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Sunday column: Special events edition

Vanya.PDP1Today’s column is online here, about a topic I find perpetually fascinating: Etiquette and disability. As I wrote:

And etiquette is a set of social rules written for “normal” bodies and minds. When people are obviously incapable of following its demands, we understand. No one expects a man in a wheelchair to stand up when respected guests enter the room?—?but we can see a wheelchair. People with invisible disabilities are in the unenviable position of having to explain themselves constantly or risk being thought rude. The problem isn’t that etiquette is oppressive but that we spend so very much time, in the 21st century, in the company of strangers. This makes life a social minefield for those of us who cannot easily shake hands, eat or drink some common offerings, stand up at parties or on the subway, recognize faces, or the like.

What etiquette demands do you have a hard time with, physically or mentally? I have no manual dexterity and poor hand-eye coordination, so I only do handwritten notes when absolutely necessary, and my table manners are, honestly, nothing to brag about. Etiquette is easier when you’re good with your hands. I’m good with my heart and mind and voice, though! And if you’d like to hear me use them, you could come to Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Mike” this Wednesday, January 21, at the Huntington, when I’ll be doing a talkback after the performance on the role of bad manners in comedy. (This is a Globe insiders event, so tickets to that night’s performance are $45 for Boston Globe subscribers who use the discount code.)




Also, I’ll be narrating the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Family Concert, “The Thrill of the Orchestra,” on Sunday, January 25. The concert is at the Armory in Somerville at 4 p.m. The concert is designed for children of all ages.


Sunday column: Giving edition

Today’s column is online here. It’s about gift-giving, surprise! I still think this Perspectives piece is one of the better things I’ve written on the topic:

Giving gifts serves symbolic functions—cementing relationships, celebrating life transitions—as well as the practical one of providing people with stuff they need. And this is at the crux of today’s etiquette dilemmas: For the first time ever, most of us have too much stuff and not enough money.

How are you handling gift-giving this season? My husband and I rarely buy each other gifts. The things we like–old paperback mysteries for him, art and clothes for me–are so idiosyncratic that we have to shop for ourselves. We buy each other little food treats quite often, but not actual presents.

We’re visiting my mother in Missouri this weekend, and I’d brought her a big bag of halvah because you can’t get halvah in the Ozarks. (My mother knows this for a fact because she called the only synagogue in Springfield and asked the rabbi if he knew where she could score any, a conversation that must have been truly epic.) But my mother’s taste buds have changed, apparently, because old age is a curse, and now she doesn’t like halvah.

I am getting ready to head over to her nursing home now and I suspect we might be having a difficult conversation about Christmas. My mother is almost completely incapacitated, and on Medicaid. For Christmas this year I will buy her the new shoes she wants, and a month of physical therapy, which she enjoys but which Medicaid won’t pay for anymore, because she is not improving.

No gift I can give her will make up for the fact that she cannot give to anyone, or do for anyone, any more. No gift can make up for the pain of being always a recipient, never a giver.

Sunday column: Holidays are here edition

Today’s column is online here, and we’ve got our first holiday question, this one about a “sibling” (left determinedly gender-neutral by the letter writer, who strove mightily to avoid giving any context at all) who won’t host or help out in any way during the holidays.

How does your family get on during the holidays?

I have eight adult cousins who are all brothers and sisters, and who live in various parts of the US with two main clusters around DC and the Ozarks, and I’ve always admired how they handle things, especially their determination not to get trapped in traditions for the sake of traditions. If one family (seven of the eight are married, and six of the couples have children) decides to visit in-laws on Thanksgiving for a change, there are no hurt feelings. This year, the cousin with the newest baby decided to bring her to meet the family on Halloween, rather than Thanksgiving or Christmas, because travel is easier and distractions fewer. It’s minimal drama, maximal crafting of good memories, especially for all the kids.

Sunday column: Performers are people

Today’s column is online here. This is the second question, and the beginning of my answer:

At a concert in a small venue, when the artist asks for requests, is it rude to request a well known cover by the artist as opposed to one of his original songs? Assuming the cover by the artist is relatively popular as a recording but is obviously not his own music.
R.J. Canton, OH

Miss Conduct wants to throw flowers and bravos at you, R.J. for your understanding that live performers are human beings, and not meat-based streaming platforms for music and spoken-word poetry. Live music, theater, or comedy should be seen as a social event, not as a consumer experience.

I wrote this column shortly after reading a piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books in which the author gets himself trapped–temporarily, but for much longer than he, or you, or the Supreme Court’s legal fiction of the “reasonable person,” would ever desire–at a dreadful avant garde production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I clicked on the article expecting a hurr durr, experimental theater is stoopid screed, but it was a good deal smarter than that.

The performing arts are inherently social in a way that, say, literature and painting aren’t, because the artists are right there in the room with you. They can see you. This creates a certain pressure to conform to social norms–having Capt’n Crunch staring at you can affect your behavior, never mind Blanche DuBois–including sticking around and acting like you’re paying attention at least until intermission. And this can open audiences up to artistic experiences they might not otherwise have.

Parks points out that not every work of art is instantly pleasing. Some take time to get into. In a museum or gallery, there is no social pressure to continue to gaze at a painting that doesn’t immediately thrill your eye. You glance and move on. Imagine if the artists were all standing next to their work, though! You’d feel bad to do that. So you’d look at everything longer, and maybe ask a few questions to be nice. (This is what the “poster sessions” of scientific conferences are like.) You might end up developing a great and genuine fondness for some paintings that didn’t grab you at all at first.

Theater does exert that social pressure:

In the theater on the other hand the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors, good or bad as they may be, creates a sense of reality and immediacy, a heightened state of attention. Having paid for your seat, having promised yourself a special evening, and finding yourself sitting in the middle of a long row beside others who have also paid and promised themselves a special evening, others whom you imagine have similar interests to your own, people willing to spend time and money supporting avant-garde culture, a community almost—in these circumstances you are probably always going to hang on at least thirty minutes, however bewildered and sceptical you may be. And thirty minutes should be enough for Beckett’s enchantments to begin to work. Simply the emotional experience of being in the theater, the sense of occasion, the positive atmosphere of people engaging in an intellectual pursuit together, provides the necessary momentum for tackling the great enigma of Beckett’s work.

Park’s column influenced my choice of and answer to that question, and then after I’d turned it in, this happened:

An actor in a Santa Clarita, Calif. production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was fired Saturday after physically removing a heckler in the audience who lobbed anti-gay slurs at the cast for nearly half of the show.

John Lacy, who played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ classic play that tackles homophobia among other themes, was fired after jumping off stage and physically confronting an audience member who repeatedly made noise and yelled “fag” during emotionally tense scenes, according to audience members’ accounts of the incident on Facebook.

The show apparently continued following the confrontation and concluded to a standing ovation. Lacy was apparently not let go until after the performance.


Where in the name of Joseph Papp was the producer? The front-of-house management? The stage manager? Mr. Lacy should not have escalated–responding to words with hands is never the right thing to do–but he was absolutely in the right to do something, and the fact that he chose an unwise something is not on him. A person who is disrupted in the middle of a task that requires 100% of their emotional, physical, and intellectual energy is not wholly responsible for how they respond to that disruption. Mr. Lacy should have been protected by management, and since he wasn’t, there is no way in hell that he should have been punished for protecting his fellow actor, the dignity of his craft, and the rest of the audience’s right to enjoy the play in peace. (There has been, if not a happy ending, at least a silver lining to the whole story reported here.)

This story enraged me, because it seems less about an isolated case of extremely bad theater etiquette than it does part of a whole complex of entitlement. Every student who has ever demanded a grade as though that is what tuition pays for. Every customer who thinks they’re always right. Every blog commenter who whines that the blogger isn’t writing about what they, the commenter, thinks is important.

The customer isn’t always right.
The customer isn’t always even a customer.
Sometimes the customer is a participant.

And that is a much bigger and better thing to be. Live up to it.

Blogging returns!

I’m back!

And so is the blog. For a year. We’ll see after that.

The Boston Globe and the website got divorced this spring, and the Globe got custody of me, which means that Miss Conduct doesn’t have a blog on anymore. (My column still runs in the newspaper, both print and online.)

The thing about blogging is that it’s such an open-ended endeavor. Are you posting too much? Not enough? Being interestingly varied? Yet staying on topic? What’s the end goal of any blog, besides a large number of readers to be disappointed when the blogger quits? Which almost everyone who blogs does, sooner or later, unless they’re getting paid.

And when people quit blogging, they tend to abandon their blogs for long stretches of time first, or start re-running old material, or generally behaving not like people who are bringing it home to a triumphant conclusion, but people desperately trying to gun an engine intent on sputtering to its death. I’ve done it myself. I think if we’re ending our blogs like that, maybe we somehow didn’t start them right.

So here’s my new idea: I’m going to blog in this space until next June, when I’ll decide whether or not to keep going. I’d like to get picked up as a blogger by another publication by then, or find some other way of supporting the blog. If not, I’ll re-evaluate, but having an end date in mind will, I think, help keep me focused and energetic.

The blog’s new tagline will be, “The Art & Science of Social Behavior,” and that’s what it will be about: the intersection of the arts, the social sciences, and everyday life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and read and comment often. Coming up this week:

– Do the right clothes and props make you better at your job?
– “Mad Men” explains everything about my other job
– Why your parents buy your kids too many presents

Also, today’s “Miss Conduct” column is online here—a threefer, this week—and you can catch up on past ones here, now without a paywall to worry about (here’s information on subscribing to the Globe). I hid a little Easter egg in the column for Monty Python fans.

Welcome back! We’re going to have fun.

Today’s column

… is online here. What a sad story that first one was. And I’m awfully proud of this line from my second answer: “If a witty riposte or soulful rebuke could shut down a drunken bully, history would have played out very differently, my dear.”