Get Your Elbows Off The Table

BEN STOCKING HAS A HOLE IN HIS HEAD, PART XVIIII

A CHRONICLE OF MY BRAIN SURGERY

This Stocking comes from good stock.

My maternal grandfather was city editor at the New York Daily News, back when it really meant something. My paternal grandfather was the president of the American Economics Association, an advisor to presidents and a professor at Columbia University.

Both of my parents went to Harvard.

It’s a mystery, then, that I have such bad manners.

Perhaps it was an act of rebellion on my parents’ part, but Emily Post wasn’t a fixture at our house when I was growing up.

As I’ve mentioned before, Dear Reader, we raised our voices at the dinner table and hurled epithets with abandon. We told dirty jokes over dessert.

My dear old dad used his fingers instead of a knife to push food onto his fork and he made smacking noises with his lips while he chewed.

Passions and emotions were openly displayed in all their glory. Diplomacy was not a byword emblazoned on our family crest.

My in-laws, who are here in Seattle to help out during my convalescence, come from a different tradition.

As I mentioned previously, my mother-in-law’s clan were Empire Loyalists, backing the British during the American Revolution. They were forced to flee New England for Canada during the Revolutionary War.

To this day, the family matriarch reads “Royalist” magazine, and my mother-in-law prides herself on knowing the intricacies of the most complicated table settings.

My father-in-law grew up in blue-collar England but pulled himself up by his bootstraps in a culture notorious for its class distinctions. He knows all about propriety and decorum and he’s nothing if not a diplomat.

I tell you all this so you will have a proper appreciation of our dinner table conversation tonight.

“Lila, it’s not polite to put your elbows on the table,” Grandma Carol gently scolded my 12-year-old daughter.

“Why not, Grandma?”

This seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable question. Why not, indeed?

“I really don’t see why it’s such a big deal to put your elbows on the table,” I opine. “It’s comfortable. It doesn’t harm anyone. That prohibition seems like an outmoded piece of etiquette to me, and nobody pays any attention to it anyway.”

My wife looks horrified. Tension fills the room.

“Of course it’s important,” Diana says. “It’s very important.”

I’m poised to launch into a diatribe, but, miraculously, I bite my tongue before it’s too late. I’ve already done enough damage.

All this is just a warm-up, however, for our family viewing of tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey, the season finale.

Tony, Carol, Diana and I gather around our glorious flat screen to watch the latest adventures of Lord Grantham and his clan. Lord Grantham is desperately trying to persuade his son-in-law Tom Branson to participate in a cricket match pitting his family and staff against a team from the village. Lady Mary Crawley is about to deliver a baby. Her husband is about to die in a car crash, a melodramatic plot twist for which the show’s writers should apologize.

In the midst of all this, my son walks into the TV room wearing nothing but his boxer shorts.

He parades around the house like this all the time. I usually don’t notice, but when I do, it’s to take note of what a finely formed young lad he is.

“Sam, go put some clothes on,” his grandfather suggests, with an uncharacteristic edge in his voice.

I push the pause button.

“It’s really no big deal,” I say. “He just looks like he’s wearing a bathing suit.”

“It is a big deal,” Tony says. “It’s a big deal by any reasonable standard to prance around in your underwear in front of your grandmother. I’m sorry for my tone, but I just had to say something about this.”

“I just have to say that your position is unreasonable and that nobody would agree with you.”

Upon issuing my rejoinder, I feel immediate regret. I sink into the couch and focus on Lord Grantham.

I feel like Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married into the Grantham family but didn’t really comprehend or appreciate the complex rules of etiquette by which they conducted themselves.

By the end of season three, however, he’s getting along famously with Lord Grantham.

I think I can learn something from Tom’s example. It shouldn’t be so hard.

My differences with Tony are not nearly so vast as those that separate Tom and his father-in-law. True, Tony’s a diplomat and I’m an instigator. But we both gave the maximum legal donation to Barack Obama. Our fundamental values are the same.

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