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The Boss of Me

The funny thing is that I’ve got an anti-authority streak you could land a plane on; I truly hate being told what to do or what to think. I’m argumentative the way some people are blonde. But I have, more or less, come to terms with that. I’ve learned to keep myself mostly in check and to pick my battles. But, still, at some foundational level my instinct when someone says “jump” is to dig.

So, what on Earth am I doing with all these etiquette books?

OK, I don’t actually have a collection of etiquette books, not in real-time 3-D space—or whatever reality is called these days. But over the past months I’ve been checking them out online with something bordering on dedication. Actually, for a while it was almost a compulsion.

I found one from the ’30s that was just perfect: rigid, unforgiving and thorough. It told you what to wear (both in town and in country), how to behave, how to hold a conversation and with whom. It had advice on handling boors and clods (it was, of course, far too genteel to use those terms), on managing your correspondence (nary a mention of emotions, by the way), and guidelines for running a successful household (remember, parents, never disagree in front of the children or the servants)—it was all there. A user’s manual for a well-polished life.

It was a wonderfully, entertainingly useless artifact.

But, honestly, just between you and me, I think I wanted it to be more. I think I was hoping against reason that it might somehow . . . work. Why else would I have been poring over these things? I assure you, I looked at a bunch. And why was I at first so optimistic when I read that someone had published a guide for the “modern” gentleman, and so disappointed when I skimmed the thing at Borders only to find it to be a metrosexual version of, like, Cosmo? Sex tips and whatnot.

I don’t know. Because I’m a moron? Because while the Viagra and penis-enlargement offers I get in my e-mail don’t spark my interest, I’ll be the first in line when Pfizer offers a drug cocktail promising Cary Grant’s self- possessed charm and an Algonquin Round Table wit? (Hell, if I had those I wouldn’t need a bigger . . . well, anyway . . . ) Is it because I, like most everyone, have been hooked on the idea that the answer is out there somewhere—in a vial, or the self-help aisle—and that it, whatever it is, will make me a better, more likeable, more together, more polished person? Is it just a snobbish form of insecurity? Yeah, probably.

I’ve thought about this recent preoccupation a bit, though, and come to the conclusion that it’s also another kind of snobbishness. It’s not just a childish desire to wake up as William Powell—though it is, in part, exactly that. It’s not just the silk pocket squares and fedora. It’s the desire to offer the first to a crying young woman, and tip the latter to smiling old woman. It’s the yearning for a personal code of behavior.

Years ago, I read in Esquire a list of 50 things a man should accomplish in his life. My recollection of the shallowness and stupidity of that list hasn’t faded even an iota. It consisted of things like “spend a night in jail” and “attend a bullfight.” Manly stuff. Well, I’ve done the former, and it was due to no manly behavior but rather to infantile indulgence and selfishness; and as to the latter, let’s get this straight, the spectator in a spectator sport—however butch—deserves absolutely zero glory.

Jail and spectator sports.

Oh, or you could substitute a night in a whorehouse. I think that carried the same point value as the bullfight.

What bothered me about the list wasn’t the activities themselves, not per se, but the total lack of context or rationale for any of them. Really, I don’t necessarily expect anyone to share my beliefs about either prostitutes or the ritual slaughter of animals, but I hope we can agree that neither is a worthy measure of a life. Unless you’re a pimp or an angry pagan god—if you’re either you now get a pass to go to the library.

I mean, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a man really should spend a night in jail at some point in his life. OK, why? And are all nights in jail equivalent? If you’re arrested for, say, performing unlicensed same-sex marriages, or lying in traffic to call attention to an antiwar protest, would that carry the same weight as getting pulled over for mixing martinis on the Thruway? Let’s say I cracked my girlfriend in the mouth because, well, just because sometimes she don’t know her place, goddamnit. Are those all comparable nights in the clink? Can I put a check in that box, dear Esquire, for any and all of these?

As to the bullfight . . . well, that’s just stupid. Let’s skip that.

What I think I was looking for in those anachronistic guides was not so much a behavioral step-by-step, but a philosophy, an animating ideal that would allow for a more confident relationship with society at large. I was hoping to find an ethos so sound, so comprehensive and convincing, that I could adopt it as my own organizing principle. Something that would from that point on inform my every action—in or out of jail, the corrida or the red-light district.

I was looking for a creed that could win the argument.

Instead, as usual, I found prohibitions and checklists. Rosters of shoulds and shouldn’ts all impatiently waiting for me to ask “how high?”

—John Rodat


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