Which brings me to place settings (one of the big universal themes, right after loss, quest, self, and tucking in your shirt). When I was learning to set the table, back when the table was set every night, and form mattered enough to earn me a quarter a week, the rules were straightforward. Knife on the right, fork and napkin on the left. It took me a while to learn this formula, but the teaching took, and for decades I have set the table without thinking. The other evening I was clearing away after dinner (which used to earn me the other half of my fifty cent a week allowance - nowadays I do it for free), and I stopped with my hands full of knives. How often, I wondered, do I actually use the knives I set out?
Do you eat meat that requires cutting every night? I don't. When I consider the average week of meals, there are hamburgers, stew, pizza, spaghetti, tacos, sausages, pizza, chicken fingers, Chinese take-in, pizza, and pizza (that makes twelve days, which is above average for a week, but you get the idea) -- and none of these meals requires the use of a dinner knife. Half of the meals don't require cutlery at all. My mom taught me appropriate table setting for 1970. Times have changed. We don't write letters any more, don't go to church, don't worry about cussing. And we don't all sit down to carved meat dinner together every night. A few times a year I will roast a large piece of meat, the eating of which is made simpler by knife and fork, but for 90 out of 100 days (I guess that's below average for a year) I have absolutely no need of the full place setting.
And now that the idea has swum into my brain, I can't get rid of it. I'm sure I am not alone in my dining habits. There must be millions and millions of underused dinner knives out there. I can't stop thinking about them. Do they end up in basements and attics and antique stores, joining the napkin rings and shaving mugs and ink bottles and typewriters of a bygone age?
I wonder what other practices am I keeping up out of habit? I tell you, I am afraid -- afraid to examine my life in detail. And that is no state of mind for a writer.