Do as I say, not as I do

PJ O’Rourke died yesterday, and while I feel like he might have turned conservative when a feminist didn’t laugh at one of his horny grandpa jokes, I’ve always liked something about him.

His 1983 etiquette book Modern Manners has a healthy chapter on death and funerals. It doesn’t seem like he has followed his own advice about dying (“If possible, die in a manner that entertains people while impressing them with your attributes. Choking to death during autofellatio is an example.”), and it remains to be seen if he has followed his own advice about writing his own funeral or stipulated that his will be spelled out by the card section at a college football game.

I guess it’s up to us to follow his guidance when it comes to his passing. Apparently we do not have to perform a wake (“In the past it was customary for close friends to sit up all night with the deceased feeling horrible and creepy. That was before cocaine. Nowadays everyone has already sat up all night with the deceased feeling horrible and creepy while he was still alive.”), so I guess we can just jump to the funeral:

A really novel way to show excessive grief is to dress up like the deceased, go home with his parents, and insist on living with them forever. If this seems to be too much, you can stand on top of the floral arrangements and urinate into the open grave while screaming, “Piss on you for dying, you asshole.” Nobody will be able to argue with the strength of your emotion if you do that. The key phrase, if anyone objects, is “He would have wanted it this way.”

Etiquette & superstition: noodles

Rick's Drive In & Out sign reading "SPAGHETTI IS BACK" amongst many other street signs

I didn’t do a good job of preparing for any Lunar New Year feast this year. I guess I never do, but for some reason this year I’m feeling sort of dumb about not preparing for it. I have some spaghetti and baking soda. Maybe I can… oh, this is going to be a disaster.

ETIQUETTE: This would probably be easier as a spreadsheet, noting which utensils should be used with noodles in which country, whether you should slurp the noodles, cut them into smaller pieces, lift the bowl to drink the sauce/broth, etc. Let’s proceed.

Of course, there are caveats to all of these (don’t slurp out of big bowls even in places where it’s noted as okay to slurp, for instance) and somebody online is always going to tell you you’re doing it wrong, so as with many things food etiquette-related, the best thing to do is look around you and see what most of the other diners are doing.

*Also, “sop up” may mean different things depending on whether you’re in the US or Italy and the level of formality for the meal

SUPERSTITION: While a number of foods eaten for Lunar New Year celebrations are chosen for their names being homophonic in relation to something desired, noodles are eaten for their shape. That is, a long noodle slurped up unbroken predicts a long life. Add more baking soda if you’re worried your noodles might snap.

Etiquette & superstition: hiking aids and impediments

Picture of Benny wearing platform sneakers

I’ve always contended that hikers are liars. “It’s only a three mile hike!” means it is a six mile hike. “The top is just over the next ridge!” doesn’t mean the ridge you can see – it’s the ridge that is three switchbacks away. I’m not sure why hikers lie like this. I’ve found myself enjoying some short hikes by myself lately, and realized it was because nobody was trying to push me along with the promise of near completion. It took some doing to realize that when I was on my own, I could go as slow as I wanted and take as many breaks as I wanted. If it’s about the journey and not the destination, it’s best to journey at your own comfort level.

ETIQUETTE: Blair Braverman has recently started writing an “Outside For Beginners” column, and for her first piece, she tackled some basic hiking pointers. Let people know where you’re going if you’re hiking solo, take nothing and leave no trace, keep your dog leashed if you’re around other people, and don’t go off-trail.

In her Twitter thread, however, some commenters brought up my favorite point on the subject that wasn’t covered in the article: if you are hiking with others and they are lagging behind, you need to periodically stop and wait for them. If you can’t see them behind you anymore, you need to stop. You don’t know if they have a rock in your shoe or if they have a cramp or if they are just struggling to keep your pace. Now, (HERE’S THE IMPORTANT PART) when they catch up to you, they are the ones who get to decide when it’s time to start hiking again. If you start hiking again as soon as they catch up, they don’t get to have a break… and they’re going to keep getting slower and slower. Neither one of you will wind up enjoying yourselves. Some good follow-up suggestions in the Twitter thread included letting the slowest person lead the group or letting the slowest person get a several minute head-start. Find what works for the entire group.

SUPERSTITION: First off, burn a pair of old boots before your trip if you’re going on a long trek. If you want to have energy for your hike, put some mugwort into your shoe. Keep the patella of a sheep in your pocket to avoid cramps, or you can tie an eelskin around your leg to do the same. Some people say the only eelskins that are good are ones that are taken from eels caught in the spring, and the skins also need to be greased and then filled with thyme and lavender. Also they should be put in a linen bag, buried in peat all summer between layers of marsh mint, and… oh geez. Just find a sheep kneecap. Now get on that trail.

Don’t walk backwards at any point unless you want to kill your mother. If the sole of your foot starts itching, you soon may find yourself lost. When your shoelace becomes untied, as it will, walk nine steps before tying it again to avoid the poor luck of the day being tied to you. If your sock keeps falling down, don’t worry; it just means that your lover is thinking of you. Should you drop your walking stick, get someone else to pick it up for you unless you want to find yourself in, and losing, an argument. If you started your hike on a Monday, and you meet someone with flat feet, you’re going to need to go back home immediately and have a meal and a beverage before starting off again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Etiquette & superstition: return of the nose

This day was bound to come sooner or later. The CDC has just announced that vaccinated folks should no longer have to wear masks in most indoor or outdoor environments. Whether this announcement was influenced by the makers of Dayquil or the foundation makeup lobby, we’ll never know.

ETIQUETTE: We’ve touched upon this topic a bit before, but we’re all a little rusty these days, aren’t we? If you’re seated at a restaurant and need to blow your nose, it is recommended that you excuse yourself from the table to do so. If you need to get up so often that it is becoming disruptive to your meal, you probably should have stayed home. Let’s all start being more considerate in terms of that, yes?

If you only need to wipe your nose or can be discreet, however, Miss Manners says you can stay put. If you’ve done your business with a disposable tissue (or, only in an emergency please, a paper napkin), don’t put that germ bomb anywhere on the table. Tuck it away. Your tablemates and your busser thank you.

SUPERSTITION: If your nose itches, you’re either going to get: some bad news, a visit from a stranger, a slap in the face, a kiss from a fool, or a glass of wine. Welcome back to socializing.

Etiquette & superstition: horseshoes

If I want to retain my sanity for the next month or so, I might have to severely curtail my activity on a particular social media site, the one where all my friends are talking about how they’ve somehow already gotten their vaccinations. I get it with some of them – teachers, frontline workers, immuno-compromised, open tier locations. But some are just lucky, and I have to admit on bad days I’m envious. I’m trying to feel happy for everyone, and I know that it’s good that so many people are getting their shots. I’m also trying to remember that this feeling of not getting something when other people are getting something is a feeling that a lot of people have to live with every day of their lives. Anyway.

For my essential worker friends, I give you my gratitude for all you do. For my high-risk friends, I share in your utter relief. For my lucky friends, I ask you to lend me your secret charm so that I may join your ranks.

ETIQUETTE: Horseshoes is a game that may conjure up an idea of a beer-drenched rowdy time, but for anybody who plays seriously or anybody who wants to avoid a concussion, quiet and stillness is key. Distracting your opponent in any way is frowned upon, and trash-talking is really a bad idea when your opponent is about to throw two and a half pounds of steel in whatever direction their attention pulls them. This goes for the spectators too.

If the player pitching first in an inning pitches a foul, they should offer to remove the shoe from the pit before the second pitcher goes for their turn. The second pitcher can decide if the shoe is a distraction or not.

SUPERSTITION: Ah, horseshoe superstitions. This is the Lord God King category of superstitions, is it not? Horseshoe superstitions have been around since Roman times, and as such, they’ve gotten a little muddled. Some say a horseshoe should have its ends pointed up, either to hold the luck in or to confuse the Devil, who likes to move in circles and will get confounded when he tries to move up and finds a dead end. Others say that the ends should be pointed down, as when it is hung that way it is a symbol of the moon’s North Node representing prestige and reputation (the South Node symbolizing loss and misfortune). I guess you could make your decision by seeing how many nails you have to hang it up with.

Speaking of nails, the number of nails still embedded in a horseshoe indicate how many years of good luck it will bring the finder. And the number of holes in the shoe missing a nail indicate the number of years it will be before the finder gets married.

Etiquette & superstition: what to do with snow

Snowballed by Kevin Conor Keller on Flickr

Earlier in the day I could see snow from my living room window, on some mountains that are thirty miles away and some others about fifty miles away. The storm clouds are rolling in now so I can’t see the mountains anymore. Looks to be a dramatic night up there.

ETIQUETTE: When you are needing to remove snow from your driveway and sidewalk, don’t shovel or blow the snow into the street or onto a neighbor’s property. If you are able-bodied and know of some neighbors who are not as physically able, do a good turn and remove their snow for them. If your good turn starts becoming burdensome to you, figure out a way to set some boundaries. Maybe you can set up a rotating schedule with some of your neighbors. If you find yourself frequently bailing out some neighbors who have previously noted libertarian opinions, perhaps now is the time to show them how great socialism can work.

SUPERSTITION: Lots of nuts on the ground, raccoons with fat tails, and hornets’ nests high in the trees are all signs of a snowy winter. Chimney smoke that falls toward the ground instead of toward the sky portends snow within the month. If you’re not seeing any of these signs and you’re eager for snow, burn some old skis to summon Ullr, the Norse god of snow.

If Ullr heard your plea and blessed you with some snow, congratulations! Go run around in it if you want to become immune to frostbite, sore throats and chilblains. Eat some if you want to get rid of warts or a toothache (but fair warning: you might develop a goiter). Get married in it if you want to have lots of children.

Etiquette & superstition: disposal of fish bones

This post started out as something a bit different, as a friend had pointed out a very unusual sentence in a Scientific American article about cats purring. Leslie Lyons (ha) writes, “The durability of the cat has facilitated the notion that cats have ‘nine lives’ and a common veterinary legend holds that cats are able to reassemble their bones when placed in the same room with all their parts.”

I keep trying to parse that sentence out in various ways, but the only thing I can take it to mean is that veterinarians believe that a pile of cat bones can turn itself into a cohesive cat skeleton. And while I have been able to find a good amount of veterinary superstitions online, I can find no evidence that any veterinarians believe in this cat self-reassemblage. It’s possible that the sentence was just written badly and Dr. Lyons meant that vets think that cats can heal their own broken bones and ligaments by purring. And I’m pretty sure vets don’t exactly think that either. Aw, let’s forget about cats for a minute.

ETIQUETTE: When eating fish that has not been completely de-boned, remove any meat from the bone you encounter while it is still in your mouth, and then take the bone out of your mouth with your thumb and forefinger. It’s no big deal and with the meat gone it’s not an offensive wad of half-chewed food, so go ahead and deposit it on the side of your plate. Don’t make a big deal about it; you should not be embarrassed about this situation, nor should you cover your face with your napkin as if you were eating an ortolan.*

SUPERSTITION: If you find yourself with a fish bone stuck in your throat, you should put another fish bone on your head and eat some rice. Or yank on your big toe. If those didn’t work, you can ask a person who was born feet-first to rub your neck, or get a cat to scratch your throat. Or spin your plate three times.

If you managed not to eat any fish bones and you have those bones on the side of your plate, don’t throw them in the fire once you’re done. You and your fisherman pals will have empty nets if you do. If you want to help your fisherman pals while you’re on a fishing expedition, put your uneaten fish bones in a packet of paper before tossing them off the side of the boat. The bones will reassemble themselves into a whole fish and that fish will attract all his fish friends to witness the miracle of his resurrection, and bam – your nets are full of fish. Maybe this is just for herring. Try it and let me know.

*If you are eating an ortolan, by the way, you are expected to eat the entire thing, bones and all. Also, shame on you. Maybe.

Templeton they ain’t

I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t posted this cartoon clip before, but I guess I was waiting for the right time. If this isn’t the right time, I don’t know what is.

It’s not a perfect match – we’re blaming bats instead of rats for COVID-19, and we didn’t get COVID from bats crawling around in our food and biting us, and cats can’t protect us from COVID….

Hey, wait a minute. One thing we know about cats is they definitely for sure no lie steal our breath when we’re sleeping. COVID also steals our breath. Are cats COVID? Oh dang; I guess I’ve turned into one of the ignorant villagers in this cartoon. Forget all that. Go pet a cat today.

Etiquette & superstition: handkerchiefs

We’ve discussed handkerchiefs tangentially while explaining snot and spitting before, but maybe it’s a good time right now to discuss them more directly.

ETIQUETTE: Decorative silk and chiffon handkerchiefs are just that – decorative. Do not blow your nose with them. They can be used for gesturing and perhaps picking up an injured baby bird, and that’s about it.

More substantial handkerchiefs can also serve a somewhat decorative purpose as worn in the breast pocket of a suit jacket. Feel free to choose one with a colored border that matches your socks and tie, or shoes and purse. Colored-border handkerchiefs should not be used in a formal outfit, however.

Once you’ve used the handkerchief from your breast pocket, you should not stuff it back into that pocket because it’s going to look gross (if it’s visible) or lumpy (if it’s been stuffed all the way down and is no longer visible). You can put it in your pants/skirt pocket or your purse, or if you’re going for an old-timey boiled English gentleman aesthetic, you can shove it up your sleeve.

SUPERSTITION: It’s bad luck to carry a newly pressed and folded handkerchief; you need to unfold it first. You can refold it if that makes things more convenient for you. It’s also bad luck to pick up your own handkerchief if you drop it. And as we may have pointed out before, it’s not nice to give a handkerchief as a gift, as it will provide the recipient with much to use it for in the way of tears or sweat or illness. It will also ruin your relationship with them. How about a bandana, face buff, or kicky face mask instead?

Etiquette & superstition: solitary activities


I’m sure this Catch-22 was debated at some length by the more responsible powers-that-be before shelter in place orders were issued, but I’m finding it a little distressing: according to a study done a few years ago, belief in superstitions and conspiracy theories can be tied to feelings of isolation and social exclusion. I’d need to read the original paper to get a better handle on this, obviously, but needing to isolate people while knowing that isolating them may make them start to believe there are only nefarious reasons for their isolation sounds like a scary task. Keep doing those Zoom calls so you don’t start demonizing epidemiologists, everyone?

ETIQUETTE: Etiquette seems like a silly thing to be discussing right now, but I came across a passage in the beginning of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book Of Common Sense Etiquette that I found quite relevant to our current situation. I condensed this somewhat but I think it retains her meaning.

Unless we are able to find a relatively satisfactory adjustment within ourselves, so that we may look into the mirror with composure and close our eyes at night in reasonable peace, unless we make of ourselves persons whom we like, with whom, when occasion demands, we can live pleasantly in solitude, we are poorly equipped for social life in any community.” … “Your attitude toward the human race as a whole must include your concept of yourself, for you are a human being.” … “The one who … learns how to be honest to others by being honest with himself, not only will find the basic rules of courtesy to others natural and simple, but will also render perhaps the greatest of all courtesies to those with whom he has daily contact – that of being the kind of human being with whom it is a privilege to associate.”

SUPERSTITION: If you sing while you’re alone riding your horse or bike at night, you’ll get into an accident. If you’re a lady and you trip and fall while in an unfamiliar town, you will soon have a new beau. If you have a stye in your eye, go alone to a crossroads at midnight during a waning moon and yell: “Sty, sty, leave my eye, go to the next feller passin’ by!” If you want to spend the rest of your days wandering hungry and alone, just waste some corn.

A crow flying alone is an omen of impending disappointment, as is a lone cow mooing at night. Sandstorms are caused by bored and lonely desert demons.

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