I sort of hate to mention it …

December 14th, 2010

… but it’s that time of year, and I really have to.

Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners makes an excellent Christmas present for anyone with a sense of humor and a curiosity about human behavior, and it’s discounted at Amazon.com. And if that doesn’t do it, isn’t there someone in your life — a teenager, a help desk techie, a stay-at-home mom — who could use a “Please Stop, I’m Bored” mug?

Nicest review quote *ever*

October 8th, 2010

… and speaking of critics, there was a new review posted on Amazon.com for Mind Over Manners. I am absolutely delighted by the second paragraph of this:

Witty, wise, and warm, this book is helpful not merely because it provides clever strategies, but because it helps the reader see other people’s points of view. She sometimes advises silence, sometimes encourages agreeing to disagree, and sometimes advocates boldness.

An old saying is “Good fences make good neighbors.” Miss Conduct helps to build fences that are high enough to mark your boundaries, but not so high that they obscure your neighbor’s view.

Thank you, K. Bowers!

Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, me …

January 31st, 2010

Oh my. Google Alerts has informed me that Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners is on Amazon.com’s list of books on “modern ethics” that have four-star or higher ratings! Check it out. I’m amused to be in such august company!

Because I kind of have to

December 3rd, 2009

The general consensus on yesterday’s chat (which was an awfully good one; do read it if you haven’t!) was that “gift guides” in magazines, blogs, etc. are rather pointless. And yet — and yet –

I must. Because not only is Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners an excellent, stocking-sized, and reasonably priced Christmas or Hanukkah gift, but

(drum roll)

Mr. Improbable has opened up a Cafe Press store! You can get t-shirts, mugs, and all the usual decorated with the Improbable Research logo, or ones identifying you as an “Improbable Researcher.”

My favorites are the Miss-Sweetie-Poo-inspired items. The Ig Nobels are an awards ceremony honoring achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think, and like all awards ceremonies, tend to run over time because the winners make excessively long speeches. Tended, that is, until Mr. Improbable came up on the brilliant solution of Miss Sweetie Poo.

Miss Sweetie Poo is an adorable eight-year-old girl in a party dress, who, when a speaker has gone over the allotted time limit, will march over to the podium and announce, in a clear, loud voice, “Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored.”

She doesn’t stop until they do, and it works.

So we’ve got some lovely “Please stop, I’m bored” merchandise as well. Mugs are classic, of course:

boredmug

But I’m particularly fond of the bib, myself:

boredbib

(The very first Miss Sweetie Poo is now a freshman in college. I wonder how often her trademark phrase occurs to her in class?)

Today’s column

October 25th, 2009

… can be found somewhere in the vicinity of here.

I had to set this up before I left, so I don’t have the exact link. Sorry! Anyway, in today’s column, I refer to one of my favorite quotes from Jewish texts. I write about this in Mind Over Manners, too:

When ethical matters are at stake, only the individual concerned can decide how serious the issue is, and whether conviction, compromise, or caving in is most appropriate. Those of us who are not saints cannot live out each ethical principle to its fullest in every moment of the day. Rather, because time and energy are finite, most people have a few pet values (virtues, ideals, causes) into which they pour their energy: sometimes you Save This Child, sometimes you turn the page. Calvin may be a superb father but a standoffish neighbor; Kathleen may devote time and money to animal rescue shelters, but do little for the environment, even though she believes it is important.

If other people’s ethical balance sheets aren’t quite the same as your own, it doesn’t necessarily mean they lack values, just that they are allocating their limited time, money, and energy in a different way. As the Pirkei Avot, an ancient text of Jewish wisdom, states, “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.” The task referred to is that of repairing, or perfecting, the world. I find this a helpful saying to meditate on: we must all do something, but no one needs, or can, do everything. Therefore, try to avoid quibbling with the ethical priorities of others, or laying guilt trips on them because their causes are not your own. They are tending to their gardens, and you to yours.

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.

“The Referendum”

September 18th, 2009

Nice post on the New York Times “Happy Days” blog about the inevitable way we compare ourselves with others, and how insidiously easy it can be to see other people’s life choices as a referendum on your own:

Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.

Beautiful. This is a major theme in Mind Over Manners. In the conclusion, I wrote something similar:

Many of our choices have ambivalence to them. Even the most happily married person occasionally misses the freedom of her single days. Even the most career-driven professional would like on occasion to chuck it all and become a beachcomber. Even the most ardent locavore is occasionally attracted by the whiff of a McDonald’s French fries. That ambivalence within our own souls—we can so easily project it onto others. Many of the choices we make represent an argument we’ve had with some part of ourselves. When we see another person who made the opposite choice, we’re afraid that she might awaken the part of us that lost the argument and therefore introduce conflict into our lives. Often, out of an instinct of self-protection, we go on the attack.

In the beginning was the word

September 1st, 2009

Ads for Mind Over Manners are starting to pop up in the Globe and the New York Times, and occasionally people besides my in-laws do notice them. (Though only the senior Improbables regularly cut them out for me.) One of the questions that the ad mentions is “Is it acceptable to say ‘Bless you’ to a sneezing atheist”? Which led to this letter:

I felt like your prompt was meant just for me! What DO you say to a sneezing atheist?! My partner is a firm non believer and every time he sneezes my reflexes kick in and I end up getting an eye roll from him when I utter the ridiculous “God Bless You” that I’ve been raised to say. Now, I’m not so worried about hurting his feelings (he knows it’s a reflex more than anything else) but I do wonder about the random people I “bless” on the train. Is there something else I can say to strangers who may or may not believe in a god? And please, something a little less corny than gesundheit!

That’s not the only letter I’ve gotten on that question–there is something about it, somehow, that tickles people in some deep way, like a feather up high in your nose. (I could do this extended and very gross metaphor about how we should keep inhaling that feather-question deeper and deeper into our mind-nose, until we sneeze out all our clogged-up thoughts about it, and then we should look in the Kleenex to see what’s been inside us all this time. But that would be disgusting, and so I won’t, although I do think it would be a great Tracy Jordan rant on “30 Rock.”)

As I said way back when I answered the original question, “Bless you” is actually fairly neutral, as it doesn’t indicate by whom one is being blessed. I don’t really like “God bless you,” personally, whether I look at it from a secular angle or a religious one. Atheists are one of those minority groups that very rarely get a break in our religion-saturated culture, so I’m in favor of allowing them freedom from religion whenever there’s an opportunity. “God bless you” has always seemed like a bit of theological overkill, anyway. Let’s bring God into the equation when I have a mammogram that’s difficult to read, not because I sneezed. Especially during ragweed season. Besides, isn’t there something about the automatic nature of saying “God bless you” that puts it awfully close to taking the Lord’s name in vain?

And yet, we need religious or supernatural language. Even atheists, when announcing good news, will say, “Knock on wood!” or will offer “Good luck!” to a friend about to go off to an important job interview. In the face of potentially changing circumstances, we almost always revert to some kind of magical language to acknowledge that our own fortune may change or to indicate our hopes for others. A few months ago, I had some potential good news coming down the pike, and I requested good thoughts from friends in a status update on Facebook. People responded with everything from fully sincere promises of prayer to simple “Fingers crossed!” to joking pledges to sacrifice a goat on my behalf–but the one thing that no one, Christian or Jew or pagan or atheist, did, was simply to say, “That’s great, I hope you get it.” Such a response would have seemed almost insultingly non-committal. Whatever people’s beliefs, they felt compelled to drag a little magic into their words in order to wish you well.

Miss Conduct at your book club?

August 28th, 2009

Do you belong to a book group near Boston?

If so, how about having Miss Conduct as your guest?

As we move into fall, I’m looking for more opportunities to keep interest in Mind Over Manners strong. I think it would be a terrific selection for a book group–at every reading I’ve done, total strangers have been having excited conversations afterward. It would certainly spark all kinds of discussion among friends!

And if your group is willing to purchase 10 or more copies of the book, and if you’re located within an hour of Cambridge, I’d be happy to join you for that discussion, and talk about the process of researching and writing the book. So e-mail me, if you’re interested!

And if you’ve ever sent me a question about what to do about that annoying person in your book group … well, that can just be between us.

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?

Summer reading: nonfiction

August 4th, 2009

So, last week I gave a brief review of American Wife and The Likeness and asked what good novels you’ve been reading. I think I’ve got enough on my list to get me through the end of the year! Thanks for the great suggestions. Now, let’s turn to nonfiction.

I must say, the finest nonfiction book I’ve read this year is Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners. It’s a quick read, but thought-provoking, empowering, and hilariously funny. Plus, the recipes in the appendix are delicious! It’s a delightful confection: imagine a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and Miss Manners, channeled through Tina Fey.

But there’s a chance–just a slight, off chance–that I might be biased about this.

Fact is, I haven’t read all that much non-fiction this year. I tend to go through phases with that. And I read so much nonfiction to when I was writing MCMoM that I’ve kind of burned out on it for a while. Also, certain kinds of nonfiction can be hard for me to read. Or–that’s not really the best way of putting it–it’s more that I tend to want a particular experience when I read. I want to get swept away into a narrative world. I want to escape. I want, usually, to power down and let go of my self-ness for a while.

Fiction does that for me. Some kinds of nonfiction–narrative nonfiction, like history (The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes) or true crime (Always in Our Hearts by Globe features editor Doug Most)–can do that as well. But nonfiction that is about ideas rather than stories is incredibly stimulating to me. It’s like having a conversation with someone who is finally putting together all those odd thoughts that have been floating around in your brain and you never knew how to connect before, or else like listening to someone who’s flat-out wrong and you are compelled to correct them, or in most cases, a combination of both. Which, for a big ol’ INTJ like me, beats snorting wasabi on a roller coaster next to Robert Downey Jr. for sheer excitement value.

So it can be hard for me to read good philosophy or religious studies or sociology or psychology or any other -ology for more than a couple pages at a time. Then I get so excited I need to go e-mail my friends about the incredibly insightful or incredibly stupid thing the author wrote, or take a walk with Milo and contemplate, or write a blog entry, or clean the kitchen and fume, or pour myself a glass of wine and yell at Mr. Improbable. (He doesn’t mind. He’s a writer, too, and needs to work out his ideas. We both sometimes talk to each other and sometimes talk at each other, and we’ve gotten fairly good at knowing which is which.)

I do have recommendations, though. I pulled together a short bibliography for MCMoM. It’s not everything I read for the book, but it’s everything that I thought someone who liked the book might also like. If you’ve got MCMoM, you’ve got the list–but my 1-2 sentence reviews didn’t make it in to the final version for page-count reasons. (Or, now that I am rereading what I wrote, perhaps because I grotesquely overused the term “classic.”) So, below the jump, are some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read since starting my own book–and why I liked them.

Leave your own fave reads in comments!

Click to continue reading "Summer reading: nonfiction"

Greetings, newbies!

July 21st, 2009

If anyone’s come to this site after watching the “Today Show,” welcome! I have another blog here, as well. That one has been around much longer than this one, so you can browse around on both. Here’s a few Greatest Hits you might enjoy:

Is narcissism the new humility?

Etiquette is a blunt instrument

The Annals of It’s Not About You

To the lady who hit my friend with the door

… and an excerpt from the money chapter (I mean, the chapter actually about money, not, like, the “money chapter” in the show-biz sense of it being the climax of the whole book) of Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners that was published in the Boston Globe magazine.

Also, you can follow me on Twitter–robinabrahams.

Thanks for watching and reading!

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!

A nice review

July 3rd, 2009

By Any Good Books/Mixed Reviews, here. This reviewer looks at some interesting stuff–I think I’ll be adding her to my blog feed!

… and in conclusion

June 30th, 2009

And here is the conclusion of Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners. I hope I haven’t spoiled the twist at the end for you.

concart

The conclusion covers a lot of material, but the heart of it is summed up in this blog post from almost exactly a year ago. The post was prompted by this question from a reader:

Is etiquette relevant? It seems whether one is boarding the T or working in business that our society has devolved to a “me first,” “I’ve got mine,” pushing and shoving match. Yes, I know etiquette is alive and well at the Four Seasons and among the Brahmin, but it seems a bit of civilization that we lost in our efforts to make everything common.

Go read the post to see my response–or better yet, buy the book.