Q. I am trying to teach my kids good table manners, but every time I look around at a restaurant or a group gathering, all I see are people whose manners are appalling. How can I impress upon my children that manners are important when so many people don't have any? Have you noticed this, too, or am I crazy?
A.As well-versed as Ask First Sunday is in all matters relating to mental illness, she is, surprisingly, not qualified to diagnose craziness, so you are on your own with that part of your question.
Oh, wait. You were using the word "crazy" figuratively? In that case, no, you are not crazy. AFS has seen more table manners in the Chicago stockyards than she has seen at some local eateries. So AFS can address this issue ad nauseum, because she is already halfway nauseumated from watching some of her fellow Western New Yorkers belly up to the trough.
So you are trying to inculcate in your youngsters the sort of respect for other humans that comes from graciously conducting oneself during public activities such as eating? Good for you! You clearly know that manners begin at home, and that once we send our darlings off into a world without tablecloths, all bets are off.
Unfortunately, many of us are sending those darlings off into the world of sticky tables when they are barely ex utero, and therefore parents of necessity are relying on a good part of that instruction to be administered by people who have to impart the information while wiping other kids' nostrils and keeping them from bashing their peers with Mega Blocks.
And don't assume that AFS is implying that working parents are evil, unpatriotic courtesy-killers because they have the unmitigated gall to bring home an extra paycheck so that their little ones have vittles that they can crassly cram into their yawning maws. But it does imply that working parents have a tougher job teaching their kids that adults' amusement with games of "chew and show" diminish rapidly after one has passed eighth grade.
I mean, let's face it. Most of us spend all of our energy during the first 48 months of our kids' lives squawking "What do you SAY?" any time a "please" or a "thank you" is in order. Then we collapse in exhaustion when they successfully parrot their polite words back at us 17 percent of the time. High five. Job well done.
Too bad the job is only just beginning at that point, and like proper grammar, proper manners are not something we can expect kids to pick up in school. When they come of school age, it is time for us to crank up the manners dial to HIGH, all the time keeping a well-aimed barbecue fork handy for negative reinforcement.
Unfortunately, some of our children's little chums (Interesting word, chum. It also refers to the buckets of ground fish entrails fishermen toss into the briny sea to attract always ravenous and never polite sharks.) have grown up without ever learning that most people prefer to eat food off of a plate, not off of their chins, or, Lord help us, the floor.
Utensils seem to stymie even the wiliest child. Why, just last week, two of AFS' own relatives drove this point painfully home. On the first occasion, AFS sat, mouth rudely agape, while her nephew (who is, frankly above the age of consent) ate his Jack Astor's garlic bread with a fork. Bread? Fork? Oy.
On the second occasion, AFS was having a fancy Sunday dinner to reinforce her children's impeccable comport-ment at the table. When her sophisticated and debonair 7-year-old was told that, yes, there was another serving of perfectly steamed broccoli available for his continued dining pleasure, he stood up, sashayed around the table, grabbed a stalk in each hand, and proudly marched back to his seat waving his favorite vegetable like Marvin Hamlisch. At that point, the candles were extinguished by AFS' heavy sigh, and the bottle of Syrah was extinguished by AFS' heavy hand.
So herewith is a list of things you must teach your children if you ever want to be invited to AFS' fancy Sunday dinner:
1. Rake, er, fork goes on the right and shovel, er, knife, goes on the right.
2. Keep your stinking fork out of my lobster Newburg. You ordered the tripe, now deal with it. If AFS wants to share, she will tell you about her childhood.
3. Your knife is not a hacksaw. AFS does not want to have to wear safety glasses because offal is flying off of your blade and into her face.
4. Similarly, if you spill anything and it runs onto AFS' outfit, you are paying the dry cleaning bill, you clumsy oaf.
5. Please do not prop your copy of "Being Suave for Dummies" against the bottle of Frank's Hot Sauce so you can catch up on your reading while dining with another, especially AFS. Unless you would like to see what Frank's Hot Sauce feels like when poured into your lap.
6. If you have to crane your neck up in order to see your companion, your face is too dang close to your plate. Sit up, for Pete's sake.
7. Eat, or carry on witty repartee. Do not do both at the same time. Or, like supermodels, do neither. AFS cannot understand you when you are chawing on long-necked clams.
8. Gravy is not a finger food.
Ask First Sunday is available to answer your questions on virtually all aspects of Buffalo Niagara life. You think them up, she'll get to work. Write to her at: Ask First Sunday, c/o The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.