Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Easter 1960: When Grownups Dressed Like Adults

In anticipation of Easter, I am posting a photograph of the Darling family going to Easter Sunday service back when we still lived in Grosse Pointe.  I think it was taken in 1960.  It was probably snapped by Granny Darling, my father's mother, who was likely standing at the entry of the church where my Grandfather Darling was the Rector.  Yes, one of Reggie's grandfathers was a man of the cloth.

Mummy Darling in navy, Camilla (Sister) in white, Father Darling bringing up the rear
Hermione in white dress with blue sash, Frecky in short suit with glasses, Reggie in shorts

My parents were in their late thirties when this photo was taken.  My sister Camilla is the eldest of their offspring, and is seen here at 15 years old, at the brink of womanhood, and home from boarding school on spring break.  Frecky is the next eldest, followed by Hermione, and then me.

This is one of my favorite Darling family photographs. Mostly because I love what we are all wearing.  We are what I consider to be appropriately dressed for attending church on Easter Sunday, at least for the time.  When this picture was taken young women of the American upper-middle classes still wished to dress in styles their mother's approved of, and their mothers still aspired to dress like ladies.  Boys looked forward to turning in their shorts for long pants, and a jacket and tie was considered daily wear for men.  In other words, this photograph was taken before all Hell broke loose in this country and the vast majority of Americans decided to throw off acting or dressing like adults when they grew up.  Nowadays it seems to me that most people I see out in public aspire to dressing like overgrown toddlers, or tramps, or worse.

In this photograph my mother is wearing a navy linen dress with a white collar and oversized, decorative white buttons, and she is sporting a straw hat decorated with a navy ribbon embroidered with what I recall were little white flowers (she had that hat for many years).  Camilla is wearing an attractive, waisted white dress that demurely shows off her lovely figure, and she appears to be wearing a hat made of white flowers and netting.  Camilla is artistic and clever with her hands, and probably made her pretty chapeau.  My only surprise is that neither of them is wearing white cotton gloves.  I came across a box of half a dozen pairs of such gloves wrapped in tissue paper that my mother had saved for forty years when we emptied out her apartment after she died.  [Editor's note: according to Sister, who graciously supplied me with this image, she was carrying her white cotton gloves that day and suspects that Mummy Darling's gloves were hidden in the jumble of the coats she was carrying--see her comment as Anon 1:18 p.m.]

My father is shown taking up the rear wearing a poplin sack suit, most likely bought at Brooks Brothers, and brown oxfords.  To this day one of the sense memories from my childhood is the smell of the wax he used when polishing his shoes, which he took great care with.  Frecky and I are wearing little boy shorts outfits likely assembled from a combination of Best & Co. and the Junior League "Nearly New Shoppe" where my mother volunteered once a week.  Hermione is the little girl in the front wearing a white dress with a blue sash.

Do you ever find yourself wishing that people still dressed as well as we did in those days?  I do.  I understand that styles and tastes change and always will, but I still find it a bit "off" when I (infrequently) attend the Episcopal church near Darlington that I (sometimes) go to and see grown parishioners arrive for the services wearing tee shirts and jeans, even on High Holy Days.  At least they're attending church, I suppose.

I believe that grownups should dress like adults when visiting places that merit the respect of appropriate attire, and that too few in America do so today.  Did you notice that I used the word "respect" here?  Because that is what I believe appropriate attire conveys--respect for one's surroundings, respect for one's hosts, and respect for one's peers.  I am not so assinine as to think that today men should only wear suits and ties and women should wear white gloves and hats every time they walk out their front door.  But I do believe that the casualness of the clothing I see many people wearing today in better restaurants, the theater, concert halls, houses of worship, and private parties is disrespectful, and that people should dress up more when they go to such places and events.  Since when did the supposed comfort of the wearer trump all other considerations when determining what constitutes appropriate attire?

Believe me, I don't want to turn the sartorial clock back to 1960, I just would like people to make more of an effort to dress more thoughtfully and respectfully of the places they visit and the sensibilities of the other people they find there.  I recognize that there are times that it is appropriate for grownups to wear the tee shirts, cargo shorts, jeans, flip flops, sneakers, and baseball caps seen everywhere today, such as a quick trip to the corner store to pick up a quart of milk or when knocking about on a Saturday afternoon.  But in my view the preponderance of the grown Americans that I see out in public dressed so casually would be better served if they left such clothing to the sandbox set it was originally intended for, and made more of an effort to dress in an approximation of what used to be called an adult.  It would certainly be easier on the eyes of those of us who have to look at such people.

Tell me, am I preaching to the choir here?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

At Long Last, A Looking Glass!

In the many years that Boy and I have owned Darlington House, we had not found something to hang over the fireplace in our drawing room.  Although I have enjoyed the asperity of the bare wall, I also looked forward to the day when we would find the proper adornment for the empty space.  In biding our time we debated the merits of hanging a painting or a mirror, and agreed that we preferred the latter.  As I have written in earlier posts, Darlington was built in the Federal era, and its drawing room is the most fully-realized neoclassical interior in the house, fitted out with moldings and carvings copied from pattern books of the day.  The ideal mirror to hang over the drawing room's fireplace requires a lightness and delicacy appropriate for the room, but not such a dainty-ness as to not be able to stand up to the classical orders employed.  While we found numerous candidates over the years, they were either the wrong size or too expensive, often carrying five figure price tags.  But we've never given up our search, hoping that we would find the perfect mirror to hang at a price we were willing to pay.

The mirror in the shop we found it, photographed by Boy on his BlackBerry

Yesterday, Boy and I spent several hours in the nearby town trolling through the antiques shops.  While doing so I found this mirror in a shop owned by pickers.  We always stop in to see what they have, as we've been successful in finding wallet-friendly things there.  When I saw the mirror I turned to Boy and said "What do you think about this for our drawing room?" and he agreed that it looked promising.  We examined it and determined that it still had its original gilding and ornaments, but likely had later (but still old) glass.  We also agreed that it required only a modest amount of restoration in order to bring it up to the snuff of the other, far more expensive mirrors we have passed on over the years.  Once we learned what they were asking for it our hearts raced, and we put it on "hold" so that we could go to our house and measure to see if it would fit.

The mirror in the back of Isaiah Cornini's truck
Photo by Reggie Darling

We sped back to Darlington and were excited to find that the mirror was, in fact, well-scaled for the space above our drawing room fireplace.  We telephoned Isaiah Cornini, the architectural historian we work with at Darlington and whose opinion we rely on in such matters, and asked him to come over to look at the mirror to see if it met with his approval.  Not only was he free to stop by Darlington that afternoon, but he agreed to pick up the mirror from the dealers and bring it to our house in the back of his pickup truck.  Huzzah!

The mirror, propped up in our front hall, awaiting hanging
Photo by Reggie Darling

As it turned out, Isaiah not only approved of the mirror but he agreed to help us hang it then and there.  Here is a photograph of our drawing room chimney breast in its unadorned state.  This is the "before" picture.

The unadorned chimney breast
Photo by Boy Fenwick

And here is the "after" picture, showing the mirror in place. We've lighted the candles in the chandelier that hangs in the room to show its reflection in the glass.

The chimney breast, with mirror
Photo by Boy Fenwick

Here is another photograph of the drawing room, taken this evening, with the candles lighted and a fire in the fireplace.  Oh, and look -- there's Pompey, too!

Photo by Boy Fenwick

So, is the mirror the perfect size for the space?  Boy and I agree that it could be better if it were slightly wider, but we also agree that we are very happy to have it at the price we paid for it.  Yes, we'll need to put some money into it, and restore it.  But even so, we will still have a mirror that we would have had to pay much more for had we found it in a shop in Manhattan, or at one of the bigger antiques shows.  In other words, after it had swum well-upstream from where we feel very fortunate to have found it.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dinner at '21'

For a fortunate few of us over the age of forty, the three words “Dinner at ‘21’” produce a frisson of anticipation and excitement like no other.

The entrance to the '21' Club
Image courtesy of same

I first heard of the '21' Club, the fabled Manhattan restaurant, as a boy from my parents, who went there for the first time shortly after they were married.  My mother referred to '21' as being a Mount Olympus of glamorous and expensive dining, and she and my father returned there from time to time when they visited New York over the ensuing decades.  She said that she would never forget the first time she crossed its threshold in the 1940s as a newlywed.  She felt a bit out of her element that night, wearing a Peck & Peck cocktail suit and a demure pearl necklace while the other women dining there were wearing what appeared to her to be the “latest French fashions” and “real jewels.”  But that added to the magic of the place, she thought.

Grace Kelly serving Jimmy Stewart dinner from '21' in Rear Window

I also remember being wildly impressed as a boy one afternoon watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window on the black-and-white television in my parent’s study when Grace Kelly, in a cloud of couture chiffon, arrived at Jimmy Stewart’s Greenwich Village apartment with a waiter from '21' in tow, wheeling a cart containing dinner for the two of them from the restaurant.  Talk about glamorous!

'21' Club facade
Image courtesy of same

The first time I went to '21' was as an undergraduate.  I spent a weekend visiting a classmate in New York, and his parents took us there for dinner.  I was beside myself with excitement when I found out where we were going (and that they were paying for it), and I felt incredibly grown up and swell dining in its swank rooms.  We ate in the Bar Room, an inspired fantasy of dark paneling, low light, and red-and-white checked table cloths, and noteworthy for the huge collection--hanging from the ceiling--of toy trucks, ships, and airplanes emblazoned with the names of major corporations, along with sports memorabilia and other mementos.  All of these had been given to the restaurant by its regulars culled from the top ranks of industry, entertainment, and sports. That evening Arlene Dahl (or was it Audrey Meadows?) was settled into one of the banquettes holding court with four men, and the room was packed with what appeared to this young man as an impossibly grown-up and sophisticated crowd.

The Bar Room at '21'
Image courtesy of same

After college I would occasionally meet friends for cocktails at '21', but would never have dinner there because I couldn’t afford it on my junior banker’s salary.  At that time '21' attracted a big after-work crowd of suit-wearing men who packed the bar, drinking martinis, Manhattans, and the like.  It was a manly-man kind of place, the air full of cigarette smoke and testosterone.  My friends and I would get thoroughly soused while eating as much of the bar’s free peanuts and crackers as possible, and then repair to a nearby Irish bar to drunkenly wolf down a dinner from its far-more economically priced steam-table offerings.

A view of the banquettes in the Bar Room at '21'
Image courtesy of same

Over the intervening years I was only a sometime visitor to '21', mostly for work-related dinners with clients, bond roadshows, or big closing dinners for deals I had worked on.  One time I met the mother of a young man I was seeing there for a drink, when she was in town to attend an auction where one of her father’s paintings, a minor Van Gogh, was being sold.  But mostly I didn’t go to '21' that much, since I preferred to spend my evenings with friends my age in younger and racier watering holes.

Yet another view of the bar at '21'
Image courtesy of same

A number of years ago Boy and I decided to take his best friend from college and his (then) wife out to dinner to celebrate his friend’s fortieth birthday.  We decided that '21' would be a suitably grown-up place to honor such a milestone, and so I booked a table for the four of us in the Bar Room, which to me epitomizes the restaurant unlike any of the other rooms available there.  I arrived at the restaurant early, ahead of my dinner companions, and decided to wait for them at the bar.  Given my memories of what the bar at '21' had been like after working hours when I was younger, I was surprised to see that there was almost no one there that evening, with the Bar Room virtually empty of patrons.  According to the barman I spoke with, the crowd of manly-men I remembered clogging the bar after work had mostly dispersed over the years, and was pretty much killed off altogether when the city instituted its no-smoking laws earlier that year.  Contributing to the sparse attendance that evening was the fact it was high summer, one of the slowest times of year for New York’s restaurants.

We had a very good, albeit expensive, dinner with our friends that night, and I was glad to see that the Bar Room’s tables filled up over the evening.  My fears that '21' was in its death-throes appeared to have been unfounded.

I had not returned to '21' since that dinner, more than five years ago, but did so for the first time several months back when I booked a table for a pre-theater dinner on the evening that Boy and I had such an unpleasant experience attending A Little Night Music, which I wrote about in an earlier posting.  I was curious to see what I would find.  In the meantime '21' had received a flurry of publicity when it became the last restaurant in Manhattan to relax its requirement that men must wear a jacket and tie for admittance.  Today it remains one of the few that still requires men to wear jackets, and “encourages” them to wear ties, at least for dinner.  In other words, it’s still a grown-up kind of place, holding on to customs that in other parts have gone the way of the dinosaur.  When I arrived, a handful of tables in the Bar Room were occupied with pre-theater diners, and there were perhaps half a dozen patrons standing at the bar, all middle-aged men . . . like me.

Individual cocktail mixing spoons from the bar at '21'
Given to me by Tara, the martini goddess

Since I was the first of my party to arrive, I sidled up to the bar and ordered a martini from the woman working behind it, expertly mixing cocktails.  I fell in to a conversation with her, and learned that her name was Tara and that she broke the sex barrier at the club when she became its first female bartender several years earlier, much to the initial consternation of the guys, all of whom have come around in the meantime.  If there is one restaurant in New York that I would expect to serve a perfect martini, it would be '21' (along with the Four Seasons, the other leading contender, in my view).  I am pleased to report that Tara gave me the most perfectly made martini that I can recall being the happy recipient of. Off to a good start!  While she went about her duties I listened in on several of the conversations that my fellow companions standing at the bar were having and heard more than one of them say “I remember the first time I came to ‘21’, it was when I was still in college . . .” and I realized yet again that Reggie’s life experience is but a mere repetition of the many, many thousands that have trod a similar path before him.

As my fellow blogger Lindaraxa wrote in her charming reminiscence of '21', one doesn’t go to '21' for the food, really.  It’s more for the experience of the place.  While the food is perfectly good, and quite tasty, it is not particularly memorable. But then it needn’t be, in my view, because the pleasure I take in dining at '21' (and I have been there several more times since Boy and I ate there two months ago), is the sheer joy of being there, experiencing it, and seeing the place in action.

'21' is a very well-run establishment that caters to a well-heeled crowd of appreciative regulars.  There is a clear hierarchy among the staff, starting from the suit-wearing men and women who greet you as you enter the restaurant.  They are solicitous and formal, and address you by name.  They hand you off to a tuxedo-wearing waiter who shows you to your table and attends to your needs for the rest of the evening.  The waiters are, in turn, supported by an army of assistants wearing white jackets and black bowties.  When the restaurant is full, which it has been the times I’ve been there, and the staff is in full throttle, there is electricity in the air.  '21' is still a manly kind of place after all these years, catering to manly-men and the ladies who like ’em that way.

Adding to the pleasure of dining at '21' is the presence of the bold-face names you sometimes see there, such as a retired big-time ball player, or a tycoon, or . . . Henry Kissinger, who made a spectacular entrance to much hubbub the night Boy and I had dinner there earlier this week.

All in all, it’s a really good show.

'21' Club
21 West 52nd Street
New York, New York 10019
(212) 582-7200

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ballooning, Raking, and Pruning at Darlington

Early this Sunday, when I took Pompey out for his morning constitutional, I heard what sounded like gas jets turning on and off.  As many of my readers will agree, when one owns a house common sense indicates that such sounds merit investigation.  The noise was coming from the rear of our property, so that is where I went, and what did I find but a hot air balloon flying over our back yard!  I ran into the house to get my camera.  By the time I was able to snap a picture of it the balloon had traveled a distance, so the image I was able to capture is rather small.  Within a minute the balloon had vanished from my sight.  Although not clear from looking at the photograph, the balloon was made of alternating stripes of yellow and red cloth, and was very colorful.

High above Darlington

Later that morning, Rich and Junior arrived to finish repairing the winter damage to our gravel drives.  Although gravel drives are beautiful to look at and delightful to drive on (the crunch of a well-tended gravel drive under tires is a very satisfying sound indeed), they require a considerable amount of maintenance, at least here in the American northeast.  A yearly ritual once the snows have subsided is to return the gravel that has been deposited on the surrounding lawns during plowing back on to the drive and then rake out the surface to reestablish a pleasing uniformity of appearance.

Rich is returning the gravel to the drive while Junior redistributes it
(note tasteful snow markers in first photo)

Rich raking out the drive

A job well done. The same view, before and after
(again, note tasteful snow markers)

Another spring ritual at Darlington is pruning the Hydrangea paniculata 'Kyushu' of last season's canes.  We leave the growth in place for winter interest, but it is necessary to prune back quite hard before the shrubs begin to push out new buds.  When pruned, they look almost Japanese in their severity.  Boy is the master pruner at Darlington--I have been forbidden from engaging in any pruning due to my less than perfect attempts at it in the past.  Boy spent the better part of both Saturday and Sunday mornings pruning the shrubs.  I love the way they look shorn of their canes, ready for a new season of growth.

Boy beginning the pruning of our Hydrangea -- the "before" shot

Two down, and nine to go

A pile of canes from one of the shrubs

The fully pruned Hydrangea -- the "after" shot

Rest assured, these Hydrangea are hearty growers and will send out an abundance of growth.  By mid summer they will be enormous, luxuriant beauties, and covered with fragrant, frothy white flowers well into autumn.

All photos by Reggie Darling

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Outside and Inside: Spring at Darlington

It was wildly and unseasonably warm today in the Hudson River Valley, in the mid-70's, well above the 50's that are typical this time of year.  The land is coming to life after a particularly brutish winter.  Insects are flying, and there are signs of bluebirds building nests in the houses we've put up for them along the split-rail fence.  Spring is springing at Darlington.

Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop)

This morning I met with the foreman of our arborists, as we have quite a bit of pruning to do to address the winter damage to the trees on our property.  It's going to take their crew a full day to prune and cable the trees, and they'll need a bucket rig to get high up in them.  Darlington has been hit hard with storms over the last eighteen months. We've lost at least eight mature trees, leaving some gaping holes in the landscape.  One of the trees we lost, a magnificent century-and-a-half-old Quercus rubra (Red Oak), was ripped out of the ground by a tornado last summer and thrown on a neighbor's property.  I still feel sick when I think of it.

The buds on the Fagus sylvatica (European beech) are plumping up

But moving on to more pleasant thoughts . . . .  Rich and Junior have started the spring cleanup of the property, beginning with returning the gravel they plowed up onto our lawns to the drive where it belongs.  Boy has begun pruning the drift of eleven Hydrangea paniculata 'Kyushu' that we planted six years ago.  It is gorgeous when in bloom, and an amazing honey-bee magnet.

Does anyone know what these yellow flowers are?

These diminutive yellow flowering plants were given to us by my cousin Joanna McQuail Reed shortly after we bought Darlington, when she visited us one spring.  Joanna was a legendary gardener and former president of the Herb Society of America, among many other things, and she and her Longview Farm in Malvern, Pennsylvania, were featured in many books and articles.  She was profiled in Starr Ockenga's marvelous book Earth on Her Hands: The American Woman and Her Garden.  Boy and I enjoy these flowers as a reminder of Joanna, who died in 2002.  We don't know their name.  We remember that Joanna called them something like "winter aconite," but we've not been able to find such a plant in our garden reference books.  If anyone reading this knows what they are, please let me know!

A drift of Galanthus nivalis

When we bought Darlington, the property had a dozen or so flower beds planted in the 1930s and '40s by Mrs. Proctor, the former owner.  While the beds produced masses of pretty, old-fashioned flowers, they were beyond redemption and were also haphazardly placed around the grounds.  We've ripped them out.  The lone survivors of Mrs. Proctor's beds are these Galanthus nivalis, or common snowdrops.  They dot the grounds, and we've extended their presence on our property by dividing and transplanting them over the years.

It's not just outdoors that spring is springing at Darlington. It is happening indoors, too.

We were given this Clivia by Dennis Mareb, the owner of Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Windy Hill is a top-drawer nursery specializing in unusual specimens, and is our primary source for the trees and shrubs we've planted at Darlington.  Dennis and his wife, Judy, arrived at a Christmas party years ago with this Clivia; it has bloomed every March since.

Rosmarinus officinalis in bloom

We have owned this Rosemary for almost a decade, and we learned how to successfully overwinter it indoors from my cousin Joanna.  The key is to leave it outdoors through one or two hard frosts so it goes dormant.  It blossomed last weekend when these little purple flowers appeared.

Moving back outdoors, here's one last shot of our spring landscape at Darlington.  Oh, and there's Pompey, too!

Pug, Buxus, G. nivalis, and the unidentified yellow flower

All photos by Boy Fenwick

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Pompey Chronicles, Part IV: Pompey the Published Pug

For those of you who have been following The Pompey Chronicles, you will probably be relieved to learn that this is the final installment of the series.  If it were to run on any longer I am afraid that I would need to change the name of my blog to "Reggie's Besotted Ruminations on the Subject of his Most-Beloved Pug."  But that is not necessary.  Even though I may mention Pompey in future posts, I believe that with this posting I will have substantially exhausted him as a subject . . . at least for now.

As I wrote in my last posting in this series, we are not alone here at Darlington House in finding our little four-legged friend adorable, or photogenic for that matter.  Over the years Pompey has appeared in a number of books and magazine stories, many of which have been shot at Darlington, which we occasionally rent out as a set for photo shoots when the gods smile upon us.  Not only do we enjoy it when shoots take place at our house (the hubub is quite interesting to this bystander), but we typically reap a handsome per diem for letting our house as a location. 

When the photographers arrive at Darlington they usually do so without planning to include Pompey in any of their shots.  But since he is a cute and curious little fellow, he often worms his way into their hearts, and then their shots, as he makes an attractive prop to round out the pictures.  He also behaves quite well as a model on demand!

The first shoot at Darlington House that featured Pompey was done in 2001 for a Christmas book featuring photographs of festively decorated interiors.  Pompey was shot sitting in a Regency library chair that Boy and I had purchased several months previously, in the rather ugly upholstery that a former owner had chosen and that has long since been replaced.  However, it worked just fine for the book.

photo by Bryan E. McCay

This next photo appeared in another Christmas book where the focus of the chapter was tartan gifts for one's faithful companions.

top photo by Andrew McCaul; bottom photo by Bryan E. McCay

The following photo appeared in a cookbook where the subject was outdoor entertaining.

photo by Mark Thomas

The next photo is the first picture of Pompey that appeared in Martha Stewart Living.  It was the December 2005 issue, and the subject of the story was decorating with vintage miniature houses and buildings, known as Christmas villages.  The entire story was shot at Darlington House, but this is the only picture in which he appeared.

photo by Jose Manuel Picayo Rivera

Pompey next appeared in MSL the following Christmas in the issue's lead piece, "Bedecked With Bows."  Again, the entire story was shot at Darlington House, but he only appeared in one photo.  The picture was shot in our dining room prior to its restoration--the crew put up their own wallpaper between the windows.  The Regency chairs are ours, but the chest and mirror are not.

photo by Anna Williams

He next appeared in MSL in March 2006 in a story about using alternative vessels for plants in one's garden.  As readers of this blog will recognize, the chimney pots in the photo sit where we normally have metal urns.  Both photos shown were shot at Darlington.

photos by Helen Norman

This next picture was shot in our drawing room for Weekend magazine, a now-defunct title once published by Hearst Magazines.  The focus of the story was mixing antiques and modern furniture, either in old or new settings.  A jumble.  No wonder it folded!  You will recognize the Regency chair from the story shot in our dining room.

photo by Sang An

The last magazine that Pompey appeared in was the one where he finally made the cover, sitting in a hatbox in our drawing room no less.  Blueprint was a short-lived title produced by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia aimed at the generation whose mothers read MSL.  They killed the magazine after only one more issue.  Too bad . . .

photo by Myers Robertson

The story was a fashion roundup of pretty party frocks worn by a bevy of beautiful models, and it was shot in its entirety in our house.  I'm only featuring the pages where little Pompey appears.  The first page, introducing the story, is a clever riff on caligraphic art that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, featuring an adorable oval portrait of Pompey.

photo by Myers Robertson

This following photo was shot in the doorway leading from our bedroom to the upstairs hall, prior to restoration.

photo by Myers Robertson

This next picture was taken in our drawing room, with the models under a plaster profile that we own of the Father of Our Country done after the bust by Houdon (stay tuned for more on that...)  Needless to say, the little vinyl-covered settee is not ours.

photo by Myers Robertson

So this wraps up my tour of Pompey's photo shoot portfolio.  Not only is he our most-beloved pug, but he's also a well-published one, too. 

Writing "The Pompey Chronicles" has been a most pleasant journey down memory lane for me.  I hope that you have enjoyed the trip.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Reggie's Rules For Social Reciprocity, Part II: Myth vs. Reality

Following on my recent discussion of the two rules that are the foundation of "Reggie's Rules of Social Reciprocity" in my post dated February 26th, I thought it would be helpful for me to explain exactly what I believe social reciprocity does and does not entail.  And I will seek to accomplish this by outlining, and then debunking, various myths that I have heard over the years from people mistaken in their understanding of what is, and what is not, required.

Myth 1:  Hosts should entertain solely out of the goodness and generosity of their hearts.  It is unreasonable, petty, and calculating of them to expect a return invitation of some kind.

Reality:  Not true.  As I have already explained in my previous post on this subject, while not the primary reason for entertaining, the prospect of return invitations by one’s guests is a pleasing benefit that a host should reasonably look forward to, assuming that host and guest both wish to maintain a social relationship going forward.

Myth 2:  I, as a guest, am under no obligation to reciprocate my hosts’ invitations, regardless of the number of times they entertain me.

Reality:  This is only true if you don’t care for the host, but then why accept subsequent invitations if you don’t?  If, on the other, hand you like the person(s) who hosted you and wish to maintain a social relationship with them going forward, including a return invitation at some point, then the answer is you MUST reciprocate in accordance with your means and circumstances.

Myth 3:  It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to reciprocate my host’s hospitality.

Reality:  While there is some leeway here, you really should strive to reciprocate hospitality within three months.  After that it starts getting stale.

Myth 4:  One can only reciprocate with an equivalent type of event, such as a cocktail party for a cocktail party, a dinner party for a dinner party, etc.

Reality:  Not true.  The form of the entertainment you provide is incidental and is dependent on your means and circumstances.  If we only reciprocated with like events that would mean we all threw the same party, which would get rather boring, wouldn’t it?

Myth 5:  I couldn’t possibly invite the So-and-Sos to my house because they are much richer/better cooks/throw more expensive parties/have nicer things/are better connected than I am/am/can/do/am.

Reality:  Absolutely and utterly wrong, and a frequent misconception.  The So-and-Sos, if they are civilized people, will be delighted to join you in whatever entertainment you are capable of providing.  Simply because they hosted you to a formal dinner doesn't mean they won't enjoy spending an evening with you at your house eating Chinese takeout and watching the Oscars (as my friend and fellow blogger Lindaraxa commented on my first post on this subject).  As one of my very grandest and most generous friends once said to me, “Reggie, my dear, I am thrilled to be invited into anyone’s home these days, it’s become so rare.  I could care less whether I’m invited to a white tie dinner dance in a palace or for crackers and cheese in a third-floor walkup.  Just to be invited somewhere by someone today is such a pleasure!”

Never be ashamed of how you live or what you haven’t got, and do not use it as an excuse to refrain from returning an invitation.  Most people are delighted to be invited anywhere, so long as they like the person who is inviting them.  Your friends already know your circumstances.  They will appreciate any effort you make on their behalf.

Myth 6:  I couldn’t possibly invite the Such-and-Suches to my house because they are much younger/older/poorer/less well-connected that I am and, besides, they don't further my social agenda.

Reality:  Utterly and infuriatingly wrong.  Don’t be a self-serving, social-climbing, insular snob.  Never refrain from inviting people to your party simply because they don’t have the same (or better) features as the face that stares back at you when you look in the mirror.  If you like them and believe they will be a net addition to your party, then for goodness' sake invite them.  Recognize, however, that they may not be able to entertain you in the same manner you entertain them.  But be prepared to have a delightful time when they ask you to join them one evening, either at their house or elsewhere.

Myth 7:  I can’t possibly entertain.  I only live in a small apartment, and I don’t have any nice dishes or anything much to entertain with.  Besides, I can’t cook!

Reality:  No one says you must only entertain in your home, and that you have to prepare a groaning board for your guests.  There are all sorts of ways that you can entertain someone or a couple who has extended you hospitality when you don’t have the ability (or inclination) to do so where you live.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Take them out to a meal in a fun restaurant;
  • Organize a picnic in a local park for a summer’s evening concert and arrive with prepared boxed meals;
  • Treat them to admission and drinks one evening at a museum -- many cities have museums that are open one night during the week;
  • Plan a weekend afternoon’s road-trip to a nearby town or destination, and create a fun and interesting itinerary;
  • Ask them to join you for a cooking class one night offered by a local culinary school or chef;
  • Sign up for a wine-tasting seminar;
  • Buy tickets to a show or sporting event that you will both enjoy;
  • Take them to an interesting lecture and treat them to a bite to eat afterwards;
The principle here is that it is critical to define “entertaining” as more than throwing a party in one’s home.  If that isn’t practical, then take the initiative and invite your guests to join you (at your expense) to do something fun, interesting, and enjoyable – however you may define it.  At the end of the day it almost doesn’t matter what you do at all.  It certainly doesn’t matter how much it costs, as there are many options available to you to entertain inexpensively.  Just do something!


The concept of social reciprocity applies only to private entertaining.  It does not apply to public entertainments, corporate events, or anything work-related for that matter.  You are under no obligation to reciprocate invitations to the following:
  • Fund-raising benefits that you are invited to by a friend where you are expected to buy a ticket and bear the cost of your attendance; your support of the event is sufficient.  However, it is in your right to expect that friends whose charitable causes you have supported by attending their favored benefits return the favor should you invite them to one that you support in the future;
  • Anything work-related.  Entertainment provided by people that are senior than you are at the office or workplace does not entail a requirement to reciprocate, particularly when the cost of the entertainment is expensed to your firm.  This includes your boss taking you and your spouse out to dinner or entertaining you at his/her home.  It is a different matter, though, if a colleague at the same level as you invites you over for dinner, since that is where it has crossed over the line from work into the realm of social friendship.
The only other exception is when the recipient of the hospitality is in the midst of confronting a major, life-changing event that absorbs all of their faculties and attention.  That would include an illness, the dissolution of a marriage, a bereavement, or similar.

But that’s it.

Some of my readers may be surprised that there aren’t more exceptions on this list.  That is because I believe that the obligation to reciprocate hospitality is a broadly-applied one, covering virtually ALL private social situations, and crossing all social boundaries, economic strata, and generations.  The key take away remains: reciprocity is required when the guest has enjoyed the hosts’ hospitality and where the maintenance and strengthening of such relationship is agreed to by both parties.  As I have said before: the form of such entertainment or hospitality is incidental, the obligation of it is not.

And that's all I have to say on the matter.

Cartoon from Terribly Nice People by Wlliam Hamilton, G. B. Putnam's Sons, 1975

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The String Dispensers of Darlington

Long before the advent of rubber bands, Scotch Tape (TM), or twist-ties, people secured packages, bags, and bundles with string and twine.  And just as there are numerous dispensers today for tape, previous generations had myriad dispensers for string and twine.  At Darlington House we have built a tidy collection of antique string and twine dispensers, which is the subject of today’s essay.

While we do not entirely ignore modern conveniences at Darlington, we do attempt to be selective in those we use, preferring instead to rely on time-tested and usually “greener” alternatives when reasonably possible.  We use as little plastic as we can on our property, preferring natural alternatives.  Once you set your mind to it, it is quite remarkable how easy it is to reduce one’s use of plastics and petroleum-based products, without going to lunatic extremes.

That extends to using string and twine made from natural fibers.  I prefer string rather than tape when wrapping packages, and I use twine to tie bundles of paper for recycling.  In the kitchen we use string to truss poultry for roasting and to re-seal food packages.  It’s more pleasant to open a parchment-wrapped sandwich tied with string than to open a resealable plastic bag containing said sandwich, despite the slight convenience of the latter.

We do, of course, keep a stock of plastic bags on hand, but we try not to use them when a greener alternative will do, time permitting.  Beyond the kitchen we use twine in our flower-arranging room to secure bunches of flowers, and we keep a stock of it in our garden house for many uses outdoors.

One of the pleasures of using string or twine is pulling it out of handy dispensers.  Technically, our string dispensers belong to Boy, as it is his collection, but I get to use them just the same.  Unlike today’s tape dispensers, where the unifying feature is utilitarian ugliness, the forms of antique string and twine dispensers are wonderfully, and in many cases whimsically, clever.

Most of ours are made of cast iron, but we have wood ones as well.  Many are shaped like beehives--the most common form--but we’ve found them in other shapes too, including one that is molded as a ball of string.

Aside from being attractive, string dispensers are ideal for keeping balls of string and twine in order, instead of jumbled and unwinding in a drawer.  Also, having string ready on the counter promotes its use.

We find string dispensers in group shops and at antiques shows, but, given how ubiquitous they once were, we are surprised how infrequently we come across them.  They also show up on eBay, but we refrain from buying there because reproductions are being made today; it’s best to buy them in person so you can examine them closely to be sure they are old.  Prices for cast-iron examples range from as little as fifty dollars (a genuine score) up to several hundred dollars.  Hand-carved wood ones are usually more expensive, since they weren’t mass-produced and are rarer survivors.

So if you haven’t got a string dispenser, I suggest you consider getting one.  But be forewarned: It’s hard to stop at only one . . .

All photos by Boy Fenwick
Related Posts with Thumbnails