Overweening Generalist

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Writing Exercise: Advice/Etiquette Columns

Prologue: Childhood and the Sports Section
I think I read the sports section of the Los Angeles Times every day from the age of nine or so, following baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. And a few other stories of boxers or cyclists or Pele or Jimmy Connors or maybe even jockey Willie Shoemaker, who after retiring got drunk and crashed his car off the freeway near my dad's house in 1993. I was really one of those kids who studied the box scores or the Top 10 Leaders in Passing, or Scoring. Why? I'm still not sure...

                                          box score for a famously wild NBA game

Age 12-40: Utterly Brazen 'Tude Towards Etiquette-Talk
Then, around age 12 I started reading the rest of the paper. I remember Dear Abby, and as a long-haired pagan kid I thought this was the most ridiculous part of the paper: people writing in and asking for advice from some old bag they didn't even know, because somehow "Abby" had become an authority on manners or some crap like that. Only the daily horoscope was stupider than this twaddle.

I pretty much kept up this attitude through my 30s. Although I did make a quiet, very informal and ongoing study of manners - one finds one must, really! - Abby and her sister "Ann Landers" and others like Tish Baldridge, Miss Manners and Amy Vanderbilt were the subject of humor rank and vile around my often rock-musician friends.

"Should we have another beer?
"I dunno. What would Dear Abby say?"
"She and her **** sister can **** my ****, but I'm pretty sure they'd say it's entirely appropriate to have another beer AND some more of that sweet ganja."
Than someone would fart. And we'd laugh. Or act "offended."

OG Hits Big Four-O
Around age 40, I became much more interested in manners. I'd read some of Edmund Burke, the great (true) conservative thinker (O! How I wish today's Republicans were more like Edmund Burke!), Irishman, philosopher, and essayist. He said he thought manners were more important than laws, which blew my mind. It really made me think. Of course laws are important. Bad laws really bother me, and there are plenty of those. But in those personal worlds that we so often inhabit, don't insults, or inadvertent slights, or little indignities or gracious acts by a friend or stranger affect us more than laws? I think so.

The really tricky thing about manners: they seemed related to the species we know of as "morals" and "ethics" but manners seemed more mysterious. Indeed, look at how much great comedy is produced with the anxiety about "what's the correct thing to do here?" as the backdrop. We all know those situations, and hilarity will ensue when the main characters make a far worse go of it than we would have...and most of us find ourselves unsure often enough. Look at Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm: they're all about manners, those unwritten "rules" that we all must somehow know, and when you violate them - whether you knew it or not, whether you agreed with the "rule" or not - there will be consequences.

You know the Fellini-like music that runs through Curb Your Enthusiasm? Larry David said, "You can really act like an imbecile and this music is going to make it okay." Yep. You need that music to take the edge off the utter cringeworthiness of those situations...
Introducing Henry Alford
So I'm reading a very funny book called Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That?, by Henry Alford. He reminds me of Robert Benchley (one of my writing heroes since around age 23) writing an etiquette book, although it's a meta-etiquette book; he's more fascinated in etiquette than I am, he's writing about thinking about etiquette. He has adventures, he makes mistakes, he does research on etiquette, he lives in Manhattan and compares it with his (hilarious) trip to Tokyo, etc. Alford cites Mark Caldwell's book A Short History of Rudeness (which I haven't read, but whatta title, eh?) in which, from an anthropological view, manners have "almost always served as 'tokens of solidarity in a distinct human group, which - if status is high enough - can decree anything polite by fiat.'" (Alford quoting Caldwell) "Caldwell writes of a sixteenth-century aristocratic German tradition whereby Christmas revelers festively pelted one another with dog turds at the dinner table." (pp.37-38, Alford) I just happened to see it on the shelf in my local library - Alford's book, not dog turds - and couldn't put it down. Gawd, this guy is a blast!

                                           Henry Alford, a very witty writer on manners.
About 3/4 of the way through I arrived at a chapter about advice columnists, and was astonished to see Alford explain that he'd pick his favorite manners-writers and read the letter to the expert, then, without reading how the columnist responded to "Confused in Concord" "Mad in Moline" or "Sad in Saratoga" or (I'm making these up) "Vile in Virginia Falls," he'd write his response in a notebook as if he were the columnist. And that's what I had done twenty or thirty times over the years, as an exercise! Alford's a better writer than I am, but I felt a kinship when I read about his exercises.

"When devising your response to etiquette columns, it's naturally much more fun to disagree with the manners maven; you learn more this way, since you're forced to solidify or retinker your opinion," Alford writes on p.170. Indeed, I have three basic approaches to my answers:

  1. I allow myself to be outrageously flippant, even unspeakably rude, a throwback to those rock band days I mentioned above. It's a way to let the Id out. Other times I act like the Stephen Colbert character, George Carlin, or "Ed Anger" from the The Weekly World News.
  2. Having read the columnist a handful of times, I try to predict what they'd write to "Dirty in Des Moines." It's a way to see how my etiquette chops are coming along, and a test of whether I "get" the advice columnist's approach to manners. (Alford does this too.)
  3. I use my response as a way to exercise "style," whatever the hell that is. In my ordinary world, I hardly ever talk about manners. I think Alford nails this: "On the one hand, you want to be omniscient, gentle, loving, sensitive, practical, subtle, clear, objective, and kind; on the other, you don't want to be the most boring person on the planet." Alford doesn't mention that he does what I do: I try to "channel" Gore Vidal, Aldous Huxley, or sometimes Erica Jong. 
Alford does say that these exercises are like a "literary ventriloquism." That's when he's trying to guess what the manners-expert would say. (His favorites and mine intersect.)

Me and Wilhelm Reich
One Big Thing I've learned about myself: I know the Western world's adult population at large tends to be more reverential and...oh fuck it, I'll say it: stuffy about sex. Much moreso than I. So I had to spend a lot of time weighing whether I should dial it back on my tendencies to just let it rip about sex. As a minor scholar of Wilhelm Reich, with my idiosyncratic interpretation of him and a few (but not most!) of his followers, I have decided to err or the side of possible embarrassment. We need to get over our sex hang-ups. That doesn't mean I'll discuss my own genitalia or friends'; there must be a point to it all. I will try not to cause embarrassment for others just for the sake of it. That would be cruel, and I definitely want to avoid that. But because we are so hung up, so fucked up, hypocritical and pretentious about sex in our culture, I will push the envelope a bit, and a few times I've gotten in hot water, especially with the online world. I've learned from these instances. I know now that I'll be joking with people I'd probably never want to socialize with in "real life." The online world is tricky: too much Missing Information. (Alford has a wonderful chapter on this: chapter 5, "Being a brisk snowshoe across the winterscape that is the Internet," pp.87-112) Alford, a gay man who writes for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and NPR, doesn't seem to agree with me...which may be part of why he is where he is and I am...here. <cough>

Am I tilting at windmills here? Probably. I'll probably always be a bit of a "punk" when it comes to this stuff. Aye, I still find myself behaving like a Visigoth or Dartmouth frat-boy every now and again. (I did NOT go to Dartmouth; the line was meant as a put-down. O! The irony!)

Etiquette and Phenomenological Sociology and Cognitive Science
Alford mentions he'd found out about the "theory of mind" while researching the book. Basic to cognitive science, it's about knowing that others do or don't know that you know, to put it most simply. A basic study: children watch a film of a child putting candy into a box, then see the child going outside. They then see an adult take the candy out of the box and put it in a drawer. Then the children who watched the film are asked: when the child comes back for the candy, where will they look? At 2 1/2 years old, only about 20% of the children said the box. By four years old, almost all the kids say the box. By four you have a theory of mind.

Alford wonders if, rather than manners being based on something like "empathy," which he had guessed at before learning about the theory of mind, that "Maybe good manners are your ability to take on another person's point of view regardless of your own." I think this is one reason why manners fascinate me so much: the hidden dimension of everyday "reality." I've long been fascinated by phenomenological sociology and Ethnomethodology (Alfred Schutz, Harold Garfinkel, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, the sociologists who do Conversation Analysis like Harvey Sacks, etc.): the "seen- but-not-noted-world." A current trope: paying attention to manners is a way of "hacking" much of the unseen/unspoken social welt.

                                         Professor Harold Garfinkel, founder of the branch of 
                                         sociology called Ethnomethodology, which sought to
                                         tease out the hidden "rules" of everyday life. To me,
                                        Ethnomethodology was intensely intellectual and sort 
                                        of whacky; it was super-microsociology and also a
                                        meta-critique of the Social Sciences. Garfinkel was one
                                        of Carlos Castaneda's PhD advisors. 

There's a finesse to manners. This isn't about social register or "class" or "good breeding," although all of those seem related. When one frames "manners" as being something that could operate among hoboes along the train-tracks, I think we've found a more true and just look at what manners are. (Maybe?) After having crashed Jonathan Haidt a month or so ago, I think he's groping towards something along these lines vis a vis those who differ from our political POV: trying to embody someone else's point of view despite your own cherished models of "reality."

Exercise Tip For Your Writing Chops; OR: Just Fer Kicks
Alford says his favorite are Mary Killen from the Spectator (which I like too for its exotic British tones); Miss Laura's TransTerrific Advice Column (for the transgendered); Miss Manners; Philip Galanes's "Social Qs" in the NYT; and Dan Savage. My favorite is Savage, but I also read Miss Manners, AKA Judith Martin. I like Dear Prudence from Slate. Because I once wondered why it seemed that heterosexual males writing etiquette was fodder for jokes, I found The Answer Man just to see if a straight guy could pull it off. He's not bad, in my opinion. But the others have better style. You can just Google "advice column" and find someone, anyone, read the first letter, then think how you'd like to respond, then write. If you're like me, you might make yourself laugh at yourself! Anyway...

I also read Carolyn Hax, and before I sat down to write this blogspew, I read her May 9th, "Friend's Estrangement Calls For Compassion, Not Shunning," which gave away her game right there in the title.

                                       Emily Yoffe, who pens the "Dear Prudence" column 
                                       for Slate; she's fearless and has awesome poise.

Because the title "primed" my brain to pretty much agree with her about "Dan," I still found myself wondering if the advice-seeker's girlfriend might have had a "thing" for Dan, and has not been forthright with any of us. Clearly Rachel's unsavory and has problems, and Dan maybe oughtta grow a pair and look elsewhere. Then - this is why I like Hax's column - a respondent to Carolyn's advice says what I had been thinking: "Why is she so obsessed with Dan?" Then I thought maybe I'm projecting. Truly, instead of shaming Dan, girlfriend and others who care about him should exude compassion, and hope he makes the right decision. I think someone (I'm looking at you, Dan!) needs to tell Rachel to take a hike (but how's her body? what's she like in bed?), and maybe Dan should think of some client-centered Rogerian psychotherapy. But it's complicated, right? Hax nails it again at the end. There's something intimidatingly adroit about the really good manners mavens...

Thinking about complex social situations involving the unwritten laws of etiquette and delicately nuanced human emotions involves the theory of mind and its exercise, often using intuition, memory of past experience, and moreover, our wits. Manly men who think etiquette is sissy-stuff? You're missing out on a rich field of social discourse! You ignore this stuff at your own peril!

Finally: if you decide to study this stuff in a more-than-cursory way, bring your personality and sense of humor "to the table." Just as those Robert Anton Wilson fans who know what makes the Law of 23 go, you'll no doubt "see" manners everywhere after awhile. And that can make experience richer. There's a lot of deep humor in this sphere. Enjoy!


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

My favorite advice column was the "Dear Mr. Blue" column that Garrison Keillor wrote for Salon years ago.

Sue Howard said...

Private letters are somewhat different, of course - still, this may be of amusement value: Noël Coward's advice to Marlene Dietrich on relationship problems she was having with Yul Brynner:

Letters of note.

michael said...

@Tom: I'll have to go check those Keillors out.

@Sue: once again: spot-on link to the subject! My favorite line was this one:

"The only mistake was not to have behaved a great deal worse a long time ago."

The tenor of that one I've used when sketching out very snarky responses to someone's query to a manners maven. "On the contrary my friend: rather than feeling gnawing guilt over having thrown up Sweetheart's dinner on her cashmere sweater, this should have been done long ago..."

File Under: Things We'd Like To Have Said But Never Did/Probably Won't

michael said...

There's a type of letter that Manners Mavens get about their child or friend or spouse who "lies" too much. I like Karen Finley's advice about the value of exaggeration:

Eric Wagner said...

Great blog as usual. My mom went to college with Judith Martin. I wonder about "channeling" Erica Jong. I read a bunch of her books 29 years ago.

I have reached an Overweening Generalist crossroads. I hope to finish Proust soon (220 pages to go). I could then continue my OG ways, or I could really buckle down with Joyce and finish my new book.

michael said...

@Eric: you wonder about Erica Jong and channeling and me in what way? (Feel free to disregard/not answer this Q.)

I'm counting on you to finish Proust, then I'd like to say "buckle down" on the book, but my own feelings of being overwhelmed trying to get an adequate handle on RAW-writing precludes me from saying I "count on" THAT. I do hope to read you on Joyce's infl on RAW, but I know I don't need added pressure. I've already killed myself (almost) with the pressure I put on myself.

Everyone says Judith Martin is cool and she actually seems sorta hip when I read about other people's firsthand accounts of being with Miss Manners.

Re: Proust/writing a book/blogging/jobs/relationships/doing chores/daydreaming/watching films, etc: there are increasing numbers of Extropians/Transhumanists/Singularitarians who seek an end of the tyranny of SLEEP. Many want to "cure" it (as they do the disease of death), of to be able to get much less sleep and still feel okay. All of this will be accomplished via technology, it seems to be assumed.

There was a poll (maybe at the IEEE site?) in which a high percentage of transhumanists would rather not have to sleep if they had a choice. Many opted for much less sleep (3-5 hrs/night?). And then many rejected the notion of sleep as a disease and seemed to be okay with whatever they were getting.

OR: you could read Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer?

Eric Wagner said...

I love sleep! I remember not liking it when Ram Dass wrote about enlightened critters not sleeping much. Dreams remain a mystery to me.

I just wondered why you wanted to channel Erica. I loved her novel How to Save Your Own Life. That turned me on to Anne Sexton's poetry. This school year my tenth graders really got into Sexton and Plath's poetry, so much so that I think I may encourage next years' students to vote to include additional books by them on the syllabus.

OK, I hope to finish Proust this month, then I will buckle down on Joyce, planning to finish my book next year. Perhaps I will.

I think I glimpsed Judith Martin at my mom's 50th college reunion at Wellesley two years ago. Madeline Albright gave a terrific speech. I'd never visited the campus before, but I'd heard my mom talk about it.

I feel very sad I won't get to teach film history next year. Perhaps I can channel my energy into writing more and better.

Reading not-Tom Lehrer might distract me from Joyce.

michael said...

My mom had Fear of Flying when it came out. I read it at 15 and it was over my head. Then I read Jong later, in my 20s and she was a sort of pro-sex feminist, or I saw her that way. I like her writing and her candor and even though she wrote a book around 1998 that lamented she wasn't the "hot chick" anymore, I still think of her as sexy.

The line from Jong-Sexton makes sense.

There's a professor named Seth Lehrer who has written on the history of English and he's a tremendous lecturer. See if you like his stuff put out by The Teaching Company. Your local library may have those courses on CD.

This has been the Wagner-Johnson-Lehrer sans McNeill Report

Anonymous said...

I too, like Dan Savage. I was disappointed when the local free weekly recently dropped Savage Love. They claimed it "upset" too many readers.

He seemed to have a special disdain for either Ann Landers, Abby (of Dear Abby fame) of one of their sucessors.

(Is Dan Savage from Chigago like da' sistahs?)

Miss Manners Rocks. The local paid daily dropped her some time ago - which is OK, since I dropped them as well.

I have adapted a Miss Manners principle for child-rearing. I have for some time told my teenagers that to be kind is more important than to be truthful - which is fundamental for politeness - at least it seems so according to the esteemed Ms. AMrtin.

After all those years I can remember only two things that the "sistahs" wrote. One was unfair - but memorable. "A hippie is a Jack who looks like a Jill and smells like a John"

And this, which I thought was wise:

Q: What should one say too a parent who shows pictures of a child who is ugly?

A: Say "Oh, you must be SO proud!"

I think Miss Manners would approve.

michael said...

Yep: Savage is from Chicago. Catholic. (in childhood)

The Landers sisters (I forget their birth name, they're twins) were born in Sioux City, Iowa. Their background is Jewish, and I've noticed there's a predilection for "Jewish female" advice among some people. Maybe there's some basic rivalry there. Ahhh...but Savage talks far more openly about SEX as it really is, than the Sistuhs.

Re: Miss Manner/Judith Martin: Not long ago I watched a pretty good documentary on the word FUCK, and most of the talking heads were for open use of the word, as am I. There were a handful - 6 or 7 - of pretentious, stick-up-the-ass right wing assholes who thought the word carried black magic and was bringing us all down. I thought Alan Keyes and Dennis Prager in particular were the most loathesome and vile. But, standing apart from the pro-Fuck and anti-Fuck groups was Miss Manners, who is clearly anti-Fuck, but didn't want to pontificate; it's axiomatic to her that well-mannered people don't use the word. I disagree with her, but at least she wasn't pretentious about it.

The line about the hippies from one of the Sistuhs seems like a variation of Reagan as CA Gov: a hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah. Something like that. Or did his writers rip the Sistuhs off?

Re: living in an area where they drop Savage for being too upsetting: I'm in the Bay Area, where they have the Folsom Street Fair once a year. Google it. We're the opposite. A Berkeley student recently made national news when she wrote in the student paper about not going home for Thanksgiving and instead having sex in the library, all over campus. She's still writing for the paper.