George Merrill - October 2008

Changing Conventions


   The Eastern Shore is changing. Residents complain that we’re being overbuilt, that traffic is a nightmare and that the Bay is suffering diminished quantities of crabs and oysters because of pollution and overharvesting. The complaints are legitimate. Change is, however, fundamental to our existence. Here today, gone tomorrow is a fact of life, and so it is with our social conventions. The ways in which we conduct ourselves publicly and deal with each other personally have also undergone dramatic revisions.
   Recently, I sent a letter to a contemporary of mine. I addressed the letter this way: Mrs. Thomas Graham. When she received it, she told me that she preferred being addressed Ms. Betsy Graham or just Betsy.
    In most of my lifetime addressing any stranger without a proper title, Miss, Mrs. or Mr., would be considered bad form. Now, we’re all buddy-buddy, on a first-name basis.
    Not long ago, men and women routinely wore hats. As a token of respect, men took theirs off when indoors. Women kept hats on whether indoors or out. Today women hardly wear hats at all while men never leave home without one. Men wear hats inside restaurants, at public meetings and even in churches. Hats have become permanent fixtures on men’s heads, like toupees, removed only at bedtime.
    Social conventions dictate how different age groups relate and the way men and women conduct their relationships. Social conventions also govern how different racial and ethnic communities regard each other and the way they act in public.
    African-Americans were once consigned only to the back of public buses. Today such expectations would be unheard of and considered outrageous. On subways and buses, for instance, an octogenarian might be standing up leaning on her cane, swaying precariously as the bus turns and rocks, while the young man sitting in front of her makes no move to offer his seat. Squatter’s rights have trumped common courtesy. It’s considered egalitarian.
    Even in our politics, conventions have changed, literally and figuratively. That we would have had a woman and an African-American seriously vying for the presidential candidacy is about as dramatic a change in conventions as Americans have witnessed in their entire history.
    For years it was ladies first. Now it’s whoever’s first. Not long ago, a man would open the door for a woman. Women now consider the gesture patronizing, as they do when men act protectively toward the ‘weaker sex.’ The ‘little woman’ is a thing of the past.
    Female deference to the big guy is history now that Mom, after a long day at her job at the office, walks through the door at five every afternoon and announces to her stay-at-home husband who has just changed baby’s diapers, taken a shower, put on pressed slacks and a clean shirt, “I’m home, dear.”
    Indeed, in what other ways have conventions changed for the “weaker” sex these days now that she doesn’t want the ‘big guy’ there to protect her anymore? Some have gotten into the arms trade.
    According to New Yorker columnist Lizzie Widdicombe, Dana Shafman, an Arizona native, is the inventor of the Taser party. Similar to the traditional Tupperwear party that women once hosted in their homes, Shafman’s presentations are nothing like freezer containers displayed on the coffee table. This is weaponry proffered for sale, a lucrative, legitimate business, presented with a characteristically feminine touch: hospitality offered in the living room, along with cookies, coffee and a hands-on demonstration of Tasers.
    This changing convention is not good news for men. Guns used to be strictly a guy thing. Now Mr. Macho can’t be sure when his disgruntled squeeze may be packing a piece.
    The Taser, although ostensibly non-lethal, is a weapon like a gun, used by the military and police to subdue suspects who might become violent. In living room presentations to neighborhood women, Shafman showcases Tasers customized to suit the most discriminating woman’s tastes.
    The C2 Taser, “Virginia Slims” as the model is dubbed, has been developed for civilians and some specifically for women. They come in pink, blue or silver. Shafman’s customers are promised that if the first shot doesn’t drop the creep, not to worry. The Taser can still be used as a stun gun. “Go for the jugular,” Shafman advises her customers.
    Women’s safety stratagems that once depended on feminine wiles are antiquated. Tears and fluttering eyelids of helplessness are to the modern woman’s armory for survival as the bow and arrow are to today’s fighting Marine. For those guys still clinging to their traditional gender prerogatives, changes in social conventions may come as a shock.
    There are, however, a few conventions observed here on the Shore that seem as gracious as they are timeless. In that regard I think of pickup trucks. They are as ubiquitous to our rural landscape as nettles are to the Bay.
    I have walked these country roads for years and there is one convention that I know will be scrupulously observed. As a pickup truck approaches while you’re walking a country road, the driver, whose hand remains on the wheel, will, as he drives by, invariably lift the index finger of that hand and make a gentle sweep with it in a gesture of greeting. Neither of us knows the other but the display of good always warms my heart.
    Despite all the changes, there are still folks on the Shore going about their business while remaining more than willing to lift a finger to make your day. That’s one social convention worth saving.