When Holiday Visits Seem More Like Alien Encounters

A great holiday tradition is in progress across the country: spending quality time at the homes of friends and relatives. And after each visit is concluded, another less-celebrated but equally spirited tradition will be observed: Hosts and guests bid each other farewell, the front door swings shut, and participants are free to talk about each other's peculiar, sometimes baffling lifestyle choices and habits.

Someone who knows about the nuances of social interaction, perhaps Emily Post or Miss Manners, should expand the concept of etiquette and produce a standardized text on Modern Home Operation. By establishing a set of guidelines for normal occupancy, we could eliminate much of the stress and confusion that begins the moment a neighbor or relative steps across the threshold.

An example: The issue of what constitutes the ideal home temperature has been controversial for years. Your first thought upon entering a thermostatically challenged home is "Good grief! Who turned [up/down] the heat in this place?"

I remember when President Carter advised setting the controls to 68 degrees and wearing a sweater to conserve energy during the winter months - a suggestion that helped get him tossed out of the White House. I try to err on the side of comfort without over-taxing our natural resources.

A situation that chills my spine has to do with how guest bathrooms are stocked. My worst fear is when the soap dish contains little decorative bars shaped like flowers or shells that appear never to have been touched by human hands, let alone water. I recommend supplying a big chunk of generic soap that we all know how to use, along with an actual terry-cloth towel. No hand-embroidered hankies, please.

I confess that no rule book could prepare visitors for the quirks of my own residence. The microwave oven has been on the fritz for months, so you have to slam the door to make it start. If that doesn't work, slam it harder, clear it twice, slam again, and don't punch in any zeros. The shower handle is tricky because hot and cold got reversed by a hasty plumber. And you can't use any other appliance while you're making toast; if you do, the circuit breaker is in the garage.

AND I confess to some personal quirks. I am prone to dishwasher rage if someone tries to load the dishwasher in a haphazard fashion. Plates face west. This is a simple edict that even my closest family members ignore. And never fiddle with my washing machine.

Thankfully, my holidays will be calm this year. We're not planning any extended trips out of town, and nobody's booked for our guest room. Our only important visitor will be Mr. Claus, and I'm pretty sure he won't go fussing with the microwave.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here Fish Cake' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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