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New Year’s resolutions tend to be about losing weight, quitting smoking, saving money, or getting more exercise. But some studies show that number 1 is spending more time with friends and family. I See Rude People: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society is a new book by syndicated columnist Amy Alkon with some good ideas on how to make the best of that time. It is not about what we usually think of as manners — who gives the bridal shower, whether asparagus may be eaten with the fingers in polite society — but about civility, the very small elements of every interaction throughout the day that cumulatively leave us feeling either connected, safe, appreciated, and generous or angry, hurt, frustrated, and isolated.
Alkon tells stories of bird-flipping motorists, internet bullies, clerks and tellers who recite bureaucratic oblivious cell phone talkers, parking hogs, and others who in a world both increasingly connected and increasingly fragmented has made it easier for us to depersonalize those around us as we connect to those those who are not here at the moment via cell phone, blackberry, texting, tweeting, and watching tiny little screens. She is very funny, but she makes clear the impact of all of these insults, large and small, to our notion of being part of a caring community.
And she takes us with her as she insists on better treatment. From everyone, including bank executives who will not help her find the impostors who pretended to be her so they could withdraw money from her account and the hit and run driver who banged into her car. And the guy who stole her pink rambler — let’s just say he got a lot more than he expected and not in a good way and it features a surprise guest appearance from an Oscar-winning actor. And then there’s the time she tracked down the guy behind the robocall and called him at his house during dinner. She also invoiced another caller for the use of her time.
Alkon does not let her commitment to courtesy prevent her from being very clear and forthright to those who do not treat her appropriately and about them on her blog as well. (Warning: she also has no hesitation in using very strong language.) As she piles up the litany of all-too-familiar abuses, it seems that there is a downward spiral insensitivity that leads to insularity that leads to a sense of entitlement. Read the comments on any blog — do you think some of those people would speak that way if they were in the same room with the person they are complaining about?
I was very amused to see Alkon including “Goofus and Gallant” cartoons I remember from Highlights magazine when I was a child, but they make her point very well — that we know the right way to behave and that if we don’t, common sense and common courtesy (neither of which are as common as they should be) will guide us. This is a worthy book — along the lines of the delightful Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door by Lynne Truss.
Note: It is never too early to talk to kids about good manners, especially because there are so many bad examples around them and in the media. There are some great books like What Do You Say, Dear? and What Do You Do, Dear? But the only real lessons they ever learn in manners are the ones they see demonstrated around them every day. Let them see you say “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me,” write thank you notes, and treat others not just the way we would like to be treated but the way we would like others to treat our children.

In today’s Washington Post, Robert W. Butler writes about the increasing number of wide-release films that include themes of religion and spirituality.

It’s everywhere at the multiplex these days: religion. Or if that word makes you uncomfortable, you can go with the more general “spirituality.”

In movies as varied as the dead serious “The Road,” the uplifting family picture “The Blind Side,” the biting comedy “The Invention of Lying” and even James Cameron’s sci-fi opus “Avatar,” issues of faith and morality and mankind’s place in the universe are all the rage.

Not all of these movies embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they’re all part of the zeitgeist.

Butler asked some thoughtful observers of the influence that religion and pop culture have on each other to comment on this trend, but, as usual, everyone forgets that it takes many years for a movie to be made — twelve years in the case of “Avatar” — and so it does not make sense to try to tie them to current economic conditions. It may, however, affect the audience response to those themes. “Up in the Air” is mentioned in the article as not specifically religious in its themes but compared to “A Christmas Carol” as a story of a man who finds that there is more meaning in personal connections than in money. It benefitted from the timeliness of its character’s job, flying from company to company to tell workers they were being laid off. But it was based on a book that was published nine years ago.
The portrayal of religious themes I have found the most meaningful this year was in “The Blind Side,” with its unabashed and explicit acknowledgement that Christian faith was a guiding inspiration and base of support in the real-life story of a wealthy family who adopted a homeless teenager. This — and the box office success of “Fireproof” and other modestly-budgeted films with Christian themes targeted to a Christian audience — should address some of Hollywood’s traditional skittishness about portraying people of faith in a positive way.
Upcoming films with themes of religion and spirituality include “The Lovely Bones” (told by a murdered girl from a sort of heavenly waiting room), “Legion” (a battle between angels for the future of humanity), and “The Last Station” (about writer Leo Tolstoy’s religious conversion and its effect on his wife).

Dale Launer wrote three of the funniest and best-constructed comedies of the late 80’s and early 90’s, “Ruthless People,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “My Cousin Vinny.” This interview he did with Writer Unboxed is like a master class in writing, comedy, and inspiration. I hope very much he does another movie soon.

Slate has a great collection of ads with celebrity voiceovers. How many can you identify?