Good sport that she is, Miss Manners often gamely attacks modern questions about the etiquette of eating: What is the correct utensil for eating ice cream from a carton while the refrigerator door is open? An ice cream scoop, so that if anyone discovers you, you can pretend you were just licking off the drips before they hit the kitchen floor.
The truth is that Miss Manners would rather be discussing the proper use of, say, ice cream forks. She cannot justify that by claiming there is widespread anxiety on the subject, but will argue that there is a dearth of amusement in the world and that propriety always provokes merriment.
However, she is aware that this does not relieve her from the duty of making modern eating methods as presentable as possible. She does not flinch from telling people not to crunch their empty beer cans and then try to fit them into their hosts' ashtrays.
There is some accommodation to modern living arrangements in Miss Manners' rules. Not much, but some. She once conceded that paper napkins are not incorrect at picnics, although she certainly doesn't have them at her own four-course picnics.
But modernity has taken advantage of her. While she was fussing over the details of mealtime manners, some sneaky people were working on abolishing the concept of mealtime altogether.
"Grazing" is the name she had heard applied to the increasingly popular habit of declaring all waking hours to be snack time, and thus eliminating the sustenance motivation to hold formal meals. Freed from the physical drive to show up at table, they have simply killed the ceremony of traditional communal eating.
Grown-ups who live this way lay pretentious claim to being too busy for meals, and never mind the time they find to run around the park, watch videotapes and mope about the lack of fulfilment in their lives.
More frighteningly, there are children who are actually being brought up that way. Some are permitted to wander away at will from family meals, and some are actually fed on demand all day long, and then never required to attend a meal at all.
If this continues, such ritual statements as "Not now -- it'll spoil your appetite for dinner" and "If you don't have room for spinach, you certainly won't have room for dessert -- and guess what I baked?" will be incomprehensible to future generations.
Also, civilization will erode even more steeply than it has already. The dinner table is the center for the teaching and practicing not just of table manners, but conversation, consideration, tolerance, current events, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of polite society except the minuet.
We shall have to re-establish regular meals. Miss Manners promises not to nag you about what to eat at them (the world being too full already of those who will tell you, whether you ask them to or not, how to achieve salvation through nourishment) as long as you observe the ritual.
Nor will she inquire how the food is cooked, or whether it is cooked at all, rather than unwrapped. That is, provided that it is unwrapped. If she catches you with a carton or a cooking pot on the table, you will be in trouble.
Mealtimes, for those who have already forgotten, consisted of breakfast, luncheon and dinner, with tea optional. They take place at tables, with participants arriving at the same time, timing their eating so that changes of course occur at the same time for everyone, and there is no activity permitted other than conversation and eating. Except for performing the mechanics of meal-serving, and a certain emergency that is never discussed, no one is allowed to leave the table until the conclusion.
Miss Manners reluctantly concedes that conflicting schedule demands often keep members of the same household from having breakfast together, and that geographical considerations make an even greater problem at weekday lunchtime.
She pleads all the more that everyone exercise extreme care and vigilance to revive and preserve the custom of daily dinners and weekend meals within the household or, for those who live alone, as often as possible with intimate friends. No one who does not participate in these with some regularity is leading a civilized life.
Besides, they will forget or never learn the skills necessary for the one form of meal that even the meal-destroyers agree is important: the one in the fancy restaurant on the company's expense account.
Q: I am a member of a large musical ensemble that has a growing professional reputation. A few years back, one of our most valuable musicians became involved in scandal. To this day, her guilt has not been demonstrated, although most of us do find it to be likely.
She made a bad marriage, then abruptly ended it, making no explanation. Soon thereafter, a child was born.
Her husband, a popular guy, though a bit of a rake, disowned the child and said some rather awful things about his once-adored wife. She maintained a haughty silence, and did not contest her husband's charge that the boy was the product of her own transgression.
A lot of awful things were said by many people, and although she did not leave our ensemble, out of loyalty or dedication or conceit (she's a soloist) or what, I don't know, she was ostracized by most of us. I didn't actually originate any gossip, but I did ignore her attempts to maintain an acquaintance.
Well, now she's getting married, and I have received an invitation to her wedding. Her first wedding was a lavish affair of 500 guests. This time, it's a pretty select group.
As most of the guests, as far as I can tell, were those who stuck by her through the worst, I must assume that she assumes I was also on her side.
My husband says, considering that I gloated at her public humiliation (his words), I should decline. I feel she could only have expected the opprobrium -- she's just one of those people who attract major events wherever they go -- and besides, it might be adding insult upon injury to snub her new good fortune. Although I admit I'm a bit curious, I guess I'm willing to overlook the past, if she is. So how do I act if it turns out she knows I believed her former husband? Do I apologize, laugh it off, deny it? And how do I explain my attendance to those of my friends who weren't invited?
Evidently, she did try to winnow out the most voluble of her deprecators. Can I forestall one of them letting her or her fiance' know I was against her? Do I write her a "graceful" note? Also, would you settle a dispute between my husband and me: Is it still gossip if it's true? When does it stop being "just news" and start being "vicious gossip"?
Doesn't it make a difference if you know the people well? After all, these are all just normal human emotions.
Please help, and all right, yes, I promise I won't any more.
A: It may be a "normal human emotion" to throw over a colleague's reputation to accept the word of a known rake and obvious cad, but, as your husband has observed, it certainly is unattractive.
In the absence of the facts -- and you seem not to have any, which means that you cannot classify your gossip as news -- a decent person's sympathies would naturally gravitate toward a woman maintaining dignified silence, over a man who, whatever his grievance, is no gentleman. (A true gentleman whose wife has behaved scandalously makes that clear by declaring, "Whatever she has done, she was my wife, and I will not hear a word against her.") Knowing people well gives you all the more obligation to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Through generosity or misinformation, your victim is letting you off rather easily. You might as well take advantage of the mistake. Rather than to try to correct her undeservedly fortunate impression of you, Miss Manners would, in your position, turn her attention to changing your own husband's unfortunately correct impression of you.
Actually, Miss Manners would never find herself in your position, because she is a charter member of the Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense Club. (Evil Be to Him Who Evil Thinks.)
It is not merely out of simplicity of heart that she resolutely assumes that people are innocent of scandal unless they are dishing that scandal out themselves, in books and on television talk shows. So many interesting accusations simply turn out to be untrue these days that it isn't worth the risk.
As for that real gentleman, your husband, here is an opportunity to say, "You were right," with the resolve to make amends by wishing your colleague happiness in her new marriage. You may explain to him that going to the wedding is an opportunity to make your new stand public.
This is not done by raking up your transgressions, and certainly not by confronting the bride or bridegroom (if the latter is a gentleman, he may not let you off so easily this time), but by saying humbly, if anyone asks, that you regret having treated her badly.
And as for your own marriage -- there is hardly any more attractive statement one can make toward one's spouse than "You were right, dear, and I was wrong."
Q: Please explain that one's husband, children, parents and in-laws are people, too, and therefore it is all right to be as polite to and thoughtful of them as one would be toward a stranger.
A: Certainly, if you will do Miss Manners the kindness of explaining something to her in return:
Why is it that people care more to appear lovable in the eyes of strangers whom they will never see again than those upon whom their daily happiness depends?
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.