Seemingly everything has been called a “lost art.”
Spelling, conversation, keeping a secret, note taking, listening, and even (why not?) hollering. One string of online text even refers to the lost art of blogging.What constitutes a lost art?
Is it a talent that was once universal but has now grown outmoded and become the practice of specialists? Such as knot tying?
Or is a lost art an activity that Dad used to teach his son or Mom passed down to her daughter but now no moms or dads have time to teach anymore? Such as etiquette?
Is a lost art a capability that has been marginalized by technology, such as wilderness navigation (by GPS and MapQuest) or calligraphy (by the printing press)?
And think about this.
How many millers, tanners, smiths, or coopers do you know? Not people named Miller, Tanner, Smith, or Cooper. Instead, the lowercased practitioners of bygone trades: millers of wheat, tanners of leather, smiths of iron, and makers of barrels. Have you ever met anyone who knows how to mill or tan or smith or coop?
And what ever happened to the art of chivalry? Did it really die?
Chivalry Isn’t Dead
A girl on a red bicycle comes to the intersection of Gresham and Garnet in Pacific Beach. Midday traffic clogs the streets. A man in a white car slows down and stops and extends his hand. He smiles and motions for the girl on the red bicycle to go first.
“People have this perception that chivalry was lost in the past,” Scott Farrell says, speeding back up in his Honda Accord after the girl has ridden across. “Or that it doesn’t have anything to do with us today. Or it’s kind of absurd. So I came up with this notion of putting together an educational program that looked at the ideals of chivalry, both in their authentic sense, as a warrior’s code, and to look at how that warrior’s code still kind of affects us today. It still really shapes our image of what a hero is and how someone acts who has a sense of duty and responsibility.”
Farrell works as a writer, educator, and actor. He’s been involved in historical reenactment groups, Renaissance fairs, Shakespeare festivals, and medieval tournaments for nearly 30 years. For one of his main educational jobs, he puts on a full suit of medieval armor and visits schools to demonstrate a bygone time and talk about history.
Chivalry, according to Farrell, is the understanding that somebody with a greater sense of power, authority, and strength has a greater responsibility. And what that means is, you don’t use your power to impress people or to enrich yourself, but you use it to make the world a better place.
“At the core of chivalry,” Farrell explains, “is the need to get away from the sense that one is the center of the world and, in everyday interactions, to look at ways to find a place to help somebody out. Even if it’s just to open a door or carry a package or stand when somebody enters the room. Those little acts of courtesy are a way to break out of that mentality of thinking that you’re the center of the universe. And so there is a sense of ‘I am the strongest kid on the block,’ but chivalry teaches that it puts a greater responsibility on the strong person to be careful, to be fair, to be honest, to be just. And in today’s world — and this is why chivalry seems dead, as they say — we kind of almost have developed the reverse of chivalry: the stronger you are, the less the rules, the less you should have to worry about the rules, the more you can bluster through the world and do what you want. But that’s really a recipe for anarchy, on some level.”
Farrell has distilled the code of chivalry into seven knightly virtues: courage, justice, generosity, mercy, nobility, faith, and hope.
“Whereas many of us think of chivalry in the sense of opening the door for a lady or putting your coat down over a puddle,” he goes on, “I find it much more appropriate to consider chivalry in terms of how you treat other people in traffic, for instance. Do you go through traffic and cut people off and think you have a right to be rude and create dangerous situations? Or do you realize that you’re not the most important person on the road and other people have to get places too? That’s a much more contemporary way of seeing chivalry being applied today, rather than looking for the manners of 50 years ago in today’s world.”
Where will we find examples of chivalry in today’s world?
“I think the environmental movement these days is bounded on our sense of chivalry, our sense of protecting those that cannot protect themselves,” Farrell says. “Well, the planet cannot protect itself. And so, our sense of sacrifice is kind of born in that sense of chivalry.”
He thinks a moment. “A lawyer that does pro bono work is chivalrous,” he says. “A teacher that stays after school to help the students.”
And then Farrell taps the steering wheel of his Honda.
“Behind the wheel of a car, someone’s real character really comes out,” he says. “And we don’t think about it, but we get behind the wheel of a car, and we’re driving a weapon that puts most of the weapons of a medieval knight to shame. And we think nothing about blazing down a little residential street at 50 miles per hour.”
As Farrell talks, it’s clear that he’s focused on his road courtesy. He drives about five miles per hour under the speed limit, doesn’t change lanes without a blinker, and doesn’t get mad when he gets cut off.
It may be a fanciful connection, but the car is the modern horse, and the word “chivalry” comes from the word for “horse.”
“Chivalry isn’t dead,” Farrell asserts. “I think that people just don’t recognize anymore what chivalry is. And I think that people who say that chivalry is dead are looking for a chivalry that would have been appropriate in our grandparents’ day, but they don’t recognize how essential these ideals of chivalry still are in our world. I think we still expect chivalry out of our heroes and our role models, and we’re pretty disappointed when we find that they don’t have it. You know, we could talk about everything from Enron to Michael Vick and how disillusioned those situations make us.”
Farrell thinks a great place to see chivalry in action (or in inaction, as it were) is at an informal sporting event.
So he drives toward the Pacific Beach Recreation Center, where athletes gather for pickup basketball.
Inside the Rec Center, 10 to 15 men — black, white, tall, short, youthful, aging — are dribbling and shooting and going through the process of picking teams for the first game of the afternoon.
“One aspect of chivalry, certainly, in the Middle Ages, knights in armor were a pretty competitive lot,” Farrell says, motioning with his slender hands as he talks. “And they loved competing with each other. But they respected what they would have called prowess. A sense of excellence and skill at arms. And for them, somebody could be a respected warrior and worthy of praise, even if they were on the other army, the other team, even if they were an enemy. And so in today’s world, when we see a competitive situation, an attitude of chivalry is when somebody compliments a player on the other team. They recognize that the best competition brings out the best in you.”
Farrell elaborates on this idea. “The medieval knights made games out of warfare in order to inculcate these ideals of chivalry in an aggressive, fast-moving, combative arena where it was difficult. I mean, sure, it’s easy to be chivalrous when you’re sitting at court with the ladies, sipping a cool drink and having a conversation.”
Eventually, one of the basketball players drives to the hoop and scores and lets out a yawp of self-satisfaction, smiling and sticking out his tongue as he runs back down the court.
“The best warriors are ones who don’t brag about themselves,” Farrell says, chidingly. “As Geoffroi de Charny, a 14th-century French knight, says, ‘If you live your life right, other people will talk about you. It’s not your job to talk about yourself.’ ”
Farrell has read dozens of old chivalry books, and he has a dream of writing and publishing a book about modern chivalry someday, but he’s finding that publishers aren’t interested in the subject.
“We can say that chivalry is dead and bemoan the fact that not everyone is an honorable competitor, but that’s just human nature,” Farrell says. “The fact that they had to write books about chivalry back in the Middle Ages indicates that not everybody was chivalrous back then either.”
Tied Up in Knots
“For the real history of knot tying,” Darrell McNurlan says, “you have to look at sailing.”
McNurlan’s sitting on the Blue Note, a 48-foot sailboat in the Harbor Island marina. Waves lap, and sun glints off the harbor water. The only sound besides wind in your ears is the intermittent clank of rigging as boats loll in the water.
McNurlan, 53, is ex-Navy. He used to work on submarines. He teaches classes in traditional sailing and knot tying through Harbor Sailboats on Harbor Island. He also markets a DVD called Basic Knot Tying that runs on PC or Mac. It comes with a two-foot length of rope and teaches the “eight knots that every sailor needs to know.” McNurlan’s been sailing since 1979.
“Back in the early days,” he says, with his gruff and friendly voice, “you’d go out to sea for a whole year, or two years, and you had your basic knots that you actually used for work. And then, in your idle time, you kind of created fancy stuff to decorate your needle cases and your seabags. But almost every knot the sailor ties is useful. Even when it’s decorative, it’s got to have some kind of use. For instance, on sailing boats, they have a binnacle. That’s where the compass is, and the wheel’s attached to it, and they have a stainless-steel grab rail that kind of goes over. That’s a handhold, so if the boat starts to rock or shift, you grab ahold of that. Well, stainless steel gets wet and slippery. So I do decorative rope work on top of that, so when somebody grabs it, they get a firm grip. So even though it’s decorative, it’s got to be useful.”
He gives another example.
“Most able-bodied seamen would have a ditty bag,” McNurlan says, “and the ditty bag was pretty much like their résumé. Because, they’d take an old piece of canvas, and they’d stitch it. So the flat seams and round seams that they’d put this thing together with are the same skills they need to repair sail. And they’d stitch and seam these grommets in there and tie these fancy knots with the ropes at the top, and it was like a way of showing what they could do when they’d go on a new ship, like a résumé.”
McNurlan wears jeans and an International Guild of Knot Tyers T-shirt and looks right at home in a baseball cap and sunglasses and sandals. In fact, he lives on a boat: a 33-foot Cheoy Lee clipper in a Chula Vista marina. Today, onboard the Blue Note, his graying hair blows out from under his hat in the bay breeze.
“There are so many knots,” McNurlan says, emphasizing the “so.” He mentions a book that lists over 2000 of them. “A lot of knots are just variations on a theme,” he says. “But then a lot of them are just very unique knots.”
What are the basic knots that any knot tyer should know?
“For today’s sailing,” McNurlan begins, “there’s about five or six basic knots that they use on a sailboat or even on a power boat. For example, one of the things sailors do for a temporary eye is tie a bowline.” And as he speaks, he demonstrates. “So you take the bitter end and you tie it over the top. This is the bitter end down here. This is the working end. And you put a little loop in here. And you can use an old sailor analogy. The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back into the hole.” He makes three motions with the rope as he says this, and in about three seconds, he’s made a bowline (pronounced BO-lin). “It doesn’t slip, and you can change its size.”
McNurlan has taken a length of rope and made it into something else. It looks like sleight of hand. Like an illusion. It looks like magic.
“They say, on a sailing ship, you have to be able to do it in the dark upside down.”
And then, just as quickly as he tied the bowline, he unties it.
“That’s the thing about knots is you have to be able to untie them,” he says. “So you see this little piece going over the top here, you just roll that over, and it opens the whole thing up and loosens it. So no matter how tight it gets, you can keep working it loose and untie the knot.
“This is an overhand knot,” he says, starting to tie again. “This is the one that people usually throw into a line when they want to put a knot in the end of it.” He ties the knot in a flash. “Then you just take an extra twist in it, and come out, and it becomes a figure-eight knot.” Another flash, another knot. “And then, even when this one gets real tight, you’ve still got that little loop that you can roll back and be able to untie it.” Another flash, and the knot’s untied.
“There’s also the cleat hitch,” McNurlan says, tying another knot.
“Besides your other knots, you’ve got hitches and bends,” he says. “So if you’re tying the rope to some other object, then it’s called a hitch. Like you’re hitching up your horse. And bends are tying two ropes together.”
It’s impossible not to notice McNurlan’s hands. Thick, short fingers, abundant calluses, a map of wrinkles, big knuckles — so much character in those hands.
“This is a reef knot, which laymen call a square knot,” McNurlan begins another demonstration, holding his strand of rope between his hands. “A reef knot is, when the winds get too strong, you reef your sail. You reduce your sail area by lowering the sail down and tying off a certain lower section of it, and you reset it so you can handle a higher wind without overpowering the boat. So they have lines that come out of the sail that you tie around the gathered material. And that’s called reefing. You tie reef knots in the reef lines. And it’s right over left, left over right, and you have the reef knot.”
Although the rest of us might think of knot tying as a lost art, McNurlan says that the real lost art is decorative knot tying. “Sailors still use all these practical knots every day,” McNurlan says. “But very few people remember how to tie the decorative knots anymore.”
McNurlan shows off an elaborate piece of weaving that he’s done. “One of the more difficult knots to tie is a star knot,” he says, holding his own star knot in his hand. “It’s just the way it’s weaved. It comes back and turns and goes about maybe ten different directions at once. So once you get it all tied, then you have to work all the way through. A lot of the time, with knots, especially the decorative ones, you tie it loose, and then once you get it to where the knot’s tied, then you have to go back through and tighten it up and cinch it down.”
A finished Turk’s head looks like a bunch of Princess Leia hairdos clustered in a ball.
“Knots are being developed all the time,” McNurlan says, although he’s never developed a knot of his own. “People are still looking for ways to deal with rope. And the one fascinating one that’s just come about recently is called an icicle knot. Now, an icicle tapers to a point down at the end, and this guy figured out a way to tie a rope around a tapered object that will not slide to the point. Which is a very tricky thing to do. And I had someone show it to me, but I haven’t learned how to do it.”
McNurlan estimates that he can tie 15 or 20 different knots off the top of his head. Otherwise, he says he could use diagrams and be able to tie just about any knot there is.
“So, like I say, sailors couldn’t read and they couldn’t write,” McNurlan says, smiling. “But when it came to rope, they really knew their business.”
Does Anyone Write by Hand Anymore?
“When you’re in there trying to make that perfect e, you can’t be worrying about Iraq or whether the bills are going to get paid,” Susan Hull says. She speaks quietly and slowly and has a slow quietness about her. “If you want that e to be correct, you’ve got to be sure that that stroke is correct. And you’ve got to be sure that when you get that gathering together — when you get those strokes meeting — if they don’t meet perfectly, then it’s not pretty. It’s not calligraphy, by definition. And even if your strokes always meet, if the lines wiggle and waggle along the way, then it’s not good. It’s not calligraphy.”
Hull, who is the proprietor of Ladybug Art Calligraphy Studio in Kensington, defines calligraphy as the art of beautiful handwriting.
“If your handwriting is beautiful,” she says, simply, “then you’re a calligraphist.” (She prefers the word “calligraphist” instead of “calligrapher.” Both words are correct.)
But as they say, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?
“Quite so,” she agrees.
So one person’s calligraphy could be another person’s scrawl?
“Exactly so,” Hull says, and her eyes twinkle from behind her rectangular glasses.
“But,” she says, qualifying herself, “this really is an art form. It’s about the consistency and the feel. And the eye reads the white space: you don’t read the black letter, you read the white space around it. So the less you muddy up that white space, the cleaner you keep that alphabet, the more beautiful and elegant it’s going to be.”
Why not use a computer to get perfectly beautiful writing?
“That’s what makes calligraphy so appealing, in my opinion,” Hull says. “It reflects the warmth of the human hand because it’s imperfect.”
Actually, isn’t the modern computer the mortal enemy of good, old-fashioned calligraphy?
“Yes,” Hull agrees. “The computer has set calligraphy back tremendously. We lost, I’d say, 80 percent of our business when the computer really became commonplace. We have lost most of the certificate business. Only people who really care about what message they’re giving to the recipient will do the calligraphy.”
Her face is relaxed. Her body is relaxed. There is nothing about Susan Hull that isn’t perfectly relaxed as she leans forward in her secretary’s chair and focuses on the white piece of paper in front of her. An unusual-looking pen is poised in her right hand.
Classical music soars in the background. Hull concentrates. Her arm flows in little circles, hovering over the page in front of her. She’s writing showy letters and using her entire arm to enact most of the strokes. At this moment, she looks a lot like a transcribing monk or some kind of specialist in a kung fu movie scripting Chinese characters. The only sound besides the woodwinds and strings is the lush dragging of that strange pen across the white paper on the desk in front of her.
After writing a few more lines of beautiful text, Hull sits back and lifts her pen.
It looks like an alien machine or little spaceship. It looks as though it’s supposed to do something other than just write. There’s an oblique hinge or jog or joint, where the shaft turns up before the tip comes down.
And what are these crazy-shaped calligraphy pens called?
“This is a pen,” Hull says. And it becomes apparent that’s all she’s going to say.
A pen? That’s all?
She laughs. “I don’t mean to disappoint you, but, yes, it’s just a pen. This is your staff, or your penholder; this is your nib, or tip. The nib is made of two pieces. The top part is copper, and the bottom part is steel. The space in between the two pieces of the nib is what creates your reservoir, and that’s what holds the ink.”
She presses the nib to the paper and begins to write again.
A few minutes later, Hull has scripted five words.
Hull estimates that she can address between 6 and 20 envelopes in an hour, depending on the letter style. “Usually 12 envelopes in an hour and I’m happy,” she says. That’s five minutes to write out the average address.
Hull is entirely self-taught. “When I started, there were no classes,” she says. “So I learned out of books.”
Since then, she’s gotten a degree in fine art and has taken calligraphy classes in college and through the local calligraphy guild, San Diego Fellow Calligraphists.
Hull also teaches calligraphy now and then.
“I teach very slowly and one step at a time,” she says. “I teach you how to hold and use the pen, understand how to read an instruction manual, break the alphabet down into elements, how to move your hand, don’t turn your hand, keep your shoulders down, and keep your breath good. You know, it’s almost a Zen experience. You keep your work in front of your body, where your energy is. And then I show you the basic strokes.”
“You have the lead-in stroke,” she begins, drawing her pen gradually along the white page. “You have the vertical stroke, you have the crescent stroke, you have the diagonal stroke. So any alphabet can be broken down into elements. And o is the mother of the alphabet. So if you want to know what an alphabet looks like, you go to the letter o. If it’s round and fat, then the alphabet is round and fat and gets a certain amount of space. If it’s pointed and squishy and leaning over to the side, then the alphabet is pointed and squishy and needs this much space. So that’s your basis.”
She writes some more.
“And you notice,” she says, “when I come down to the end of the stroke, I don’t just stop. I finish the stroke. That’s very important. That’s where you can tell if somebody knows what they’re doing. Finishing means you pay attention to how you end the stroke. Because once you lift the pen, you can go back, but you’re always going to see it.”
Hull looks up from her page for emphasis as she says, “The most important thing is for every letter to have the same rhythm to it. Because to create a mechanically perfect alphabet by hand is virtually impossible. But the feel of the style can be achieved. When I teach, that’s one of the things that I really hammer into people, is that if the elements are consistent, it doesn’t matter if you’re not doing it right, especially when the definition of ‘right’ is the way the other guy does it. It doesn’t matter if you’re being a purist to the alphabet, as long as you’re making the same mistake over and over and over again. Then, you’ve developed your own style. You’ve developed your own flourish.”
Where Have All the Blacksmiths Gone?
You come to the door of David Browne’s workshop on Mission Gorge Road in Grantville, and a dog barks at you from behind a screen door. Over the barks, you can hear the hiss of flame and the periodic pounding of metal on metal.
Browne yells for his yellow lab, Hank Williams, to quiet down. Then Browne greets you with goggles and gloves and protective ear covering on. “I’ve got heat going,” he says, motioning over his shoulder, and you follow him inside.
To the untrained eye, Browne’s workshop is full of unfamiliar machines, unusual tools, and strangely shaped objects. Objects hang on the walls, objects litter worktables, other objects lean, and still other objects sit in piles on the floor. But the space isn’t messy at all. It’s a wealth of weird and wonderful visual information.
Browne strides over to his forge — a small, barrel-like cylinder that’s humming and spewing orange flame — and pulls out a long, thin steel rod. The last three feet of the rod glow orange.
His face is red and intense as he holds the glowing metal under an eight-foot-high piece of machinery called a power hammer. Browne works the machine’s foot treadle, and the power hammer thunders down on the glowing steel. Flecks of metal fly off and cool into silvery dust on the workshop floor. He’s honing the rod into an arrowlike point, spinning it and hammering.
Next, Browne uses a small, handheld hammer and an anvil to bend a second heated rod into a curve. He’s working the two rods at once — flame, mechanical power hammer, handheld hammer, flame, repeat. One rod goes into the forge, and the other comes out. The heated air above each orange rod shimmers.
It’s remarkable how flexible the hot steel becomes, almost like butter.
Next, a swift wire brushing, and then he plunges the shaped rod into a vat of cooling water. It hisses. A puff of steam, and the piece is solid steel again. But now it’s a long metal leaf for the top of a gate. And it’s beautiful.
Browne’s eyes are bluer than his denim shirt. He has a calm intensity about him that might remind you of a poker player.
“You take one of the strongest materials available, and you heat it up, and now it’s soft as clay,” he says, shutting off his forge for the morning. “And you can shape it in any way you want. And for me, that’s the sculptural part of it. That’s the attraction.”
Browne’s forge operates at a working temperature of around 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. “Yellow heat,” he calls it. “That’s where steel becomes the most malleable. And I keep two or three bars in the forge at a time, because when one starts to cool down, you have to heat it up again. You have only a certain amount of time, a couple of minutes, maybe, to work this stuff. So you have to be focused. You can’t think of anything else.”
The forge uses propane and takes about 15 minutes to attain a working temperature. “I was surprised about how much information there was on the Internet about forge building and forge design,” Browne says. “Mine’s called a pipe forge. It’s basically a 12-inch-diameter steel pipe lined with ceramic fiber and coated with high-tech refractory coating, which reflects most of the heat back inside. Then I got off-the-shelf plumbing parts from Home Depot and built some burners. I’m actually in the process now of building a much bigger forge, because I’m starting to work bigger pieces of metal now.”
Browne’s other main piece of machinery is the power hammer. “It’s an industrial forging hammer,” he says. “It’s probably from the ’30s or ’40s. I got it for a song. It was sitting in a field, not being used.” This 3400-pound machine is driven by a belt and has a motor in the back. When you tap the foot treadle lightly, the hammer hits lightly, and if you step down heavily, then it pounds steel harder than any human could, a 100-pound ram coming down with thousands of pounds of force.
Says Browne, “Back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, everything was made with a power hammer like that one, by people doing just what I’m doing. Back before we cast everything in big hydraulic machines that can cast stuff out in the thousands.”
Browne sounds more straightforward than bitter as he talks about machines replacing people in the blacksmith industry. “What I do in here, you know, there are actually companies now that have machines that just press these things out. Press, it’s done. And then guys will take those components that are made by machines and that have no remnant of a guy’s hand making it, and they just use an additive method, and they weld it in. So they take all these components, and they arrange them ten different ways, and they say, ‘Well, would you like the gate with the scrolls this way, or that way, the leaves this way or that way?’ and they weld it together. But anything you can draw, I can make, because I make everything by hand. So I’m not limited to the components available off the shelf. What I do is unique. And there’s a segment of the marketplace that still wants that. They want something handmade.”
Browne doesn’t fit the movie-fueled cliché of the blacksmith: long beard, loincloth, dirt all around him, forging a sword next to a fire pit in a thatched shack.
He laughs. “Back then, they had one guy who was sort of directing the show with his small forging hammer. And where he would hit, and as hard as he would hit, there’d be two other guys with sledgehammers following him. This was called striking. And so, he would hit, and these guys with big hammers would hit, and he’d hold it and direct the show. And that was called hammering with a striker. Well, then they realized quickly that if you’re working by yourself, then you need something more, like the mechanical power hammer I have. I mean, that’s a four-pound hammer that I’m working with over there. And I can swing that for an hour or two before I get pretty exhausted. But the power hammer is a hundred-pound ram coming down with force, and it can run all day and never get tired. Now, it’s not automatic. You still have to direct the show. You have to have the metal positioned to be hit in the right place at the right angle, and so on.”
Browne works with steel mainly, but he also shapes copper, brass, and bronze.
“Everybody has a picture of what the blacksmith is,” he says, “and I’m not even sure that that’s what I am, to be honest. I embrace a lot of the techniques, hot-working metal, and I rivet things together, and I do a lot of things that blacksmiths do, but I also employ modern welders and grinders, and I’m not opposed to making money and making my life easier in some ways too.”
Browne says it was a struggle to build a clientele, but now he’s booked six months ahead with various metal-crafting jobs.
And he makes all sorts of cool things besides gates. “I think I’m an artist first and a blacksmith second,” Browne says, and he has the work all around him to prove it: kung fu weapons, belt buckles, railings, fire screens, and decorative sculptural pieces as well. “The blacksmithing is just the medium for me. You know, it could be clay, it could be painting, but for me, I express my artistic views through steel.”
Mind Your Manners
Having lunch with an etiquette specialist is like writing a letter to your English teacher. Like talking politics with a politician. Debating spirituality with a priest. You can’t help being a little intimidated.
Will you slurp your soup? Talk with your mouth full? Use the wrong fork?
And if you’re a gentleman having lunch with a lady, should you stand up every time she stands up or sits down?
Elaine Swann shows up for lunch at Tapenade restaurant in La Jolla with her husband Chris. She’s almost exactly on time for the appointment. She smiles her way into the room, makes eye contact, speaks clearly, and extends her hand in greeting.
Swann is San Diego’s etiquette lady. She’s a regular guest on News in the Morning on NBC. She also has a radio show, The Elaine Show, every Monday evening from 6:00 to 7:00 on 1000 AM, KCEO.
How does one become an etiquette expert?
“Well, you can be forced into it, like I was,” Swann says laughing. “No. I’m joking. It was because my mom sent me to charm school. Maybe it was just something that my mom saw in me, I don’t know.”
Swann grew up in Oceanside, the middle child of five. She was the only one who went to charm school. “I was kind of like Susie Homemaker growing up.” She laughs again. “Charm school was a natural fit. So I enjoyed it. I was that child, for example, who was coveting my mom’s china.”
Now Swann makes a comfortable living thanks to etiquette. Besides the radio and television gigs, she also writes books and columns.
“Really the business part of it for me,” she says, “just has to do with sharing. I actually started out volunteering, which is what catapulted me to actually sharing it with other people outside of just myself and my family.”
Swann, who is quite pretty — angular cheekbones, nice white teeth, dark black skin, and exotic eyes — almost became a model. She even moved to New York City to pursue it. “But I was too short,” she says. She stands about five feet tall.
What did she do instead? She started a business.
“I started an agency,” she says, “for petite models. Thus began my entrepreneurial career.”
In fact, Swann has never held a “real job.” She’s always been an entrepreneur.
“After I was in New York for four years, I came back home,” she says. “And because I grew up in Oceanside, and people in the community knew me, I was invited to help with a debutante ball. But I wanted to do a really good job with it, so I started to do some research. And they invited me back every year. So for five years, I volunteered for this sorority that did a debutante ball every year for the community.”
As an aside, Swann adds that she opened a hair salon and operated it for ten years. It’s the kind of detail that could consume some people, but Swann mentions it in passing as if it’s something she did for ten minutes, not ten years.
From the debutante ball, Swann went on to creating etiquette programs for a middle school in Oceanside. “They asked me to do it,” she says, “and they said, ‘Just tell me what your budget is.’ And I was, like, ‘Budget? Nobody gets paid for this.’ ”
And she laughs.
Swann has a rich and authentic laugh, a soulful laugh. It comes deep out of her belly, far back in her throat. But the thing is, her laugh isn’t too loud for mixed company. She seems to juggle such contradictions gracefully: being genuine while still taking others into account. Swan sits up straight, but not too straight, and she eats with refinement, but not with prissy daintiness.
She laughs again. “Now I’ve got, like, a little mini-empire I’m running here.”
The waiter arrives. That’s right. We’re supposed to be having lunch. Swann’s been talking away, but we haven’t ordered lunch yet. Is that proper etiquette?
“When you sit down for a business lunch, do you just sit down and start doing business?” Swann asks, rhetorically. “Well, it’s cool to do that, but you should look over the menu, and don’t make your waiter wait too long. And then order. And you can talk business all the way through lunch or not start until after lunch. Because I always tell people that business is kind of like a covert operation. You know, your purpose is usually to gather information, so the more information you want, the more you have to talk.”
In French, the word “etiquette” means “prescribed behavior.” It comes from the Old French word for “ticket,” since instructions for how to behave properly at court were printed on little tickets.
“Table manners go way beyond the table itself,” Swann says. “It’s more about thinking about the other person and being considerate. If we could just do that more, people would be A-OK. But it’s going to be a while before we get to that again. I see so much stuff.”
Confucius once said, “If everyone learned manners and music, there would be no more wars.”
“Okay!” Swann says. “I like that. My husband’s a musician.”
Swann’s husband Chris has been sitting quietly all this while.
Is it a challenge for Chris to live with the etiquette lady?
“I love it,” he says.
And then the etiquette lady answers for him.
“Chris is the perfect gentleman,” she says. “Because his dad taught him well. So when I got him,” and she laughs heartily, “he was already very good.”
It must be difficult to be the etiquette lady. Does Swann realize that she is socially intimidating?
She laughs again. “People ask me, ‘Are you going to correct my manners?’ And no, I’m not, but I know the whole time people are watching me and watching my manners. So it works both ways. People are apprehensive about their own manners around me, and I know they’re also watching what I do like hawks.”
Swann is usually loath to tell people what she does for a living. “I know it’ll just start a whole thing,” she says. But she doesn’t lie. She’ll say, “I’m an etiquette coach” and then politely field the inevitable questions.
“It’s okay, though,” Swann says, half under her breath. “I’m always gathering material for my next book.”
Swann’s first book, Girls Have Style at School, is directed toward teenage girls.
No one would debate that etiquette has become a lost art. How did that happen?
“A couple things are happening, in my opinion,” Swann begins. “Number one, technology. Technology is really taking away the personalization that we had in communicating with each other. So we’re kind of disconnected from the face-to-face thing, and we’re forgetting how to interact with each other. Also, etiquette isn’t being passed on. Either we have two-parent homes where both parents are working, and so they’re not able to take that extra time out, or we have one-parent homes where the one parent has to do enough work for two, and so they’re not able to take the extra time with their children.”
Swann does etiquette coaching for businesses and schools. In the schools, she asks the kids how many times a week they sit down for dinner with the family. “Most often, most kids say, ‘Zero,’ or ‘One,’ ” she says.
What are the basic elements of etiquette?
“Using good manners shows people that we care,” Swann says. “Using good manners makes other people feel good. Using good manners makes us feel good. It’s like ABC elemental, but there it is. Using kind words, I think, and your attitude, of course. But the foundation of good manners is really ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ ”
The waiter returns, and Swann orders her lunch politely. She could be talking to the King of Siam or a sidewalk bum; it wouldn’t matter. It seems that people are people, in her eyes.
Can Swann sum up some general etiquette ideas, before lunch arrives?
Concerning cell phones:
“The person standing face-to-face with you has number-one priority.”
“Take them off when you’re talking to someone.”
On talking about money:
“You can be general, but never be specific. For instance, you can ask about the housing market, but don’t ask how much a person’s house costs.”
About etiquette in general:
“If you’re ever stuck in an etiquette quandary, just apply the old principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Lost in the Wilderness: The Art of Navigation
Two hawks laze in circles above San Dieguito County Park, east of Solana Beach. A distant motor revs. Otherwise, silence. A breeze runs down the hill, shaking a few leaves. Greens and yellows glisten under the blue sky, in the bright sun.
Are we lost?
We’re not lost.
We’ve got a compass and a map. And better yet, a person who knows how to use the compass and read the map.
Jan Urban, an organic chemist by trade, is the president of San Diego Orienteering, a club that has around 100 members.
In orienteering races, you are given a map (and you bring a compass) and a small electronic card, and then you line up as in a conventional race and then run off into the hills. Runners usually start a minute or two apart and begin the race alone. The object is to find “controls,” e-punches attached to flags — and they must be found either in a certain order or within a certain time — and to run your card through each e-punch. Whoever finds the most controls within the allotted time or reaches the finish line fastest after finding the controls in the right order wins the orienteering race.
“This is a sport which I would say is really big in Europe.” Urban raises his eyebrows. “Pretty much everybody knows of that, and a lot of people do it. This summer I went to O-Ringen in Sweden, and that’s probably the biggest race in the world. Something between 15,000 and 25,000 people race there every year.”
Urban stands well over six feet tall. He wears gray sweats and Adidas sneakers. His hair is short, and he has on small, round, European-looking sunglasses. It’s morning, but his chin shows a light-colored five o’clock shadow.
“When I navigate, basically, let’s say, if I want to go here…” Urban points to a tiny dot on the map in his right hand. “I can decide I can go on top of the hill, and then run over the ridge, and at the other side it should be there. Or I can go around on the road and then go up from the other side. Or sometimes, if I look for something major, like a lake or a road, then I can just run straight and use it as a ‘catching feature,’ and I know it will catch me right there, and then I can turn, and from there, it will be easy to find. So that’s one navigation technique. You look for what they call ‘attack points.’ You look for big features which are close to the small features you are actually looking for, and then you can go on bearing and pace count from there.
“Once you learn the linear features,” he continues, “like roads and hills and creeks, and you learn how they relate to the map, then the next step is to learn to judge distance.”
Urban’s thick Czechoslovakian accent makes it sound as though his tongue is catching on his teeth when he speaks English, especially when he says the letter r. Despite this accent, Urban’s easy enough to understand.
“In orienteering, the main thing is to show the skill of navigation and problem solving at high speed,” he says. “You should be able to read a map, relate it to terrain, know where you are, and find the features you’re supposed to find.”
Couldn’t you just follow everyone else to the checkpoints?
“No, no, no,” Urban says. “They have different courses. They start people a minute or two apart. They have age groups and different levels. So even if you meet somebody, you don’t know what course he’s on.”
Urban says in orienteering it’s also not a good idea to try to pace yourself with anyone else, because you need to pay attention to your own navigation. It’s easier to lose time because of poor navigation than it is to gain time from fast running.
“In this sport you must think about what you’re doing while you’re running as fast as you can,” he says.
With GPS systems and MapQuest, surely wilderness navigation has become a lost art. One insurance company study showed that over 25 percent of adults can’t read a basic road map.
“Sometimes,” Urban says, and he isn’t joking, “I actually think the lost skill is thinking. That people don’t want to think. You know? It’s deeper than that. It’s not that they don’t want to navigate. They don’t want to think. They just want some screen and a pointer that says, ‘You are here,’ and then they go there. You know? Often, what we get for these races is military people, or Boy Scouts, and they do quite bad too, unless you get a military person who did orienteering. Because they just have that idea of taking bearing and pace count and going. And that essentially doesn’t work. It works when you are on a ship and everything’s flat and you can, on the sea, have straight direction. It works for the airplanes. But if you are on foot, you cannot really even hold the straight direction if you go sideways through the hill. You have to deviate here and there. If you go on bearing and pace count for half a mile, you end up at some point, and you know that within hundred meters of you is a control. It’s not really useful information. Part of it, for useful navigation, is picking something in the map. You know, you use a compass, but what you use it for is basically just to orient the map. You know which way is north, and you align your map that way. But that’s it for bearing. What you want to do more, you want to associate features in the map with features which are out there. So, I see here, on the map, is a lake with an island. And I can see it over there. I see there is a loop in the parking lot, and I can see it there. I can see the road here. I can see contour lines, and I look there, and sure enough, there is a major hill there.”
Urban uses his orienteering techniques in everyday life for navigation purposes, yes, but he maintains that the quick problem solving he’s learned is even more useful in general planning and decision making. “It’s taught me that I have only so much time to make a decision or else the opportunity may be gone,” he says. “It also teaches independence. If you get lost, there is no one to blame, no one to sue, and no one to help you. While you’re out there, trying to find your way, it’s your responsibility. It’s your business. And you have to live with the consequences.”
Does Urban get lost while driving? And if he does get lost, will he stop to ask directions?
“Actually, I don’t get lost that much,” he says. “But if you do orienteering, it’s not so much that you don’t get lost, but you recognize that you’re lost, and you know how to recover from that. A lot of time, with beginners in orienteering, they think, ‘I’m not lost, it must be just around the corner.’ You know that attitude? But that’s part of being good at navigation, is realizing the moment when something’s not right and then recovering from that and getting back on course.”