Horror in the Guest Room

When my hostess wanted to know if I would mind sharing a room, I just assumed she meant with another human.

"Be careful not to get too close to the bureau," Margaret said, as we entered what was to be my guest quarters for a weekend visit at her lovely house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of D.C.

I glanced over to my left and saw, arranged symmetrically like giant honeycomb bee cells, sixty or seventy petri dishes lining the top of the bureau. They gave off a funky, murky odor.

"Annie's growing bacteria for her school science project," she explained, setting down my suitcase in a spot on the floor which, to my mind, was much too close to the aforementioned bureau.

"What kind of bacteria?" (I was trying with all my might to sound more interested than terrified, without much success).

"To tell you the truth I'm really not sure," Margaret answered with a half-embarrassed, half-nervous giggle. "I think it's something to do with parasites."

At the end of the first evening, having very purposefully consumed more wine than usual in the hopes that it would make me forget my replicating roommates, I got into bed with the kind of creepy-crawly feeling I had not felt since twenty years before when I lived in a roach-infested tenement apartment in Manhattan's Little Italy. I tried everything I could not to think of the teeming germs nearby. They can't jump out of the dishes, after all, I thought. Or could they? I told myself to get my mind on other things, but found myself counting bacteria instead of sheep: one cell enlarges, and then splits into two, then into four, then eight...

Margaret and her husband are dear friends, charming and generous hosts, fabulous cooks and delightful company. But this experience reminded me that no matter who you are visiting, you never know what awaits you once you decide to accept the role of house guest. You have to be ready for anything. And willing to go with the flow (or in this case, go with the grow).

The next morning over breakfast my hosts asked me cheerfully how I slept.

"Wonderfully!" was my enthusiastic answer, as of course it should always be, when one is fortunate enough to be invited to stay at someone else's house.  However, as these were very old friends of mine, I could not help adding, "Although I think I dreamt that I was in The Andromeda Strain."


TMI: Too Much Itinerary

I was just wondering how soon my friend Ruth might be coming up to New York for some long-overdue museum hopping when I happened to log onto Facebook, and there she was, in living, hi-res color. It was a post from the night before: “I’m in the Big Apple. Here I am at 55 Bar, drinking a hot tamale martini! :)"

I felt a small but distinct pang of hurt. Harrumph. Why hadn’t Ruth told me she was coming? Did she not want to see me for some reason? She usually stayed at my apartment when she was here. Did she find another person to stay with? Had I been nothing but a hotel to her?

Then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that Ruth planning a New York trip which did not include me was not really the thing that was upsetting me. After all, New York is a city of eight million people; it would be unrealistic—not to mention egotistical—to think that my friends don’t ever come to see other people besides me. (It’s different when you are visiting a small town. If my friend in Essex, Connecticut found out I had gone all the way out there without calling him, it would be hard to explain.) No, it was the fact that Ruth did not seem to care whether I saw she was visiting. It was the unabashed public announcement of her presence that felt like a slap in the face.

“Checking in” on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and Path has become de rigueur for many people. I admit I don’t really get it; when I see something like, “Jim Smith just checked in at the IHOP on 14th Street,” I always wonder, “Am I supposed to hightail it on down there? Or maybe I’m supposed to ask what Jim is eating?”

Why is it that we feel everyone has to be alerted about everything about our lives? We have become a society of over-sharers. (The very word “share” has changed in connotation. “Sharing” photos of your kids or news of your latest accomplishment is not quite the same as sharing a loaf of bread with someone who’s hungry, or sharing the secret of happiness.) As if the me-generation wasn’t self-involved enough, it has evolved into the please-look-at-me generation.

Not surprisingly, many people tease me about my circumspection regarding the internet. One, referring to what he called my “sharing squeamishness” lectured me, “This is the information age! Privacy is old-fashioned. Too much information? Get over it. Embrace the new transparency, the new, more open life.” I’ll admit it’s true that for the most part these trivial check-ins are harmless--if sometimes annoying in their banality. However, it’s not harmless when someone posts about invitation-only events in a forum where there are people who were not invited, people whose feelings might be hurt unnecessarily.

These kinds of manners used to be a given. We learned the rules when we were six years old and started inviting people to our birthday parties. “Don’t tell Susie Johnson about the party, honey, if you’re not going to invite her,” our parents told us. “You will hurt her feelings. How would you like it if you found out there was a party you were not invited to?” What most of us didn’t realize when we were six is that when we grew up, this rule would be thrown out the window, thanks to social networking arenas where it is considered perfectly fine to break this basic rule of kindness. (And to add insult to injury, we are all supposed to “LIKE” these posts.)

I have written much on the generosity of not always telling the truth. In fact, many readers have criticized me for “promoting lying,” because I believe in going out of your way to protect someone else’s feelings, and that certain small acts of prevarication are the cornerstone of civilization. Being totally open and completely honest every second, no matter what, is not spiritual or emotional health, in my book. It’s narcissism (even, in its extreme, a kind of social schizophrenia). When did we become a culture unable to tell the difference between dishonesty and discretion?

I am a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to social plans. This goes for dinner parties, cocktail parties, weddings and other special events, and, yes, out of town visits. We should always think about how what we are saying (or posting) might affect others. It doesn’t matter that you yourself might not care one way or the other if the roles were reversed and you were reading the post. Be aware of your audience.

Here, in my opinion, is the proper travel itinerary etiquette: If there is a good possibility someone you are not planning to see is going to find out you are visiting in her area, preempt--tell her you are coming but that you are zipping in and out and that you are mostly there for business, or for family obligation. You want to make it seem as though you are truly disappointed not to be seeing her. Otherwise, just don’t say anything about your trip. If you happen to run into her on the street while you are there (which is unlikely in a big city) you can tell her, “I knew I was not going to have time to see you this trip, so I didn’t call, but I hope we can arrange a visit soon!”

I myself went somewhere last weekend under just such a cloak of invisibility, to ensure I did not step on certain people’s feelings. It was not a secret, I simply did not broadcast it. I did not tweet or post my plans. I did not alert the media.

So where did I go? You can forget trying to find out. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I did not leave any cyber-footprints.