Boss of Me
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
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
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?”