Awesome review in the WaPo!

September 30th, 2009

A bit of morning cheer — the Washington Post ran a roundup review of etiquette books, including Mind Over Manners:

It makes perfect sense — it’s rather cheering, really — that the etiquette columnist for the Boston Globe is not an imperious WASP but a Midwestern-born converted Jew who has blunt things to say about both Christopher Hitchens and the soi-disant war on Christmas.

The review itself is a brilliant piece of writing, absolutely laugh-out-loud funny: I haven’t heard of “Michael Lindgren … a musician and poet who divides his time, politely, between Manhattan and Pennsylvania” before, but I’ll be looking his stuff up from now on. Really, I’d urge you to read this one even if my book weren’t included, it’s so good.

I come from funny people

August 18th, 2009

Speaking of awkward compliments, I sort of got one at the reading I did last week at White Birch Books in New Hampshire: “Have you always had such a wonderful sense of humor?” That’s almost too complimentary! How can you answer that in a modest fashion? “Why, yes, and I’ve always been terribly good-looking, too.”

I thanked the woman who asked it, of course, and then said, in essence, yes I have.

I come from funny people.

My parents were funny, and communicated the value of funny to me, in the way some other families are musical, or athletic, or intellectual, or political. I don’t think they did this consciously–I’ll be real interested to hear what the ConductMom has to say about this post, online or off–but they certainly held humor in esteem not just as a random good thing, but as an important good thing.

I remember the day it occurred to me, around age seven, that my mother was funnier than most people. We were living in Oklahoma at the time, and I was taking horseback-riding lessons at a local farm. There were goats at the farm, too, and I vividly recall my New-York-born-and-bred mother’s mingled amusement and horror at being told, “Don’t park under the trees or the goats will climb on your car to eat the leaves.” This wasn’t something she’d ever had to worry about in Queens.

One day, I asked her, “Why do goats have scabby knees?”

“They pray a lot,” she replied. After a perfect beat, she added, “If you were that ugly, you would, too.”

I suddenly realized two things: one, that not everybody’s mother would have said that, and two, that not everybody would joke so irreverently about something that they took, at heart, very seriously. (Prayer, that is. I don’t think anyone from New York City can truly learn to take goats seriously.)

Growing up, my parents and I used humor as a way of bonding, of dealing with our stresses, and perhaps most importantly, as a way of breaking out of the roles of Mom and Dad and Kid, or of Good Midwestern Christians, or whatever. We valued those roles, but somehow also knew it was important to subvert them, to create a place we could just be Nancy and Jack and Robin together. We did humor in a lot of different ways: my father of blessed memory was more the Borscht-Belt kind of old-school joke teller, and also liked to make observations about the oddities of the English language. My mother and I were not above physical slapstick, but were mostly fast and quippy–my mother, in particular, had a remarkable facility for sick jokes, a side of her that I was one of the few people to see. We bonded over “The Carol Burnett Show” and “M*A*S*H” and, especially for my dad and me, “Take the Money and Run,” which we must have watched a dozen times together.

We had a lot of private jokes as a family (“checking the map,” “now I’m a vidow”). Humor was part of our culture. It’s not as though my father ever took me aside and said, “Daughter, humor can bridge social gaps and help overcome psychological defenses, and I want you to think about that,” or that my mother was some kind of godawful Comedy Mom (“Go to your room, young lady, and don’t come out until you’ve written ten witty observations on the difference between dogs and cats!”). But somehow, I knew that being funny was an important part of who they were, and an important part of who we were, as a family.

I can’t even begin to speculate on why my parents were like that. Neither of them were close to their extended families, so I don’t know how far or wide in the family tree the funny blossoms bloom. Through Facebook, I’ve recently become friends with a passel of cousins on my mother’s side, and although I have certain differences with them (I rather decisively did not remain a Good Midwestern Christian) we all share a love of a good laugh. My cousins write some of the funniest updates and comments I get on Facebook, which considering that many of my friends are professional writers and/or performers is going some.

What activities or qualities were particularly important to your family of origin? How were those values communicated? Do you think your parents valued those things consciously, in a way they could explain, or is it simply something deep within them that you picked up on?

Review of MCMoM in the Globe

August 16th, 2009

My book got a nice review in the Globe yesterday! Thanks to the ConductMom for spotting it. Who needs Google Alerts when you have a proud mother?

Today’s column, plus a very special letter

August 2nd, 2009

Today’s “Miss Conduct” column is online here.

Also, I’ve been meaning to share a very special letter that came in a week or two after my July 12 column. In that one, I answered a question from a fourth-grader, which delighted me because that is the youngest person, as far as I know, who has ever written in. I don’t know if it was a boy or girl–the e-mail was signed only with initials (kid reads the column and knows the protocol, apparently!) and was sent from the mother’s e-mail.

Here is the child’s question:


I am 10 years old. My fourth-grade teacher taught my class that girls always go first and boys are to hold doors and help girls with their coats. He says that when a girl comes to or leaves the table, boys are supposed to stand up. A lady’s job is to help the men be gentlemen by letting the men do these things. These guidelines seem old-fashioned and unfair. My mother suggested I ask you what current etiquette should be and what it may be when I am an adult?

And here is my response:

Some people think etiquette should be different for boys and girls or men and women, like your teacher does, and some people think it should be the same for both. People who think etiquette should be gender-neutral (the second kind) still practice good manners but don’t think it should depend on who’s a boy and who’s a girl. They will hold the door for someone who has packages or who is behind them, and stand or not depending on how formal the occasion is and how old the person is that they’re greeting.

Mostly, at work or school, manners are the same for men and women. People are likely to be more traditional about etiquette in dating or social situations. So it’s good to learn both ways. Etiquette isn’t just one thing; there are different manners for different situations — just like you have different clothes for school and soccer and church. Since you asked, though, I do think manners are changing. Probably by the time you are an adult most people will practice “same for both” manners, except for a small handful of people who don’t and are very angry at the people who do and write letters to people like me about it.

That last line is emphasized for reasons that will shortly become obvious, because here is the totally awesome letter I got in response:

Dear Ms. Ill-Mannered:

You contend that men and women will be treating each other the same in
terms of manners and etiquette.

You could not be more wrong, and it’s a sign of your own narrow views that you do not recognize this.

Do you open car doors for men and make sure that their coats (or dresses, in some cases) do not become caught in the door? No, and you never will.

Do you take a man’s arm to steady him (not for him to lean on) across an
icy sidewalk? No.

Do you jack up the car to fix a flat tire while the man stands to the side
of the road? No.

If an intruder came into your house – and you did not have an opportunity to immediately call the police, or if you and you husband (or wife, as the case may be) are confronted on a sidewalk by ruffians, do you stand in front of your partner and say “Darling, let me handle this.” ? No. You depend on him to protect you and put himself into harm’s way. That is how the vast majority of people behave.

I could go on and on.

You are clearly trying to social engineer young people. That’s wrong. It
is not up to you to do that. It’s up to their parents, their church, and whomever other people or groups their parents appoint. Or do you feel that you always know better?

Let us be clear that you gave the young lady factually incorrect
information in order to inject your own factually incorrect views into the
matter. You lied to the young lady, in effect, and I think you know it.
In a sense, you’re a predator, setting yourself above parents and society
in terms of morays (sic).

How sad that you set yourself above traditonally-minded people with your misguided superiority complex.

Perhaps another more objective advice columnist could straighten you out?

Would you consider that?

Okay, kids, I don’t have all the time in the world this morning, so I’m just hanging this paper target on a tree for y’all. Take your own best shots in comments. Extra points to anyone who can come up with a good “moray” joke.

(Okay, okay, just two of my favorite logic fails: Good job trying to convince me I was wrong by behaving exactly as I already predicted a small number of cranks would. Also, the LW says that it’s not up to me to “social engineer” young people, because that’s the job for their parents and whomever their parents appoint. Which, if you read the child’s original letter, would be, um, me.)

A Shapely Prose review

July 20th, 2009

Fillyjonk of Shapely Prose reviewed Mind over Manners today! Go check it out, and thanks, Fillyjonk!

How FJ got a copy of the book in the first place is a sort of amusing story. Since I’d long been friends of Shapely Prose, and we’ve linked back and forth a lot, I probably would have sent one of the bloggers there an advance copy anyway. But Fillyjonk won hers fair and square. I had a few advance copies to play around with, see, and since both Darwin and Lincoln had their birthday on February 12 of this year, I decided to start a contest, the Emancipation v. Evolution Love Smackdown:

So, today is the 200th birthday of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Tomorrow is Friday the 13th. Saturday is Valentine’s Day. Put it all together and it might … look … something … like … this:

It’s always bad luck to be put in an awkward dating situation. If both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln asked you out for the same night, which one would you choose go out with, and why?

I think I’m going to give a prize to the most creative answer for this one, so make it good, folks. (If you don’t date men, your answers are still only limited by the power of your imagination!)

And Fillyjonk won for this entry:

I’m a fan of Darwin, run-on sentences and all, but I think the people opting for Chuck don’t know much about Darwin the man. Abe was clever, calm, and expansive; Charles was anxious, neurotic, and preoccupied with his ill health. Abe would take you to a John Hodgman reading and then out for ice cream, Charles would take you to Chili’s and spend the whole time looking at his tongue in a hand mirror. Sure, if you ever went back to his house he’d turn out to have lots of great creepy taxidermy and volumes of brilliance in Big Chief tablets under his bed — and to be fair to the man he was a devoted-to-the-point-of-neurosis father. But you WOULDN’T go back to his house, let alone have children with him, because you already would have crawled out the bathroom window after the seventeenth time he asked you if you thought he looked a little jaundiced. And then you would have called Abe and gone to ride the bumper cars.

That still makes me laugh, especially the line about the hand mirror. So there you have the backstory of How She Got That Review. I totally agree with her, too–I was shocked how many people picked Darwin in that poll, when Lincoln would clearly be a much better date. It’s also a bit of amusing backstory because Fillyjonk’s one criticism of my book is that it contained too much evolutionary psychology!