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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When I was fourteen, I was confirmed in a Catholic church in Fort Wayne, and while I didn't quite understand the severity of the occasion, I was pleased that I was given an additional name at the ceremony. After fourteen straight years of the regular first, middle, surname ("Christopher Lincoln Colcord"), I was now known by the far loftier "Christopher Lincoln Stephen Colcord," a resplendent moniker more befitting a member of the Royal Family than an adolescent Hoosier.
Ostensibly, I chose "Stephen" because Saint Stephen was one of the cool, martyred saints whose typically gruesome death (stoning, commissioned by Saul) was the inspiration for Rembrandt's first great painting. Truth told, I needed a two-syllable name that would make the recitation of my full name sound impressive, and I liked the interior rhyme that "Stephen" gave "Lincoln." For weeks my brothers and sisters called me by nothing but my freshly minted Catholic name, enjoying the playful sound of that ostentatious title. My priest told me that when I got married in a Catholic church, it would be expected that I use that four-pronged name in the ceremony.
Of course, the novelty of my new name wore off after a few weeks (and actually, the novelty of being a Catholic wore off not too long after), but at the time my priest was adamant that all the recently-confirmed recognize how symbolic and important that name was. Confirmation is a ceremony that acknowledges a coming of age for the adolescent believer, and it affirms that the youth has matured into a person capable of reason and adult rationality. Most cultures and religions have similar rites for youths in their pubescent years — bar (and bat) mitzvah, quinceanera, jugendweihe, etc. That the ceremonies coincide with the adolescent's impending sexual maturation presents a great comic contradiction — just when the kid is expected to exhibit reason and common sense, his body is going haywire with irrational and inchoate desires. It's as if the elders were trying to issue a pre-emptive strike on the teenager's hormones.
By the time I was confirmed, though, I had already received validation from my father that I was maturing into an adult, and it happened so subtly that I wasn't able to accredit it until much later. What happened was, simply, that my father let me in on a sick joke and trusted that I would get it. We were viewing a news report about Amy Vanderbilt, the undisputed queen of American etiquette and manners, and the report theorized that her recent accidental death (she fell out of her town house window) was, in fact, a suicide. While the circumstances surrounding her fall were inconclusive, the newsman said, it seemed the most likely scenario was that she had taken her own life. At the end of the newscast, without missing a beat, my father turned to me and said, "Well, I hope she went down with her legs crossed."
It was such a shocking, mean-spirited jab that I nearly convulsed myself. I discovered that for the first time, I was sharing a laugh with my father as an equal, as an adult. It was the clearest example I could have asked for that he didn't consider me a kid anymore. Most guys get weepy about their fathers when describing the usual "Now I'm a man" stories (fixing the car, going to the ballgame, being allowed near the toolbox), but the memory of my initiation into adulthood still makes me laugh out loud.
Of course, being Catholic, I felt guilty about the cruel joke and wondered later if my father and I weren't the worst of heathens. Eventually I gave both of us a break. My father was a profane man, all right, but he was also civilized, often surprisingly so — though he traduced the manner of Mrs. Vanderbilt's demise, he probably agreed with many of the social customs championed by the late etiquette queen. Bad manners were abhorrent to him, and despite my own fascination with the perversities of life, I'm cut from the same cloth. I'm so disgusted by the current state of public behavior that I'm starting to get militant.
And by the way, I'm not talking about fingerbowls or the proper use of an oyster fork here--I'm talking about the guy in line at Scott's who sees nothing wrong in dropping a "m---erf---er at distortion level. (Last week, Scott's on Clinton.) Is it really that tremendous an imposition to tone down the profanity when in public? For the record, I'm a big fan of the "f" word and I use it liberally in most conversations, but I at least attempt to ice it when I'm at the Children's Zoo or in confession. Can't I get my fellow citizens to practice similar restraint? Can I get an "Amen?"
Most Americans agree that public manners should be improved — in a recent ABC news poll, 82% of respondents believe that a simple "please" or "thank you" would greatly help the general good. But the increasing informality of daily life has made the merest of social customs an endangered species. I was introduced to a person recently and I did what I thought everybody did — I said "Hi" and extended my hand. The person recoiled from my overture and stared blankly at my hand, as if he suspected that I was hiding a buzzer or a salamander in my palm. When he finally decided to shake my hand, he did it with great mocking irony, smirking for the benefit of the people around us. I decided the next time I see him in public I'll forego the traditional greeting and just head butt him instead.
Again, I'm not talking about arcane bits of protocol here, like the correct way to doff a hat, but rather simple considerations: when someone asks you how you are doing, you say "Fine." You don't mention your recent arrest or that goiter under your arm. You don't mention your latest heartbreak or your revenge fantasies — please save that for the friend you call at 2am, when you're drinking absinthe and burning black crosses into your arm. Just say "Fine." I know some people believe this interaction is offensive in its insincerity, but they're wrong — it's merely the grease that spins the wheels of human civility.