looks like; you don’t own saltcellars; you don’t rise from the table when your girlfriend leaves to powder her nose. Regardless, one day you’ll fart in public. And when you do, it’s comforting to know there’s a game plan.

Good etiquette is effective even in small doses. Your manners, like most acquired skills, needn’t be impeccable to produce appreciative murmurs, only marginally better than the next guy’s. Fortunately for you, the next guy is the one over there, picking his teeth with a credit card.

For now, let’s forget about finger bowls and concentrate on kindness. What follows is my four-step system for becoming a more considerate person.

Step 1: Avoid giving inadvertent offense

Gossiping isn’t rude in itself, just tricky. In private, you can break out genealogical charts to describe particularly juicy entanglements. ‘His father remarried his mother’s half-sister, who then had an affair with him.’ But in a public place, you may not mention names. Let me show you why. See that man sitting behind you? He’s married to the woman whose adultery you’ve been discussing, and he seems to be crying. However, you still have to finish your burger. So that’s uncomfortable.

It’s no one’s business whether your wife’s hair is its natural color or whether your father just became eligible for the senior citizen discount. It’s certainly not your business to inform outsiders. There’s so little intrigue anymore. If you insist on spoiling someone else’s secret, at least make it worthwhile. Wait until you’re alone with your confidant, lean in, lower your voice, and whisper, ‘You know Tiffany’s breasts weren’t always quite so…outstanding.’

One doesn’t mention that overweight people could stand to lose a few pounds, nor does one tell underweight friends that they look sickly. Those who make a practice of this will eventually meet a young woman who has a glandular condition or has just undergone chemotherapy.

Don’t give potentially insulting gifts to others. These include items that you want them to have — cleaning products for your messy housemate, cookbooks for your take-out-ordering husband, or self-help books stating that your smart friend is making stupid choices. Topping the list of rude gifts are live animals, which the recipient must then care for, or worse, worry over after flushing the goldfish in hopes it might reach a nearby lake.

If you wonder whether you should go to a funeral, you should. One attends funerals not only to show respect for the departed, but also to support those who are mourning. Skipping them because you’re squeamish is childish. Rest assured that friends who are in no emotional state to feel generous about your ‘sensitivity’ will remember your absence.

You shouldn’t always attend weddings, however. You may have received an invitation, but if you have reason to believe that your inclusion on the guest list caused a fight between the bride and the groom (say you slept with one of them recently), you should graciously decline.

Step 2: Stop imposing on others

Always respond to invitations promptly so the host can get a headcount. Once you’ve accepted an invitation, the only reasonable excuses for reneging are communicable illness or an unexpected event that takes obvious precedence. (Elopements or funerals count, opportunities to go on dates or to complete delayed work projects don’t.)

On airplanes, the people with books or headphones are using them to avoid interaction. Please don’t try to draw these people into conversation by using their social shields as conversational bait for your opening line. ‘Hey, great book!’ or ‘What are you listening to?’ can only be met with a tight-lipped smile.

Step 3: Learn tricks of the trade

When staying as a guest in a friend’s home, it’s polite to bring a host gift. Upon leaving, strip the bed linens and remake the bed with the coverlet so the room doesn’t look messy while sheets are being laundered. If you wait longer than two weeks to write a thank you note after your visit, etiquette demands that you pretend to have been held up in a full body cast in a hospital with no pens.

When you see someone with spinach in his or her teeth, an open fly, toilet paper on the shoe, or a visible slip, it’s smart to discreetly inform this person of the problem, because all of these situations can be remedied. For less fixable problems (a stain, a rip), pretend not to have noticed.

When you must pass people sitting in rows, turn your body away from them and your head toward them. This helps you avoid the awkwardness of being face-to-face with a stranger in close quarters, but allows the seated party to make eye contact with your face instead of your bum.

The easiest and most considerate way to give your seat to someone who seems to need it more is to vacate it as you see the person approaching, walk a few steps away, and gaze absently into the air.

Step 4: Be better than the next guy

There are certain indiscretions that have become so commonplace that hardly anyone notices anymore. If you can manage to be polite where most people are careless, you’ll reap lots of goodwill with very little effort.

When you borrow things—books, small sums of money, coats—return them without being asked. Forgoing this courtesy leaves your friends in the ludicrous, but justifiable, position of fuming over a $2 debt or the loss of their first-edition copy of The Hipster Handbook.

Unsolicited advice on hairstyles, TV habits, cigarette addiction, or relationships is rude. These people already know that their stylist got carried away with the buzz clipper, that they should get out more, that smoking is killing them, and that their girlfriend—though pretty—isn’t as bright as she could be.

Don’t ignore companions in favor of answering your cell phone. If you must take a call, excuse yourself, leave the room, and make it snappy. Better yet, don’t plan social events on evenings when you’re expecting important phone calls.

It’s not polite to push your beliefs on others unless you’re holding a picket sign large enough to give fair warning that they should avoid you. In this spirit, one doesn’t properly discuss the population explosion at the mention of a friend’s pregnancy, and one doesn’t inform a lunch partner of ‘exactly how much fat is in that’ or the process by which the meat came to be on his or her plate.

Finally, one of the rudest things a person can do is to call someone else rude. Therefore, no matter how dramatic your faux pas, anyone who points it out is the real jerk.

Jul 5 2010

Flashback Monday: A 12-Step Guide to Threesomes

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally titled “The Non-Expert: Threesomes” and was published in 2003 over at The Morning News. The Non-Expert series answers questions posed by Morning News readers. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.

Question: What would it take for you to have a three-way with me?

Answer: First, allow me a moment to admire your subtlety. You are a man who knows how to woo a woman with sweet nothings, ply her with charm. The Don-Juan quality of your, ‘What would it take?’ really gets a girl purring.

I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all answer, but this is a question that every woman must answer for herself. Therefore, you should be asking a girl who is going at it with some other chick when you open the bathroom door at a party.

Instead, you’re asking me.

Fortunately for you, I’m rather drunk. (Threesome Criteria Numero Uno? Check). In this fictional advice-column world, I’m not yet 25 (Criteria 2), and find myself conveniently single (Criteria 3). What’s more, your particularly horizontal shoulders and ready smile help you meet Criteria 4: You are white-hot.

Also, you look kind of familiar. I think you were in my second-grade class. Yeah! I remember you. Weren’t you the shy one who wore yellow galoshes rain or shine? How funny! You’re so…non-threatening (Criteria 5). And my, how you’ve grown.

Do you still live in my hometown? Goodness, no. You’ve been in China teaching English since college. How lovely. So it would seem we have few, if any, common acquaintances (Criteria 6).

Let us test this theory with a few minutes of banter about where you went to college, where you moved after school, and so on. I name the two people I know who attended the university you attended. You shrug your shoulders winningly and admit there were 30,000 students there at the time. We laugh and order another round of martinis.

But what are you doing in town? Just stopping in. In fact, you’re headed back tomorrow morning, pretty early. It is quite likely that our paths will never cross again (Criteria 7). That’s a crying shame.

You rest your hand on my knee as you leave a tip on the bar. Your skin feels like you must be plugged in somewhere (Criteria 8). Your ring finger is band-free (Criteria 9).

Have I mentioned that you are not an unattractive young man? And just my type. Smart, kind, confident, likes to travel, abs like the wind-blown surface of a calm summer lake.

I’m pondering the dollar-to-yuan exchange rate and imagining romantic walks along the Great Wall when you ask if I have a couple bucks to cover the drink you just bought me. Um…sure. Later, you begin an entirely too-detailed conversation about the track trophies you won in high school.

All right. So China’s out. You aren’t necessarily boyfriend material (Criteria 10). But have I mentioned that you are not an unattractive young man? Yes, I suppose I have. And I certainly have some time on my hands this evening, so how could it hurt to pass that time with you?

I’m buzzed, imprudently young, and pleased by the way you lean forward when you whisper to me. What’s that? What would it take to…what?

Ohhhhhhh.

Ha! Are you serious? You are.

Well. That’s not an entirely uninteresting question. Hell, haven’t I always wondered anyway? I mean, hasn’t everyone?

So how are your papers? In order? Disease-free, psychosis-free (Criteria 11)? Excellent. Do you have condoms on you? You don’t. All right, you make a drug-store run (Criteria 12), and I’m in.

While you’re gone, I’ll go find the other guy.