When nostalgia first hit this country like a tidal wave, a decade or two ago, Miss Manners was rather pleased. She dared to hope that she might never again have to hear the word "relevant" as a test of what was important.
Etiquette was a perfect example of what was then considered irrelevant. Good manners being classified as a relic of the past, people were making do with bad manners and liking it a lot less than they pretended. That is, they liked not having to practice manners themselves, but hated having other people behave that way to them.
A belated general recognition that the society has its traditions, including coherent and workable standards of behavior, was all to the good, Miss Manners realized. Since her job is to explain and revise (and enforce) society's rules, a new respect for the past could only assist her.
Mind you, Miss Manners is not complaining. But people have now gone beyond accepting the past as a historical entity and a basis for orderly future development, and are not only venerating it for its own sake but anticipating it as well.
Future nostalgia, as it were, is a desire to make conscious history out of the present. But what it is making out of the present is havoc.
Weddings used to be events in which people got married among their relations and friends, each remembering a different idiosyncratic moment, although everybody remembered the loud commentary and questions between the flower girl and the ring bearer. As memory aids for future years, the couple had the bridal dress and some pressed flowers, and their friends had bits of cake they put under their pillows or parked until they petrified.
Then the photographers took over, removing the wedding party altogether from the reception in order to make a souvenir album, so the guests might find out later how the bride and bridegroom had looked. For the guests, there were printed souvenirs, mostly paper goods with names printed in silver.
At least they had had a party while the principals were absent. Now the videotaping and audio-interviewing has extended to them, too, so that everybody is involved in putting on a pretend event for later audiences.
Birthday parties, too, are staged for future enjoyment, and so, for that matter, are births themselves. Remember the time when the only way to embarrass a newly engaged son or daughter was to bring out a baby snapshot? At least the subject of those pictures generally wore a diaper. Now only the state of the parents' technology limits their ability to humiliate the child.
Vacations have long been opportunities to spoil everyone's fun so that the evidence of having gone away can be savored later.
And at what used to be dignified social events, participants scour the area for artifacts. Miss Manners was shocked to read of a prominent dress designer's reporting that she was glad she had attended a White House dinner wearing a skirt "with big pockets," because "I had to take home the napkins, the matches, the menu and the flags to remind myself it really happened."
The flags? Didn't she like the furniture, too?
What these people are forgetting, besides a sense of decorum, is that one has to spend time participating in an event if one hopes to get any memories out of it. There is a reason that these laboriously recorded pictures and carefully gathered artifacts are hardly ever brought out afterward and have a reputation for imposing massive boredom if they are.
Miss Manners is wary enough of the generalization of nostalgia to include venerating the rubbish of the past on the same level as things of intrinsic value. But she can take that. Yesterday's junk is tomorrow's artifact, she supposes.
But she draws the line at anticipatory nostalgia. What that is is memory-building at the expense of living.
Q. I would like to have a small cocktail party for about 16 people from my immediate neighborhood -- casual friends -- from about 5 to 7 p.m. How would you suggest I word the invitation to indicate that those are the hours only -- no staying over, as some people like to do, and hanging around drinking for hours. In other words, what would be a good wording to let people know the party is over at 7 p.m.?
A. "Cocktails, 4 to 6 p.m."
Q. What is your opinion of the practice of asking for a container to take home from a restaurant the remainder of the prime rib or the fettuccini or the immense baked potato? It bothers my husband and me to leave good food to be thrown away, yet we do not want to appear gauche by asking for a doggie bag.
A. The custom of taking home extra food is an ancient one -- Roman hosts distributed the remains of dinner parties to parting guests -- although today it is applied only to commercial establishments and not to people's homes.
The term "doggie bag" has become a well-understood euphemism. If it is too cute for you, you may simply say, with dignity, "Would you mind wrapping this? We'd like to enjoy it later."
Q. After a seemingly interminable search, I've discovered the one true keeper of the key. We plan to marry in the spring but are keeping it a secret to avoid whoopla by families and coworkers.
As luck would have it, lately some very dapper business acquaintances have begun asking me out for lunch. Has love changed my pheromones, I wonder?
I do not want to assume these fellows are interested in cultivating nonbusiness relationships, but at the same time, I do not want to leave the impression that I am available.
I wear no ring, and other than the prominent display of my loved one's photograph (and not everyone sees my office), there is no outward sign of my pending matrimony.
It is, most times, awkward to work in comments such as "My roommate is . . .," and then there's the problem of what to call him. I'm too long in the tooth to say "boyfriend," and "fiance" doesn't fit either.
Since I am not overtly engaged, I feel my acceptance of these invitations might be misleading, although I do enjoy the company. How may I graciously handle the overtures?
A. Miss Manners is so enamored of your term "whoopla" that she cannot imagine why you want to avoid it.
However, she hopes that even when you do announce your engagement, and when you are actually married, you will not feel you have to shun your male colleagues at lunchtime, if, indeed, they are seeking your company for reasons other than courtship.
Then it will be easy to throw in pointed references to "My fiance (or husband) and I"; in the meantime, you have to make do with "Daniel and me," with a sweet look that invites a question you will answer blushingly by saying, "Oh, he's a special friend of mine."