Janet Sheridan: Preferred seating
March 12, 2010
Folks seem to stress about seating arrangements as much as they do about telemarketers who call during dinner, deer that eat begonias, and dentists who say, "Oh-oh."
In family vans, at meetings, in office break rooms, on buses and planes, people fuss about who sits where.
I think this bother about parking our posteriors begins in childhood.
When my family gathered at the dinner table, Dad and Mom anchored each end. The rest of us occupied the middle ground on a first-come first-served basis. The punishment for fighting at the table was banishment; and we did love our food. So our blows about preferred seating were sneaky: delivered and suffered in silence — an elbow here, a straight-arm there, a hip strategically placed to block access. Our parents, to preserve their sanity, mostly ignored our muffled thuds and stifled moans.
They imposed stricter rules when the family wedged into our plucky Plymouth: Mom, Dad, and any babies or toddlers occupied the front seat. The rest squashed into the back with the oldest two granted the privilege of sitting by the windows — which is why younger siblings prayed nightly that older ones would find happiness in an early marriage.
I hated sitting by Carolyn. She enforced a no-touching rule with pinches and hissed threats if any part of my body nudged hers.
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I'm convinced most adults emerged from childhood with scars from such maneuvering and a fixation about seating.
About three weeks into my first year of teaching, I knew I could stop gulping Twinkies at my desk, thinking: "They'll return in 35 minutes for three more hours, and I'm not ready!" I had developed a better sense of pacing and could take an actual lunch break.
So the next day, I approached the teachers' lounge carrying my tuna sandwich. Cigarette smoke rolled through the vent in the door, showing me the way, and friendly voices greeted me as I walked through the stale haze to an orange plastic chair with a stained cushion at one end of the table.
Chatter stopped. A communal intake of breath made the blinds chatter. Alarmed, I looked up to see Mrs. Devilougue materialize through the gray cloud. She carried a lipstick-smeared coffee cup, eyed me coldly through the smoke of the cigarette that dangled from the corner of her scarlet mouth, and rasped one word: "Move."
As a consultant, whenever I taught a series of workshops, unofficial seating charts were evident by the second session: Those three folks had to sit together; that fellow needed the seat nearest the door; those six couldn't be budged from the back; that one always pulled her chair away from the table so she blocked the aisle; and at each session, I could have stretched out and snoozed on the vacant seats of the front row.
If a creative custodian arranged the chairs and tables in a different pattern, confusion reigned until the participants busily dragged a chair here or a table there and re-established their comfort zones.
The same sort of territorialism exists on airplanes. Although a few kind souls will volunteer to switch seats so a family won't be separated, most fliers lock their jaws, clamp onto their arm rests and avoid eye contact with the pleading party.
Couples also have seating disputes.
Joel insists on taking the seat in a restaurant that allows the most expansive view of the other diners. In his hometown, where people haven't forgotten, I could understand his need to protect his back. But in Denver? So I munch away enjoying a view of the bathroom door, the unclean kitchen or the spattered wall adorned with artificial flowers.
At least he doesn't enforce a no-touch rule.