A week ago one of my readers emailed me a question about bar etiquette, which I answered in a most knowledgeable and proficient manner, as I have been in this profession for quite some time. This got me to thinking about common day to day rules of etiquette and courtesies in general, which upon deeper analyzation I realized that I am not proficient at in any way whatsoever, and never have been. I’m talking about the simple trivialities that we all agree should be obeyed lest we be judged by our peers. I am an admitted minimalist, so to tell me that I can’t use the soap or the towels hanging in the bathroom because they are decorative causes someone with my stunted pedigree to stand there and blink stupidly.
Growing up, I was never one to devote much time to social graces, but in my defense I was raised in a hickish town where people possessed a fanatical adoration for camouflage caps and vests and mounting mule deer heads over the garage. The notion of being fancy where I grew up meant that you agreed to wear jeans without holes in the knees when attending a prom, and/or possibly opening your date’s can of Schlitz for her before the drive-in movie started.
My lack of refinement caused a great clash when I met my wife in college. Born and raised in Walnut Creek, she was far more savvy in the ways of decorum than I, which was only natural considering the cosmopolitan surroundings she was brought up in. It’s not that I was a mannerless brute without decency, it’s just that certain rules of etiquette were, to me, silly and superfluous. Can you really enjoy BBQ chicken without licking your fingers clean? There is nothing sadder to me than wiping them off on a napkin and watching all that good sauce go to waste (I see the same looks on my guests’ faces when I pour the wrong mixer in a cocktail and dump it down the sink: longing and regret at such senselessness).
And yet despite my obtuseness, I have always fantasized since I was a boy about being a distinguished secret agent like James Bond, the kind that continually adjusts his cufflinks and raises a demure finger to servants who rush to provide me with whatever I desire without ever having to provide verbal direction. I often imagined people talking about me as a mysterious guest who had arrived at their dinner party:
“Who is that distinguished looking gentleman? The one drinking Louis XIII and speaking with the Duchess?”
“Oh, you mean Mr. Allred. The international debutant.”
I do not share such fantasies with my wife, as the very notion that I would ever be viewed as “smooth” would cause her to fall to the floor in a ball of hilarity, laughing and choking on her own hysterics until her spleen exploded.
It was plain from the very beginning when I met my wife at Chico State that she wasn’t going to tolerate my social impairments for long. Seeing as we were still in the fragile stages of getting to know each other, she was sensitive enough not to come right out and state what was so obviously out of place to her. Instead she would drop passive-aggressive hints in hopes that she would eventually mold me into the man she had always dreamed of marrying one day. On the way to a movie she’d say something like, “I love how you can just wear anything and not care what people think.”
Looking down at my faded pink t-shirt and purple cut-off sweats, I couldn’t have been more confused. My philosophy on being cool was to avoid looking like you were trying to be cool, which is to say my style at the time could best be described as a sort of grungy aloofness. It had taken me years to perfect this style of genius, and now I was being subtly ridiculed for it. Nevertheless, I patiently suppressed my damaged ego and went to change into something less relaxed, as my newly acquired girlfriend was absolutely gorgeous and I really wanted to get into her pants.
As time moved on, my wife continued to try and mold me, but eventually she realized that molding a country boy in the ways of proper civility is about as easy as shaping a shard of glass with your hands. And it wasn’t just a “which-fork-do-I-use” thing either. It was more of a human relationship thing. Whereas most people instinctively knew to leave the toilet seat down, I had to be educated on this bit of folklore.
“Why do I have to put it down,” I asked one day, early in our relationship. ”Why don’t you put it back up for me?”
“Because I’m the one who gets up to pee in the middle of the night and practically falls in the toilet trying to sit down on the rim of the bowl which is drenched in your pee because you can’t fucking aim. That’s why!”
Ok, she had me there. Still, I was resistant.
“It’s because I have a penis, isn’t it?”
“What’s because you have a penis?”
“That you think I do everything wrong.”
“Yes, I’m quite sure of it. Most every thoughtless act derives from the penis.”
Even so, when I tried to blame future blunders on my penis, she failed to acknowledge us as separate entities.
For the rest of you who also have a penis and who are as clueless as me when it comes to proper social customs, allow me to share with you what I’ve learned, at least as I understand it. Perhaps I can save you some pain and discomfort early on in your relationships.
1. You can never have too many decorative pillows on the bed or sofas (side note: it’s a sofa, not a couch), as if the number of pillows directly reflects your level of success. I imagine couples leaving our house after dinner parties: ”Did you see how many throw pillows they had? I didn’t know bartenders did that well.”
2. When in-laws visit, it is not ok to disappear upstairs and watch re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show for three hours. Or so I am told.
3. Clothes must be segregated into different colors before you wash them. This is not only tedious, but it borders on discrimination. I’m still fighting the injustice of this chore today.
4. When having guests over for dinner, it’s not ok to simply put the condiments on the table in the form of jars and bottles. Apparently you must use nice little porcelain bowls. And real silverware, not plastic, as if we were royalty.
5. You must clean the house before the maid comes over….to clean the house.
6. Never invite people over to your house without first consulting your wife, even after she tells them, “You guys should come over soon.” As it has been explained to me, what one says and what one means are not always congruent nor consistent with each other, and therefore you must first check with your wife to sort out which is which.
7. It is absolutely prohibited to sit in your underwear and play poker at www.partycasino.com while your mother-in-law is visiting (you’ll sadly discover that there are many things you cannot do when in-laws are around).
8. Learn how to fix things around the house or your manhood will be questioned on a weekly basis. My basic skills are bartending, telling stupid stories and watching tv, none of which turn my wife on. If only building a fence were directly related to one’s knowledge of Seinfeld episodes, our house would have beautifully surrounding boundaries and I would SO get laid all the time. (Bonus advice: though you might think so, relying on duct tape or staple guns as your indisputable resolution for anything that is broken or maimed is not as good of an idea as you might think, so if I were you I’d tread carefully with this line of strategy).
9. Staying in hotel on vacation is really just like being at home in that you will still get yelled at for leaving your underwear and clothes strewn about. You might as well send me to balloon camp with a 5-inch needle and tell me I can’t pop anything.
10. Learn what RSVP means. And then tell me, because I still don’t know. My wife often tells me that we must RSVP to parties and weddings by a certain date, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to not know what those letters mean. I could look it up on Google, but for now, a certain element of mystery keeps things exciting and unpredictable for me.
In some ways I am still quite obstinate when it comes to following customs which I view to be quite ridiculous. To this day I refuse to wear a tie and no manner of cajoling or persuasion from my wife or anyone else will steer me otherwise. I’m not sure how it ever came to be that a piece of cloth dangling from one’s neck became the social barometer that measures cultural refinement and sophistication. It could just as easily be agreed upon that hanging it out the back of one’s pants like a motley tail is the reflection of civility.
To this day I am still learning what it takes to step outside my cave and live a life of cultivation, or at least compliance. There are things I will never understand, nor do I care to understand them.
What it really comes down to is that I love my wife to no end, and if she tells me that we must place doilies on every door and wall in the house, I will run and grab my duct tape and simply ask her where and how many.
Cheers, until next time.