Why houseguests can smell like fish
Published 04:00 a.m., Sunday, January 10, 2010
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With January now here, we can all enjoy being well into our New Year's resolutions and the relief of the holidays being over: No more frantic shopping, kids are back in school and perhaps most of all, our houseguests have mostly gone away: No one will be sitting in your special chair, commandeering your TV or taking up way too much of your hard-earned household oxygen.
Having not had any out of town visitors myself this year, I had sort of forgotten the joy of others dropping in and staying and staying and staying until you find yourself hiding in the bathroom, but then I saw an ad in the middle of the holidays from the California Academy of Sciences, urging people to come visit their Morrison Planetarium:
"Houseguests getting on your nerves? Send them far far away."
Well if you live in the Inner Sunset, it actually isn't that far away, but the point is well taken that houseguests can be a big pain in the asteroid and sometimes I think my visitors have never heard one of the more memorable bits of advice my dad ever gave to me. He said:
"House guests are like fish. They begin to stink after a few days."
I think this bit of wisdom -- apparently a paraphrase of Ben Franklin -- stuck with me because it is pithy, fairly accurate and the element of timing was impeccable: My dad told me this after I had spent somewhere between two and three months on some friends' couch in their very small one-bedroom apartment in New York.
Having just gotten out of college, the situation in New York seemed pretty fabulous at the time, and I had no inkling I could be an inconvenience to anyone, even though this couple I was honoring with my presence was 20 years older and very set in their ways. And here I was camped smack in the middle of where they ate, read, watched TV, basically did all of their living. Then one morning I'm lying in bed -- aka their couch -- and hear this from the kitchen: "I DON'T THINK HE'S EVEN BEGUN TO LOOK FOR A PLACE!! IT MIGHT NOT BE SO BAD BUT HE DOESN'T EVEN PAY FOR ANYTHING!!
At which point a strange idea slowly sank into my cranium: These people weren't thrilled to have me.
I left their apartment within a week but not before I went out and spent about $10 in groceries to prove I wasn't a freeloader -- and in doing so proving I actually was a total freeloader minus $10 in groceries -- and sometime soon after this my dad gave me his sage bit of wisdom about smelling like a fish.
If I had gotten his wisdom before going to New York perhaps I may have avoided being the houseguest from hell, but then again I was desperate. And when you're desperate you really don't care if you smell a little like last week's anchovies. Plus, let's not forget the etiquette industry has been instructing people on how to be a decent guests for decades, maybe centuries, and still the stench continues.
If you quickly peruse Emily Post, you'll find many a page on dos and don'ts for guests. And if you ignore the warnings about not using the host's staff as your servants (tsk tsk), there are some reasonable tips:
"The guest no one invites a second time is the one who dog ears books, who burns cigarette trenches on table edges... who tracks into the house in muddy shoes and then puts them on the sofa or bed...."
Fair enough, but perhaps if Emily had said something more concrete for house guests to follow like:
"If one raises one's armpit and detects the stench of the common mackerel, then one is advised to close one's bags, bid one's farewell and head back to one's abode.
...then perhaps the incidence of horrible houseguest syndrome could have been lower.
Then there are those down-on-their-luck guests -- often relatives -- who need somewhere to stay for a while, at which point you may wish you never moved into a place with a spare bedroom. While you can't kick them out, they may slowly drive you nuts in various ways. I used to seethe having to give regular reminders to please not smoke in the house -- "I'm sorry, I thought it was OK if I opened a window" -- and then having to clean out all of the butts stuck in the potted plants.
If as a host you are experiencing a visitor who strikes you in this way, you may be the one who needs to go far, far away. Maybe that means a trip to the planetarium where you can get a little perspective on their interminable stay: Stare at the cosmos and realize, while your guests have been at your home for what seems like forever, that compared to the age of the Sun it could actually be much worse.
And if that doesn't help and your foul mood persists, you may need to slip over to the aquarium and walk around and take in all the fish: See which ones remind you of your houseguests and pray they get eaten.