Saturday, June 16, 2012


In the wind…

April 2012

A matter of manners.
In the first days of the twentieth century my great-grandfather and his seven brothers ran a large and successful silk business, importing thread from China and weaving fabric.  There was a large mill complex in Manchester, Connecticut bearing the family name that included a company assembly hall which is still home to a lovely organ by E. & G.G. Hook.  Glad to know my forebears had good taste in pipe organs.  Eight grand houses shared an expanse of lawn, one of which was still my great-grandmother’s home when I was growing up.  Each year at Columbus Day we drove to Manchester for a visit, and I remember exploring that huge house with its endless corridors, seemingly dozens of bedrooms, and a third-floor playroom complete with a swing hung from the ceiling.

Hanging in our guest bathroom we have reproductions of flowery advertisements from the company, touting showrooms in Manhattan, and depicting tidy maids helping their mistresses with their frocks.  My great-grandmother would have hated Downton Abbey.

Lunch at that house was a formal affair with fancy china, and plenty of forks, knives, and spoons, and we were coached in their proper use.  After my great-grandmother died, the immense brass candlesticks from her table were converted into lamps, one of which lights my desk as I write today. 

My grandfather and father were both Episcopal priests, which had the trickle-down effect that my siblings and I were brought up accustomed to a succession of fancy and formal dinners, endless stacks of elegant china, stemware, and utensils having found their way through the generations to our adolescent dinner table.  Now that my parents are living in a retirement community and their household has been downsized a couple times, we have realized that our children and the subsequent generations will have little to do with all that finery.  Beautiful as it is, the stuff is a nuisance because the gold bands on the plates mean they can’t go in the dishwasher.

These remaining traces of formality in family life combined with the community’s expectation of the Rector’s family (ever wonder how Preachers’ Kids got such a reputation?) mean that we were brought up to know good manners.  We knew which fork to use for salad, and how to set the table with the dessert forks and spoons in the proper place, and yes, there were always dessert forks and spoons. My father carved the meat at the head of the table, passing plates to my mother at the foot, ensuring that the food was cold before anyone could take a bite.  The most senior female guest was seated to dad’s right, male to mom’s right.  It was usually obvious who those people were, but I bet there was more than one feather ruffled when someone who considered herself to be senior was seated in the middle of the table.  When we ate at my grandparents’ table the carving went a little better.  Poppy had been a surgeon before entering the priesthood and the turkey seemed to fall apart into appropriate serving sizes the moment he lifted his oft-honed scalpel of a carving knife!

Today when we entertain, Wendy sets a beautiful table, but sometimes I can’t help but speak up to protect the memory of that grand succession of mothers who brought me up to know which way the dessert fork should face.  What is it they say, choose your battles?

I’ve read many novels about life in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and chuckle because so many of the dinner-table rituals I grew up with are present at the tables of the Captain while at sea, battles or no battles.  And British officers serving in distant outposts of the empire were never without their silver and table finery, their sherry and port wine, a custom exquisitely lampooned by the British comedy troupe Monty Python.  We can deduce that the formalization of dining rituals set the stage for freer exchange of ideas in conversation.

When you get right down to it, good manners in just about any situation are a statement of respect for the occasion and the people participating in it.


A couple months ago, I wrote of my fascination with the fast-growing world of cell-phone Apps.  Those snazzy little bits of software that are being created to simplify our lives at ninety-nine cents a pop seem like gifts from God because they drop from heaven with no effort at all with the potential of enlightening us like mega-bytes of holy grail.  But in fact, when used without consideration, our cell phones and all they contain are playing a large role in the decay of social order.  How’s that for sounding like an old, um, codger?

But I don’t think I’m being sanctimonious.  How many of us have stood tapping our feet in a long line at the bank while the guy at the teller window can’t finish his transaction because he’s on the phone?  How many of us have traveled to attend a meeting that was continually interrupted by its leader answering his phone or emails while we wait?  (“Sorry, I’ve been waiting for this call.”)  And how many of us have tried to pass someone on a city sidewalk who’s weaving from side to side and walking at a snail’s pace with a phone glued to her ear, making herself into a double-wide with her gesticulations?

You’re sitting in a coffee shop enjoying your non-fat-triple-shot-soy-praline-half-caff beverage.  Nice, but there are two people in the shop with their ties loosened and sleeves rolled halfway up their cubits, laptops open, talking in full voices on the phone.  One is fighting with his wife, the other is clearly the most brilliant and insightful business-person in town.  So much for reading the paper – on my iPad.


Under the pews.
Last week I got together with a friend in New York.  We had lunch in a nice little French cafĂ©, then walked to his church to see the organ.  It’s a large old church with a fascinating nineteenth-century organ, but what really caught my eye was on the literature table in the narthex – a stack of photocopied sheets with the title “Church Etiquette Page.”  It starts out defining Christ’s presence in the Tabernacle, suggesting that it’s appropriate to bow or genuflect when walking past, and continues with a statement: Please observe the following courtesies when you are visiting the church.

·      Silence is the norm while in church.  Conversation is to be confined to the narthex or the courtyard.  Since the acoustics in the church are very fine, any necessary talking needs to be at a whisper.
·      Proper attire is expected.  Since this is relative to taste and fashion, you are expected to use your good judgement.
·      Food and beverages have no place in a church.  However it is permitted in the narthex and courtyard.  The use of alcohol and tobacco is probihited on church premises.  This is not the O.K. Corral.
·      Gum is not to be chewed in church.*
·      Running is inappropriate.  Parents or caretakers need to stay close to their children.  Adults mustn’t run either, unless they’re chasing after a child.
·      Reading newspapers, using cell phones, applying cosmetics, changing clothes (yes, it’s happened) and other similar activities do not have a place in church.
·      Refuse should not be left in the pews or the floor around you.
·      Dogs are allowed to enter the church as long as they observe silence and know the difference between a holy water font and a fire hydrant.  After all, they can be better behaved than some humans.
·      Smoking is simply not to occur anywhere on church property.
*Please use this paper to discard your gum rather than the underside of a pew.

How did that priest know I’ve been sticking gum under the pew?  I thought I was getting away with it.  But how refreshing to see this simple expression expecting respect.  By setting out a code of decorum with a twinkle in his eye, he has taken the pressure off anyone who didn’t know how to behave in church, while giving a nudge to those who know perfectly well but seem to have forgotten.  I’ve heard many stories from colleagues who, sitting in princely splendor at their console in the chancel, look out across a congregation full of Tetrus, Words with Friends, emails, and texting.  One told me how a man answered a phone call during worship, then walked around behind a pillar, thinking that would keep his fellow worshippers from hearing him.  (“Hey Mister, churches have acoustics!”) 

One of my Words-With-Friends friends is organist of a church in Hawaii.  Last week she shared a You-Tube video on the subject of cell-phones in church, saying that she used to play for the church in the video.  Here’s the link – it’s worth a look:

But organists, don’t think you’re exempt from this rant.  At ten-forty-five on a Sunday morning I receive a text from an organist, “cn u fx ded note tmrw?”  Hey, you’re still sitting on the organ bench, sermon probably halfway through.  Put your phone away.  From the pews fifty feet away congregants can see that pale glow reflected on your face.  We know it’s not the console indicator lights, and it’s certainly no halo.  Let’s not txt our friends from the organ bench during worship.  I know it happens a lot.


Who is it?
On January 10, 2012, Music Director Alan Gilbert was leading the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  According to an indignant blogger:
“It was in the fourth movement.  (Funny how these disturbances never happen in fortissimo passages.)  After the last climax, as the movement begins to wind down toward that sublime last page of the score where music and silence are almost indistinguishable.  In other words, just about the worst possible moment.  (After a quick check of my Dover score, I think it was about 13 bars before the last Adagissimo.)”

You guessed it.  A cell phone rang.  The iPhone Marimba.  In the front row.  In Avery Fisher Hall.  It kept ringing.  It rang and rang.

Some in the audience yelled, “Thousand dollar fine.”

The first sentence of reviewer Daniel Wakin’s article in the January 12 edition of the New York Times read, “They were baying for blood in the usually polite precincts of Avery Fisher Hall.”  Maestro Gilbert stopped the performance, turned to face the audience, located the offender, and stood staring at him.  An article in the January 11th issue of (the online version of the famous British newspaper) added, “During a pause of several minutes, the music director asked, ‘Are you finished?’  When the culprit didn’t reply he said, ‘Fine, we’ll wait.’” Holy cow! The incident was covered and commented on by newspapers around the world.  Google “alan gilbert cell phone” and you’ll get a flood of newspaper stories.

But wait, there’s more.  On January 7, the Dayton (Ohio) Philharmonic Orchestra was starting its Saturday evening concert with Debussy’s Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Fawn” when a baby started to cry.  It cried and cried.  The Dayton Daily News  reported:
“The youngster had been wailing for quite some time when [conductor] Gittleman stopped the music, turned to the audience, and asked that the child be removed.  Some audience members applauded…  …Gittleman said he’s had to stop concerts due to cell phones in the past, but this was the first time a child had caused enough commotion to require him to stop and begin a piece again.  ‘The very first noise that the baby made was just as the flute was beginning her solo,’ he says.  ‘The piece begins with a big, long, famous, hard flute solo and my job at the beginning of that piece is to make the flute as comfortable as possible.’”

The story continued:
“Many who attended the concert as well as those who heard about the incident felt that it was handled in the best possible way.
“Jim and Ellen Ratti of Middletown are season DPO subscibers who witnessed ‘the whole affair.’  ‘The baby cried several times, not just once, and due to the outstanding acoustics in the Schuster, the sound carried throughout the concert hall,’ Jim says, adding the cries were very loud, disruptive, and distracting.  ‘I’m sure that some will say that Maestro Gittleman was inconsiderate and rude calling attention to the offending parent(s),’ he adds.  ‘My reply to those criticisms would be that it’s inconsiderate and rude to bring a child of that age to an event which holds no interest for him or her.  It is also inconsiderate and rude to disrupt the listening pleasure of everyone else in the concert hall, or to expect that such disruption would be excused.’”

My grandmother would have agreed.  But had she been the conductor in either of these situations, she wouldn’t have had to say a word.  Just one look.  Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, had nothing on her.  You might as well be using the wrong fork.


Anyone who knows me might call me a hypocrite for ranting about cell phones.  To borrow a phrase from a colleague-friend, I hold the “like a crack pipe,” checking emails constantly, texting friends with quick thoughts and observations, keeping up with phone messages.  I use it to check the weather, keep my calendar and contacts, look up maps and directions, choose restaurants, make travel reservations, and even sometimes, to the horror of our daughter, Google to find the answer that end dinner-time arguments.  (Yes, Roger Maris did hit his sixty-first home run in the hundred-sixty-first game of the 1961 season.  Nice symmetry.)

I think the cell phone has made possible great flexibility for people during the working day. And well used, it’s a vehicle for good manners.  There’s no excuse for not calling to say you’re on the way, but you’ll be a few minutes late.  But we need to create a new social order to deal with them.  Here are a few general rules I propose to the social court:
·      Don’t put a phone call ahead of a personal, face-to-face conversation.
·      Don’t let your phone call impede or delay someone else.
·      Don’t let you’re phone call diminish anyone else’s enjoyment of anything.
·      Don’t assume that it’s okay with everyone around you to be forced to listen to your conversation.

Does anyone out there in Diapason land want to add to my list?

A few weeks ago a bad thing happened to my iPhone while crossing Broadway in lower Manhattan.  Luckily, there was an AT&T store right there, and twenty minutes later I was upgraded to the iPhone 4S.  For those not familiar with the jargon, this is the new model which includes Sirus, a voice-recognition program that allows to speak to your phone, asking it to place a call, send a text message, or pretty much anything else, except, as I learned, to play an audiobook.  I asked the polite female computer-generated voice to play one of the books in my audio library.  She replied, “I’m not able to do that.”  I said, “you can’t play an audiobook?’  “I’m not able to do that.”  What good are you?”  “Now, now…”  “I’m sorry.”  “That’s OK.”

I have no idea what got into me next:  “You’re cute.”  Her reply, “You say that to all the virtual assistants.”

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