On Table Manners

We were not overtaken by the pandemic pounds from the forced isolation like we expected. Instead, my wife and I looked up from our roasted chicken meal last night and realized that we had thrown most of our table manners out the window. We had devolved into slobs.

Please understand, we have had to practice topnotch manners for decades, as we attended weddings, b’nai mitzvah parties, desserts, business meetings, congregational dinners, and private invitations to congregant homes. We learned to cut up anything served in a red sauce smaller than usual to avoid a “whoopsie,” an advertisement of clumsiness on good clothes. At shiva calls, if the offerings were not finger foods, then all was to be avoided lest the paper/garish plastic plate become our downfall. “Just a cookie please, we have more obligations.”

Yet, we sat across from each other with greasy fingers, picking tidbits from chicken pieces and chasing errant pieces of zucchini and sweet potato threatening to fall off the edge of the plate. Looking down from my fingers, I realized there was no napkin waiting in lap, which I usually need for the whoopsies. Dressed in my old, stained sweats with dogs hovering beneath my stool with bated breath, what was the point of having a napkin? Oh yeah: I cannot touch anything clean without smearing grease on it.

We are not going to restaurants anytime soon, so what is the point?

The point is the lack of attention has demeaned our daily rituals. Our ritual of table manners has served my family for years. Every so often, my adult children thank us for demanding they learn how to carry themselves in public. They have experienced the business meal where their good manners stood out as polite, conscientious, and engaged while those without such knowledge were diminished. We all sat across from diners in any situation with confidence that our conversations would not be sidetracked by an obvious faux pas.

I always considered table manners to be the great equalizer amid the American melting pot. The rituals of sharing a meal with others transcends cultures, countries, education, and economics. This is not a matter of whether one culture belches loudly after a good meal, which can be interesting. Table manners, no matter what culture where one is seated, is about demonstrating respect for the other. They are the simplest vehicles for offering respect, whether the etiquette is over chopsticks, hand foods, or western utensils.

Table manners broadcast respect for ourselves and for others in a most personal and intimate setting. Our use or lack of these rituals telegraph who we are and what we think of others. The cliché, actions speak louder than words, is oh-so-true at the dinner table.

Let not the sticklers for etiquette deter us from the task of giving respect for others. No one really cares if the bananas foster is served with a fork or a spoon; we only care whether you will wait for mine to be served so that we may share together. Table manners are something we do together, a ritual we share that confirms quietly and unobtrusively the respect we each offer.

Unless it’s barbeque in my house, in which case all bets are off and you are on your own, sucker.

Philosophy of Learning – Practice

לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition

Baseball or violin, the mantra a student hears from the first lesson is “practice, practice, practice.” What can be acquired by all of the other methods of learning is temporary unless the student practices the knowledge. Third graders memorize lists of vocabulary and take spelling tests while reciting their multiplication and division tables. Successful students of foreign languages learn from the get-go that the only way to conquer the material is to practice the vocabulary and the grammar every day. When studying for a quiz in a foreign language, students who study one hour the night before will do worse on the test than those who study ten minutes every day for six days before the quiz. The repetition of the material over time trains the mind, making a qualitative difference in the knowledge mastered and retained.

Most of us advance in our careers by expanding and deepening our skill sets. Writers have to write every day just as soldiers need to drill every day. Supervisors learn basic management skills and when they are mastered, these employees advance to the level of director. Practice is a long, laborious process that requires hundreds or thousands of hours. There are no shortcuts to becoming a master chef.

Some people are blessed with a tremendous amount of natural talent. However, all of that talent is only potential knowledge or art. The great talents of this world had to actualize their gifts with same rigor and drive as those with lesser gifts. Some claim that with great natural ability comes greater responsibility to fulfill the potential. The strongest can run faster but only if they rise to practice at that high level and maintain their regimen. The Julliard School is not for artistically talented students; the school is for talented students who match their potential with the drive and commitment to learn the depth of their gifts. The drive to practice or the lack of drive, often levels the playing field of potential success.

Practice is boring. When a student complains that school is boring (baring institutional dysfunction), the student is complaining that he or she does not want to learn by practicing. Fortitude is a necessary component of learning by practicing. Everyone whines about practicing, it is natural and healthy to acknowledge what is not fun. The successful ones still complain but then go back to work.

Knowledge does not come cheap nor do the valuable kernels come easily. Human knowledge is vast and fascinating but all of this understanding is inaccessible to any person who cannot sit down and practice.