Mar 20, 2011

On Culture and Protocol...

Last week I wrote about all sorts of things, among them my then-upcoming luncheon with the general's wife. Knowing well the stereotypes associated with officers' wives, and particularly those in the higher ranks, I spoke of my contingency plans should my fears of snobbery and pretense prove true. It would make a great story if I had the opportunity to storm out in an indignant huff, or got to give some arrogant woman a verbal dressing-down.

The simple truth, however, is that we had a lovely time. Not like an "Oh-my-goodness-that-was-the-most-exhilarating-ever" time, but more like a "Yum-this-is-delicious-and-it's-nice-to-meet-you-all" time. Many of the houses on the base here are huge and historic, so Mrs. General told us the historic points about their 10,000 square foot abode. It has a little balcony on the second floor that faces out over the parade field. The story goes that one time Teddy Roosevelt was there and was all, "Hey, you could use some trees out front," so they put in two rows of now-gigantic evergreen trees (about 20 total), which frame the view from the balcony quite nicely. Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt.

There are several perks that come with the higher ranks. The luncheon was arranged by the base protocol office, and the food was prepared & served by Air Force chefs. The entire day was planned out for the generals' wives, and there were folks to drive them around to all their activities. And since they were out & about on a schedule, a rep from the protocol office was on hand back at the house to let us luncheon guests in, and to make sure everything proceeded as scheduled. In short, with great responsibilities come staff to help you juggle them all.

Thankfully, I had my own personal protocol staff in the form of my friend the Chaplain's Wife, whom I mentioned before is from the South and knows things about manners and stuff. She had also been to enough official shindigs (pastors & chaplains, and by extension their spouses, get invited to a lot of these) that she knew about hostess gifts, and had the forethought to check with the protocol office to see if hostess gifts were appropriate in this case, to which they replied that they certainly weren't necessary, but from a protocol standpoint it would be a nice gesture.

Which means, in a nutshell, that all the cool people are doing it.

And because she is awesome, the Chaplain's Wife gave me a heads-up, so I had enough time to stop on the way over. I chose a festive bottle of Bailey's, which I figured was appropriate given the St. Patrick's Day season. Either that, or the general and his wife are teetotalers and were totally offended that I would suggest they kick back a few from a bead-adorned bottle. Hostess gift: check.

And herein lies my dilemma. All this etiquette and protocol stuff is readily available to me via the Officers' Spouses Handbook, but I have thus far kept a longstanding vow to never purchase said handbook. I leafed through it once in the military clothing store for the sole purpose of scoffing at it. In my first round of therapy, the counselor--a retired major--told me to buy the book to help with my transition to military life, and I flat-out told him no (which was hugely bold of me at the time). I did not, and still do not, understand why the how-to's of writing thank-you notes, and which length of dress & how many petticoats to wear to which function, are what the Air Force deems essential for helping mil-wives navigate an entire sub-culture. The Spouses' Handbook should be subtitled something like "Everything you need to know to avoid making a fool of yourself at official functions; but for the rest you're on your own."

Here's the thing about the protocol. I get it; I understand the purpose of it. I've heard it said that etiquette is more than anything about showing people you care about them; that you are not taking them for granted and/or mistaking them for a portion of the floor or furniture, or something. I'm all about showing the love. The problem with taking something as warm and fuzzy as showing love, and boiling it down to a formulaic list of customs and courtesies, is that instead of focusing on showing love & being yourself, you are overly afraid you're going to mess up something on the list. The problem with protocol is that in our fear we miss out on the best of each other.

What were we talking about again?

Right, the luncheon. There were ten of us, I believe. The two generals' wives, two colonels' wives, both the incoming and outgoing presidents of the Warren Spouses Club, and the finalists from the 2010 Spouse of the Year (I was in the latter category). We all found things we had in common. Mostly we talked about dogs and kids and, keeping true to form, I got to briefly break from the appropriate and pleasant, and share how Pim was eaten by coyotes when we were living in California. The visiting general's wife asked us to each tell a little bit about ourselves and, true to form again, I babbled a little bit when it came to my turn. In my mind I was a red-faced nervous goofball, but history tells me it probably didn't show too much.

Both generals' wives were totally cool. If we were all sitting at my table drinking a Coke, I think we'd have made each other laugh hysterically. Because of the formalities, even though we had a good time, I think we didn't get to know each other quite as well as we could have. But maybe that's a necessary evil. I mean, you (I) can't be BFF with everyone, and you (I) certainly can't expect a luncheon to be a regular gateway to such relationships.

So maybe my unease with protocol is that, as a relational person, it simply doesn't match well with how I best like to spend my time. Some folks enjoy shindigs as a rule. I don't mind them sometimes, but if my entire life was formal and official, with no letting down and burping out loud in front of each other, I would poke my eyeballs out. I have small children--poop is such a major theme in my life that I must be permitted to talk about it. Often. But if I were a general's wife, and I went along with my husband to visit another base, would I want to talk with random other spouses and hear their poop stories? Maybe at first, but I bet it would get old.

So anyway, we ate our pot-pies and salads and dessert. We held our cloth napkins in our laps and only started eating after the guest of honor did. I caught myself at one point trying to pry the crust from my bowl with my fingers, and switched to a fork instead. But I heard later that one of the colonel's wives was doing the same thing, and it made me happy to hear that she enjoys the crust as much as I do. We talked. We toured. We took turns standing on the balcony and looking out through Teddy Roosevelt's evergreens onto the parade field. I waved at the escort staff below and said, "Hello! This is my official wave!" and they waved back. I am a big dork. But a happy dork.

We got word that the generals were running ahead of schedule (miracle of miracles), and the ladies were whisked off to join them for the next event on their itinerary. And then it was time to go. Three of us walked out together, commenting that our 15 minutes of base-wide semi-fame were up, and we had to get back to our glamorous lives of laundry and grocery runs.

I think I do OK if I remember the place of protocol. When I show good manners, it shows simply that I know how to show good manners. It speaks very little about who I am, and it certainly doesn't diminish my awesomeness if I am unaware or forgetful of a particular bit of protocol. So my recommendation to you, if you are ever invited to a luncheon with the general's wife, is to go and enjoy.

And don't forget to wave from the balcony...


Leah K. said...

Just marvelous! There are so many wonderful analogies here to the church and religion and why some people choose to do things "for God" when others find them completely unnecessary. And, for what it's worth, I would totally buy the book simply so that you have the CHOICE to follow protocol or not. Ignorance is never fun. It's with knowledge that power comes, but maybe that's just me. :>)And maybe I'm just really jealous because I really wish there was the equivalent for pastor's wives. It would make my life infinitely easier. :>) Glad to hear you are all feeling better. That was a lousy, no good, very bad flu!

Lindsay Illsley said...

Those books are totally antiquated anyway. Glad you enjoyed yourself. I knew you could do it! Awesome that you got an award!!!!!!!!!!!!

Elizabeth said...

what a great recounting of your lunch! In an unexpected turn of events, I also had lunch with a general's wife last week at Barksdale—maybe the same one as was the guest here, as I heard she recently toured Warren. There were 12 of us total, and it was a lovely lunch. I was concentrating very hard on not spilling my butternut squash soup down my front. Heh.