On being … well mannered

By Ingrid Sapona

I saw chefs Jeremiah Towers and Anthony Bourdain on a morning news show a couple weeks ago. They were promoting Towers’ new autobiography and a documentary about him that Bourdain executive produced. I knew of Bourdain, but not Towers.

After the interview, I looked up Towers on my public library’s website. When I typed in his name, up came two titles. I added my name to the waiting list for his autobiography. The other book, Table Manners, was immediately available in an audio version. I love audio books, so I downloaded it.

The next day at the gym, I started listening. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I was surprised that the book’s about – well – table manners. I realized this when Towers, who narrates the audio edition, said the full title: Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother. When I checked out the book, the title on the thumbnail picture was hard to read.

Once I realized the subject, my next thought was: “I wonder how old the book is?” In an age where disruption is a virtue and in a culture where rights of the individual trump the collective good, who writes about manners these days? As unbelievable as it seems, the book was published in 2016.

Well, Towers had me hooked from the dedication: “… to anyone else who is interested in how to behave to everyone’s advantage.” In the Introduction he makes it clear that manners are not a rigid set of rules. He says manners are continually – and should be – adapted. He also addresses the claim that paying attention to manners is mere pretention. To this he says, “The whole point of manners, especially table manners, is the opposite of pretension … when any behavior makes other people feel uncomfortable, it’s the behaviour that needs to change, not the people.”  Too true, I think.

I love that the book focuses on the purpose of manners. I always find that if I understand the purpose or rationale for something, it’s much easier for me to accept it and remember it. Clearly, Towers subscribes to this belief too. The book is replete with amusing anecdotes that illustrate how to handle various awkward situations so as to forward what he terms “The Platinum Rule”, which is: “do unto others as they would have you do.”

For example, he notes that often the first question someone asks the stranger sitting next to them at a dinner party is: “What do you do?” While that’s a perfectly normal question, Towers points out that it often invites a monolog and can kill conversation. But, that’s clearly not the worst of it. He learned his lesson the hard way when he asked this of a forensic pathologist he was seated next to at a dinner. Just as guests were about to dig into red, bloody roast beef, the pathologist relayed a story about a case involving a serial killer with a fascination for crucifixions. Towers concluded the story with the understatement: “some were quite put off the meal”.  On the topic of conversation starters, Towers’ imminently practical advice is to pick a topic that will allow both of you to contribute.

On things like cell phones at the dining table, Towers believes that technological changes shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad manners. Stressing that good manners are about making others feel welcome and valued, he explains, “It’s not so much checking your e-mail that’s rude; it’s the fact that you’ve ceased paying attention to those with whom you are breaking bread.” Hear- hear, I say!

Everything Towers’ wrote about hit home with me (though I don’t know if I’d ever eat asparagus with my fingers in front of others, which he thinks is fine). So, from Chapter 1 I knew I’d make manners the topic for a column. But, as I always do, I worried about whether my readers would find the topic relevant today.

Then on Wednesday, an announcement by Uber about a change it’s made caught my eye. Uber has always “invited” riders and drivers to rate the ride experience, but there’s been more stress on riders rating drivers. Wednesday’s announcement was that Uber has modified its app so that now the rider’s rating is automatically displayed, under the rider’s name on the app’s menu. A less-than-subtle reminder to riders that both rider and driver play a role in the ride experience.

Uber explained that the reason for the change was to “encourage better rider behaviour” because, “… Uber is better for all when both drivers and riders do their part”. Interesting, eh? Sounds like a variation on Towers’ theme that, “… manners are a two-way street – it’s up to everyone to keep things running smoothly.”

So, maybe there’s hope. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back and folks are once again realizing the societal value of manners. Maybe we’ll see more books and articles on the topic and maybe technology can be harnessed to encourage better manners – just the way it has been used to encourage fitness.

Just think how much nicer daily life would be if everyone took Towers’ Platinum Rule to heart. I say: Here’s to better manners – at the table, in the taxi, in the check-out line at the grocery store, and every other place where people interact.   

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … more like Doris Day

By Ingrid Sapona

Are you the type who tends to live by the motto: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Or are you more inclined to replace things before they brake? I used to think that everyone fit into one of these two camps. Now I realize, however, that there’s a third camp: the “it doesn’t really matter, you can’t win” camp.

My natural inclination is to replace things before they brake. This position is rational on a number of levels, I think. First off, things wear out. So, if you accept that something will need replacing within a given timeframe – why not replace it before it breaks?

The main reason for replacing things on a schedule is to avoid inconvenience. Isn’t there some variation on Murphy’s Law that says things always break at the most inopportune times? So if you can avoid the inconvenience, why not? Actually, sometimes inconvenience is the least of the problem – some breakdowns can be dangerous. (Like an alternator belt that snaps while you’re in the fast lane on the highway!) And of course, if you plan when you’ll repair or replace things, you can budget for them.

As I get older, I’ve become more of a “don’t fix it till it’s broke” type. Again, there are a couple reasons this approach makes more sense to me now. For starters, there have been a number of times when I’ve had something – a car, computer, t.v., and so on – misbehave but when I’ve taken it to be “fixed”, the problem, squeak, or glitch doesn’t seem evident. So, the repairperson is left guessing – and that can be time consuming and costly.  I’m sure you’ve had a service person (whether through honesty or laziness) tell you, “Your best bet is to bring it back when it’s broke”.

Because the desire to avoid inconvenience coupled with underlying insecurity still looms large in my life, I’ve not adopted the wait till it’s broke mantra in every instance. So, for some things, I do seek routine testing that others might not bother with. My boat batteries are a prime example. Over the winter I trickle charge them. Every spring, as Dad used to, before installing them I take them to be tested to see if they are holding a charge.

So, on Sunday I dutifully brought them to Canadian Tire, the store where I bought them. The technician put the first one on the testing machine, hooked it up, and keyed in the battery type. He said the test can take from a couple minutes to about 90, depending on the shape the battery is in. The machine does its thing and within a couple minutes, out comes a receipt-size printout. Given that I had charged it all winter, I figured the test was quick because the battery must be in good shape.

The technician then read the results aloud: Replace Battery. He tears off the receipt and hands it to me. According to the report, the 650 amp battery is only measuring 74 amps. So, do I take a chance that it’ll last the summer, or do I replace it this year? One battery was getting up there in years, so I kind of figured I’d be buying one this year. Maybe it’s time I replace that one.

Meanwhile, he hooks up the second one. A few short minutes later, out comes the report: Replace Battery. Given that the second one tested was the newer one, I assumed it would at least read higher than 74 amps. I was speechless when it read 0 amps!

My initial thought was that maybe I fried that battery. In my trunk was the Canadian Tire charger I used. I brought it in to show him. He reassured me that I used the right charger settings. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, I told him I needed to think about it and so I loaded them back in my trunk. Replacing both would cost just under $300.

As I headed home, I still couldn’t believe the one registered a 0. So, I decided to take them to another place to be re-tested. Since Canadian Tire is the only place I know that does this, I went to another Canadian Tire across town.

The guy there was only too happy to help. He hooked up the first one and in minutes, out came the report. He smiled and said, “Good Battery”, handing me the printout. That was the battery that previously showed 74 amps. On his machine it showed 634 amps. He hooked up the second battery and same result: “Good Battery”, with 630 amps. I couldn’t believe it.

I showed him the previous test results. He shrugged and said he was confident the tester he used is fast and accurate. He also said that maybe the other guy keyed in something wrong but, in any event, he wouldn’t worry about the batteries. I told him he made my day and I thanked him for saving me a whack of money.

In the end, I decided to believe the results of the second set of tests, but should I? Is it any more logical to assume – based on those tests – that both batteries will see me through the sailing season with no problems? Or, should I just bite the bullet and get a new one to replace the older of the two? Or, might the first guy have keyed in something a bit wonky thinking a woman might take failing results at face value, rather than question them? Stuff like this doesn’t make decision-making easier, that’s for sure.

If anything, incidents like this just push me into that third camp and they remind me that Doris Day had it right when she sang Que Sera, Sera.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona