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Several years ago, I was working on a piece about smoking etiquette which I later abandoned. It seemed to me that if smokers would only practice common courtesy, we could forestall the insane anti-smoke legislation that has since impacted us all -- and not necessarily for the better, since a non-smoker cannot walk down any public sidewalk in some areas without encountering large billows of unwanted smoke. I had also hoped to encourage those with large buildings to install special smoking rooms with isolated ventilation to get rid of the smoke.
During my research for the piece, I went to Powell's Books and grabbed all the books on manners and etiquette. Out of over twenty books, only two even mentioned smoking in their indices. One was an old-timey affair that spoke of smoking jackets and the absence of women while the men enjoy their smokes.
The other, "Miss Manners' Guide to the Turn of the Millennium," summarized the entire problem (and several others) with a single turn of phrase: "intrusive pleasures."
She discussed smoking and listening to the radio as intrusive pleasures, in that if you want to smoke and I wish to avoid it, etiquette demands that you smoke elsewhere -- not that I leave. Ditto for music: I cannot hear the silence of my thoughts while you're cranking up the tunes.
I've applied this principle to other areas of my life, treating it as an extension of the Silver rule, "Don't do to another what you wouldn't want done to you" -- much less intrusive than the Golden Rule.
I've always been extremely embarrassed whenever people have started praying in my presence -- that is, either in public or at a function that is not a private affair, consisting entirely of believers. It didn't make any more sense to me as a kid than it does today; I felt as if they were setting an arrogant, holier-than-thou example of some sort.
Prayer at school was no different from prayer at the table when visiting friends. Since I was raised without religion, I never learned how to act while others pray, or how to deal with the embarrassment.
I'll say it: Prayer is very intrusive and it ought never be done in the presence of non-participants. It is an entirely private matter unless the point of the gathering is to pray, etc., for ceremonial purposes. Even as a believer, I never saw a connection between talking to God and eating dinner.
I recently attended a gathering of my extended family. I dearly love most of the people who were there -- particularly the ones who happen to be theists. One in particular has helped me to reconcile some serious questions about myself, because she had an objective view of my childhood that no mother could ever have about her own child. I could never repay this woman.
At the big outdoor meal, as per the custom in this household, she offered a toast and began to invoke God and Jesus. It was innocent, and I had no real reason to be offended, but I knew what was next: the prayer. It always happened.
So I ducked out, tested the direction of downwind, and quietly sent up a burnt offering to the Tobacco Totem.
See also: Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response? by Jane
Check out: Powell's City of Books (off site)
Copyright ©2000 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon