On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

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It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

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“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

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The Right to Be Wrong

Among the inalienable rights we enjoy in democratic societies is the right to be wrong.  We have an unfettered right to make a choice about our fundamental values, our publicly-stated opinions, and our actions—and to express these choices.

We bear a burden for holding this right, however, in that we are expected to (and can often be made to) accept responsibility for the consequences of our choices.

This notion has become more significant for me recently, as I watch in horrified fascination the shenanigans of the so-called ‘leader of the free world’, and his enablers, in the great republic to the south of us.

The circumstance of being wrong is a subjective concept.  How do we know, how can we determine absolutely, when someone is wrong?  Is there a conclusive test?  Do we always know right away, or does it sometimes take a long time to figure it out?

In fact, there are societal norms in place to govern our interactions and behaviours; but most of them evolve over time, as each succeeding generation shapes the world to its liking.  An action considered wrong for my Victorian grandmother (like appearing on the beach in a two-piece bathing suit) would certainly not be condemned today.

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The norms come into existence in one of two ways.  They are legislated for our common good by duly-elected representatives, or they are adopted by people at large as benchmarks for social intercourse.  Regardless of their source, they become truly effective only when they enjoy a high degree of acceptance among those for whom they are intended.  It has been called governance with the consent of the governed.

An example of the legislative method is the imposition of speed limits for vehicles on publicly-owned roadways; it is clearly wrong to exceed the posted limits.  An example of the adoptive method is the attitude towards smoking, particularly around other people; even in jurisdictions where smoking is not yet illegal, it is definitely frowned-upon to subject others to second-hand smoke.

Of course, in neither form, legislated or adopted, do our societal norms enjoy universal approval.  There are countless scofflaws in the general population who pay only lip-service at best to those they consider trivial.  Have you, for instance, ever exceeded a posted speed limit?  I confess I have.  And there are people who, despite both the social opprobrium and scientific evidence attesting to the effects of smoking, who still choose to light up.

More importantly, and more dangerously, we have fringe groups among us who vigorously, sometimes violently, oppose those norms they disagree with.  If that were not the case, abortion clinics would not be bombed; temples, mosques, and churches would not be defaced with hateful graffiti; and people would not be denigrated and harassed because of skin-colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.

Thankfully, such violent actions are widely considered wrong in a democratic society.  And, wherever possible, punished.

In the distant past, Isaac Newton famously hypothesized that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Known as Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it pertained to the physics of interactions between two opposing forces.

We might think of the relationship between behaviour and consequences in a similar, though not identical, manner.  The first begets the second.  If I drop a crystal goblet on a tile floor, for instance, the goblet shatters; if I stroll through an afternoon shower sans umbrella, my clothing becomes soaked; if I bite down on my tongue while chewing, I experience pain.  Such natural consequences are the result of the behaviours immediately preceding them.

Logical consequences are different, but no less substantial.  If I drop that crystal goblet while examining it in the store, I will almost certainly have to pay for it.  If I speed through a residential neighbourhood (even if I am fortunate not to strike a pedestrian), I may be cited by a traffic cop, leading to the payment of a substantial fine.  Logical consequences are imposed as a result of our behaviours by outside authorities empowered to do so.

All of which brings me back to my dismay at the disarray I witness almost daily in the USA.  People elected to govern on behalf of the people who elected them behave, instead, in their own selfish interests.  They make decisions, not on the basis of how a particular matter might benefit their constituents or their country, but on whether it will improve their chances for re-election.  They take positions, not representing those who voted for them, but the moneyed interests who finance their pursuits.

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They spend their time, not enacting legislation to benefit all citizens, but fighting their partisan, internecine battles in a sadly-ritualistic dance to the death.

And at the forefront, a bombastic, narcissistic showman, ignorant in the ways of leadership, determined above all to have his way.  To win!

Can the great republic be wrong in the fateful choice it made just six months ago?  And if so, what will be the consequences for the nation, and for the rest of the world?

We have an inalienable right to be wrong, it is true.  But never in my memory have the potential consequences of being wrong been so enormous.  I want to cry out—

How can you be so stupid?  Fix this!  More important than your right to be wrong is your duty to be right!

And, helpless to affect matters, I continue to watch.