Monday, February 14, 2011

The Manners Police is in town ... And I’m the sheriff

Are kids lazy or ignorant? And by the way, neither is acceptable to this Girlfriend Mom. Elbows on the dinner table, watching TV while eating, not clearing dishes, slouching over their food... not okay. And as a Pilates instructor, slouching is like giving me the finger.

We’ve got napkin issues in our home. Plain and simple. It appears that father and son dislike the idea of a napkin in their lap. Or they forget. Or they don’t care. Or they don’t know that it falls under the heading, Table Manners. As a result, I dread eating with them because I know they’ll be naked laps (that sounds dirty) and barely used, crumpled napkins on the table.

Putting aside the fact that we live in a civilized society, and play by its rules (most of the time) what about the fact that, as your dining partner, I don’t want to see dirty hands, and food scraps on the table, next to my food, and it’s selfish for anyone to think otherwise.

It’s not only the placement (or there lack of) of said napkin, but they don’t even use it to it’s full potential. If it’s a paper napkin they won’t open the folded square into it’s larger square capacity. It’s wasteful. Of course there’s the other side of this coin, illustrated by my grandfather who used to reuse his paper napkins. “You think we had the luxury of an endless supply of napkins during the depression?” Waste not want not kid, he’d say as he ate his leftover bagel from the previous morning, which had petrified over night.

Am I the only one who practices obvious table etiquette? We had dinner at home last night and I gently made my boyfriend aware of his napkin coordinates. To which he replied, “It’s a paper napkin. What’s the big deal.” He was making a distinction between paper and cloth. Cloth, paper, metal, rubber... if it calls itself a napkin, it belongs in your lap. Period.

Maybe my boyfriend wasn’t taught basic table manners (the Portuguese may do things differently) and it’s not for me to judge. We’ve all been failed, in one way or another, by our parents and their childrearing acumen, or there lack of. And I don’t know what goes on in my boyfriend’s son’s mother’s house (could there be more possessives in that sentence) so it would be unfair to point the finger solely at him.

However, I don’t remember sitting down and being schooled on napkin arrangement but somewhere in my illustrious career, I picked it up. And now I live it. And now I want my boyfriend and his son to live it.

Now when we’re at the table, I eye my boyfriend’s son gently and mouth, ‘napkin.’ He sees me and although he looks confused by this wacky ritual that his father’s girlfriend is asking him to partake in, he does it. The napkin doesn’t always stay in its place throughout the entire meal but he’s still grasping the concept that, when you’re hands are dirty and you’re in need of a napkin, it’s right there in your lap, where you can wipe in private so no on has to see the greeby short rib sauce on your snausage like fingers.

I’m no Emily Post and I have far from impeccable manners 24/7 but I have an awareness of what is socially acceptable and what is not. Sure I’ve belched at the family dinner table when I was a kid, unintentionally of course (although the seltzer didn’t help) but when my father glared at me and then at my mother saying, “I blame this on you,” I knew it was rude.

I’m strict when it comes to my boyfriend’s kids. Maybe because I wished that my parents were stricter with me. (Kids raising kids remember) There was an acute imbalance between parent as disciplinarian and child as parent in my family. I used to punish myself because my parents were downright lackadaisical. “Trust me Dad, I shouldn’t have done it. I’ll be in my room, not watching TV and not talking on the phone.” It’s probably not best to parent as if it were a do over from your own childhood, but since my boyfriend’s kids aren’t mine, DO-OVER!

Where was I? Oh, yes, table manners. Isn’t this what separates us from the animals. If kids don’t learn from an early age, they’re going to grow up into some of the people I see eating in restaurants, and it’s utterly disgusting. Hey animals, how about some compassion for the customers next to you, who are losing their appetites because you’re eating like a caveman. Huh? What about that?

Which brings me to the improper way to cut one’s meat.

Holy crap! You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen in my, wait for it, illustrious career. Women, men, rich, poor, sophisticated, unsophisticated, world travelled, only travelled as far as the grocery store, eating like barbarians. And I’m embarrassed to say that some of these barbarians are family and friends. Again, am I missing something? What is so difficult about holding one’s utensils in a way that doesn’t resemble sawing off one’s limb.

Several years ago, I lived in Prague teaching English as a foreign language. After two weeks I realized that English was just as foreign to me as it was to the Czechs, so I quit. However, I did spend time traveling with a woman who also quit the program.

The first time we had dinner together, I thought I was going to be sick. This woman was well read, had seen the world, spoke several languages, but for some unknown reason, no one taught her how to hold a fork and knife. I have little tolerance for those who put on worldly airs and pseudo sophistications and then eat like a rabid dog.

She fisted the fork in her left hand, and stabbed the animal flesh with its prongs like a pitchfork, while her right hand held the knife and sawed in a backward and forward motion. She tore into her Myslivecká hovezi pecene na houbach (hunters beef steak with mushrooms) like a Hyena tears into a Wildebeest. Gore, saw, exhale, repeat. It was like killing that poor hunters beef all over again. I swear I thought I heard a growl as I reached for the pepper shaker in front of her.

It was as if she’d never seen food before. Or she’d been stranded on a deserted island, eating only coconuts and sand. I looked away, vomited slightly in my mouth, and left her lapping up the grease from her fingers, at the corner of Ventúrska and Prepoštská Streets in Bratislava Central Square in Slovakia.

And then yesterday at Starbuck’s my faith was restored. A mother came in with her two sons, and walked over to a table in front of me that only had two chairs. The younger son immediately sat down. The older boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, started to pull a chair over from a neighboring table. “Here mom, let me get this for you.” I almost fell off my chair. Alas a child with manners.

I looked up from my tall half caf, and told the mother that that was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen. She thanked me and turned to her son, “Jack, you’re so chivalrous.” All right lady, let’s not get carried away, because from where I’m sitting, Jack’s got a naked lap.

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