Don't you just hate it when guests decide to help you clear up after dinner? Without, of course, knowing anything at all about where things go. Afterward, you can never find what you're looking for.
The other day, it was reported that a helpful dinner guest in Verviers, Belgium, decided to put the leftovers in a freezer. That's where she found the bodies of the host's wife and young stepson.
Oh, dear. That kind of thing can spoil even the best of dinner parties. And it raises all kinds of question. For example:
What does a polite guest say, "Call the police!" or just "Excuse me"?
Do the guests stick around long enough to help the host wash the dishes and into his handcuffs?
The guests, according to the local prosecutor's office, had described their host as seeming "ill at ease." Which is understandable. Putting on a dinner party can be quite stressful.
Whom does one consult about the proper course to follow in such circumstances? Hercule Poirot? Or maybe Martha Stewart, who surely has encountered this problem before in her extensive experience with interior decoration, gracious entertaining and criminal law.
What can a gracious host say to put nosy guests at ease after such a discovery?
Somewhere in her files, Miss Martha surely has just the right response to this kind of awkward social situation. ("Oh, thank you so much! I've been looking everywhere for them! Another cup of coffee?")
Speaking of etiquette, the struggle to hold back the rising tide of vulgarity in presidential politics promises to be as successful as King Canute's. Did you catch the Democratic presidential debate on YouTube? It fully met the standards of the day. Unfortunately.
The questions set the tone for the evening. One concerned citizen, who accompanied himself on the guitar, asked the candidates whether "one of y'all" could get him a pardon for a speeding ticket. The candidates' responses maintained the same (low) level of public discourse. It was amusing all in all, but scarcely elevating. The death of American eloquence proceeds apace as the medium, television, dictates the message.
Asked whether, if elected, the candidates would be willing to work in the Oval Office for the minimum wage, various contenders fell over each other to respond in the affirmative, rushing to appear more-proletarian-than-thou. Among those ready to be our first minimum-wage president were John Edwards, Hillary Clinton ("Sure!") and Barack Obama.
More disconcerting than the candidates' professed eagerness to join the low-paid is the possibility that they might be worth just what they're asking for.
Folks who actually have to work for the minimum wage in this country surely have ambitions of earning a higher salary some day. And would readily say so. That's another difference between workers struggling to get by and the presidential candidates out to pander to them; the workers may be sincere.
Hillary Clinton declined even to identify herself as a liberal. ("I prefer the word 'progressive.' ") Of course she does. Liberal became a bad word some time in the 1980s, maybe the '70s, when the liberal agenda proved so disappointing. But instead of changing that agenda in any but cosmetic ways, true believers changed its label. And what could be a more acceptable label than Progressive?
As the Bush administration continues to wallow in the polls, look for the emergence of more acceptable terms for conservative, too. Realist? Moderate? Compassionate Conservative? Oh, forget that last one. It's already been tried.
Politics is the health of euphemism. It's a wonder the language retains any clear meaning whatsoever after every American presidential campaign.
As for the sense of personal dignity that etiquette is designed to foster and preserve, in American politics that was lost long ago.