Monday, April 24, 2006

In Praise of Snobs; The Dinner Invitation

Although I read a couple of newspapers each day, I don’t typically read the Chicago Tribune. Almost without exception I spend my morning train ride going through the Wall Street Journal, and then the Liberal Death Star’s daily publication. After that the Tribune really doesn’t seem to add much except color pictures. To paraphrase Chrissie Hynde, “Way – to – go – Chicago”.

Anyway, Thursday was the same, but with a few minutes left in my ride I noticed a discarded “Tempo” section of the Trib and picked it up to see what was going on with the cultural zeitgeist of this country’s great Midwest. There were two full pages of comics, a less than complementary review of Julia Roberts’ first appearance ever on Broadway, and an article on how heavy metal bands look to the classics for inspiration – as if that was news to anyone who’s seen (and loved) “This is Spinal Tap”.

There were also a couple of advice columns. One seems to be written by Dear Abby’s daughter (“is Abby dead?” I wondered) and the other was penned by a middle aged gal with the perky, non-threatening moniker, “Amy”. The first letter in Amy’s column grabbed my eye, because it concerned an issue that irks me to no end, albeit in a slightly different way.

The question, and I’m quoting from memory here so this will not be exact, was:

“When I invite people over for dinner they always ask what they can bring. My response is nothing, it is easier for me just to stick to the menu that I’ve planned, yet they continue to insist that they provide some portion of the meal!”

I didn’t pay attention to Amy’s response so I can’t tell you how to resolve this sticky issue, but I can tell you that this is really a bit of a thorny issue with me from the opposite side of this question.

See, the thing that I can’t figure out is this; when did it become acceptable manners to invite somebody over to your house for dinner, and then tell them what they should bring as their “contribution” to the meal? Isn’t this contrary to the whole reason we invite friends over? Shouldn’t the focus be on what we can do to demonstrate our regard of and appreciation for their company?

Put more directly, isn’t this abominable practice just plain old rude?

The answer, of course, is “yes, it is rude in the extreme”.

I know, I know the times the have a changed and all that, but to honest, change isn’t always a good thing, and like so much of what used to be considered common decency, this change is just another lowering of the bar in American cultural life. While it is true that nobody is really hurt by this change, it is undeniably another step down in the coarsening of our culture. Manners are important in the social realm of things. They serve to provide a set of standards for how we treat others, and what we expect of them, and they also provide a roadmap, with an easily understood legend, on how we show regard and respect for those that we care about.

Perhaps more importantly manners also serve another purpose in our society, and while it may not be pleasant to talk about, I think we need to be clear here folks. Manners separate those of us who aspire to a higher standard from those happy members of the hot nacho cheese set. I acknowledge that this might seem to be an uncomfortable topic for some, but I must confess that I really don’t know why.

Holding oneself to a higher standard is a noble aspiration, of which we should be proud. While high standards do not in and of themselves make us better human beings, they do make life a pursuit that is worth living. This being true, why then would we willingly lower these standards just to indulge in somebody’s “sinful sweet potato” casserole!?

Talk about lowered standards.

In my view, far too many steps have been taken by our generation to “democratize” social discourse. The sad result has been that in too many cases we’re subjected to the coarseness of those who’s folks really should have taught them better; The foul mouthed parents at the soccer field, embarrassingly rooting for junior to “kick the other team’s **s”. Or the couple who decide to “dirty dance” in the middle of the holiday open house thinking that nobody will notice that hubby’s hand is in his wife’s pants.

I could go on, but we’ve all been witness to one or more of these cultural horrors, and my sincere hope dear Pursuit-o-philes, is that we can look to ourselves to expect better. True, asking friends to supply a “dish to pass” isn’t the greatest social sin one can commit, yet it is excusing these seemingly small transgressions that put us on the slippery slope to social mayhem.

Of course I will acknowledge that even given all of the above, there are times when such behavior is acceptable. The church “pot-luck”, the summer block party, or perhaps the gridiron “tailgate”. By all means, if you are organizing one of these events, and want somebody else to supply their "famous three bean salad" go for it!

But consider that the common denominator in these events is perhaps the fact that each is an occasion where, by necessity, folks from all walks of life are getting together for a larger purpose – I use the term loosely. The truth is that while people in these groups may choose to associate with some of the attendees, it is highly unlikely that they would do so with all of the attendees. In fact, if I know social events like I think I do, it is quite possible that there are even folks thrown together in these situations who loathe one another.

So why then would anyone conduct themselves in a similar manner with those whom they consider their friends? I have no answer for this and if you’ve stuck with me this far, I doubt you do either.

After all, when you’re preparing a dinner, how hard is it, to also make a salad and desert?

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