Etiquette & superstition: early arrivals

Which racist vintage cartoon* do you want – the “Early Worm Catches the Bird” or “The Early Bird and the Worm”? Neither? I’m fine with that. No picture today.

ETIQUETTE: You should arrive early or at the very least on time for job interviews, weddings, and meals at restaurants with friends. Arrive on time for children’s parties. For dinner parties at a person’s home, you should never arrive early, unless you have specifically been asked to help the host/hostess with preparations. If you arrive early, you may seriously mess up some last-minute preparations or even catch your host without their face on. In Venezuela, it is considered rude to even show up on time to in-home dinner invitations. Arrive 15-30 minutes late.

SUPERSTITION: Babies born early in the morning have a better chance of living to an old age. Early teething means another baby is coming soon. If you see bats flying around earlier than usual in the evening, good weather will soon be coming your way.

*Really. These bird/worm cartoons were worse than usual. Oh, humans.

That’s Implausible!

This is it. This is the clip from That’s Incredible that I’ve been looking for to post during the Halloween season, the story that made all us Sunnyvale kids a little cocky the day after it aired. John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby AND Fran Tarkenton all talked about our local toy store. The haunted toy store. Yes, I know I’ve talked about my childhood haunted toy store here before, but 1) not for at least three years according to my archives search, and 2) I wasn’t able to include this particular TV clip previously. Prepare to be astounded by the haunting image of a supernatural being from the mid-19th century wearing clothing clearly purchased from the Sunnyvale Town Center Miller’s Outpost.

Thanks, Dom!

Curse of the condemned cat

Okay, now I see that it’s kind of just a Rorschach blot on this cat’s nose,

but when I looked at this earlier it really seemed like the silhouette of a mouse. And that got me thinking, “Wow, that’s weird. A mouse silhouette on his nose. I wonder if he killed a mouse and the mouse was some kind of magic devil mouse who gave the cat a ‘Whomever shall harm me will wear my image for eternity’ mouse curse sort of thing. And the cat’s name is Thirteen. Good lord, you’re just asking for it by giving a cat the name Thirteen. That’s like giving a dog the name Lucky and not expecting it to be run over by a truck. This cat is so doomed. He probably was just looking for some cat action in the middle of the night and boom – dark alley surrounded by angry mice with their red beady little eyes  set on revenge for their fallen devil mouse leader or whatever. This cat is not coming back.”

And then I looked at the picture again when I uploaded it to my computer, and that mark didn’t look very much like a mouse any more.

Etiquette & superstition: a multitude of spoons

This four foot long spoon attached to a tree outside this house in our neighborhood is puzzling to me. True, I own a four foot long spoon, but I keep it in the kitchen. Maybe this house is the secret hideout of The Tick.

ETIQUETTE: Everybody who complains about utensil etiquette usually complains about the forks. “The forks! There are so many! It’s so hard with the forks!” I wonder about these everybodies sometimes. It’s as if they just sit there staring at the left-hand side of their place settings and never bother to notice the abundance of spoons on the right-hand side, and even above the plate. These everybodies are going to have heart attacks with the spoons if they’re already having trouble with forks.

If you go into the early to mid-20th century etiquette books you are going to see a lot of dissension about spoons. As an example, ’50s edition Emily Post will tell you that tablespoons are a little arrogant to have around the house, but she makes no mention of soup spoons or what one is supposed to eat soup with. Amy Vanderbilt from that era has no problem with tablespoons but really only likes to talk about dessert spoons, unless she is upset about teaspoons showing up where the soup spoon should be (though she makes little mention of the soup spoon itself, relegating it to a few diagrams). The ever-thorough Etiquette Scholar does a very nice job of outlining the 14 types of spoons one may commonly find at a table, though he does not mention the scalloped sugar spoon.

Let’s just make this simple. If you’re at a formal dinner, your soup spoon is going to be to the right of your knife and your dessert spoon is either going to be above your plate or will be provided when dessert is served. They also should be helpful with providing your teaspoon with your tea saucer and/or your coffee spoon with your demitasse service. If anybody looks at you with an “Oh! The Wrong Spoon!” face, it is their fault for providing you with the wrong spoon at the wrong time. Give them a withering “I am doing the best that I can with what I have been provided” face in response and we’re done with that.

SUPERSTITION: Two spoons inadvertently placed in a single cup or saucer signal either an impending wedding, a second wedding, or twins. Spooning gravy backhanded will lead to arguments within the house.

Not a catamaran

A cat on a boat is supposed to be lucky, but maybe it’s not so lucky to have two cats on a boat.


Etiquette & superstition: sandals

Mr. McCall was a teacher at my high school who wore flip-flops to work, much to the disgust of most of his students. “Shoes are coffins for the feet,” he’d say, “and my feet aren’t dead.” Eventually, of course, some wise-guy kid asked Mr. McCall why he wore a hat.

ETIQUETTE: Toes are an intimate body part. If you are someplace where it is considered inappropriate to show excessive cleavage, you shouldn’t be wearing sandals. Don’t wear sandals in an office. Don’t wear sandals to court. Don’t wear sandals when you’re competing in an international chess tournament.

As for some commonly-held sandal myths: yes, you actually can wear sandals in winter and sandals with socks, but only if you really know what you’re doing fashion-wise.

SUPERSTITION: You will have a romance by moonlight if you dream of wearing comfortable sandals. Burning a pair of sandals and inhaling the smoke will cure you of a headache. Putting on a new pair of sandals after 5 p.m. is unlucky, as is breaking the strap on a Japanese geta sandal.

Photo by genibee on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: cutting

My old writing partner recently reminded me of an entry I had written in our now long-abandoned etiquette book project. “The cut direct!” he said. “Did you completely make that up or is that real?” I couldn’t remember. I knew the cut direct was a real thing, but could not recall what on earth I had written about it.

Well, I unearthed one of our rough drafts, and found that the cut direct entry includes this tip: “Remember to use proper headgear. The pink pearlized ‘chiaroscuro’ helmet has been in fashion over the last few years, but the authors have found it not to provide adequate protection of the hypothalamus.” So, yes; that entry was completely made up. The item below is not.

ETIQUETTE: A cut direct is the practice of refusing to acknowledge another person’s greeting. A person says hello to you or bows, usually in public, and you just stand there staring at them. This is obviously to be employed only when wishing to completely sever a relationship. This is not the same as pretending not to recognize someone. This is a straight-up stoneface. Use it sparingly.

Additionally: men may not cut ladies, unmarried ladies may not cut married ladies, and people may not cut other people on the street.

SUPERSTITION: If you have been cut, you can heal your wound by simply cleaning and polishing the implement that delivered the cut. Put it away in a safe place while you’re at it. Pliny says that if you have cut someone else and you feel bad about it, spit into the hand you used to injure the person. They will start to feel better immediately.

Photo by Martin Deutsch on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: licking

Lick machine

Not too long ago, I got bitten on the leg while babysitting a four-year-old. I yelped pretty loudly in response; this four-year-old had never previously bitten me or anybody else that I had noticed. Before I could even ask him what that had been about, he said, “Sorry. I just meant to lick your knee.” Okay, then.

ETIQUETTE: Licking one’s plate or fingers is not acceptable in most cultures. There are some apocryphal tales online about finger licking being a sign of respect to the cook in “certain regions in India” or “some areas of Ethiopia” or “Texas when you’re eating ribs,” but it seems a rather chancy proposition to undertake this custom without observing a respected member of the community doing it first.

If you find yourself absolutely needing to lick your fingers, please do it at the end of the meal and not in the midst of eating – particularly if you are eating with your hands and taking food from a communal plate. Lick the middle finger first, then the index finger, and lastly the thumb. You may also wish to quote the prophet Mohammed: “You do not know in what part of the food the blessing lies.” 

SUPERSTITION: If a newborn baby has a birthmark on his head, the mother merely needs to lick the birthmark for several days in succession if she wishes it to disappear.

Photo by Max Braun on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: surprises

A lot of people hate surprises. I’m not sure why. The word does come from Latin and Old French words meaning “unexpected seizure,” so maybe that’s it.

ETIQUETTE: You know how certain old people are always yammering on about how young people today are uncivilized monsters with no sense of decorum? If you encounter one of these old people, just shoot back with a, “Yeah, well look at you people with your surprise parties you used to have.” Seriously. According to the 1951 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, the following is a perfectly acceptable way to throw a surprise party: “… John and Mary Neighbor are giving a dinner at home…. Meet in a house nearby and then troop in a procession, with quite possibly a band leading the way, to storm the house.” You just barge in on a small dinner party. With a marching band. Awesome, in a monstrously uncivilized way. You know, maybe you should just give a surprise party like this for the yammering old person. It will probably stop their yammering one way or another.

SUPERSTITION: Seeing a cart full of straw is an indicator of a nice surprise to come, as is rolling the number “3” on a die or drawing a “9” card. If a pregnant woman is startled by a rabbit, she will give birth to a child with a harelip.

Photo by L P on Flickr

Etiquette & superstition: May Day

Did you know that the distress call “mayday” comes from the French phrase “venez m’aider,” or “come to my aid”? I didn’t know that until today. My high school French teacher Madame Goff always told us we were supposed to say, “Au secours!” if we needed help in an emergency. That’s about all I remember her teaching us besides, “Taissez-vous!” I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Madame Goff.

ETIQUETTE: The first of May is known in Gaelic and Pagan cultures as the Cross-Quarter Day of Beltane; it’s a celebration of the greening of the earth. In honor of the greening of the earth, you should light a big bonfire. If you’re in an area where a big bonfire will only create a blackening of the earth rather than a greening of the earth, maybe you should forget about Beltane and think about the first of May as May Day instead.

One of the most enduring traditions of May Day is the practice of dancing around the maypole. Folklorists argue about whether the maypole is a phallic potency symbol or merely a symbol of more general life and growth, but we’re not going to discuss that now. Let’s just get into the proper behavior around that symbol.

The dancers should arrange themselves boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle around the maypole, with each dancer holding a ribbon that is attached on the other end to the top of the maypole. One gender positions itself to revolve around the maypole clockwise, and the other gender faces counter-clockwise. For my purposes here, I’m going to say the boys are clockwise and the girls are counter-clockwise, but I cannot find any information indicating that it matters either way. The boys and girls then circle around, weaving in and out of each other in a regular pattern. In-out-in-out-in-out. There is going to have to be a bit of cooperation to get this rhythm, as you don’t want the dancers both going out at the same time and bonking each other in the head or getting all tangled up. Maybe it’s a good idea to agree that the boys start on the outside and the girls start on the inside. Again, if you want to start the girls on the outside and the boys on the inside, I can find no evidence that this is improper. You just have to choose one way or another to get this damned thing done in a halfway decent manner.

If all this weaving business is just too complicated for the dancers at hand, just announce that it is time for traditional Swedish maypole dancing; at that point, all the dancers need to do is pretend they’re frogs or that they’re doing the laundry.

SUPERSTITION: It’s May Day at the dairy farm, people. What are you doing dancing around that maypole like a bunch of damned fools? We have work to do.

Harris, did you singe the cattle with the straw last night to keep away the evil spirits? Good job, Harris.

Eburscon, go out to the singed cattle and kill any rabbits that you might see. As we all know, those rabbits are really witches trying to get at the milk. Put some pieces of rowan on the door of the barn as well. Those darn witches.

Lavinia, let’s hurry it up with getting those cow’s tail hairs into the boiling herbs you gathered this morning. All this rabbit-killing is for naught if we don’t have good butter at the end. Remember Betty Botter and all her problems, Lavinia. And you know what? Get some of that rowan and put it around the handle of the butter churn to keep the witches from stealing all our good butter once you’re done.

What’s that, Myfanwy? You have some hawthorn blossoms for us? Well, aren’t you a dear? I know I’m not supposed to give away milk on May Day, but you deserve a bit of cream for that hawthorn there.

Okay, everybody’s done? Well then, I guess you can go dance around that old maypole then. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.

Original photographer unknown; image uploaded to Flickr by Paul Townsend

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