The Saga Continues… The flu of Saturday through Monday lead straight to what is probably a bacterial infection of the stomach that meant I didn’t sleep from Monday morning until Wednesday night, and that also kept me from eating. But three days off from teaching is an eternity so I dragged myself in today, treating kids to a delightful performance of what it would be like to be taught by a broken mendicant. Partway through one of the students raised her hand and said, “Mr. [von Luckner], you know I’ve learned one thing from you – no matter how bad you feel, always look your best.” I was dressed in a 1920s boater, a Prussian blue jacket with a matching shirt and light pink tie, dark slacks, and black suede shoes, which is pretty normal for my daily teaching attire.
And it made me think – how did I come to pick up that habit? Then a series of memories that I hadn’t reflected on in many a year came back to me, all centered around a single figure – Uncle Marshall. I don’t know if my bacteria-addled prose will be quite up to doing him justice, but I have a few moments, and he’s a figure worth remembering, so I’ll give it a try. When I got to know him, he was a retired naval officer who had served as naval attache all over the world, and in the doing he had picked up this easy-going but international affability that I could best describe as a Doctor Who At Tea.
He lived by a code that was never enumerated but that I absorbed in the observing. One of the great principles was that manners and etiquette are there to make people feel comfortable and included, never excluded or judged. He knew instinctively when observing a certain form or procedure would bring everybody together and when letting it pass would do the same. I remember one time my grandparents from the other side of the family came to drop me off at the bed and breakfast he ran. They were farmers who hadn’t gone to anything fancier than an Arby’s in two decades, suddenly entering this house stacked floor to ceiling with exotic curiosities of the world, and he made them somehow feel at home in this totally foreign land by virtue of powers I still don’t quite fathom. He spoke, moved, queried, all exactly as he always does – none of that “Well, you’re from the farm so I’m going to talk inelegantly at you and you’re going to pretend that we’re bonding over it” that you get with so many people who think that they are Good With People but aren’t. Just this air of “Well, obviously you’re supposed to be here, that’s given, we’ve been waiting for precisely you, and these are the things we simply must know, so do tell us, won’t you?” that is practically irresistible. I had grown up only ever seeing people use etiquette as a weapon, as a means by which people with money but no accomplishment kept their hand in the game of civilization. But Uncle Marshall showed me something entirely different, and I’ve tried to live up to it.
To be honest, I’m really bad at it though. Too much German in my blood – “And now we will be commencing with the fun! You will break your individual conversations and head towards the designated entertainment sectors!”
But the most apparent thing I ever took away from him was that you owe it to yourself to look as put together as you can at all times. My favorite favorite moments of adolescence were heading with him over to the used clothing stores to find sports jackets or sweaters or ties – things to be had for a couple of dollars that made you look just a mite more interesting than you did a few moments ago. I never saw him out of the house without a tie, his only concession to practicality being that he gardened in a BOW tie. To go to the corner grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt was as unthinkable as going to the opera in them. I took up that too – it’s my way of telling the people I randomly meet, “Hey, being in a society with you means something to me – I’m proud of calling you folks my neighbors and friends, and even if I don’t say that, I’m going to show it by spending a little bit more time in the morning putting myself together before I come out to be with you all.” Again, this is something of an inversion. Rather than Fashion As Exclusion, where you dress expensively to make yourself artificially more important than somebody who does not, this is dressing With Care (it doesn’t really matter what the clothes ARE so long as they’re clean, fit well, and are cleverly selected) to show other people that their presence is considered and welcome. In the age of “DON’T ENGAGE WITH ME I’M DIDDLING ON MY SMARTPHONE!!!!” we could use a bit more of that, I think. These are all principles that the 21st Century Victorians are championing (though some of them are just doing it to be insufferably superior – which, sure, is fun, but not really the basis of a life system), but my uncle had it all down pretty well there in the late 80s, and I thought it as good a time as any to share him with the four of you who have made it all the way this far as an object lesson in Making Things Pleasant For Other People.
Because like my man Dowd, Elwood P once said, “My mother once said to me, ‘In this world you can be Oh So Smart or Oh So Pleasant.’ I was smart for many years, and I recommend pleasant.”
– Count Dolby von Luckner