"My husband and I have enjoyed your column for many years," writes Polly S. Browder of La Jolla. "We are about your age, have two married children, two careers and relate to much of what you write about."
Much as I like such sentiments, I have learned not to trust them. Too often they are merely a lure. An ambush follows. Indeed, Mrs. Browder springs her trap in the next sentence.
"But today you lost us. We have always thought of you and your wife as very civilized people. But people who watch television while they dine (I use the word loosely) are not civilized. People who have their dining room table piled high with junk are not civilized. People who subsist on frozen microwave dinners are not civilized. People who never have their friends over for dinner are not civilized."
In one paragraph Mrs. Browder has reduced me and my wife to Neanderthals. If the delinquencies she enumerates are truly the mark of barbarians, then indeed we are barbarians.
Mrs. Browder's indictment is based on my own revelations, so I cannot accuse her of inventing evidence. I have admitted all the faults she accuses us of.
To an alarming degree, I think she is right. We generally eat dinner about 8 o'clock, sitting down at our TV trays just as the 8 o'clock sex-and-violence movie begins. That kills two hours. Of course, we sometimes converse during commercials, usually complaining that we don't understand the plot.
The commercials do deaden the spirit. We see the same ones over and over again, advertising cars, scents, cereals, soaps, deodorants, telephone services, beer and sauces. Most of them are egregiously cute. I can't believe that this avalanche of repetitious schlock really sells anything.
So, in that sense, we are uncivilized. Like most of our contemporaries, we fill our heads with advertising, rather than with the treasures of our literature. It is hard to believe that in the early days of our marriage we read to each other.
It is true also that we dine mostly on microwave dinners. That is especially ironic when you consider that my wife has perhaps 1,000 cookbooks. But microwave dinners are easy to prepare when she comes home late from work, as she usually does, and she has no choice if she is to have dinner on the trays before the movie starts.
I am not responsible for the dining room table's condition. That is my wife's work. She is buried under so much paper work that she has no choice. She has the naive notion that when our remodeling is finished, the desk in her new work room will be large enough to contain all her documents, magazines, catalogues, bills and correspondence. It will not. It will be too small and too far removed from the living room and kitchen--the center of whatever activity there is. By location and size, the dining room table is ideally suited to its present function.
Here we have a conflict. Paying bills, figuring out one's income tax, answering correspondence, reconciling one's bank statement and ordering merchandise from catalogues is a part of being civilized. Perhaps the civilized man is more identified by his paper work than by his dining habits.
It's true that we haven't had a dinner party--except for our immediate families--for years. My wife comes home too late to prepare a dinner on weekdays, and on weekends we need the privacy and the rest.
"At first," says Mrs. Browder, "I thought you were writing a parody on the mindless generation whose lives are programmed by remote control. But then I realized you were serious. . . . Do you really enjoy the 'vast wasteland' of sex and violence and connubial silence? If so, it is fortunate that your children left in time."
Actually, our two sons grew up watching "Gunsmoke" and "Have Gun--Will Travel," from which they learned their moral values, in lieu of religious training. Both of them are sober, responsible and law-abiding men.
I doubt, however, that any such values can be inculcated by today's situation comedies, which seem to me to be vulgar slapstick at its worst. That's why my wife and I concentrate on the relatively literate and moral substance of sex-and-violence movies. At least the characters are involved in adult relationships.
We do have season tickets for the Philharmonic, the Mark Taper and the Theater Center; surely going to concerts and the theater marks a man as civilized, though it is surprising how many of the plays we see are concerned with sex and violence. It seems to be a fact of our culture.
I'm afraid I haven't made a very good case for my wife and me. Perhaps, as Mrs. Browder alleges, we are uncivilized. On the other hand, considering the nature of modern man--greedy, intolerant, belligerent, selfish--one can be civilized without being good.
One of these evenings I'm going to ask my wife to prepare a home-cooked dinner and serve it on the dining room table, and we'll talk this whole thing over.